Uncooperative Heroines

July 28, 2017

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

0601161425Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.

Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.

Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.

Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.

To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.

My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.

What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.

What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.

We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.

0804022235aFor an introvert like me, public speaking is torture. I hated giving oral presentations at school and work, and usually bombed unless I kept carefully prepared notes close at hand. But nowadays, publicity opportunities for self-published authors are expanding. To take full advantage of these, there are times when a shy author must try to overcome his or her reticence and learn to speak in front of more than one person without babbling.

I recently got a chance to give a couple of radio interviews as part of a publicity campaign for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock. There are music stations here and there that will give a few minutes of exposure to an author whose subject is rock and roll. Being a mediocre speaker, I filled in a questionnaire ahead of time with basic talking points. You’d think I’d know by now what my own book is about, but it’s surprisingly difficult to sum up in a few words. It’s easier to describe what inspired the book, since I can point to numerous things. For me, playing classic rock radio during the writing process was as important as keeping ink in the printer. Certain songs formed the soundtrack of my growing-up scenes, including falling in love and many less pleasant struggles. Some songs still manage to deliver sheer joy. How can you hear Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate,” and not remember how good it was back then just to be alive?

I was pegged as a “rock wife expert” by an innovative publicist. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, although I did spend some of my youthful years hanging around local bands that were talented but volatile. That instability extended to the musicians’ love relationships. There were many sad stories primed to turn into sad songs, only to be lost because the bands didn’t stay together long enough to make themselves heard beyond the local clubs. I comforted one close friend who suffered through a marriage with a rock musician that was fruitful in terms of children, but sadly enough, ended up producing one more broken home.

We baby boomers are reaping some rewards for our long-standing loyalty to the music of our generation. Many of the truly famous classic rock groups somehow survived their growing pains and emerged as mature acts, revitalized with sidemen who in some cases appear to be a whole generation younger. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Four Seasons, Rod Stewart, and two versions of the Beach Boys in Atlantic City, a favorite stop on their circuit. Frankie Valli, who goes back the farthest of anyone I’ve seen, was almost 78 when I caught his new act. He had surrounded himself with “Four Seasons” who could not only harmonize like the old group, but could dance like the kids they were. This second act for classic rock still has the power to inspire. I sang along to “Rag Doll” and “Dawn,” and relived the many ups and downs of 1964.

Writing For Revenge

July 23, 2014

revengeIs it possible for writers to get even with various adversaries by fictionalizing them? I’ve met enough snobs in my life, for which I hold long-standing and useless grudges, to populate several novels. If I couldn’t do that, my deep-seated resentments might give me ulcers.

My old college dormitory, way back in the early 1970s, served as part of the inspiration for my 2007 novel The Rock Star’s Homecoming. I imagine it could’ve also given rise to stories like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Mean Girls.” There always seemed to be “popular corners” where the cliques lived together in cozy groups.

I had a rough time as a college freshman because my roommate considered herself socially superior to me in every way. We suffered from basic incompatibility, as I was too academically serious for her. She critiqued my struggles to fit in, but had no real interest in helping me out. We were mostly cordial on the surface, but not being quite the idiot she took me for, I gradually became aware that she was bad-mouthing me behind my back. We broke up at the end of the year when she chose one of the more popular girls to room with the following year. She sprang it on me one day, asking with pretended concern who I had lined up for next year. Her plan, no doubt, was to create her own popular corner with her new roomie, and live happily ever after.

Only it didn’t quite work out that way. I don’t know what happened, but I picked up some gossip about their ugly breakup, after only a few months, during which my ex-roommate reacted like a screaming, jilted wife. Karma, perhaps?

Things like this shouldn’t happen in adult life, but they do, right into middle age and beyond. I’ve encountered “popular corners” in my various workplaces. As I wrote in my office drama, Secretarial Wars, there are “Gigglers” and “Whisperers” in every office. Cliques tend to form naturally, and there is no sense in fighting that. But when supervisors cultivate elite groups within their staffs, issues of fundamental fairness come into play.

The Federal government lacks the drama of “The Office,” with its love triangles, mergers, and sudden firings. We are supposed to have various civil service protections, but discrimination can be subtle and hard to prove. For example, although we’re supposedly protected from age discrimination, I have no doubt my gray hair torpedoed my career.

Somewhere along the line I acquired a new supervisor who claimed to appreciate my abilities proven over many years, but promoted two new, much younger employees over me and spent most of his energy cultivating them. Since he was nice to me on the surface, it took me a while to realize he was saddling me with grunt work and forgetting to include me in the important things. I’m sure the “one percent” syndrome thrives in many offices, a system rigged to ensure that those who are already privileged reap nearly all the benefits available.

The situation upset me greatly, but anticipating retirement, I lacked the energy to look for another job or to fight back much. I exchanged real self-respect at work for an easier life. In turn, my employers missed out on what could have been at least a few more productive years by failing to utilize my true skills and keep me engaged. I read a review of the final episode of “The Office” which summed this up nicely: that the loss of passion for a career can be liberating if it sets you free to pursue other passions.

Even in the adult world, “popular corners” tend to break up of their own accord. They involve flawed individuals, after all. I began to suspect some of the closed-door meetings from which I was excluded weren’t total love-fests. The fact is, privileged workers can easily turn into children who’ve been showered with too many toys. They don’t really appreciate it. When it came to paying the price of fame … which I suppose would have required them to be on call more than they wanted to be … they balked.

Getting back at real-life snobs on paper can give you a psychological boost. But there are times when real life doesn’t need any fictional embellishment … when trusting to Karma works out just fine.

thumbs_freelancers_gallery_39_0I always wanted to be in pictures. I’m a financial backer, in a very modest way, for a Kickstarter-backed film project called “Freelancers The Series.” It’s a fantasy epic produced by Witness Pictures, the independent film company that produced my three book trailers. This series, which has aired four episodes so far, features a strong heroine, and I mean a really strong heroine, named Caitlin.

To put it mildly, she’s a more vivid presence than the “heroines” in my novels, who are doing their best (and often failing) to navigate college dormitories, offices, and the dating scene. Caitlin is a warrior in a fantasy landscape that looks medieval to the naked eye, but has numerous modern touches, such as hip dialogue and flirting. “I think she likes me!” says one of her male adversaries. She is trying to right a wrong done to her family by stealing back a mysterious key. Along the way she steals a lot of other things, and soon ends up on wanted posters.

I have no doubt Caitlin will eventually prevail in her private crusade, even if she has to duel every evildoer who is responsible for her family’s distress. By contrast, my heroines’ idea of victory is not being stood up for the majority of their dates, or getting through a pile of typing before their bosses explode.

My girls, of course, do aspire to more exciting careers. I’ve featured amateur journalists who would prefer to get big stories without having to sleep with their sources, but can’t always manage that. I have a heroine who starts out as a bureaucrat with Homeland Security and ends up conducting a wildcat investigation of her brother-in-law’s kidnapping. My girls would love to lead heroic lives, but they’re not like Caitlin, a true adventurer with the skills of a cat burglar. Dressed all in black, she routinely walks on window sills, climbs up walls, and carries a sword she’ll use if she must, although she regrets shedding blood unnecessarily.

Critics have advised me to strengthen my heroines. Maybe they should take Caitlin as their model as they navigate their workaday worlds. There are, after all, many different kinds of landscapes to conquer.

Lunatic Fans

April 9, 2013

Sierra Exif JPEGIn 1946, Major League ballplayer Eddie Waitkus was lured to a hotel room and shot by a deranged fan. He recovered rather miraculously, and resumed playing within a few months. Still, the long-term physical and emotional consequences of the attack interfered with his progress as a ballplayer and impacted his personal life. The incident also had literary consequences, inspiring the shooting scene in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. Waitkus died relatively young, while his assailant, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, died just recently, having lived in obscurity for many years after a brief stint in a mental hospital. Apparently Waitkus declined to press criminal charges against her.

Steinhagen had become obsessed with Waitkus when he played for her favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. The obsession apparently tipped into something more lethal when he was traded to another team. She must have felt that he “deserted” her. The story makes me cringe a little. I’ve been a sports fan from a young age, and have developed occasional crushes on baseball and football players. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. In fact, local sports machines and related industries thrive on hero worship. I’ve never built a shrine to a particular player in my home, as Steinhagen reportedly did, but I’ve certainly collected clippings. I’m generally too shy to pursue autographs or to try to meet my heroes, probably for fear of finding out they’re jerks. (I witnessed this once, many years ago, when a girlfriend of mine was snubbed outside RFK Stadium). And yes, I’ll even admit to feeling somewhat “deserted” when certain players get traded away, especially if they badmouth my teams when they depart.

Obviously, most fans don’t go to Steinhagen-like lengths to impress their heroes. Even when an innocent crush becomes an obsession, it rarely tips into insanity. Yet there have been enough incidents of obsessed behavior to convince sports leagues to beef up security and limit fan access at ballparks. Probably every popular player in every sport has encountered a fan or two who skirts uncomfortably close to the edge.

How can a fan ensure that this hero worship remains sane? I have an outlet for it, since I’m a writer. I get “revenge” for my unrequited love by using select players in stories. Certain readers who are familiar with my local teams have been able to identify the battling quarterbacks in Secretarial Wars, the burly, curly-haired running back in The Rock Star’s Homecoming, and the proud “rednecks” who clash with immigrant teammates in Let’s Play Ball.  Nowadays many fans vent their emotions in numerous chat rooms where they can praise or bash athletes anonymously. Outlets like these presumably help to keep us from flipping out. Still, the Waitkus-Steinhagen tragedy reminds us that hero worship isn’t always fun or innocent.

When I was a student at a small-town college in western Maryland during the early 1970s, one of my recurring obsessions was the idea of a road trip. I longed to escape from the grind of study and the cramped feeling of dorm life. I was a suburban D. C. girl, temporarily living in a rural area. I admit the backdrop provided by the Appalachian foothills could be stunningly beautiful, and the springtime smell of manure from the surrounding farms enticing. Still, the small town setting, with its one movie theatre and one bar, could get claustrophobic.

I hungered for the excitement of a big city—the big city, two hundred or so miles away. Many of my dorm mates shared this dream. A group of my girlfriends planned a trip to Broadway. My boyfriend and his best friend, a musician, planned to go there to check out record companies and clubs. I demanded to go with them, but they said no, it would be dangerous. What if they accidently strayed into a trouble spot and had to run for their lives? That only made me more determined to go.

That idea of a road trip, from western Maryland to New York City, provided the genesis of my novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming. The premise: two years after a homegrown rock band is expelled from a small, rural college, a groundswell builds on campus to invite the now-famous band to return for a Homecoming celebration. Two roommates─ one of them the bandleader’s sister, the other a shy girl who loves him from afar─are charged with the responsibility of driving a van to New York, retrieving the nearly disintegrating band, and transporting the outfit back to campus for the most amazing Homecoming celebration ever. How do they pull it off? The book trailer below, from Witness Pictures, provides a visual idea.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=w3YRPf87JQ8