Thursday, September 20, 2012

New Serial Short Fiction Up!

I've started participating in a fun, interactive writing project with my fellow 2012 Golden Heart Finalists (aka The Firebirds).  Today, my first contribution is up on the Firebirds blog.  It's an interactive serial short story in which readers pick what happens next, and the next segment will be written by Darynda Jones, RITA-winning author of First Grave on the Right (and the whole, excellent Charley Davidson series).  Darynda has a hilarious voice with a dark edge to it, and I'm thrilled (and more than a little humbled and nervous) that she's going to pick up the story.  The rest of the series will be written by a team of talented Firebirds from all over the world (from Australia to India to South Carolina) with all kinds of awards (including the Golden Heart and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery).  It's going to be a blast seeing where our team takes this story.

So...go check out Part 1 of Pray for Night.  It's a short, fun read for your Friday coffee break. There are zombies.  There are nuns.  There are phone numbers on cocktail napkins and drunken debauchery at charming pubs.  And I have no idea what will happen next, so go vote and help us out!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Burn the Boats

4028mdk09 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When the Spanish conquistador Cortes landed in Mexico in the 1500s, he burned his ships on the beach.  There was no going back.  It was survive—conquer—or die.

I’ll put aside for the moment my moral argument with the Spanish conquistadors, and the fact that this story is utterly false.  (According to Wikipedia, he scuttled the ships to prevent a mutiny.  But whatever.)  Sometimes, it’s a pretty useful philosophy for living your life.  Choices, second chances—these things can be paralyzing.  If I can always go back, how can I move forward after a decision?

This is how I’ve been feeling revising my latest book.  It needs work.  I need to make some big changes.  But there are multiple ways I could take the story, and I’ve been stymied in a swamp of possibilities for weeks.  The only way to get out, I think, is to pick one boardwalk out of the marsh and burn the rest of them to the ground.

Usually, when I’m revising, I save every deleted word.  You never know when you’ll need it, right?  But not this time.  I’m hitting delete on tens of thousands of words and not looking back.  The only way out is to write my way out.

How do you force yourself out of tough spots?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Booklovers Anonymous

I own too many books.

I recently moved, and there’s nothing like moving to force you to face facts.  There were six large Rubbermaid bins full of books in the storage unit attached to my old apartment.  That’s in addition to the books stacked rightways, sideways, and any way they’d fit on my six bookshelves.  I own more bookshelves than dining room chairs.  I’m not sure this says anything good about my priorities.  I had to cull. 

If you're being forced by circumstances to reduce your book collection, I'm sorry.  And here's a handy, book-by-book flow chart to help you out!

How do you decide which books to keep?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Defense of Language

I wrote a lot of bad poetry in college.  As part of this literary rite of passage, I went to a handful of poetry readings hosted by the English department, and at one of these, during the question-and-answer period, the poet on deck said the following when asked what advice he had for aspiring poets:  “Just sit down see and what you can do with the language.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t really grasped what language is.  A lifetime of schooling didn’t teach me that language isn’t just a set of vocabulary and usage rules:  It’s both tool-kit and rule-book, enabling and constraining, frustratingly insufficient and transcendently beautiful.  We struggle to express ourselves within its framework, but it never stays still.  It mutates constantly, and even words we thought we knew shift in meaning with every new reader and every fresh reading.

The more I use language for everything from text messages to novels, the more I’m struck by what a miraculous and versatile thing it is.  Which is why I’ve been dismayed by a few conversations I’ve been reading on a handful of popular blog posts discussing the quality of certain books.  There’s a recurring theme that it “shouldn’t matter” if a writer uses proper grammar or makes good decisions about words as long as “the story is good.” 

I understand the premise that in a novel, it’s the story that matters.  And if a bunch of misplaced modifiers and faulty parallelisms bug me, I don’t have to read it.  The trouble is, the misuse of language doesn’t just screw up a single story.  It has a reflexive effect on language itself.  A writer who uses words carelessly chips away at the integrity of our man-made, culturally negotiated system of expression, and that definitely, absolutely matters.

All of us who use language have the power to change it.  If enough of us adopt new slang or use new rules, those elements will be assimilated.  I love this about language.  I love that we can create new words and expressions that convey emotion and meaning (“jump the shark,” the verbification of “Google”).  But a writer is not just a consumer of language.  A writer is a caretaker.  A text to my mom about my new pair of black suede slouch boots (OMG so CUTE u gotta c them!) doesn’t have nearly as much power as a book meant to be read by the public.  People are gonna read that story, and it’s going to influence them, however subtly and imperceptibly.  Using words carelessly is like leaving soda cans on the ground at Yosemite.  It’s offensive when everyday visitors do it.  When the park rangers do it, it’s destructive.

Misusing language blurs the boundaries and crushes the nuances we could have used to do something interesting and fresh.  A new word creates a sharp, startling, useful new image (unibrow, agritourism), but a misused word just gets conflated with other words.  Take my (admittedly nit-picky) pet peeve: comprise.  Many folks use “comprise” just like they use “compose,” when in fact its meaning is closer to “embrace” or “enclose.”  To borrow Strunk & White’s illustration from The Elements of Style: a zoo comprises animals; it is not comprised of animals.  I see “comprise” misapplied so often, I think it’s probably already lost.  Just one more precision tool turned into a blunt object.

God knows I’ve been guilty of some pretty appalling abuses of language (see above: bad poetry), but I try to treat it like the commonly held commodity it is.  I don’t think that means we can’t take liberties to get our points across.  Taking risks, breaking rules, trying new things—that’s part of how language evolves, and that’s a good thing.  It’s great that language can change to accommodate the pressures applied to it by culture.  It just shouldn’t change because we’re too lazy or careless to use it well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Big News!

You guys! I got some great news on Monday.  My book, Figs From Thistles, is a finalist for the 2012 RWA Golden Heart ® award!  I got the call at eight a. m., while breastfeeding The Small One.  I got very excited; The Small One got very confused. Ten minutes later I got pooped on.  Ah, the glamourous life of a writer.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why We Need Romance Novels

I'm not new to defending the romance genre.  I have a number of friends and relatives who have expressed shock that I read (much less write!) "those books."  With the recent media attention over Fifty Shades of Grey (which I admittedly have not read), the conversation seems to be coming up more frequently.  Usually I just point folks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books--Sarah Wendell is the reigning queen of romance apologia--but the current situation has made me so frustrated, I couldn't keep quiet.

We have a long-standing narrative tradition of punishing women who are promiscuous or adulterous.  Dido in the Aeneid, Emma Bovary in Madam Bovary, Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, Katherine Clifton in The English Patient, April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, Elizabeth King in The Descendants: all of these women engage in affairs, and all of them die, often horribly.*  Many of them commit suicide—Dido impales herself on a sword (hello, symbolism!); Emma Bovary eats handfuls of arsenic. More commonly in modern narratives, women don’t kill themselves out of grief or guilt; they die in painful, gruesome accidents.  In other words, they are symbolically dealt with by the author.

One could argue that it’s unfair to use adultery and promiscuity as proxies for sexual pleasure, but the point I want to make is that our society handles male and female sexuality very differently.  Female sexuality—and more importantly, female sexual pleasure—is at best mysterious.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles), Charles Smithson evinces shock that the woman he has just had sex with could experience pleasure from the act.  In the mid 1800s, doctors brought “hysterical” women to orgasm as a medical procedure, as though the female sexual climax is so divorced from the act of sex it requires the intervention of a physician (see here).  And at worst, female sexuality is not mysterious, but dangerous.  From Anne Boleyn to modern cases of women stoned to death for sex before or outside of marriage, women have always been disproportionately punished for revealing themselves as sexual beings.  I hardly need to bring up recent legislative actions in Arizona and Virginia or a certain radio commentator's vitriolic attacks on Sandra Fluke.  

Unfortunately, sex actually is more dangerous for women.  It’s always been more dangerous.  There are the obvious risks and burdens of pregnancy and child-rearing**, but women are also more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases than men.  Women who are raped face all of the consequences of their attacker’s actions, but making a man feel the unintended consequences of even a consensual sexual encounter requires a court order.  If a heterosexual woman wishes to seek sexual pleasure with a partner, the safest way to do so is within a committed relationship, but men are not constrained by the societal or physical dangers that sex poses to women.  In trusting herself to a sexual relationship with a man, a woman makes herself inherently and unavoidable vulnerable.  That's the world we very unfortunately live in, as I have been repeatedly and unpleasantly reminded in recent weeks.  How can this ever work without subjugating the woman?  By uniting a sexually self-actualized woman with a trustworthy man.  This is the kind of relationship that the best romance novels depict.

Many romance novels feature a hero who is utterly trustworthy despite, say, a promiscuous past or an excess of masculine sexuality. (A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James, The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook, How to Knit a Love Song by Rachael Herron).  This type of hero is often an easily-recognized dangerous/powerful masculine archetype—a soldier, a politician, a warrior, a prince.  He unquestionably has physical or social power over the heroine, and yet, through the course of the narrative, he will consistently fail to exercise that power.  The heroine has nothing to fear from him.  Another common romance narrative features a promiscuous heroine who finds love and total acceptance from the hero (Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, The Villa by Nora Roberts).  The hero would be socially permitted to dismiss the heroine as a whore or a slut (words that almost exclusively apply to women), but he does not do so.  Both possibilities share an essential core: the hero commits unconditionally and exclusively to the heroine.  He has the ability to subjugate or shame her, but he does not.***

The trustworthiness of the hero is a necessary condition for the second important theme of romance novels: the heroine’s journey to sexual freedom.  Romance novels often chronicle a heroine’s progression from a state of sexual uncertainty to one of sexual satisfaction.  In a way, this journey mirrors society’s slow acceptance of female sexual pleasure, with the often-maligned “virgin heroine” as the most powerful example of this arc.  Rather than a symbol of feminine purity, I think the virgin heroine is actually a symbol of safe vulnerability.  When a female heroine moves from a state of sexual inexperience (or a past in which sex was unpleasant or hurtful) to sexual pleasure, she is moving from a sexually constrained world to one in which she is free to experience sexual pleasure (Montana Sky by Nora Roberts, Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost).  In other words, she’s moving from a world in which her sexuality is ignored or punished to one in which her sexuality is celebrated.

Let me be clear:  Romance novels do not subvert our existing paradigm.  They don’t disproportionately punish men for their sexual crimes; they don’t create a world in which women may be sexually promiscuous without consequences.  Rather, they hold up a possible world within our paradigm, one in which women are able to seek sexual satisfaction with a trustworthy partner without fear.  The “happily ever after ending” is the most well-known “rule” of romance, but the heroine’s sexual satisfaction is even more critical.  This, I would argue, is why romance novels are described by their supporters as subversive.  The romance narrative is an unapproved narrative, but one that is, shockingly, very real and very attainable.  Relationships based on mutual trust and mutual pleasure are, in fact, possible.  Women can have sexually fulfilling relationships that don’t end with subjugation or gory death.  These relationships exist despite the horrors around us, and they should be acknowledged and celebrated, not ridiculed.  

Obviously, not all romance novels are subversive celebrations of female sexual freedom, just like not all novels in which promiscuous women die are examples of society symbolically punishing female sexual freedom.  Still, I think it’s worth noting that one of the most profitable genres in publishing is routinely ridiculed as formulaic and trashy, while genres like mystery and thriller—in which murder, rape and torture often feature prominently; see here—are seen as perfectly acceptable “escapist" or even "high-brow" fiction.  The ghettoization of romance fiction as “trash” is just one more way in which female sexuality is ignored and punished.

So, if you're enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey, or any of the other stories the modern romance genre has to offer, read on, and don't you dare hide it behind a newspaper on the subway.  

*Sometimes it’s the man who dies in the end (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne).  But not nearly as often.

**These are also joys--I'm a mom, and I love my son.  But I've never heard of a man dying in childbirth or having trouble convincing his employer to give him time to pump breast milk.

***I fully acknowledge that there are other, less pro-woman romance narratives--not all romance is created equal.