30 April 2010

Reading Romance: The Spymaster's Lady, by Joanna Bourne

Oh my. I just finished The Spymaster's Lady and I am tempted to go back and read it all over again from the beginning. It's that good.

I admit to a weakness for spy heros, especially the big, bad and dangerous kind. But spy heros abound. Spy heroines, on the other hand, are as rare as hen's teeth. Put the two together and you have one amazing book.

The Spymaster's Lady is a Regency-set historical with a nonstop plot, to-die-for hero, superb historical detail and a heroine who has had, to put it mildly, a rough time of it. He's English, she's French and together they're in a lot of trouble.

The novel follows Robert Grey and Annique Villiers, along with a couple of well-rounded and interesting secondary characters, on a desperate flight across France. The suspense is nonstop and very real, primarily because Bourne makes the reader believe that death is a serious possibility. This isn't some frothy spy plot where there's no doubt that the heroine will be rescued in time. The Spymaster's Lady has some very dark moments, but they're lightened by subtle humor and the heroine's absolute refusal to feel sorry for herself.

Bourne has made Annique's life a living hell, but she's also constructed a heroine who has the resources to survive it. Annique reminded me of Jo Goodman's heroines in If His Kiss Is Wicked and The Price of Desire. She has a personal history that really is soul-searing. And her present difficulties might very well be the end of her, unless she meets a hero worthy of her...

...and Robert Grey delivers. He is one hot and sexy spy. Skilled, protective, and deadly. Oh my! I was able to appreciate Grey despite the improbably chest-baring individual on the original book cover. (The reissue has a vastly improved and lovely cover, though it doesn't accurately represent the heroine--who is generally either disguised or in extremis.)

I could go on about the things I liked about this novel: the complex, multilayered story and relationships, the subtle details, the way the issue of language is handled (Annique's English syntax is charming). Like Jo Goodman's work, Bourne's plotting is complex and intricate. If you like Goodman, you will probably like Joanna Bourne.

Just in case it wasn't clear, I absolutely loved this book. Joanna Bourne needs to write more. Faster.

28 April 2010

Reading Romance: In for a Penny, by Rose Lerner

I get most of my romance reading recommendations from All About Romance, which has some of the best written and objective reviews on the web. Sure, I have a list of auto-buy authors, but I usually buy the books of debut authors used or borrow them from the library. While I want to support the romance genre by buying new, I also hate to waste time and money on poorly written or plotted books. So I carefully read reviews before trying new-to-me authors. Anyway, All About Romance highly recommended a book by debut author Rose Lerner and so I decided to buy it new.

If you like romance that focuses on character development and the relationship between the hero and heroine, then In for a Penny may be for you. It has all the hallmarks of the best traditional Regencies, focusing on what's going on in the heads of the characters, rather than on their nether regions.

The plot revolves around Penny, a young Cit heiress, and Nev, the impoverished lord who weds her for her fortune. These characters are sympathetic, believable, and fundamentally decent human beings. I liked spending time with them.

Most of the action takes place after Penny and Nev wed. They return to his ancestral home and find that the entire district has been impoverished and is likely to rise in rebellion. Unlike a lot of romance novel plots, which feature evil villains, In for a Penny uses the upset caused by the Corn Laws to create part of the tension and suspense. The rest comes from the growing pains in the relationship between Penny and Nev.

In for a Penny has all the period detail, relationship development, and sweetness of the best trads. I look forward to reading Lerner's next book in January 2011. And, oh yes, I'll be buying it new.

26 April 2010

Editors and Editing

I am really, really lucky. I have a great editor, Grace.

I was a nonfiction editor for five years, so I have some idea of what it's like on the other side of the writing fence. Unfortunately, editors rarely receive the sort of recognition or appreciation that they deserve.

Their jobs are tough--they're supposed to point out everything that a writer's doing wrong. Few of us like to hear that. They get the thankless job of rejecting, correcting grammar, educating writers on the use of the semicolon, and responding patiently and repeatedly to plaintive emails from authors, each of whom has the most important manuscript in the entire world.

But editors also advocate for writers; they can and do make the difference between acceptance and rejection. They're an objective set of eyes on your manuscript, which is especially helpful if you've been working on it for so long that you can virtually recite it word for word. Plus, a good editor can make you a better writer.

I'm not talking about learning the correct way to punctuate dialogue--any decent paperback novel can show you how to do that. I'm talking about the more subtle aspects of writing. For me, it turned out to be point-of-view. Grace must have some hypersensitive point-of-view error detector, because I can't get away with a single sentence that even hints that POV has shifted.

Grace has made me a better writer by helping me to dissect the perspectives of my characters. No more diffuse scenes in which POV moves back and forth between hero and heroine diluting their thoughts and feelings. I'm slowly learning to remain focused on one character and convey her experience of the situation with greater intensity and emotional impact.

Now think about how your editor has helped you improve your writing. Write her a nice email and say thank you.

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

The Guardian--a great source of news and opinions on writing, reading and publishing--recently asked successful writers for their dos and don'ts of writing fiction. Here's the link.

Most of the advice boils down to this: just do it.

25 April 2010

Reader Comments

This week I got the first reader comments on my book. Happily, they were positive and totally made my day. No, they made my week.

As a new author, it's a scary enterprise to put your first book out there. You've done everything you can and now you just have to hope for the best. If you're a reader and you've just read a book that you really, really like, tell the author! While I can't speak for all authors, I can say that for many of us, it does make a difference. You can comment on their website, you can write a brief review on Amazon, or you can go to the publisher's website and say something positive.

Especially for those of us publishing electronically, web "buzz" really matters. It helps with sales and it tells us, as writers, what you want to see more of as readers.

Plus, comments give authors an emotional and psychological pat on the back that we often desperately need. Because writing is a solo enterprise, it's easy for self-doubt to creep in. Is this story really any good? Maybe everything I've written today should be scrapped. Who's going to want to read this?

Positive comments may come at exactly the right time to help an author get over a tough plot problem. Or give her the enthusiasm to get back to a manuscript that's been languishing.

Bottom line: Comments matter. Really, really matter. Don't think that authors are so important/popular/busy/high-and-mighty that your email or brief review is irrelevant or a waste of time. Your thoughts and opinions matter. And they just might be the right words at the right time to make a big difference.

24 April 2010

Historical Fiction

I'm a long-time reader of historical fiction: think Dorothy Dunnett, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Philippa Gregory. Until recently, I was forced to load up my suitcase with historical fiction every time I went to the UK. This made it difficult to travel with sufficient clothing, but I was happy to sacrifice myself upon the Altar of Fiction.

Much to my delight, there's been an emerging trend in historical fiction published by North American authors. Available even in the Frozen North without paying ghastly expensive airmail postage. Here are a couple of good historical novels published in the last five years:

On a Highland Shore, by Kathleen Givens

The First Princess of Wales, by Karen Harper

The Rules of Gentility, by Janet Mullany (not, technically, an American, but she lives on this side of the pond)

Strange Saint, by Andrew Beahrs

The Queen's Lady, by Barbara Kyle (from Canada, which I can also see from my house)

I suspect that this trend is due, in part, to the success of Philippa Gregory and the sale of movie rights to Hollywood (think The Other Boleyn Girl). Incidentally, Philippa Gregory has an absolutely gorgeous website.

Whatever the reason, I'm grateful. Now there's more room in my suitcase for clothes!

Writing Erotic Science Fiction

So yesterday I submitted my first erotic science fiction novel to my wonderful editor, Grace. Since my first short novel was set in the 19th century, science fiction is quite a departure for me. I've been reading it for as long as I can remember, though, and my favorite books are always those that combine science fiction and romance.

Lois McMaster Bujold is an author of space opera who always injects some romance into her stories. I've read her entire Miles Vorkosigan series and love it. Start with Cordelia's Honor if you aren't already a fan. I also like Orson Scott Card and David Weber's Honor Harrington series. All of these authors also create strong female protagonists.

I've tried to write the sort of science fiction that I like to read, so my story features a military hero (gruff, battle-scarred, and devoted to duty) and a heroine who comes from a world where women are no better than chattel. There's a feminist subtext here as well, which I hope readers will recognize and enjoy.

My favorite part of writing SF is the chance to "world build"--create another species or world with its own rituals, language, and social organization. This is where my background in anthropology comes in handy. The novel I've just submitted revolves around language and the idea that language structures thought. In the Antaren language spoken by the heroine, it's impossible to think of herself as a subject. In other words, there is no first-person I or me or my, so the heroine is incapable of putting herself first, asking for what she wants, or asserting authority.

The hero, Avar Rákōsy, is a linguist and he literally gives the heroine the language to express herself. I hope readers will enjoy the exploration of language and self that I've tried to work into the story.

My editor has promised a four-week turnaround on the manuscript, so I'll be counting the days until I hear from her. In publishing time, that's the blink of an eye. But right now, it seems like light years away.

18 April 2010

E-Book Piracy

So my first erotic romance was released on April 14th (yay!). Since I've heard a lot about book piracy on list servs, I figured I'd find out a little bit more about it. I was really surprised to find that four days after my book was released, it's already been pirated! I found it available for (free) download at two separate websites and it had been downloaded at least 30 times already.

It's incredibly discouraging to find that something I just spent four months working on is now free to anyone who wants it. While I'm gratified that several people were interested enough in the book to download it, it's disappointing to know that what they've done will make it more difficult for me to produce future books. After all, the more money I make from writing, the more time I can spend writing. I'm far, far away from supporting myself by writing fiction, but it's something I hope to do in future.

Something else to think about--it's not just authors who are being shortchanged by book piracy. It's also editors, cover models and artists, publicists, agents, and publishers. Pirates make it more difficult for all of us to make a living.

16 April 2010

Romance Cover Models

I have to admit that I haven't given much thought to cover models on romance novels. Once I got a look at the cover of my own short novel, Not Quite a Lady, I began to pay more attention. I absolutely love my cover--the male cover model conveys all the intensity and barely-restrained passion that I imagined in my hero, Sebastian Dare. I'm ashamed to say that it never occurred to me to find out who the model was.

I got a surprise earlier this week when I got an email from the cover model, Jimmy Thomas. He told me that he is having tote bags made for the upcoming Romantic Times conference and he wanted to use my cover on the tote bag. Wow!

Jimmy was kind enough to say that my cover, designed by Syneca at Ellora's Cave, was one of his all-time favorites. While it occurred to me that he might say that to all the authors whose covers he poses for, it still gave me a thrill. It's certainly my favorite cover. I even had it framed. Now it sits on my desk and provides inspiration.  : )

More importantly, Jimmy's email gave me the chance to tell him how much I loved the cover and to thank him for capturing my hero so perfectly. He conveys some incredibly smoldering passion in just a few hundred pixels. Pretty impressive if you ask me!

I feel really fortunate to have gotten so lucky with my first cover and model. And now that I'm working on my next novel, I find myself imaginging Jimmy as the hero--scorching those pixels in a black dress uniform with platinum trim. To see more of Jimmy's work, check out his website.

Romance Reading for Writers

One of the things that I find most inspiring as a writer is reading. I don't think it's possible to improve as a writer without reading, both for pleasure and with a critical eye. Right now I'm reading The Queen's Lady by Barbara Kyle. It's historical fiction set in the Tudor era with a healthy dollop of romance. I've been really impressed by the author's research and how she's developed the relationship between the hero and heroine. But as I read, I also realize that it's not the sort of book that I could write. At over 500 pages, it has a complex plot and follows the characters for several years. What keeps me reading is the pace. (Though I have to admit that I skipped ahead to make sure that it had a happy ending--it does!)

As a writer, I feel most comfortable working on much shorter projects--novellas or short novels. I've written two (unpublished) novel-length romances, but in both cases I lost a lot of steam after the first 100 pages. I also felt as though I was losing control of the characters and the plot. This is probably in part because I don't write using an outline. For me, outlining seems to lead to mechanical, rather than organic, plotting. That certainly isn't a problem that Barbara Kyle seems to have.

If I do eventually move on to writing novel-length romance, there are a few authors that I would like to emulate. I await their new releases eagerly and always buy them new (as opposed to getting them from the library or buying them used). Three romances that I can't wait for are:

Wicked Becomes You by Meredith Duran (April 27th)
His at Night by Sherry Thomas (May 25th)
Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt (August 1st)

These three writers consistently deliver stories with great characterization, strong plotting, and swift pacing. I'll be reading their new releases in order to enjoy great romance, as well as to improve my own craft.