Monday, June 19, 2006

Vacation, Have To Get Away

I'm heading off on vacation. Two guesses where we're going. My kids would call it the happiest place on Earth. Me? Well, I'd call it a place on Earth.

Anyway, won't be back until after July 4th. And then it's a straight shot down until school starts up again.

In 80-some-odd days.

Not that I'm counting.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Yours, Mine, Not Sure About Ours

I'm out of town this weekend. Heading down to spend some time with my family, which is always interesting and fun.

I got an e-mail from my cousin telling me she had a fabulous story idea. I can't wait to hear it. She's hilarious and highly entertaining, so I have no doubt her idea will be great.

Her e-mail got me to thinking, though, how hard I think it would be to work as a write-for-hire writer. Taking someone else's idea and very specific instructions and making it all work out. Part of the fun for me - the biggest part - is coming up with a new idea. Rolling it around in my head, listening while the characters begin speaking and telling me their stories. I could spend hours sitting in a quiet room, just thinking through ideas. You all know about me and my shower time.

Once before a writer friend and I came up with the idea of co-writing a story. Problem was, we both had different ideas of what should happen and how, and we both thought our ideas were pretty cool and good - on both sides. Hers were great ideas. Just not my ideas. And I didn't have the ability to move my creative brain in a different direction. In the end, we agreed not to write the story together, no hard feelings at all.

So, I'll listen to my cousin's idea. And I'll mull it around. See what happens.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Political Dissonance

Recently I’ve been visiting the blog of a soldier stationed in Iraq. I find his view on things over there very interesting, and he's a very good writer. Not to mention how helpful I find the descriptions, slang, and other real-world bits and pieces he offers up in a context I personally will never have the opportunity to experience (and for that, I thank him since I don’t believe I’d want to experience such a thing as war). Mil blogs are a great resource to those of us writing mil roms.

Yesterday, however, I was very much turned off by his rant against basically anyone who wasn’t like him or didn’t agree with his personal political world view. He’s staunchly hard-right conservative, with all the George Bush worshipping, anti-liberal-hippy-do-gooder bashing and media conspiracy theory pushing it involves. I found his post offensive not so much because of his beliefs – I’m a firm believer that everyone is entitled to believe as he or she chooses – but more of his overall attitude towards those who disagree with him. He claims to be a hard-core American, but I guess I find such intolerance and outspoken hatred of fellow Americans who are using their own freedom of speech to disagree with him more than a little hypocritical. Not to mention his convenient forgetting of American history in which the French had a big hand in helping the colonials out back in that first Revolutionary War, resulting in a United States of America in the first place and thus making any reminders of how the U.S. saved France’s butt from the Nazis during WWII kind of...well, not only arrogant but completely tasteless and ignorant. Regardless of what France is doing now, the past is in the past, and all debts have been paid.

All of this is not to air my disgust with this guy and his views (although, hey, it’s my blog and where else can I do it if not here?) but rather how what he thinks and believes and how he chose to express it really got to me. Long after I turned off the computer having determined maybe I wouldn’t be haunting his blog so much after all, I lay in bed fuming. And wondering how this country manages to keep going when so many of us seem to be so completely divided on such key issues. And what could this guy’s life have been like to have him end up where he is, while I’m so different.

Which led me to realize that, as a writer, I think it would be completely impossible for me to depict a character who held viewpoints so fundamentally different from my own. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine writing a character who sounds like this blogger. While I can understand some of what he’s saying – and even agree with bits of it – I don’t really like him very much. I would never be able to spend an entire book-writing’s worth of time in his company, listening to his rhetoric all the while wanting nothing more than to tell him to shut the hell up already.

I do think I have the ability to deviate from my own point of view to a certain degree. I have no problem writing characters whose religions differ from my own. I’m okay with people who are more conservative than I am or people who are more liberal than I am. I don’t get reality TV, the WWF, or jazz, but I can understand there are people out there who do. But when the needle hits the extremes, I balk. I simply don’t know how to put my own mind in a place where I can understand such attitudes. In fact, when I do go there, these characters tend to take on a more villain like-role in my mind and in the story. These people become cartoons, someone I can’t take seriously or who I use as an example of how not to be. They are never, ever the heroes or heroines in my story.

Is this the way it is with most writers or do I have a serious design flaw? Do most writers revolve a pre-determined circumference away from their own moral center, unable to reach beyond into the dark corners where their own understanding comes up empty? And if they are able to break free and write real people who think 180 degrees away from their own beliefs, how do they pull it off?

The only chance I have of working against my own belief system is when I build a character from the ground up. Rather than starting with a “Republican, pro-life, NRA card carrying member, homophobic middle-aged man”, I have to start with a child who had experiences in his life that made him turn towards a certain state of mind. I have to avoid the labels on the back end that make me want to back away slowly, my hands raised to ward off danger. I end up with something along the lines of yes, my hero is a member of the NRA, but that’s because his father was killed by a gun-toting maniac while the hero looked on helplessly, and the hero vowed he’d never be that defenseless again. There have to be concrete experiences for the reasons my characters turned out as they did rather than simply that they born into that sort of family and that’s what they were taught to believe.

No matter how I get there, I have to like the person I end up with. No matter what my characters believe – even if it does differ from my own beliefs – I can’t dislike them fundamentally. I can’t view them as boorish louts who insist on hoisting their own opinions on everyone they come in contact with and then vilifying those who don’t agree with them. I don’t have the ability to write ugly Americans unless it’s to make fun of them, and if that makes me a bad writer, then I suppose the title fits.

In the end, for me anyway, it’s not so much the beliefs a person holds but rather how that person chooses to express them. Like I said above, I do think that everyone is entitled to believe what he or she chooses. I do not, however, believe that those people have a right to inflict their beliefs on the greater public, nor to I think that hatred and intolerance towards those who are inclined otherwise is acceptable. You get a lot further with me when you respect my viewpoints while making valid, non-judgmental points to support your own cause. Calling me pro-abortion (and implying that I think abortions are to be carried out willy-nilly and just because some goofball forgot to wear a condom but no big deal) just because I support a woman’s right to choose doesn’t do much to make me want to listen to why you feel abortion is wrong.

Telling me I’m anti-American just because I question some of the decisions my government has made sure doesn’t make me want to consider the possibly valid reasons why you disagree with my viewpoint.

It’s all in the delivery. It’s why they say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Them old wives, they knew a few things.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Is It Here Yet?

Know how sherbet is supposed to cleanse the palate in anticipation of a fabu desert after a satisfying meal? I've just dished me up a heaping helping of orange because today, Lynn Viehl's long anticipated Dark Need hits the shelves. After the mundane of a Nora, I am sooo ready for this book.

I'm so ready, in fact, that I've been haunting both Wal-Mart and Borders hoping that I might scam a copy earlier than the June 6 release date. Ever since I got lucky with J.R. Ward's Lover Eternal, I've hoped I might strike gold again with some accidental early-display of a much anticipated release. I'm not so ridiculous to think I'll have my hands on Harry Potter 7 a week in advance, but, hey, it happens.

But since I'm a pragmatist, I ordered Dark Need from Barnes & Noble last week. As much as I'm dying to jump into this book, I get a 10% discount by being a B&N member (annual birthday gift from my mother which is much appreciated!) and I had a wish list long enough to qualify me for free shipping, I figured I could wait the extra couple of days for shipping. I'm going out of town this weekend and only hoped that the book would show up in time for me to take it along.

All of this, however, before PBW (writer extraordinaire of the Darkyn series) posted this excerpt from Dark Need. Can I just tell you that I'm twitching already? Thinking maybe waiting two or three days for shipping might not cut it, I figured I could always return my extra copy or give it to a friend (my cousin likes dark books, if I recall correctly...) if I might be able to find an early copy.

No such luck. And as the kids are now officially out of school and shopping for anything, even books, has taken on the appeal of a trip to the OB/GYN, I'm resigned to waiting another couple of days. It's only Tuesday, after all. So my chances of having it to read on my trip are still pretty good.

Did I ever mention that I'm not a very patient person?

Monday, June 05, 2006

I'm Trying, Part 2

Okay, I did it. I finished Sea Swept, just as I promised I would.

Was it good? I give it a solid C.

I didn't hate it. The heroine was a delight; a woman who knew what she wanted, enjoyed sex without apology, and took responsibility for her own broken heart when the inevitable Big Mis happened. Not only did she take responsibility, she saw the situation as disappointing to be sure but not life-ending or wallowing-endlessly-worthy, and she showed the proper amount of anger toward the hero and his part in hurting her. Neither a martyr nor a shrew was she.

As for the hero, he was okay. I could never get a real read on him. Cameron Quinn is supposed to be some sort of ex-playboy rakish sort, although I never really got that.

Story in a nutshell: Playboy professional racer (boats, cars, motorcycles, I got the idea he'd race anything that moved) Cameron Quinn returns to his hometown after his father dies in a car crash and leaves behind a young boy he was in process of adopting. Along with his brothers, Ethan and Phillip, Cam must convince social worker Anna Spinezzi that 10-year-old Seth belongs with them as their father had requested. While the three men try to figure out a way to mesh their individual lives in such a way as to care for Seth properly, they battle the growing rumors that their father's death wasn't an accident but rather a suicide. As you might expect, Anna and Cam begin a relationship, one which is questionable since clearly Anna's position as Seth's caseworker presents a conflict of interest between the two.

I'd chosen this story because I'd read in several reviews that the interaction between Cam, Ethan and Phillip is an amazing example of how men really act with each other. Supposedly Roberts has nailed the dialogue and sibling rivalry and nuances that make some fictional men read like real men and others like womanized-men. Too, so many had chosen this as the best Nora Roberts title out there I figured it was the best place to start.

My biggest problem with the book was that I found it a tad bit...well, boring. Sure, the characters talked like real people for the most part. And the brothers did bicker and snarl at each other like siblings sometimes do. As I mentioned above, Anna was quite refreshing as a heroine with a damaged past but a realistic outlook on life. No quaking virginal miss here, but rather a true-to-life woman who isn't afraid to look a good thing in the eye and grab it.

But the conflict throughout the story was less than intriguing. I never had any doubt that the three brothers would eventually prove acceptable guardians for Seth. And I never had any doubt that Cam wouldn't end up with Anna. The biggest obstacle in their relationship seemed to be Cam's carefree lifestyle before his return home and the fact that Cam hid inconsequential details about the insurance investigation into his father's accident from Anna. Except, I never got the idea that Cam was dying to return to his old life. Sure, he grouched around about having to wash dishes and do laundry and thought about his Porsche and felt bad when he had to turn down a lucrative racing gig. But once he and Anna were doing the horizontal mamba, he seemed fairly satisfied. Nor did Anna seem like she'd be devastated when he left, at least not until the story required that she mind it.

Too, when the big showdown hit the fan and Anna learned what it Cam had kept from her, I kept shaking my head wondering what the big deal was. I didn't blame Cam at all from not telling her; none of the information had anything to do with Seth's need for a stable homelife. Nor had Cam and Anna been a couple long enough for Anna's feelings of betrayal to ring true.

All this being said, I do have to give Roberts her due props in writing a story that I kept reading. While I wasn't dying to find out what happened, I did want to know how she'd play it all out.

The whole experience reminds me of eating comfort food. It isn't devine, it doesn't make you want to eat the entire plate and lick it clean, begging for more. The experience was pleasant and filling in a non-bothersome way, much as a slice of meatloaf fills you up, tastes pretty good, but doesn't necessarily sighing in rapture.

I do think part of my reaction to this story is my overall preferences for books with higher stakes at hand. I'm not big on family sagas, where kids play a big role and the ultimate goal of everyone seems to be the quaint little house with the white picket fence, matching minivan and SUVs sitting in the driveway, 2.8 kids, a puppy, kitten and hamster inside. I live that life. I really have no desire to read about it.

I have on hand the other three books in the Chesapeake Bay series. I have no doubt I'll read them eventually. Maybe even sooner rather than later, as they make good airplane reads and I'm heading to Florida in a few weeks.

But I'm still baffled on the whole Nora phenomenon. I just don't get the appeal - not the general appeal, just the avalanche of success that she's achieved and the legions of fans who claim her stuff is solid gold. I think it all needs to be chalked up to that old adage, different strokes for different folks.

I'm just different folks.

Friday, June 02, 2006

I'm Trying. Really.

I finally caved and picked up my first Nora Roberts.

Actually, that's not quite true. I have read a couple of the J.D. Robb "In Death" books, and once upon a time I read a novella-length Roberts in an anthology. Only thing I remember is that it was set at Christmas time and involved a poor girl and her father and some guy who was wounded and hiding out in their barn.

But yesterday I broke down and picked up a copy of Sea Swept from the library, and today I toddled over to the UBS to pick up Born in Fire, as well as the final three titles in the Chesapeake Bay series.

Up to this point, I have ignored La Nora on principle. Now, I don't know Ms. Roberts in person. I'm sure she's a wonderful, lovely woman. And I know she's paid her dues and works very, very hard for the overwhelming success she's attained. I hold no personal grudges against her and wish her only good health, long life, much happiness, and many more stories to tell. She's truly a talent and deserves the respect of the entire romance community, if for nothing else than because she's our permanent ambassador to the NYT Best Sellers list and has done more than probably any other genre writer in giving the old one-finger-salute to the literary snobs by making gazillions on those "formulaic trashy novels."

That being said, I have steadfastly refused to purchase a Nora Roberts novel because the woman is everywhere. You can't swing a figurative dead cat without hitting a Nora title or a Nora re-release or a Nora anthology, trilogy, series or stand alone. She's everywhere.

And some impish bitch inside of me simply refuses to contribute to the epidemic of Nora books blanketing the world. She certainly doesn't need my money. And she clearly doesn't need my support since there are masses upon masses who adore and worship at the altar of La Nora. I'm an eye-dropper droplet in the Pacific Ocean of Nora fans or potential fans, thus my boycott on principle doesn't hurt her a bit. I prefer to spend my bookbuying dollars on writers who actually might benefit from the sale of another copy, those who are trying to build a career from the ground up rather than raking in the gazillions from re-releases and various permutations of combining past titles while at the same time cranking out dozens of new books to glut the market, leading to a full 1/3 of the space devoted to romance novels in any given bookstore to be lined with Nora Roberts spines and face-outs. Not to mention all those NYT endcaps...

But someone answering a question I had posed over on the AAR potpourri message board suggested a Nora title to solve my problem. Then that very same title showed up in a recent AAR At the Back Fence column. When Sea Swept also appeared as the number one title on the reader-recommended top ten Nora Roberts titles list as well as earning a DIK review, I figured the gods were trying to tell me something. Maybe I should stop being a snob for no reason and give Nora a try. Maybe I was cutting off my nose to spite my face, missing the best flavor of ice cream simply because I refused to try it only because everyone else told me to.

I'm about 150 pages into Sea Swept. And my feelings so far?...Ambivalent.

Yes, I do want to finish the book. This is a humongous hurdle overcome already, since I have at least a dozen books on my TBR shelf that I gave the old 50-page college try only to put them down without any burning desire to pick them back up again. I do want to know what happens to the characters I've met so far. Sort of.

But even so, I'm still not getting it. Why the huge appeal of this woman? Why do so many sing her praises and whisper her name in reverent tones?

And I'm not just saying this because I have a chip on my shoulder the size of Texas. I have legitimate, real beefs that I truly believe would be the downfall of any writer of lesser fame and stature.

For example, head hopping in the extreme. I've heard tell that La Nora can pull off head hopping in such a way as to make it nearly invisible to the reader. She's one of a handful that can get away with it. But in my opinion, it's not invisible. Especially in a book where the POV hops not just from hero to heroine and back again but between several brothers and other characters. I always notice when it happens, and it pulls me out of the story. No, I'm not dizzy. Nor am I ever confused about who is thinking what, so to that end she does pull it off. But I'd just as soon remain in one person's head throughout the entire scene, especially since much of the hopping about seems more about giving the readers visual images of the characters rather than for better story telling.

Another problem is the use of phrases that make no sense to me or are so over-the-top poetic as to be outright silly. I encountered this phrase that made me read it over three times because I found it so bizarre: "Huddled in the dark, his body weeping at every bump, he promised himself he'd kill or he'd die before he went back." Um...body weeping? I'm not getting what that's supposed to represent. And not more than six paragraphs later, there's this to further confuse the issue: "His shirt stuck to his back; his feet began to weep." We won't go into the use of a fairly unique word as weep within two pages, but I do think it fair to question what exact imagery she is trying to conjure.

My last bitch-fest complaint is that she gets away with something that no fledgling writer in her right mind would ever even attempt. The first time we meet the heroine of Sea Swept, she's all alone, driving in her car. We are in her POV and only her POV since there is no-one else around to have a POV. Yet we get a description of her physical features, from hair color and style down to her pale gold skin and almond-shaped eyes, including such un-modesty as "Her mouth was full, with a ripe bottom lip." It's as close to the old looking-in-the-mirror technique as you can get without a piece of shiny glass nearby. Now, I understand that such descriptive works in a distant third-person narrative. Perhaps that's what's happening in this case. We aren't really in the heroine's brain but looking at her from high above. Not only does this cause a distance from the character for me, but with such phrasing it actually serves to make the heroine seem pretty darn full of herself, thinking she's a sexy mama with that ripe bottom lip. What woman thinks of her own lower lip as ripe?

Before I come off as the she-bitch-from-hell, these issues with craft really aren't any big deal. I've enjoyed many a book with much worse. I'm the kind who believes that a great story can overcome craft flaws easily, and because I'm intending to finish Sea Swept, obviously nothing in it so far has offended my writer sensibilities to the extreme.

It's just that for someone so entirely famous, so clearly the icon of an entire genre and so frequently held aloft as the bar for which we all strive, I expected perfection. I expected to be blown out of my socks, so swept away in the story that any craft issues would be invisible. I even went the extra mile to choose what many people say is the best of the best of her work. But I keep getting jerked out of the story.

I know. Maybe it's just that I'm looking for problems. Maybe I want this poor woman to fail in my estimation, so I'm just being a nitpicking fussbudget determined to be displeased. Maybe I should just shut my mouth and my writer's brain and try to enjoy the story.

To that end, I can promise to finish the book. To give it the entire go rather than judge it after only a few pages. I do have my principles, though. No guarantee I won't get any necessary Nora fixes via the library or the UBS. She won't miss me at all.