Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Stake is High

I'm going into revisions again, for DELICIOUS. This time it won't be a complete demolition-and-rebuild, but still enough of a renovation that walls would be knocked down, the kitchen unusable, and plastic tarps stretched everywhere.

The problem. Not enough at stake in the second half or latter 3/5 of the book.

Strangely enough, after I spoke to my editor, during the days when I was waiting for her detailed notes, I thought very little of DELICIOUS, but a lot of HEART OF BLADE, the one manuscript under my bed that I think really has something special. I believed its problem was that it didn't start in the right place. So I pulled it out, set chapter 7 as the new chapter one, and tried to put together a 50-page proposal for my agent to have a look before I jumped back into DELICIOUS. And guess what, the wrong starting place was only one of the problems with HOB. Yep, not enough at stake in that one either.

It's me. I tend to be intensely doubtful of HEAs when the situation is too dark or complicated. So in some ways, in my subconscious I tend to try to take out conflicts, because the cynic in my says that nope, once trouble goes beyond a certain personal comfort level, then nobody can overcome it.

That's obviously not true, as my tolerance for interpersonal conflict in real life is very low, and I always stand amazed at couples who fight a lot and stay together and are pretty generally happy anyway.

So I've been reading craft books, and fiction in which the stake is high--hoping to absorb by osmosis. And in the middle of last week, I jumped back into DELICIOUS, ready to play with some stakes.

No doubt I'll feel differently when I'm on my next book. But part of my frustration with DELICIOUS has always been that it is a tremendously important book to me, from a career standpoint. I don't want to be a one-book wonder. I want DELICIOUS to blow people away. And yet I keep missing that hurricane factor.

So I'll be busy hammering and drilling, and doing my best to stay away from the interwebs. I won't blog here again until revisions are done. But I have written a review for Anne Stuart's Black Ice--one of the books I recently read in my stakes-hunt. It would appear at Dear Author probably in a couple of weeks as part of a dueling review with Janine. And I will be doing a guest post at the the Romance Roundtable on November 6.

I will post permalinks when they are to be had. In the meanwhile, I'll write. And here's looking at you, kids. Write well. Write lots. And if you have any wisdom about upping the stakes without throwing in the kitchen sink, well, don't be shy. Let me know.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Confessions of a Former Special Effects Junkie

When I was a kid, I was a special effects junkie. I loved them. I just loved them. I would watch sci-fi movies with even the most ridiculous premise if it meant I got to see futuristic vehicles and technologies. One time I even watched a horror movie by accident because the poster looked as if there might be some interest special effects.

The first time I realized that special effects wasn't enough for me anymore was at a movie called Lost in Space. It had some cool effects moments, but the story was so ridiculous, the characters so cardboard-y, that I came out of the movie theater shaking my head. But nothing drove home the limited effects of special effects like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The trailer of the movie gave me shivers. The imagery was beautiful and fantastic. I read every article about the movie leading up to its release, tried to download a second trailer onto my desktop on a dial-up connection, and saw the movie the second day after it opened, late at night. The whole theater exploded into applause at "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." There were only a few half-hearted claps at the end of the movie.

When I watched the first trilogy again, I marveled. How was it that the mere image of Tatooine's twin suns setting could affect me so much? And why was it that a Death Star made of plastic toy parts felt so real while Jar Jar Binks, despite his photorealism and painstaking details, was a stupid cartoon who only wished he were Roger Rabbit?

I've come around full circle in a similar way about on-page sex in romances.

I think I am fairly typical for someone who cut her romance teeth as a teenager on books by Rosemary Rogers and Johanna Lindsey. I like that heat. I expect that heat. I'm a firm believer in that you can talk all you want about metaphysical true love, but sustained physical attraction has to serve as the foundation to any successful relationship.

In other words, I'm all for the hot. But the more I read, the more I realize that unfortunately on-screen sex ≠ hot. A lot of times on-screen sex can be as dull as PCAOB Standards, and a jumble of pink parts madly attaching, detaching, inserting, squirting about as arousing as stray dogs in rut--I'd stop to look for a moment, but I certainly wouldn't be fanning myself.

Many a time I'd wished that George Lucas didn't have a practically unlimited budget to diddle around with special effects when he was making The Phantom Menace. When you watch the Star Wars prequels on DVD and listen to the commentary, only the effects people are there--the visuals so consumed Uncle George that character, story, and everything else took a backseat. Similarly, all the emphasis on hot in recent years has produced some reading material that's taboo, derivative, and boring all at once--committing the unspeakable crime of sucking the fun out of hot loving.

Hot loving, like fab visual effects, should not be an end in themselves. They should exist only to serve the story. They should be an AND, not a BUT, as in "The movie rocked, AND the visual effects were kickass,"--The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, anyone?--and not "The sex was hot, BUT the story made no sense and the characters were made from soggy construction paper."

The story always has to come first.

No pun intended. I swear.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Thinking Woman’s Alpha Hero

There is something in romance that worships hyper-masculinity. It manifests itself in torrents of loving verbiage over the hero’s physical supremacy: he towers over all other men (except those who would be heroes in subsequent books), his muscles make the Governator in his Mr. Olympic days look like a high school nerd, and his sperm can puncture three layers of latex to impregnate a post-menopausal woman.

I roll my eyes a little at such freaks of nature, but not so much that I can see the inside of my cranium. Height, strength, and potency have been prized aspects for males of the species since time began, and I’m certainly not insensible to the allure of a physically imposing man. What I find far more unsatisfying is that height, strength, and potency are often taken as sufficient onto themselves to define alpha maleness.

Such heroes are everywhere to be found in romance, and they are spared my greatest wrath because one, they usually don’t interest me enough to read very far, and two, they are more often than not paired with heroines whose thoughtlessness and folly make these men’s imperiousness and immaturity look good in comparison. But that doesn’t mean their sheer quantity and generic-ness don’t exasperate me.

There aren’t enough real men in romance. Yes, you heard me right. Despite all the hot, all the testosterone, and all the claims to alpha-ness, there aren’t enough real men, but too many overgrown, my-way-or-the-high-way boys.

A pseudo-alpha says “Because I say so.” It’s his way or the high way. A real man does not presumes his authority, he earns it everyday and leads by example. Gandhi, anybody? (And don’t tell me Mahatma wasn’t hot in his homespun loincloth.)

A pseudo-alpha is always shown to have the upper hand over the heroine: if she’s strong, he’s stronger; if she kicks ass nine-to-five, he kicks ass left, right, and upside down 24/7. I sure wouldn’t mind seeing a kick-ass heroine paired with a academic librarian hero, a hot, erudite man who kicks ass only in the sense that he’s the best at connecting people with the knowledge they need, a secure man who’s not at all threatened by a strong woman or another strong man because he does not define his worth by how many bow before him in deference.

A pseudo-alpha is interested in power for its own sake. A real man understands that the flip side of authority is responsibility. When things go wrong, he doesn’t find justifications, or pass the bucket. Eisenhower, before the D-Day, had composed an "in-case-of-defeat” letter. He wrote:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.
Ike, dead but still sexy, just for these words alone.

My all-time favorite real-man hero is Ruck from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. There have been other romances featuring a spectacularly high-born lady and a not-so-high-born man, and in most of them, the hero is shown to act in an over-familiar and commandeering way, quickly putting the heroine under his thumb to compensate for his lower birth and emphasize his hero-ness.

In For My Lady’s Heart, however, Ruck, a renowned knight in his own right, is ever respectful and courteous to Princess Melanthe. He observes every last detail of etiquette, whether it requires him to kneel before her or to lay out and serve her meal. And none of it diminishes him. None of it renders him any less a leader of men. Quite the reverse, his innate dignity, his quiet competence, his unassuming yet solid understanding of who he is make him, in this reader’s eyes, almost unbearably manly.

A true alpha takes care of people without patronizing them. He leads without shoving his decision down everyone’s throat. He is not necessarily humble, but he has an accurate understanding of his own pride, and doesn’t let his ego stand in the way of learning from his mistake.

And when he is in love, his lady is free to make up her own mind as to whether she loves him in return.

So, in other words, keep the hot, by all means. Have the hero be impossibly fit and impossibly handsome, but don’t stop there. And don’t stop with giving him a traumatic adolescence. Give him some depth and maturity. Give him some strength of character that he understands the difference between what’s easy and what’s right. Give him the sort of true manliness that would make him remain impossibly charismatic and attractive even when he gains a paunch and loses his hair thirty years into his happily ever after.

And give me a real alpha hero, instead of a pseudo-alpha.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

It's all about me

I love women. But as a healthy, overwhelmingly heterosexual woman, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that men, in all their varieties and flavors, bring to the table an excitement that is totally different from what I get in my interaction with women.

From watching tuxedo-clad, classically trained opera singers to watching rough-and-tumble soccer players half my age squaring off on the field during halftime of my own kid’s soccer game, I derive tremendous pleasure from men as they are, gorgeous, strong, fascinating creatures both familiar and mysterious.

That’s in real life. In a romance, however, I have trouble admiring the hero just like that. Because the romance hero is not some stranger there to provide a slightly middle-aged, slightly dirty-minded woman detached, uncomplicated enjoyment, he is there to exist in a relationship. And in romance, as in real life, I judge a man very much by the kind of woman he chooses.

And then, the kind of woman he chooses becomes very much all about me.

I am a damned fine woman—if you’ll excuse my immodesty here—but I’ve never been what would have been called a “good girl.” I was born a cynic. I never was innocent. As a child, I had very dark thoughts about life and people and wouldn’t know uncomplicated love if it kidnapped me and took me to a unicorn picnic.

I don’t love unselfishly—if I love you, you’d better love me back, a lot. I won’t bother charming some crotchety old bat with my sass and spirit—I’d sooner mix Ex-Lax into her morning cocoa. On top of it, I’m power-hungry and possibly narcisistic.

In other words, I am so not your typical romance heroine. And yet I’m a damned fine woman.

And every time a hitherto fascinating hero falls in love with a milquetoast heroine, I roll my eyes and discount both his IQ and his EQ by about 20 points. And if he loves her for her innocence, I bang my head on the wall. I’ve never known a man who is attracted to a woman for her innocence. They like us because we are beautiful, because we’ve boobs and hips, because when we walk they drool! What is wrong with you, hero dude?

One of my favorite examples of this kind of inexplicable heroine-worship happens in an old-timey futuristic where the hero, who can do everything and I mean everything, carries the heroine on his back and runs for about twelve hours straight through a weird forest that would come alive at night and eat them or some such. At the end of this super-marathon, he set her down and admires her for having held on. For having held on, when death was her other choice! I promptly lost all my interest in him.

Whenever a powerful, accomplished man falls in love with a baked-potato heroine, I want to ask him, what do you see in her? Why don’t you hang with someone of comparable experience and capability? Would you feel threatened if you are not the first or only man to give her an orgasm?

And this is one of the major reasons why as much as I delight in love stories, and relish a happy ending, I don’t read as many romances as I’d like. Because there aren’t enough fascinating heroines, and seven out of ten fascinating heroes end up devoting themselves to the sort of walk-on-water heroines that bear no relation to what I understand to be the fascination of femininity.

As I said, it’s all about me.