Wednesday, January 31, 2007

If You Never Made Another Dime on Your Writing…

If you never made a (nother) dime on your writing, would you still write? I stumbled upon this question the other day on the blog A Walk on the Weird Side. I’ve asked myself this question before, only phrased a bit differently: If I won the lottery and no longer had to write to put my kids through college and help pay for our Whole Foods habit, would I still write? Oh, yes. But…

The BUT is always the telling part. Yes, I’d still write, but I’d write something different. I’d write the stories swirling around in my head that will never be written because I know they’re not marketable. Not only would I write those stories, but I’d write them the way I want to write them, full of descriptions and flights of fancy, with no looking over my shoulder or second guessing how my readers might react to various potentially unpopular elements.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy writing. But I don’t LOVE the writing process the way I did before I was published. There is a trade off. Before we’re published, writing can feel self-indulgent, even selfish (particularly if we have a young family). Once we’re published, we’re getting paid, so we can reassure ourselves we’re doing it for the good of our family (although when the demands of the book deadline conflict with the needs of the child who wants to talk about her day at school, the angst is still there). Yet with publication comes a host of considerations that rarely occur to the unpublished, and an expanding awareness of the choices made with each keystroke. Often, our gut instincts as a writer pull us in one direction while our understanding of the marketplace pulls us in another direction. The marketplace doesn’t always have to win, but we ignore it at our peril.

Because in the end, there is another question: Are we writing to please ourselves, or to be read by others? If my lottery winning self were to write those untold stories now swirling around in my head, and I wrote them the way I want to write them, would I be happy if no one published them? No. Would I be happy if someone published them but no one read them? No.

In a perfect world, I could tell the stories I want to tell the way I want to tell them, and millions of people would buy them. That actually happens with some lucky people. I say lucky, because success in the marketplace all too often has little to do with one’s ability as a writer and a lot to do with catching the right bandwagon.

But if you’re not one of those lucky people, if you’re marching to your own drummer and you realize the parade is two blocks over and going in the other direction, what do you do?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Preemptive Character Turn-offs

Last night, our writers group talked about character descriptions in cover copy that would discourage us from picking up a book. What provokes those instant, “Blink” like decisions that make us think, I don’t want to read this?

One member said she’s not interested in reading about main characters from a lower socioeconomic level than her own. It’s not that she’s a snob; she just doesn’t want to get involved in the angst of people worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills at the end of the month.

Another member said he wasn’t interested in reading about a simple-minded hero; he never “got” the attraction of Forrest Gump.

I said I didn’t want to read about a tall, thin, young, blond, beautiful, rich, brilliant, athletic heroine. I simply couldn’t take having her in my face for 350-400 pages.

Other candidates for don’t-want-to-read-abouts: hairdressers, macho Special Forces jerks, priests or ministers, deformed or physically unattractive characters… Hey, we weren’t being politically correct here, we were being honest. One of our members writes Japanese samurai mysteries, and she has realized she unwittingly limited her audience simply because a lot of people don’t want to read about characters from a different, or at least an unfamiliar, race.

Of course, our little group is hardly representative of the general reading public. We could think of successful books centered around characters from each of our “turn off” categories. One of our members likes books about women struggling with their weight; two other members put such books in their don’t-want-to-read-about-it categories. So, how about you? What characters/descriptions of a hero/heroine are gut-reaction turn-offs for you?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lost in New Orleans

Sam was home these last few days for her end-of-semester break, so we decided to take a look at the newly reopened Saks. We drove up St. Charles, which was a bit of a hassle since none of the stoplights were working again. But we were okay with that, since the lights were out due to the ongoing work to restore the St. Charles streetcar, which is dearly missed. Unfortunately, on our way home, the street I normally turn on was blocked by construction. Then I got lost.

Getting lost in New Orleans is easy these days. They’ve begun to replace some of the street signs lost in the storm, but most of the signs are still down and nothing looks the same anymore. You can drive forever without being able to figure out where you are or where you’re going. We ended up in a part of the city I hadn’t seen since Katrina, and it was pretty scary, all collapsed buildings and burned out blocks and boarded up houses. I finally got out of there by pointing my little VW’s nose into the setting sun and heading west.

We’re now into our 18th month, post-K. There’s still a FEMA trailer sitting on my next-door neighbor’s lawn, and two more on our block alone. Another five houses on our block are still completely empty. We live in an area that was relatively lightly damaged—just a foot or less of water (plus the wind, of course). As for the rest of New Orleans, well...

Friday, January 26, 2007

One More Time

The copyedited manuscript for WHY MERMAIDS SING landed on my doorstep yesterday. My first response, as always, was to groan. Here we go again…

I edit my books as I write them, reading them over and over, tweaking and smoothing and constantly reconsidering flow and pacing and story arc. What that means is that by the time I finish a book, I am heartily sick of it—especially the beginning.

I send it off to my editor, and she comes back with suggestions for places where situations need to be clarified or scenes expanded or added. That usually entails a fairly involved rewrite. Then I send it off once more, and in a few months it comes winging back to me AGAIN, this time with a copyeditor’s line edits. Technically I am only required to look at these changes. But this is the last time I can make changes to the manuscript, so I always take advantage of the several months’ distance I now have and do one final editing.

I will see this manuscript one last time, when I am sent the galleys or page proofs. At that point, I could recite the book in my sleep. No matter how hard I try or what tricks I use, I still see what I expect to see on the page, not what’s really there, with the result that I inevitably miss typos. Also, by this point the story feels tired, all its foibles and faults so glaringly obvious that I begin to fear it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. My family and friends always tell me, “You say that with each book.” I always go, “I know, but with this book it’s true.” I said it about WHEN GODS DIE, and then took all kinds of grief when the book received its three starred reviews. But the fact remains that, somehow, a book never quite lives up to the vision I had of it when I embarked on its journey. I always feel that I failed to make it as good as I could have, as I should have. Someone—I think it was Chap—said the book he has just finished is always his favorite. That would be nice.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Leaving a Book Behind

Some writers hate to finish a book. They’ll wax eloquent about how much they miss spending time with their characters. Even if they’ve written dozens of books, they can still tell you the names of each book’s main characters, and talk about them as if reminiscing about old friends.

Other writers seem to need to firmly close the door on one book before they can start the next. There is normally a 12-14 month gap between when a book is finished and when it finally appears in stores. This means that when a writer is sent out to promote, say, Book A, s/he is actually deeply involved with writing book B or C. Those writers who employ selective amnesia can find themselves in the embarrassing position of remembering less about their book than the fans who have just read it.

I fall into the second category. I recently received a frantic call from my editor: their copy department had done a lousy job on the flap copy for WHY MERMAIDS SING, and the catalogue was due to go to press. Could I please write something? My first thought was, Oh, God; what happened in that book? I mean, I could remember the premise: Someone is killing the sons of London’s most powerful families… But after that? I had to haul out the manuscript and go, Oh, yes; now I remember.

I don’t know why I have this need to repress one book before I can go onto the next. It makes it impossible for me to write more than one book at a time. I’d be interested to hear how other writers handle this.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Writing with a Partner

I used to think I could never write with a partner. You see, I have this thing about control. So how did I end up as one half of Steven Graham? By accident.

Over the last four years, Steve Harris (aka my spouse) has become an increasingly larger part of my writing process. He’s a great plotting partner. At first I’d go to him when I needed a sounding board for working through a plot problem or writing believable Macho Strut (you know what I mean—those testosterone-loaded passages where two men face off and talk tough). It just kept evolving from there. Now we plot all of my books together. We’ve done some of our best plotting in the car, driving up to the lake for a weekend. He drives, I prop a notebook on my lap, and we have a great time bouncing ideas back and forth. Sometimes we have such a great time that we miss our turning and get lost.

The Sebastian St. Cyr series is still very much mine, although Steve contributes a lot. But as we worked on THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, it rapidly reached the point that it was no longer just my book, it was ours. We didn’t simply plot the book together, we plotted most individual scenes. Some scenes—especially chases and fights—are so much Steve that my role was virtually that of a stenographer. But more importantly, Steve is the expert, he’s the one who says, This is how they’d do it. Or, just as importantly, No, it wouldn’t happen that way. After all, we’re writing a spy novel, and this guy spent over 20 years in the spy business, running agents and coordinating black ops and—well, you get the idea.

I am still the one doing the actually writing. I think that’s important, because it gives the book a consistent voice and flow that I find a lot of collaborations lack (although I’ve heard of successful collaborations that are structured in many different ways). If Steve were a different kind of person, it probably wouldn’t work—I do still have that thing about control. But since he is Steve, I’m having more fun writing now than I’ve ever had. It’s wonderful to have someone who lives and breathes my book with me. With a partner, writing is no longer such a lonely business.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Writing Groups, Revisited

Stewart over at the House of Sternberg has asked some questions about writing groups, so I thought I’d revisit the topic.

I think writers groups work best when their members’ needs are either the same or at least complementary. For instance, RWA (Romance Writers of America) is a huge national organization with fairly large local chapters. Its members range from utter novices to multi-published writers. It works because all members get something out of the meetings. Beginners learn about writing and the publishing industry, as do newly published authors. Established authors are provided with a base from which to publicize their books as well as an opportunity to “feel good” by helping aspiring writers. Everyone is provided with a situation in which to meet like-minded friends.

Members of RWA often get together and form smaller critique groups, usually of no more than four or six, although I’ve heard of larger ones. I have never belonged to a formal critique group, although when I was in Australia I did sometimes exchange manuscripts with friends. I think critiquing is good for beginning writers. Seeing other writers’ mistakes taught me some of my most valuable lessons.

Critiquing was never a big part of our Monday night Wordsmiths group, and we gave it up largely because those of us who were actively writing were, frankly, beyond it (in the sense of needing a line edit), while those who were not actively writing anything at the moment felt under pressure to bring a piece in. Some of us will still occasionally bring something in—before I sent out the proposal for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, for example, I brought in the synopsis for suggestions. But that’s rare. We realized that it was the discussions we enjoyed most, so that’s what we now focus on. For example, in discussing my “Downstairs Thriller” last week, we became intrigued by several questions: Do men and women react to—and like—different things in a character? How can a writer appeal to both sexes? That’s what we’ll be talking about this week.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lake Therapy

I’m back from the lake and happy to report that it worked: the rough draft of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT is now finished. The first two hundred pages of the book are well polished, having gone out as part of the proposal last year. The next hundred or so pages were also in pretty good shape before I headed up to the lake. So all that’s left is to polish these last pages and verify a few niggling little facts.

This time, the weather was not conducive to sitting on the front porch swing—where I’ve done much of my writing the other occasions I’ve gone up there for an intensive write-in. But there’s a great view of the lake from the living room sofa, and even shrouded in mist the water was beautiful and calming.

Still, it’s good to be home. Huckleberry is trying to convince me his heart is broken, Press swears no one has fed him since I left, and as for the other three—well, I’m not sure Nora, Nick, or Thomasina even noticed I was gone.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Writers’ Groups

I’m a huge believer in writers’ groups. Writing is a lonely, little understood, and slightly (very?) crazy business, and it helps enormously to have a group of people with whom we can discuss our fears, hopes, ideas, gripes, accomplishment, and failures.

My writers’ group in Adelaide met once a month. When I joined as an unpublished writer, they were a local chapter of Romance Writers of Australia; by the time I left, I had published four novels and the group had morphed (somewhat painfully) into the “Popular Fiction/Romance Writers of Adelaide.” The writers I met in that group were my closest friends in Australia, and I still miss them.

I’ve belonged to a writers’ group here in New Orleans for five years now. The Wordsmiths, as we are called, meet every Monday night at a local coffee shop conveniently located in a bookstore, and I can say unequivocally that the group has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. I’d say that even if one of the members hadn’t become my husband three years ago.

We are a core group of six, with one other member who comes whenever she can. Two of us (the other being Laura Joh Rolland, author of the Sano Ichiro Samurai mystery series) are professional writers in the sense that writing is our “day job.” Three are academics by day. Charles Gramlich, a professor of psychology at Xavier University, is a horror/sci-fi/fantasy author who has written COLD IN THE LIGHT and the fantasy Talera trilogy due to be re-released later this year, as well as scores of short stories and poems. Emily Toth, a professor of English at LSU, is the author of a historical romance as well as many nonfiction works (she also gives advice to academics as Ms. Mentor). Kathleen Davis, professor of modern languages at Tulane, is another scholarly author with the soul of a novelist. Our sixth member is a lawyer who is interested in writing fiction and in the meantime reads voraciously; she has a presence in the blogworld as Sphinx Ink. And, finally, Steve Harris is a retired Army intelligence officer who now works in human resources. He is my coauthor for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT.

I suspect all writers’ groups go through periodic growth pains and contortions; only those that can adapt and change survive. At one time, our group used to do critiques, but we’ve eliminated that aspect, a change that seems to have worked for the better. Now we simply do a roundtable of “news,” then discuss a topic. Sometimes we pick something from a list of topics we’ve come up with in advance, sometimes a member will come in with a topic that they’d like to explore, at other times the topic will spin naturally out of our roundtable. Over the years we’ve explored some fascinating subjects, from satisfying readers’ fantasies to—these past few weeks—what makes a memorable character.

Our group works so well, I suspect, because we are all very much alike in some ways, and yet different in other ways. The members are all educated, well-read, open-minded people. We are all vaguely in the same camp politically, although some are more moderate and others more radical. Yet our interests and reading tastes and even backgrounds are fairly different, so that each brings a different perspective, a unique “take” on the topic at hand. I have tremendous respect for the Wordsmiths' intellegence, their opinions, and their analytical ability, and I feel privileged to be a part of their group.

They are also wonderful friends.

On a side note…

I won’t be posting for the rest of the week as I head up to the lake house tomorrow to try to finish the first draft of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. I have my daughter coming home from Yale for term break, and then my sister coming for Mardi Gras, and the book is due March 1. Yes, I’m panicking. But then, I do that a lot.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Creating Characters: Profilers vs. Pantsers

Just as writers generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to plotting, I also see two distinct approaches to creating characters. Some authors essentially create their characters as they write, while others need to know every little detail about their characters before they can sit down and type, Chapter One.

There are writers who compile huge dossiers on their characters, complete with 20 or 30 page lists of questions they use to “interview” their characters. They can tell you their characters’ favorite color, the most memorable thing that ever happened to them, their favorite food, the most embarrassing moment in their lives, what they have in their pockets. On one level, at least, these kinds of writers know more about their characters than I know about myself. These are the Profilers.

And then there are their opposites, those who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to their characters. They may know the vague outlines of their main character’s life—what his father did for a living, where she went to college, how many siblings he has, if her mother is still alive. But beyond that, these author’s characters really only come to life when the authors start to write.

Guess which category I fall into? If you guessed Profilers, BZZZZ, you lose. I plot like a fiend, but when it comes to my characters, I think about them sometimes in the shower, or when I lay down to take a nap, but for the most part, I let them come to me as I write. That’s when the magic happens.

Back in the early days of my writing career, I discovered one of those lists of Questions Every Author Should Be Able to Answer About Her Characters, and panicked. Oh, God; I didn’t know what was in my heroine’s underwear drawer. I didn’t know what she thought of her first grade teacher. So I sat down with the list and tried to make up answers, and it felt…forced. Worse, it felt constraining. What if I said she loved her first grade teacher, but then I came to a scene where I wanted her to be permanently traumatized by something the woman did to her? I dithered. I panicked some more. And then I thought, This is ridiculous, and threw it away. Since then, I've met profiling writers who seemed to know their characters to an enviable degree, yet when I read their books, I found their characters oddly lifeless.

There are also some wonderful writers out there who swear by the Profiling technique. I’m not one of them. I don’t even know how my husband felt about his first grade teacher, and I’d have to look to tell you what’s in my pocket. I don’t know the most embarrassing moment in the life of my hero, Sebastian; I’ve never needed to know it. I do know how Sebastian feels about cruelty and intolerance—it was a part of the man that gradually coalesced during those thinking sessions before I lulled off to sleep on the couch or stepped out of the shower. Did I say to myself, “Sebastian hates cruelty and intolerance”? No. I now know that Sebastian dearly loves his father, despite all the problems they’ve had, and also loves his sister even though he’s wary of her. Did I know that when I first started writing WHAT ANGELS FEAR? I don’t think so. But when I was writing and I came to the scenes where I needed that information, it was there, in my subconscious.

When it comes to characters, I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Tale of Two Novels: A Study in Characterization

I’m reading two books at the moment (well, two novels; I’ve got a couple of nonfiction books I’m also reading). My upstairs book is COLD IN THE LIGHT, by Charles Gramlich. My downstairs book is a spy thriller by a writer who shall remain nameless because I’m about to say some very unkind things about her book.

COLD IN THE LIGHT is a horror/science fiction tale. As I’ve said before, there are three genres I don’t read: horror, science fiction, and fantasy. So why did I pick up this book? Because Charles is a friend of mine. Now, for the sake of our friendship, I would plow my way through this book even if I weren’t enjoying it. But I’m not plowing; I’m savoring. Why? Because I love what Charles does with his characters. Even the ones that aren’t human. (The fact that it’s very suspenseful kept me up last night later than I’d intended).

This is a book with a lot of characters, and yet each one is wonderfully drawn. Charles is one of those rare writers with the enviable ability to understand and sympathize with a wide assortment of people (and non-people). He also has a gift for capturing the essence of experiences in a way that makes you say, Yes, yes; I know what that feels like. Doubtless, being a professor of psychology helps. But I think his skill at characterization also owes much to a lifetime of observing, understanding, and LIKING people.

Charles has helped me to understand one of the reasons I don’t like my thriller writer’s characters: I don’t think she likes people. Oh, she likes her heroine, because her heroine IS our writer—or, rather, the way she would like to imagine herself to be. But I don’t like her heroine. Why? Because she’s far too impressed with herself. And—like the author—she doesn’t seem to actually LIKE anyone else. I never sense any humanity in her or in any of the other characters (despite several heavy handed, melodramatic flashbacks that are intended to elicit my sympathy for the heroine). All characters besides the heroine are interchangeable within their good guy/bad guy routine: the bad guys are comic book villains (who seem to spend all their time killing and torturing kids, just to remind us that these are bad, bad men), while the other good guys are all too obviously there simply to move the plot forward.

My downstairs book has other flaws, one of the most offensive being the way the “good guys” constantly call Arabs “rag heads.” As far as I’m concerned, racism in any form is contemptible, and the use of the word “rag head” is just as unacceptable as the sneering, thoughtless use of the words “nigger” or “kike.” Plus, as the plot unfolds and we realize what is going on, anyone with any knowledge of modern German politics realizes that our thriller writer has imagined a situation that simply could not happen in our current world. Instead of experiencing suspense, I find myself saying, This is silly. But the main reason I put this book down 100 pages from its end and doubt I will ever pick it up again is that I simply do not care what happens to any of our thriller writer’s people. So why should I keep reading? Especially when I can go upstairs and read COLD IN THE LIGHT.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cover Art at Its Best

I just got the cover for WHY MERMAIDS SING, and it’s breathtakingly gorgeous. Wow!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why Some Readers Love Cardboard Characters

I love memorable characters, characters so brilliantly conceived and deftly rendered that they linger in my mind for years after I’ve first met them. But I’ve realized, lately, that not all readers are like me.

I can think of several bestselling suspense and mystery writers who provide their fans with an incredibly thin, colorless husband-and-wife team. And don’t get me started on Dan Brown’s characters. But do the fans of these writers complain? No. They gush about how “wonderful” their favorite writer’s characters are. I used to go, “Huh?” But now, I think I get it.

You see, there’s a flip side to creating memorable, deftly rendered characters. The more individualistic your story people are, the more artfully delineated their likes and dislikes, faults and virtues, habits and idiosyncrasies, the more likely it is that some of your readers will go, “I don’t like this character. In fact, I hate this character, and I don’t want to read about him.” Think of the visitor to this blog who loves Scarlett O’Hara—and the one who hates her. Scarlett is definitely a memorable character. Endearing to everyone? No.

A well-delineated character presents us with a personality we react to, for good or ill. But a cardboard character is essentially a blank slate, a movie screen onto which certain kinds of readers seem to project their own likes and dislikes. The author has put nothing there to get in their way. Thus, when a reader says she loves Bestseller X’s characters, what she’s really saying is that she loves the way she imagines those characters to be.

Thin, undeveloped characters drive me nuts. One of the main things I read for, is the joy of experiencing people like Huck Finn, and Francis Crawford, and Dave Robicheaux. But when I look at the bestseller lists, I sometimes fear we’re in the minority.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Perils of Advance Plotting

I have less 100 pages of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT left to write. Over the weekend, Steve and I spent several hours driving around to the various sites in New Orleans where the last scenes of the book take place (the book is also set in Washington, D.C. and Dallas), taking pictures and jotting down notes, and finalizing the plotting of the climax.

First of all, you have to understand that I have been writing this book for what feels like forever. I had 200 pages written by the end of August, 2005. In fact, two days before we evacuated for Katrina, I’d just finished a scene set at the New Orleans Marina. With the city devastated by hurricane and flood, I essentially shelved the book. How could I write a book set in New Orleans when no one had any concept of what the city was going to look like in another couple of years? It wasn’t until last spring that I finally felt confident enough about predicting the future that I hauled the book out, did a massive rewrite of the first half to accommodate Katrina, and continued on.

Fast forward to January, 2007. Steve and I go to the site of the book’s climax (no, I can’t tell you where it is, or it might spoil the book). There we discover to our horror that the central feature of this site, which provides a thread from the book’s very first scene, has just changed!

Yes, I know it’s better that they made this change now, rather than a week before the book hit the shelves. But still. Steve and I walked up to it, stared at it in horror for a moment, then started laughing.

I can fix it, of course. After all these years, I’ve discovered there’s very little in writing you can’t fix. But I thought I’d leave you with this picture of the Municipal Marina. This picture was taken just this last weekend, not sixteen months ago. I am sooo happy I set my marina scene at the New Orleans Marina (which was relatively protected), rather than the Municipal Marina!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Twelfth Night

I said we wouldn’t begin celebrating Mardi Gras for several weeks, but that wasn’t strictly true. Carnival Season officially starts on Twelfth Night, January 6th. Normally that is simply the beginning of the deb balls and king cakes, with the parades not starting until a few weeks before Mardi Gras day (which I know is redundant). But this year, one of the krews, Zeus, decided to have a small parade down Metairie Road on Twelfth Night, to mark their 50th anniversary. Now, my mother only lives half a block away from Metairie Road, so of course we strolled down to the corner last night to catch the parade. It was a lovely evening—about 68 degrees. Everyone in the crowd was happy, the riders on the floats were having a good time, and as the last float lumbered off into the night, revelers dancing, jazz music blaring, I found myself exclaiming, “God, I love this city!” It’s why we’re all still here. There really is no place like New Orleans.

Oh, and that’s not me, it’s my daughter. She always catches more beads than I do.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Writer Rants

What is it with writers penning long, rambling, insulting posts to anyone who dares to criticize their books? First we had Anne Rice expressing on Amazon her utter contempt for anyone who a) didn’t like her books and b) thought she needed to take that “no editing” clause out of her contracts. (If you missed it, it’s here, although you’ll need to scroll down to find it). But Laurell K Hamilton really outdid her with the recent blog entry, Dear Negative Reader. According to Laurell, if you don’t like LKH’s books, then you must be stupid, shallow, and lazy. So there.

I will admit I can get pretty irate when readers post attacks on my books that are based on false or petty gripes. I’m always having people pick at my books for “historical inaccuracies” that aren’t inaccuracies at all. I remember one irate Amazon reader who attacked SEPTEMBER MOON because she said the children in the book were obviously mental cases since they’d put a poisonous snake in my heroine’s room…except the snake wasn’t poisonous, and I’d said it wasn’t at least a half a dozen times. And then there was the time an on-line reviewer—a seasoned romance reader, no less—attacked THE BEQUEST because the hero was brave and the heroine was beautiful and came from New Orleans. Excuse me?

Those attacks fire me up because they’re unfair—or, in the case of the BEQUEST review, because the book obviously pushed some button the reviewer is refusing to acknowledge. I know there will always be readers who don’t like my characters, who don’t like my stories, who think my books are too dark, my prose too dense or not dense enough, whatever. That’s the way this whole wonderful world of books works. I know very intelligent readers who don’t like the books I love. So as long as we’re talking about a pure, gut reaction, I know it’s nothing personal.

One of the reasons I hate Amazon’s reviews is because they can and frequently do provide a forum for ignorance and spite. And I think LKH had one valid point: if her former fans don’t like her books any more, they should quit buying them. Why continue buying them, only to complain about them? I gather some of the remarks made were rather tasteless and personal. However, the remarks that set LKH off were actually made on her own Bulletin Board, something she willingly set up not just to give her fans someplace to talk about her books, but to increase her visibility and up her sales and, basically, multiply her take home pay. I guess she forgot to announce the rules: Now children, you can only post on my Bulletin Board if you’ve got something nice to say, otherwise go play someplace else.

Fan bases are funny things, especially with a series. A writer sets up expectations and lures readers to fall in love with her characters. And while it’s true that the writer must, in the end, tell her own stories, I can understand how a fan might feel betrayed and outraged when a writer takes off in a radically new direction. Expectations were set up, then deliberately broken. (And when you write weird stories, you gotta expect some weird fans.)

Success has its own dangers, and I suppose one of the most common (along with the belief, apparently, that one no longer needs an editor) is the temptation to equate book sales with superior writing ability: i.e., I sell lots of books, so it therefore follows that I am a brilliant writer, and if you don’t like my books you obviously don’t have either the intelligence or the emotional maturity to understand or appreciate them.

Oh, and if you’re tempted to take Anne Rice up on her offer and mail her book back to her, you should be warned that she no longer lives at the address she gives. I’ve heard the post office is simply returning them to the senders.

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Orleans Today

I committed myself to write this, but talking about New Orleans today is hard.

The physical part, first. The New Orleans most tourists know, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the rest of Uptown stretching between Canal Street and Carrollton, escaped the floodwaters. But many of the old, wonderful sections of the city were inundated—Jackson Barracks, the Bywater, Broadmore, Gentilly, Mid-City. I suspect that most of those areas will, in time, be revived, although many of the graceful old homes that once stood there probably won’t make it. Lakeside—the largely white, affluent area to the northwest—will eventually also return, doubtless more gentrified than ever because lots there are selling for surprising sums. Large homes in that area are being restored, while many of the smaller, single-story, three bedroom brick houses that were built there after World War II are being torn down, to be replaced with MacMansions. But a drive through the older areas of the city that once had largely black populations is depressing. Many of those houses were rentals, and even residents who owned their own homes found it difficult to afford insurance. Yes, the “Road Home” program is promising to release funds to people in those circumstances, but by the time the money appears, many of those houses will be fit only for demolition. Time is passing, and the elements in New Orleans are not kind to broken homes. Something like 20% of the houses in the city have already been demolished or are slated to be torn down. And it’s only beginning.

Huge swaths of the city are still largely deserted. Take a drive through New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, Chalmette, and you will see tens of thousands of ruined houses standing empty beside the empty shopping malls, churches, schools, and businesses that once served them. There is no way to adequately describe the devastation that simply goes on, mile after mile. Try to imagine a huge modern city, street after street, block after block, of houses without people, streets without cars or bicycles, overgrown yards without children, without dogs and cats, without anything except the wind and an ugly brown water line. Officials say the population today is considerably less than half of what it was pre-Katrina, around 180-200,000, although no one really knows. I personally think their estimates are high. The city is struggling to repair and replace everything from streetlights and stoplights to street signs, pumps, gas lines, sewage lines, water lines—you name it. New Orleans has always had a problem with potholes, but we now have potholes big enough to swallow washing machines. This is not an exaggeration.

Life here has improved enormously since the fall and winter of 2005-6, when schools, grocery stores, and almost everything else you can think of were closed. If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning, you’ve doubtless sensed the changes. But small businesses in the area are still hurting. The lack of workers has driven up wages, and the conventioneers and tourists who once drove the city’s economy have not returned.

Yet New Orleans has been through hell before. Hurricanes, floods, a brutal military occupation, yellow fever epidemics that claimed tens of thousands—each event, doubtless, wrought enormous changes on the city. New Orleans always survived, still vibrant, still unique. Yes, life in New Orleans is hard at the moment, and everyone here is more than a little crazy. And yet I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be living anyplace else. The rebirth of this city truly is something glorious to see and to experience and to contribute to.

In just a few weeks, we will begin celebrating Mardi Gras. I must admit I’m not a huge Mardi Gras fan, although I always go to a few favorite parades. But this year, I find I’m looking forward to it, and I suspect it’s because of Katrina. Last year, critics scolded the city for throwing what is essentially a huge party when the city was still in ruins. Some people seemed to think it was morally wrong for us to take a few hours off from gutting our houses to go stand out in the street and catch beads. Well, you know what? The city is still in ruins, and it will be for years to come. Our lives go on. Last year, when the parades rolled, their floats and riders severely reduced in number but still gamely THERE, those few of us who were here cheered. Many of us also cried. But make no mistake, they were tears of joy, and determination, and pride. New Orleans is coming back.

On a side note…
The proposal for the fourth Sebastian St. Cyr Regency Mystery, currently entitled WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP (I don’t like that title; suggestions are welcome), is finished. That horrendous sound you hear is my gears grinding as I shift from early nineteenth century London to 21st century Washington, D.C. and the world of power politics. THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT is due 1 March. That’s scary enough, but when I think about that the fact my sister is coming for a ten-day visit at Mardi Gras, I start to hyperventilate.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Characters We Just Don’t Get

Ever have a friend gush to you about his or her favorite novel, when you hated the main character with such a passion you couldn’t get more than a quarter of the way through the book?

I frequently used to have this problem with romance novels. To me, many romance heroes are abusive jerks, and far too many romance heroines are weak, manipulative ninnies. For example, I was outraged by the behavior of the hero in WHTNEY, MY LOVE, and wanted to slap the heroine. Yet one constantly sees that book listed as an “all time favorite.” Why? I’ll never understand it.

Many readers will tell you they like characters who are honorable and courageous. Yet people’s definitions of what is honorable and courageous varies. And what about the spectrum of other possible characteristics? What about nonconformity? Independence? Some readers like characters with those traits. Others find them disturbing. Some readers can identify with a heroine who is passive, conventional, even backbiting. Other readers are such thoughtless bigots they never notice behavior someone else might find highly objectionable.

I’m not a typical female. Does that make it hard for me to write books that will appeal to many women? I suspect so. I’ve had so many readers tell me they love my heroes…but they frequently have problems with my heroines. Evidently they simply can’t identify with the kind of women I admire or find interesting.

The problem is, we can only write about heroes and heroines we personally find heroic. I recently had a reader take me to task for making Sebastian St. Cyr “politically correct” and therefore “historically inaccurate;” she said no one born in the 18th century would have his attitudes toward women or slavery or racial genocide. She was wrong, of course; there were indeed men in the 18th and 19th centuries who believed passionately in gender and racial equality. As a historian, I wrote an entire nonfiction book on the subject! Yes, such philosophies were rare in Regency England, but they existed. There have always been free thinkers in every society (my critic, obviously, is not one).

Nevertheless, it occurs to me that even if it was impossible for Sebastian to have held such open-minded ideas in the early 19th century, I still wouldn’t be able to portray him as a sexist bigot. Why? Because I couldn’t respect him, let alone like him. And who wants to spend so many years of their life, day after day, writing about a hero they don’t like?

On a side note...

I've had some questions about post-Katrina New Orleans, so next time, I'll talk about the state of my city.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Makes a Favorite Character?

What do my favorite characters have in common? They all possess characteristics I’d like to have. They are all, to at least some extent, someone I’d like to be.

Some, such as Maverick and Huck Finn, are rebels—adventuresome free spirits who are fiercely true to themselves. Captain Jack Sparrow is…well, he’s in your face, and definitely an original. But what most of my favorite characters have in common is honor, intelligence, and courage. Many are also cool, calm and calculating, something I really, really wish I could be (rather than hot-headed and passionate).

I’m wondering if this desire to, in a sense, BE a favorite character explains the scarcity of female characters on men’s lists of favorite characters. From the time I was a child, I saw myself as the male characters I was reading about, whether I was floating down the Mississippi with Huck or riding across the desert with the Kid. Yet none of the men I’ve discussed this concept with seem to be able to make that leap—they say they can never identify with a female character to the extent of wanting to BE her, or even assuming some of her characteristics. Yet all of the women I’ve discussed this with said, Yes, of course they identify with male characters.

This means that, with a male character, women get a two-fer: they can identify with him, and they can find him sexy! That’s not to say I don’t read books with female protagonists, because I do. But it helped me to understand why I decided to make Sebastian St. Cyr the main character of my historical mystery series, rather than Kat Boleyn—which I almost did. My fellow blogeague Sphinx Ink has posted lists of her favorite characters, with one list for males, one list for females. Frankly, I’d have to struggle to come up with a list of ten female characters I’d list as favorites. But then, Sphinx Ink doesn’t seem drawn to the rebels, the wanderers, the bad boys—and girls—who walk on the wild side.

So how about it, all you guys out there: when you read about a smart, brave, kick-ass woman like Emma Peel, do you think, “I’d like to be like her”? Or do you just think, “Wow, smart hot chick in tight leathers”?

Katrina Update

They picked up another FEMA trailer on our street. That means we now only have three trailers on our block (unfortunately, one of those is next door), although of course there are still many more in the neighborhood. When I went for my walk yesterday (part of my annual E&EB New Year’s Resolution—Exercise and Eat Better), I was surprised to see how many houses are still empty. I’d let my daily walk lapse in the month or so before Christmas. I’m not sure why I was surprised by the lack of much significant progress.

A number of people who have answered my Christmas cards have expressed surprise at my descriptions of the condition New Orleans is still in. Most had assumed everything was back to normal. I guess it’s hard for people to think of an American city with tens of thousands of ruined houses still sitting there a year and a half after a disaster.

As for our own personal recovery, my former wet bar, long a big gaping hole in my office wall, is now a beautiful cabinet with drawers and bookshelves. It’s not “finished” because it still isn’t painted (and won’t be until the trim around the arched front window, also missing, is finally replaced), but that hasn’t stopped me from moving into it. Why have a sink, fridge and mirror when you can have more bookcases and file drawers?!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sex and Characters

Over on Razored Zen, Charles has an interesting discussion of female characters he found erotically appealing. Which makes me suspect we need two lists, one for characters that appeal to us as CHARACTERS, another for characters we found memorable because they were sexually appealing. I know Lymond would top both of my lists, but there are several characters who would appear on only one list.

Male Writers and Female Characters

I’ve decided to continue investigating this Characters thread for a while, and save scenes for later.

Selecting my favorite characters starting me to thinking, WHY are these my favorite characters? And then a sleepless night spent wandering the Net (I can’t eat sugar anymore) set me to thinking about the wildly different ways different readers can react to the same character. And then the responses to my question, Why haven’t male writers created more memorable female characters? started me to thinking about taking a longer look at THAT question.

I’m going to tackle the last question first, Why haven’t male writers created more memorable female characters?

I suspect part of the answer may be because women have traditionally played a supporting role in our society, and so male writers often think of women that way. Think about the old hardboiled mysteries, for instance, in which female characters were there either to mother the hero, or to tempt him. It’s hard to create a memorable character out of a female whose active role is so limited. As long as women were seen as either goddesses or whores, i.e., as one-dimensional stereotypes, you couldn’t expect writers to create a character well rounded enough to become anyone’s favorite.

Then there’s the point Charles made. The characters we meet in adventure stories when we are young often live on in our imaginations as favorites, and most of those writers were males. Yes, there were some female adventure writers, but they usually wrote about males, with a few exceptions (as Chap pointed out). I think about J.K. Rowling. I have read that she made a conscious decision to make her make main character male and to use male-sounding initials for her name because she wanted to appeal to boys as well as girls. The sad fact is that girls will read about an adventuring male, but boys are far less likely to read about an adventuring female. Is it because females are more in touch with their male side than males are in touch with their female side?

Then I think about the reactions certain readers have had to some of my female characters, and I wonder how well many female readers would react to a really strong, powerful female character. Is it possible that the 8-year-old girl who enjoyed reading about an adventurous female heroine could grow into a 50-year-old woman whose choices in life have made it difficult for her to identify with or even like a particularly strong heroine? Yes, “kick-butt” heroines have become more popular in the last 10 years, but isn’t it mainly with younger Gen Y readers? And isn’t there a difference between a heroine with the ability to physically kick butt and one with a truly independent mindset?

Then I note that Charles had Kelly from Charlie’s Angels on his list of favorite TV/Movie characters, and I can’t even remember which one of the three women WAS Kelly—to me their characters seemed essentially interchangeable. Which brings up the point, How big a part does sex appeal play in our choice of “favorite” characters of the opposite sex? Someone at a recent booksigning/talk I gave asked, “What fictional character would you most like to have sex with?” My answer was, “Francis Crawford of Lymond.” And, of course, he’s #1 on my list of “favorite characters”!