Thursday, June 25, 2009

Finalist! Finalist! Finalist After All!

What I'm reading: an e-mail from my husband saying "Congratulations; they called to say you're a finalist for your romance manuscript." Apparently they're not sending letters this year?

So maybe the barometer's not entirely out of whack!

Now the bad part: They want a color photo for the awards-dinner slideshow. Crap. There is not a good photo of me in the world that I know of.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What I'm Writing: 8.2

Okay, the new scene was not 8.1. Another scene - hero calling on one of his cottagers - made more sense in that slot, so the new scene - solicitor comes to heroine with bad news - is now 8.2.

Rewrites on 8.1 went quickly, which is encouraging after the slog that was 7.2/7.3.

Tangent: The Clinical Sex Scene

Very odd. Both of the romances I've read this week, Elizabeth Hoyt's To Beguile a Beast and Sherry Thomas's Not Quite a Husband, feature a scene in which either the hero (TBB's Alistair, who's a famed naturalist) or the heroine (NQAH's Bryony, a physician) get all seductive by examining their partner's relevant anatomy and describing it in clinical terms. ("This part is called the clitoris..." "Here's how an erection works...")

For me, this is pretty much the polar opposite of erotic. I remember encountering it with a sort of shudder of horror in Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, where the hero, an unsentimental science-head, insisted on using words like "pudenda" (if there's a squickier word than "cunny" to encounter in a sex scene, it's got to be "pudenda") and mentioning orgasm as a sort of pedestrian occurrence.

I thought it was an oddity in NQAL, and certainly didn't expect to see that device again. But now twice, in two books released within months of each other? Maybe this is actually something lots of readers like, and I'm out of step?

Again, that feeling of the faulty barometer...

What I'm Reading: Not Quite a Husband

Soooo much right about this book.

When I say there are better romance wordsmiths than Elizabeth Hoyt, Sherry Thomas is the first one I have in mind. Her prose and her imagery are lovely, and since I'm a prose > plot person, her books just plain work for me. Especially this one.

I was a little lukewarm about Private Arrangements, and, though I liked Delicious quite a bit, by the end I was more invested in the secondary romance than the primary. But NQAH fired on all cylinders. I can't think of an HEA more hard-earned than Leo's and Bryony's (even Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth hadn't done such outright awful things to one another), and, sadistic fan of H/H suffering that I am, I loved every misstep, every regret, every moment when one or the other had to face the fact they'd let something precious slip out of their grasp. (Or maybe "willfully thrown it away with both hands" is a more accurate representation.)

I'm an absolute sucker for shame, and Thomas deploys it beautifully, in Bryony's reaction to Leo's pre-marital betrayal (not rage, or disgust, or even heartbreak, but overwhelming shame, which I wouldn't have expected but which rang incredibly true) and of course in Leo's feelings about his own behavior, as well as the failure of his and Bryony's intimate relationship. (Yes! More shame! Bring it on! Put 'em through the wringer! Seriously, there's a reason that particular emotion drove all the Greek tragedies.)

I'm also a sucker for a warm-hearted, quietly confident hero and a prickly, no-nonsense heroine. I will read about that pairing any time, anywhere.

The book only weakened a bit toward the end, when they were back in England and the barriers to their HEA seemed pretty much to have been overcome. (Once Leo makes up his mind, on the boat, that he's going to take that leap with her, as far as I can see there's really nothing holding them back.) The appearance of Verity/Vera is a tangent that sort of stalls the plot, and only seems to be there to set up a future story with her grown son as the hero. I think. (If she wasn't in there for that reason, then her appearance was really a weird, dead-end, railroad-spur kind of tangent.)

But so what. By that point I loved the book enough to forgive a whole roll-call of irrelevant character cameos. I can't imagine what Thomas could write that would work better for me than NQAH, but I look forward to finding out.

What I'm Reading: To Beguile a Beast

Elizabeth Hoyt owns me. I'm not exactly sure why. Among romance writers, I can think of better craftswomen. Better wordsmiths, better plotters, better delineators of character, not to mention writers whose sex scenes never involve the word "cunny." (Gack! Fingernails on a blackboard just typing it!)

But somehow I always seem to go along for the ride with Hoyt. Or almost always - the only book of hers I wound up skimming was To Taste Temptation, which just had too much angry/hostile sex in it for my taste (not a fan of the angry sex).

To Beguile a Beast had no angry sex and - first for Hoyt, IIRC - not a single instance of "cunny." Two entries on the plus side of the ledger right there. It had a nice "drawing the exile back into life/the community" story, too, particularly in the hero's growing relationship with the heroine's children. In fact I'd say that was the most effective, and affecting, part of the book for me; the gradual, mutual healing that took place between Alistair and the children.

I liked the choice of a horribly disfigured man for a hero. The early scenes in which he recognized his attraction to the heroine/despaired at her ever returning the feelings were powerful and rich, for me, particularly when he flashed back to his one post-disfigurement attempt to visit a prostitute. For whatever sick reasons, I always like seeing a hero or heroine brought low, and the image of him retreating, ashamed and humiliated, once the woman got a look at him and demanded double payment, really raised the stakes for whatever physical relationship might evolve between him and Helen, the heroine.

Unfortunately I don't think Hoyt really followed through on that setup. The H/H fell pretty quickly into that kind of "Girl, you know you want me" flirtation that's standard in historical romance, and I didn't see much of the self-doubt I'd been looking forward to in Alistair; I didn't see what a huge, huge risk it was for him to make any kind of sexual advance.

Probably not a re-read for me, but it definitely had its good parts, not least of which was the teaser chapter for the final book in the series, due out this fall. Damn.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What I'm Not Reading: a "Dear Finalist" Letter

I guess this would be one of those turbulents Prince warned me of, though I must say it all sounded a lot sexier the way he put it.

I entered the current MS (or rather 20-some pages plus synopsis) in a contest, the finalists for which should have been notified by now. Nothing's arrived in my mailbox, though, except membership-renewal notices from the writer's association.

What particularly frustrates me is that this is a contest I've previously finaled in, with an MS that had, in retrospect, all kinds of problems: distanced POV even to the point of head-hopping; persnickety formal language that excluded sentence fragments and contractions, and a barely graphable plot.

I think the current one is better. I do. But a little voice chatters at the back of my mind: What if you're wrong? What if my internal barometer is defective? What if, while I've been working to get better, I've actually gotten worse? How the hell do I get better if I don't have an accurate concept of what better is?

In my lower moments I think those things. Fortunately the lower moments are not nearly as frequent as I'd feared they might be. However, check with me again when I've gotten my critique-sheets back and they're full of "Your heroine is unlikeable," "Your hero is TSTL," "I've seen this set-up before," and "You don't have enough of a plot."

What I'm Writing: Chapter 8, Finally

It took me for-freakin’-ever to get through the Chapter 7 rewrites, but finally I’ve turned the page, as they say.

Eight will start with a new scene. Now that the internal conflict is subsiding a bit, I need to rev up the external conflict. Also I wanted another scene that’s not primarily H/H interaction - it gets a little claustrophobic otherwise - so I’m bringing back a minor character who will warn of impending menace. Hopefully (it is to be hoped) this chapter’s rewrites will go a lot faster.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I'm Reading: still The Indifferent Stars Above

I went back and read all the parts I'd originally skipped over, and strung them together with the cannibalism parts to make the whole story.

The figure who lingers with me is not Sarah Graves (the widow referenced in the book's subtitle), but Tamzene Donner. (Apparently that's how she spelled her name, though I've always seen it spelled in other accounts as Tamsin or Tamsen.)

Would anyone ever write her as the heroine of a love story? Her husband was some twenty years her senior, and three times widowed; she had already lost a husband and children herself. It's hard to imagine their marriage was anything but the union of two clear-eyed souls settling for what they could get at this point in life.

And yet. Through love, or maybe duty, or maybe just panicked poor thinking, she stayed with him until the end. She had four chances to leave their camp and go over the pass: the "Forlorn Hope" expedition for help (fifteen of the youngest and strongest party members, including Sarah Graves, set out on foot to send back rescuers and also to remove themselves as competition for the scant food resources), and three separate relief parties who were dispatched once the Forlorn Hope survivors reached civilization.

Tamzene Donner stayed behind every time. She sent her children to safety (or so she hoped) with the last two relief crews, but wouldn't leave her husband, who was dying of an infection in his injured arm as well as the starvation and cold that plagued everyone else.

It's hard to know, from this distance, what her thought process was. The last relief party described her as "distracted;" she asked them to please give her time to check on her husband (whose shelter was at some distance from the cabin where her children were) before she decided whether to come with them, so plain mental paralysis might have accounted for her ultimately declining to leave.

But it's also possible to imagine it this way: she knew her husband had no chance of making the journey down the mountain. She knew he was going to die, and she made up her mind she wasn't going to leave him to die alone in that terrible, terrible place, even though the longer she stayed, the greater the chance she'd die herself.

She did die. When a final relief expedition arrived at the camp, they found only one survivor, who confessed to having eaten her remains. (There was rampant speculation that he'd actually killed her for the purpose.) She must have known, staying behind, that there was a good chance she'd never see her children again, but stay she did.

Is this only a noble act if she was motivated by romantic love? Is it, perhaps, more noble if she wasn't in love with her husband, but acted out of Christian charity, or wifely duty, or simple empathy for a suffering man? It's hard to decide. One of the reasons I'm drawn to historical romance, though, is that I'm fascinated by all the reasons besides love that could lead two people into marriage.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What I'm Writing: 7.2

Am I ever going to get them out of this damn pasture? Granted, I spent most of the past two weeks drafting and polishing the beginning of something else for a contest entry. But I need to be able to write faster.

What I'm Reading: The Indifferent Stars Above

By Daniel James Brown, subtitle The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride.

The ugly truth: I paged right ahead to the cannibalism. Poor Mr. Brown spent months researching Sarah Graves's early life in Illinois, literally following in her footsteps on the emigrant trail, gathering and synthesizing documentation on the physiology of hunger, hypothermia, etc. etc., and I flipped past it all to get to the part where people start eating each other.

I'm no better than the romance readers who skip straight to the sex scenes. Maybe I'm worse.

What I'm Not Reading Another Page of: The Steadfast Heart

This hurts. Among my favorite trad Regencies are a couple titles by Dorothy Mack: The Awakening Heart and The Unlikely Chaperone, both dry-witted tales with a rare and appealing willingness to let the heroine look ridiculous at times.

So when I found The Steadfast Heart at a used-book sale (someone was unloading her entire collection of Signets, it looked like, which made me a bit melancholy), I snatched it up. The h/h appear as the Established Couple in The Awakening Heart, so I looked forward to learning their own story.

But the going was kind of slow. Hero disapproves of heroine's candor and spontaneity, blah blah; misunderstanding; appearance of indiscretion; marriage of convenience; agreement to postpone intimate relations. And then the hero goes from irritating to monstrous. He suspects her of having an affair with his cousin (hero of The Awakening Heart! Dude, you leave Charles alone!) and says and does some things that are point-of-no-return unforgivable on my Hero Behavior Scale. Insults her with the infidelity accusation to the point where she threatens to get an annulment, and then breaks the postponed-intimate-relations agreement to make annulment impossible (legally not rape, as they're married, but pretty damned unpleasant nonetheless).

Incredibly, they patch things up and eventually have enjoyable sex. But he goes off to the Continent for some military reason, and when she shows up there a couple months later, pregnant but not as big-bellied as you'd expect a woman that pregnant to be, he assumes the child was conceived in his absence and accuses her of whoredom all over again.

That's when I quit. The guy has clearly demonstrated his nature. If she stays with him expecting him to change, she's a fool.