Writing What You Don’t Know

I’m a little less than three thousand words into a new project, and already I’m angsting about its direction. Now, I’m always a trifle neurotic about whatever I’m writing, but usually the actual worrying about whether I’m “doing it right” waits a little longer than one chapter to settle in. The “OMG, what if this sucks?” anxiety normally sets in at around 10-15k.

I know why this is happening, though. It’s because this book ventures into territory I haven’t explored before–not just in writing, but in reading as well. I think I can say that the story revolves around vampires without revealing too much about the premise, so with that much in mind, I will admit my deep, dark secret: I don’t read vampires.

Oh, I’ve read some of the vampire classics, including the book I really think of as the definitive modern take on vampire life, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and, of course, all of Emma Petersen‘s vampire romances (because she’s my best bud, critique partner, and awesome too boot), but in general, I’ve never been that interested in the vampire genre. I’ve never read either Stephanie Meyers or Charlaine Harris nor have I seen the movies/TV series based on their books. What’s more, I don’t intend on starting now.

I just heard your gasp of horror. But Jackie, if you’re going to write a vampire book, shouldn’t you read a lot of vampire books so you know the genre?

Well, yes, there’s something to be said for that approach. In general, I write the genres I like to read. I cut my romance-reading teeth on historicals and, therefore, when I started writing them, it was natural for me to write historicals. It’s what I’m familiar with and what I love as a reader, so of course, it’s where I went.

So, why not apply the same strategy to my foray into the vampire world? Mainly because, as much as I fear that my interpretation of the vampire genre will be either too dark or not dark enough, I worry even more about having my vision influenced by other writers and therefore “diluted” in some way. I don’t want the what I hope is my vampires’ uniqueness leached out by getting commingled with too many other people’s take on them.

Which is why I’m taking the scary step of writing what I don’t know. Yes, it’s risky and a little panic-inducing, but on the whole, I think it’s the right way to approach this project.

What do you think?

WTF Wednesday: Diversity, Where Art Thou?

Yesterday, Dear Author posted an anonymous guest post on the subject of cultural appropriation. In it, the writer lamented the dearth of non-white protagonists in romance, and the tendency for those stories which do feature unusual locations (India, the Middle East, etc.) to have white protagonists, too. A long, interesting thread of comments has ensued (last time I looked, there were 250+ comments), including one from author Jade Lee, whose Blaze historical, The Concubine, was set in ancient China and featured Chinese protagonists but which, despite positive reviews, failed to sell as well as Harlequin would have liked. Jade will continue to write for Harlequin, but going forward, her books will feature white protagonists and her historicals will be set in Regency England.

So, given everything that’s already been said in the thread at Dear Author, what could I possibly have to add? Only this: the lack of diversity in romance/publishing1 isn’t limited to the race/ethnicity of the main characters. It’s also evident in other facets of the sorts of books that get picked up for publication.

I’m going to give a concrete example here. I have a proposal out with an editor for a book that’s set in Prohibition Era Chicago. I like to say it’s Dashiell Hammett meets Lora Leigh. I think it’s a great premise for a book and the writing is solid. But I’m also a realist. There isn’t much of a market for Prohibition Era romantic suspense. In fact, there probably isn’t a market for it at all. This means that, for the publisher to pick up my book for publication is a big risk. Bigger than, say, buying a wonderfully well-written Regency era romance by another author. And believe me, there are plenty of wonderfully well-written Regencies out there for publishers to choose from. My proposal isn’t competing for publishing space with OTHER Prohibition Era romances, but with other historical romances set in periods and places that are tried and true, that publishers KNOW have an opportunity to sell well.

Now, many people, when I mention this book, say, “Oh, I’d LOVE to read that. It sounds great. It’s so different.” But, that’s the rub. No matter how great it might be, different isn’t good when it means the publisher isn’t sure the book can sell. Jade mentioned that Harlequin put a significant marketing effort behind The Concubine, but it just wasn’t enough to propel readers to step outside their comfort zone and buy it. (I’m sorry I didn’t buy it, although the reason wasn’t because of the setting or race of the characters, but because I don’t buy/read category romances. In retrospect, I wish I’d stepped outside my comfort zone for that book.)

My agent and I discussed this book and another project I’m working on yesterday and agreed that we probably won’t pursue taking it out elsewhere because the new project is simply more marketable. It has a time and place setting that publishers like (Victorian England), a paranormal element that’s hot and popular, and an interesting high concept. That’s what publishers are looking for right now, so that’s what I’m trying to write–books that will sell.

Quite honestly, that means being “different” and pushing the boundaries just isn’t on my agenda. As a writer, I want to write books people will read. That means writing books publishers will buy, publish, and promote. And in this day and age, that means books that fit within the defined categories that already exist. Sure, there’s always going to be that ONE writer who sells the “really different” book and kicks off a whole new subgenre. But the reality is, that writer probably won’t be me. It probably won’t even be you if you’re a debut or midlist author looking for a slot in this environment. Probably, the breakout, different book is going to come from a well established author who’s already hit the lists a time or two and has a bankable name for the publisher to hang its marketing hat on.

The rest of us have to be different in very small, very careful ways if we want to sell. We have to come up with a “big” premise that publishers believe they can “lead” with (publishers don’t want to buy midlist books anymore; they want incipient bestsellers).

So, bottom line, if anything, the homogenization of romance is going to become more pronounced over time rather than less so. Established authors who have made a stab at increasing diversity are being asked to write “safer” books for their new contrats. (Jade Lee isn’t the only published author I’ve heard of who’s been asked to do this. It’s perfectly understandable, too. If a publisher has an author they believe has great talent, they will want her to write a book that has the best opportunity to sell to a lot of readers. Why “waste” her abilitites on books with a “niche” market?) New authors are going to be bought because their books “fit” into the already defined categories with broad sales potential. And the midlist authors, whose books might be the most likely to be “different” because the sales expectations aren’t huge, will be slowly winnowed away.

But the thing is, it’s not the job of publishers to fix the culture or educate the populace. Their job is to publish books that entertain enough readers to produce a profit for the publishing house. If readers really WANTED these different books in large numbers, I believe we’d be getting them. The fact that publishers have taken risks on books that don’t fit the defined categories and they generally don’t do well is evidence to me that most readers want historicals featuring white Regency era England lords and ladies and paranormals featuring vampires/werewolves/demons, and so on.

If that ISN’T what you want as a reader…stop buying them. You can’t buy the books that aren’t there, but if you stop buying the ones that are (perhaps taking your dollars to epublishers or small presses that do offer the kinds of stories you want), perhaps that will induce the same scramble in the NY publishing industry that happened a few years back when they realized erotic romance was a market they could make money on. Maybe the same efforts will be made to sign authors from epublishing who write outside the box again.

In the meantime, we’re going to keep getting what we’re buying. And yes, I’m guilty, because I’m buying (and writing) those homogenized romances.

1When I say publishing in this post, please think “mainstream, print, NY publishing.” There is room for a great deal more diversity in epublishing, but let’s face it, the majority of book readers are still print readers, and saying there’s diversity in ebooks if you’ll only go find them is like saying there’s diversity in TV if only you’ll get expanded cable. Not everyone wants to go there.

Thursday Throwdown: Piracy for Dummies

Or maybe that should read “Piracy is for dummies.”

If you haven’t been around the Twitterverse or Dear Author lately, you may have missed the flare-up over an article in the New York Times yesterday, wherein a reader told a reported that she shares her Kindle account with several friends, does not always pay for the ebooks she reads, and was pretty sure what they were doing by sharing this Kindle account was exploiting a “loophole” in Kindle’s Terms of Service. Turns out, upon review, that there was nothing shady or dubious, let alone piractical, about what she and her friends were doing, but that didn’t stop some folks from castigating her and calling her a thief. It also let to a pretty lively discussion on Twitter about whether there was a difference between sharing ebooks within a household/among family members versus among friends who don’t live together.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time regurgitating my thoughts about this particular case of booksharing (which I have no issues with whatever and which others have already more than adequately explained1), but instead try to coalesce my thoughts about the issue underlying the outrage: ebook piracy.

There’s no doubt that true ebook piracy is rampant and poses a significant threat to authors. It’s simply far to easy (even with DRM) for a person to buy one copy of an ebook, then upload the file to a torrent site for thousands of passersby to download on a whim. Not only that, there are folks out there who take pride in never paying for books (or music) because they know how to suss out the free copies. They know they are stealing, and not only do they not care, they’re actually willing to brag about it.

A little harder to quantify is how many innocent folks stumble on a book or song they want on a torrent site and don’t realize it’s not legal to download it for free. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. No one could be that stupid/Internet illiterate. Alas, I think they can be. And it doesn’t help, IMO, that Amazon has started offering some of its Kindle books for the whopping sum of $0.00. That may be a win for classic literature, but it does instill the notion that books can be downloaded for free and still be legal. (A lot of authors also offer free reads from their websites, and I think it’s a great strategy for attracting new readers. Buuuuut, it does have a downside, which is again to reinforce the idea that readers shouldn’t/don’t have to pay for content.)

All in all, I don’t think there is a topic out there that can touch off more moral outrage in the author community than piracy. Authors see pirates taking money out of their pockets, and they don’t like it.

I’m not about to say authors should like it, but I do think it wouldn’t hurt to get less exercised about it. Because in all honesty, I don’t think piracy by itself is near as big a threat to authors as (are you ready?) the fact that most publishers seem to have little or no interest in stopping it.

As angry as authors are about piracy, you would think publishers would be absolutely foaming at the mouth over it. You’d think they’d be threatening lawsuits against every illegal downloader the way the music industry publishers back in the days of Napster. You’d think they’d be hiring attorney to bring suit against ISPs for allowing torrent sites that regularly violate copyright. (Most of these sites are hosted in countries with questionable legal systems or enforcement of copyright laws, so going after the SITES is pretty tough.) And you’d think they’d be working way harder to get strong, consistent, coherent definitions of fair use and ownership of digital media so that people would be absolutely clear on what constitutes legal sharing and what constitutes thievery.

Instead, publishers seem to me to be doing little more than sticking their fingers in the dyke by putting DRM on their ebook files and/or otherwise dragging their feet to join the digital age. And frankly, DRMing or holding up ebook production is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “neener, neener, neener” at piraters, because all it takes for someone to pirate your print is a scanner and a few too many hours of spare time. Bottom line: If someone wants to pirate your book, they will, because a) they can and b) there are no real consequences for doing so.

Why aren’t publishers as worked up about this as authors are? I have no idea. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing the evidence of it. But will say this–authors can’t do much about stopping/reducing piracy without the help of the deep pockets in the game.

So, the next time you, the author, find your book on a torrent site for download, in addition to railing about the injustice of it all and emailing the site to get them to take it down, send the information to your editor or the sales department at your publishing house, along with the number of downloads. Maybe if publishers saw each and every instance of piracy in literally hundreds of emails from their authors, they’d take the threat a little more seriously.

1For great discussions of the situation, see:

WTF Wednesday: Enough Rubbernecking, Already!

This is one of those posts in which I’m going to rail against a phenomenon while engaging in said phenomenon. Yeah, I know, hypocritical, but I don’t know how to express my annoyance with this cultural trend without mentioning the most recent incident that has sparked my irritation.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about the attention the media has been giving to the “Balloon Boy” family. For the past three days, there has been at least one article and/or cartoon in both the local papers to which I subscribe about the Heenes and their (insert outraged adjective of your choice here) attempt to gain fame and fortune by claiming their young son had been carried away by an experimental balloon they were building in their backyard. The story gained national media attention when the situation was in progress, so much so that it became a trending topic on Twitter (and was still one yesterday, though I’m not sure it still is today).1

Any way you slice it, the Heenes’ behavior was reprehensible. But the constant hashing and rehashing of what they did and why and how horrible/misguided/stupid/self-centered they are makes me want to tear my hair out. It’s a trainwreck, but people, it’s WORKING for them. They wanted to famous. And now, they are. And they will be as long as the media and the public succumb to the fascination to rubberneck and dissect and criticize their actions.

In other words, we have to STOP LOOKING at behaviors we don’t, as a society, want to encourage. Just as we have to stop looking at Octomom, whose crushingly selfish and stupid decision to get pregnant via IVF when she already had six kids she couldn’t support has a resulted in her being rewarded with a her own reality TV show. Yeah, that’s the way to demonstrate our disapproval. (And I would put money on the theory that when she found out she was carrying 8 embryos, Octomom saw a large payday in her future. Just as the Heenes do now.)

I have never been a fan of reality TV. Oh, I like some shows that I suppose fall vaguely into the category of reality TV (Mythbusters, Man vs. Wild, Man vs. Food) , but these are shows with defined “stars” who have a particular expertise. By contrast, shows like Wife Swap (which I gather the Heenes have been on twice), Jon and Kate Plus 8 (shudder; a trainwreck I truly have NO interest in whatsoever), and the like seem to me to prey on people’s desire for celebrity at any cost. And it’s the fact that we as a culture are so fascinated by this stuff that causes people like the Heenes to bother staging a hoax in the first place.

So before we judge the Heenes too harshly, I think we should all take a good look in the mirror. Because we’re all complicit.

1I have to admit, I paid very little attention to the balloon boy story as it unfolded. I saw a few tweets in my feed, but once I heard no one could actually confirm that the boy was in the balloon, I was 99% sure it was a hoax. Why? Because no parent would leave a young child unattended in the vicinity of a balloon with enough lift to actually carry him/her away. (I suppose one should never say never, because there might actually be parents that stupid/careless, but people who would spend the time and energy to BUILD a balloon of that nature seem to me, by definition, to be a little too smart for that.)

When the kid was found FIVE HOURS LATER in the garage, I was SURE it was a hoax. I’m a parent, and there is NO WAY IN HELL any of my kids could/would hide from me for that long anywhere on my premises. When the authorities initially claimed there was no evidence it was a hoax, I thought they must be the most gullible law enforcement officials on the planet.

What Do Your iPod Listening Habits Say About You?

So, I’m sitting here this morning listening to my iPod and just really getting a kick out of my music. (Partly, this is because the darn thing wasn’t working for months. I thought I was going to have to take it to the Apple store to get it fixed, but my 12yo son figured out how to reset it manually, bless his heart. I must say his efforts on my behalf validate my decision to continue to feed, clothe, and house him.)

Because I have the iPod set on shuffle–and I have almost 600 songs loaded on it–I have no idea what’s coming next (except that it can’t be anything I’ve already heard). To start this morning, I got Thriller by Michael Jackson, then True Love Travels on a Gravel Road by Nick Lowe followed by A Day in the Life by the Beatles, Fame by David Bowie, and now, Shoebox by Barenaked Ladies. I’d never have CHOSEN to listen to those five songs in particular if I’d been scrolling through my music, but they’re all awesome songs.

My husband, though, hates it and complains vigorously when he has to listen to my iPod in shuffle. Some of that is that we don’t completely share musical tastes, but mainly, he hates NOT knowing what’s coming next and that it might be thematically/musically out of sync with whatever he just heard. When he plays his iPod, he always chooses either artists or albums and plays them straight through. He talks a good game about creating playlists, but I’ve never actually known him to do it except for specific circumstances (i.e., a Cub Scout meeting/event).

Anyway, it occurred to me that this difference in our iPod listening habits pretty well describes the primary difference between our personalities. I’m incredibly unstructured in my approach to life–one of the hardest things about having kids for me was the whole notion of having a schedule…or even a routine. I like spontaneity and unpredictability–to the point that some might consider me flighty or flaky (or both!).

My husband, by contrast, likes everything just so. If anything comes along and pushes him off his well-thought-out path, he gets cranky. Predictability and routine is the name of the game for him, which probably explains why we’ve managed to stay married for almost 20 years. A guy who likes variety and spontaneity a whole lot is probably not the best bet for husband material, after all :).

All in all, I think it’s a good thing that I married someone who is my polar opposite in this regard. He keeps me from flying off in fifty directions at once (keeping me to a solid 20 or so at a time, lol). And I keep him from being way too rigid and plodding. It’s a good match!

Anyway, this got me wondering about you all. What kind of iPod listener are you? And what, if anything, do you think your iPod listening habits say about you?

[poll id=”6″]

Commitment Phobia

I think it’s safe to say that one of the most common conflicts for heroes (and to a lesser extent, heroines) in romance is a fear of commitment. This fear usually extends from an incident in the character’s backstory wherein said character loved and lost in a big way. Having been hurt by one woman (or man), the character has lost all faith in the opposite sex and must overcome this internal conflict to reach a wonderful HEA with the person he/she was truly meant to love all along.

Recently, I’ve seen a few reviewers and commentators say they’re pretty sick and tired of this trope, and just what the hell kind of weenie has ONE bad experience and extrapolates from it a lifelong mistrust of ALL members of the opposite sex. I kind of agreed…until it hit me today (as the result of the insightful comments of my dear Amie Stuart) that I’m having exactly this kind of commitment phobia. It’s just that it’s about falling in love with a story, not a person.

Ever since the book my agent and I shopped over the summer failed to garner any offers, I’ve been flitting from story idea to story idea like a Regency rake from one eligible young lady to another. Each one seems more attractive than the last, but there’s always the possibility that “Story Right” (SR)┬áis hiding just around the corner.

The thing is, I’ve had an absolute surfeit of really great story concepts in the past few months. I’ve written a dozen or more blurbs for various ideas and a few pages here and there of this or that, but then a new idea comes along and knocks the latest SR off its pedestal. I have a brief fling with new SR, and then, voila, that one is also shoved aside by the next Bright New Shiny.

I’ve always been prone to this. Until I finished my first single title (the one gathering dust under my bed) back in late 2007, I think I’d only ever managed to complete one other story of more than a few thousand words in length in my life, and I wrote a lot. I just rarely found stories that so engaged my imagination that I couldn’t easily be distracted from completing them when a “better” idea came along. So this is nothing new…

But it is backsliding. For a while there, I finished a lot of stories. None of them single title, I grant you, but still–I maintained enough interest in them to get to The End. Now, I’m finding myself barely able to get to 10k before I start to have doubts and look for something else to work on.

Amie suggested to me earlier today when I sprang my latest and greatest Really Cool Idea(TM) that maybe the reason I’m coming up with all these great ideas is to avoid actually writing anything. And I realized, damn her, she’s right! It’s purely subconscious, of course–or it was until she pointed it out to me, drat it–but my mind is shying away from committing to any one book because I am afraid of getting hurt again. I don’t want to pour my time, energy, and yes, love, into another story only to have it rejected. It’s easier to avoid love altogether than to risk getting hurt.

All of which circles back around to my original point. Do I believe that ONE bad experience can lead to a longterm inability to trust in love? Absolutely. In fact, I’d say it’s the oldest plot in the book :).

WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?