Monday, September 25, 2006

Worldbuilding - It's not Just for Sci-Fi

Romanceland is a strange sort of place, airy and ephemeral. Setting often does not seem to have the same sense of importance as it does in other genres. Most historicals are set in a vague and misty "past" - usually European and usually peopled by lords and ladies who travel about in coaches or on horseback. Contemporaries often take place in recognisable modern cities - where would chick-lit be without NYC? Where would paranormals be without New Orleans? - but rare is the heroine who lives in Levittown, Baton Rouge or any of our fair nation's less picturesque urban centers. Redlands, California, anyone? How about Henderson, Nevada? They're both really quite charming.

I often wonder if the ubiquity of certain settings - New York for chick-lit; quaint, generic small towns for the inspirationals; England for historicals - occurs because it is easier for the author to focus on the story when she uses settings that are already familiar to most of her readers. A Regency set in London, for example, often seems to require only a few cursory mentions of Almack's, Hyde Park, and Bond Street to sketch in the backdrop. Set a similar story in Edinburgh, and the writer has a lot more work on her hands.

Musing on the subject of setting, I began to wonder if an author who chooses an unusual historical or contemporary setting has to do as much, or almost as much world-building as SF/F writers who create their worlds from imagination. Both writers must familiarize the reader with the lay of the land, the local customs, and whatever bits of local history are pertinent to the story. Both writers must make the setting intriguing enough to draw the reader in, and believable enough to keep them from hurling the book against the wall in disgust (ask me, some time, why I so rarely read novels that are set in L.A., and I will point out the dent in my living room wall).

Added to the responsibility of rendering unfamiliar settings intriguing instead of intimidating, is the research authors must do when they use a real locale, instead of one they invented for the story. I started this post intending to explore the importance of world building in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the the unsung world builders of historical and contemporary novels who make real places live and breathe as part of their stories.


Sunday, September 17, 2006


I spend a lot of time talking about what I don't like in a Romance novel. I make fun of dumb heroines, overly macho heroes, and every other aspect of the genre - but only out of love. The sad truth of the matter is that I, like so many other Romance readers, aspire to become a published author.

Despite all my complaining, it remains to be seen whether I can avoid the pitfalls I rail against in published novels. And who am I to point fingers, anyway? It's not as though people actually pay to read my writing. In the spirit of fairness, I submit an excerpt from one of my current WIPs.

Title: Split
Genre: Paranormal/Sci-Fi/Pop-Culture Pastiche Erotic Romance
Length: 65,000
Condition: Unfinished

Mara Keane was arrested for murder, but that’s nothing new. She’s a woman with a past, and the crooked cops in Dark River City won’t ever let her forget it. What is new is the shadow that tracks her path as she leaves the police station, a vigilante assassin called the Left Hand of Death who’s come to town to take out the city’s biggest crime boss.

Jack Sinistral may not know Dark River, but he has Mara’s number. Danger and desire go hand in hand for the smart-mouthed professional knife-thrower, and Sinistral is the sort of man who can mete out pain and pleasure in deliciously equal measures. But he has competition.

Though Sinistral has staked his claim on her body, Mara’s heart belongs to hunky Dr. Jake Wright. Jake is everything she ever wanted in a man, and if Mara could resist the dark temptation of Sinistral’s touch she would happily spend the rest of her life in Jake’s strong embrace.

But Dark River isn’t like anyplace else. Here, passions run as deep and deadly as the river that divides the city. Here, nothing is simple, everyone has secrets, and no one is what they seem – including the good doctor Wright. Soon the cops are closing in on Sinistral, the crime boss wants Mara’s head on a plate, and Jake begins to suspect that he’s something less than sane. In order to survive, the killer must meet his conscience, the doctor must face his dark side, and Mara must discover whether love is enough to unite two sundered souls in a city where everything else is split.
Link removed due to technical difficulties.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hi. It's Tuesday.

Blogger ate my blog for a day, but apparently Sharpe Words didn't agree with Blogger, because Blogger spat it back out.

From now on, I am going to back up my posts and template...starting tomorrow.


Saturday, September 9, 2006

See You Next Tuesday

Oh no, I did it. I slipped up and used the "c" word in print. Specifically, I referred to fictional character Meredith Grey of Grey's Anatomy as "a sandy little cunt" in my comments on Monica Jackson's scattered, but thought-provoking Romancing the Blog post.

The instant I hit "submit comment" I thought, "Oh shit, that phrase could be fucking offensive."

But then I wondered why I was worried. I don't find the word offensive when used by women. Especially as in my preferred mode of use - "sandy little cunt". The people, places and things who receive that designation from me are about as pleasant as having sand in one's tender parts. "Cunt" is not the bad part of the phrase. Nope, just like in life, the bad part is the sand.

Unfortunately, "cunt" is most often used as a derogatory, objectivizing insult toward women, just as "pussy" is often used as a derogatory, feminizing insult toward men. Isn't it strange how men all over the world can spend the better part of their lives chasing, thinking about and dreaming about something, and then turn around and reduce the home-run of their sexual aspirations to a demeaning insult?

I'm for taking the words back - or over.

Step 1: Positive Associations.
We women should make sure that any man who wants pussy should respect pussy. And that means a man can't call his one of his boys a pussy for missing a basket, or call the woman who cut him off on the freeway a cunt. There's this old play called Lysistrata. Read it. Learn it. Do it - or, er, don't do it.

Step 2: Set a Good Example
Erotic authors often use "pussy", and occasionally use "cunt". Truth be told, I much prefer those words to purple phrases like "her quivering love chunnel". Good, old-fashioned words like "vagina" also work just fine as far as I'm concerned (YMMV).

Step 3: Stop Avoiding It
Stop using similar-sounding words, or dancing around the subject. Just say what you mean, and don't be ashamed.

Well, that's it 4 me. C U Next Tuesday!


Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Serial Killers:

You know what I like about foreign TV shows? They end.

Instead of hanging around like talkative drunks at the end of a party, foreign shows go out on a good note. They last a season or three, and they leave you wanting more.

American shows go to crap. They don't just hang out on your couch after the booze is all gone and the lights are turned out, they take up residence there, annoying the shit out of you until you're ready to call them a cab and charge it to your own card just to get them the hell out of your house. Think Buffy, think Alias, think The West Wing, think ER, for god's sake! (ER without George Clooney is just like the sorry losers who hang out after you've turned the music off, nursing a lite beer and never even offering to help clean up.)

"But Bettie," you say, "what the shit-all does this have to do with novels?" Stick with me chickadees, this is what they call, the build-up.

Ah-hem: Series books are a lot like those malingering TV shows. While they don't always suffer from reuse of the same old characters - or, worse yet, twee new characters - the way TV can, they do suffer from too much of the same thing.

Some authors love a family or set of characters so much they are loath to leave them. Some authors just like to make full use of all their fingers and toes. And some just plain don't know when to quit. But everyone should remember: the law of diminishing returns has to kick in some time.

"But Bettie," you say, "you're an aspiring writer. Haven't you got a series or two knocking around in your noggin?"

Maybe I do. Stop looking at me like that! How the hell do you think I started musing on this subject in the first place? Here's the question keeping me up (and away from my writing) tonight:

How does one write a series without it getting old?
So far, I've come up with a few ideas. Feel free to add your own.
  1. Write loosely connected stories set in the same place.
  2. Limit books in your series to 3 (Hey, it worked for this guy)
  3. Change your name to J.D. Robb
Ok. That's it, I'm tapped out. G'night, folks.


Sunday, September 3, 2006

Do it for your country!

Apparently, Chick Lit is Hurting America. D'oh! And here I was, acting like the dumb popular fiction reader I am, blaming W, Iraq, the National Debt and Haliburton for our current sorry state of affairs.

But, no. According to a former editor who hasn't even got the guts to sign her name to her ill-considered screed, Chick Lit is hurting America by squeezing literary fiction - real fiction - out of the marketplace. Ron at Galleycat has already poked some lovely holes in the ripe Swiss cheese of this writer's arguments, which leaves me free to engage in a bit of a rant.

Ah-hem: Chick Lit is hurting America?!? Goodness, gracious! How could I have missed the signs? My simple-minded, anti-intellectual reading habits must have blinded me to this stealthy assassin of rigorous, rational thought that has slithered like a serpent into our midst, poisoning the hearts and minds of innocent American women against the virtue and necessity of reading fiction that imparts BIG, IMPORTANT lessons about life. If only I had spent my hard-earned money and leisure time on Improving Literature instead of the sort of titles that make anyone who reads them in public " look like a dateless loser" I would posses the keen powers of social analysis necessary to blame the present decline of literary fiction on dumb women who don't know any better than to buy and read what they like.

Ms. Anonymous made her living off the publishing industry, and now she's ranting because people won't buy what she wants them to buy. Do I smell an unpublished literary novel? No, that's mean of me. It's probably just something I stepped in while walking across my lawn.

Unlike romance or sci-fi, chick lit is a genre that is in direct competition with literature because of its price point and packaging...chick lit premiered in hardcover and then moved to trade paperback. And though they're all about boys, there are seldom any boys on the cover. Brilliant! The genre succeeded exactly because it looked more literary than its embarrassing romance counterpart. You could take Bridget Jones's Diary on the T and not look like a dateless loser.
Yup. That has to be it. Blame it on the covers. Because it's not like people buy books for the content. It's not like books come with little blurbs that describe the plot. Oh, no. It is all about pricing and covers.

Ms. Anonymous seems to think that we poor dumb women get so confused by the pretty, non-lurid covers of chick lit that we buy a copy of Jemima J when we really meant to plunk down our money for The Corrections. Lady, anyone that dumb is probably still working her way through Goodnight Moon. Didja ever stop to think that maybe people just buy what they like?
...what's dangerous about chick lit is that it fills trade slots at publishing companies that used to be given to literary fiction...
I'll take that as a "no". So, let me get this straight: publishers should publish more books that sell less, and fewer books that sell more? Out of the kindness of their hard little capitalist hearts? Because it's good for the country?

The mind boggles.

If anything, Anonymous's less-than-well-thought-out rant is just another example of a culture that demonizes anything people do purely for pleasure. Ms. Anonymous seems to think genre fiction should have covers that will distinguish such books from "real" fiction - lurid covers, perhaps, with poorly-drawn aliens, or "bare-chested hunk monkey" covers that immediately mark their readers as "dateless losers". Anonymous wants those of us who don't spend all our money on literary fiction to be punished - branded, even - for reading what we like. (What say we ditch the hunk monkey covers and skip straight to sewing scarlet letters on our sweaters, eh?)

This is not WW II. Literary Fiction is not War Bonds, scrap metal, or ration stamps. If my money goes to Jennifer Weiner instead of Elizabeth Merrick, that does not make me Anti-American or anti-intellectual. Anomyous's disingenuous, "rah-rah America" argument against chick lit is as characteristic of "the Bush-styled propaganda" she comdemns as anything I've heard on Fox News.

Are my reading habits hurting America? Hell, no! The great thing about this country is that, taxes aside, no one can tell me what to do with my time or with my money. Funny how critics always seem to forget that particular nugget of Americana when they're pointing the finger of doom at popular culture.


Friday, September 1, 2006

"We named the dog Indiana..."

In the comments (Yay! Comments!) for my post on he-man heroes, Kimber said,

There ought to be a moratorium on heroes named (or nicknamed) Devil, Demon, Damien, Lucien, Lucifer, Luc, Lion, Lyon, Hawk, Raven, Rayne, or Wulf. These used to be what the hero's HORSE was called.

I heartily second that motion! And while I have the podium, I'd also like to call for a moratorium on creative spellings - especially gratuitous use of the letter "Y". (I'm looking at you, Rayven.)

Some authors seem to think it makes their characters "different", "edgy" or "wild". They think it makes their characters stand out from the crowd.

Yeah, that's what my friend Ginniphyr's mother told her.

If you want a name that's "different", why not pick a name that actually is different. From the Social Security list of popular baby names to Kate Monk's Onomastikon there are hundreds of sites on the web offering all sorts of names from around the world.

And as for all those "dark, dangerous, edgy" hero names like Demon, Hawk, Raven & Wulf, well, I always imagine that, like the great Indiana Jones, they merely lifted their monikers from the deceased family pet.