Archive for June, 2010

I don’t know whether this is an interesting topic or not. I always wonder, when I look at authors’ websites, about how exactly they arrived at that particular design. What made them choose those colors? How did they find their designer? How much input did they have? How much input did they want? Etc. But I never see other authors blogging about this topic, so perhaps I’m the only person to whom it’s of interest.

And, as my army of regular readers can attest, that‘s not about to stop me from blogging about anything! So here’s the story of how my website came to be:

How I found my designer: Back before I sold or even had an agent, I was reading a blog about author promotion, and in the comments thread someone said, “This is who I’m going to hire when I sell my first book for big bucks,” with a link to xuni.com. I followed the link and was just knocked out by her designs. They all hit me on a visceral level; I couldn’t tell you what worked about them except that they just felt right.

However as an unsold author (whose household runs on two part-time incomes), I couldn’t justify the expense of a professionally designed website by xuni or anyone else. So when I accepted my agent’s offer on November 9 I got busy trying to design my own. And basically squandered a lot of valuable writing time learning just how little I know about design.

The offer came from Bantam on December 4 and it re-aligned my priorities. They were paying me to write. I needed to be writing, not fumbling around trying to design a website that had no hope of being commensurate with what they were investing in me.  And you’re supposed to put half your first advance into promotion anyway, right?  I fired off an email to Madeira James at xuni.

I did not shop around at all, which is absolutely uncharacteristic for me.  She says her rates are reasonable, and I have no reason to disbelieve her, but beyond that, I did not care.  I thought “This is what I want, and I can afford it,” and that was as far as the evaluation process went.  I promise you I’m usually a much more conscientious consumer than that.

How we arrived at the design: You’re supposed to decide, before you build a website, exactly what your identity is.  You know, what is it that makes your historical romances different from other historical romances, and how can your website convey this?

I didn’t do that.  I tried, during the month I was struggling to build my own site.  But the problem, I’ve gradually realized, is that I embrace a lot of opposites.  There’s a slightly arch sensibility to my books – I get a kick out of giving a prototypical brooding-hero surname like Mirkwood to a sunny-optimist hero – but there’s also earnest swoony stuff and angst.  I don’t know yet how to distill that into a single message.

So the design happened without a lot of conscious thought on my part.  Madeira had a waiting list at the time I contacted her, and proposed to build a temporary “holding page” until she could get to the real one.  She pointed me toward a few stock-photo sites and told me to choose one or two images out of which she’d build the holding page.

Several numbing hours later (those sites can be really overwhelming), I came back with a few images of gloves, which seemed vaguely historical.  Madeira put a couple of them together, and when I saw it, the colors (sort of peach and tan, with black in the background) reminded me of 1930s-40s lingerie.  Which has absolutely nothing to do with the Regency period, but which connotes all kinds of things – some of them opposing each other! – that I suddenly wanted for my site.

Forties-vintage lingerie, to me, says elegance and sophistication, but also warmth.  It’s sexy almost as an afterthought, merely because it’s lingerie.  And it is straight-up pretty.  And I realized that yes, I wanted my website to be sleek and professional and suitable for an author who expects to be taken seriously, but dammit, I wanted it to be pretty too.

So when the time came to pick more images, for the real site, I gravitated towards peachy-pink colors.  I even found vintage writing on pinkish paper.  And while the left side of my brain forced me to include some images that more explicitly said “Regency” or “romance” (a photo of a building in Brighton; a photo of a couple models in period dress), Madeira deftly steered me away from those (the models did look a little costume-partyish) or just couldn’t find a way to fit them into the design (the Brighton building clashed with the color scheme), and assured me anyone looking at the site could tell I wrote historical romance.  And then humored me by actually adding the words “historical romance” when I wasn’t 100% assured.

So there is my website.  It makes me happy to look at.  And you know what’s funny?  Back when I first started trying to design my own, one of my kids said, “Just don’t make it pink,” because my kids, like 88% of the population, believe we romance writers are like a bunch of high-powered Mary Kay saleswomen driving around in our pink cars in our pink feather boas, pink martinis in hand.

And I laughed, and said, “Don’t worry; it won’t be pink.”  So the joke is on me.  Now where’s my pink martini?

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So I recently finished Sherry Thomas’s His at Night, and have now started Maggie Robinson’s Mistress by Mistake.  And here’s the cover of His at Night:

Cover for His at Night

Now here’s the cover for Mistress by Mistake:

Cover for Mistress by Mistake

At first I thought maybe this was the same pair of models in the same pose, photographed (and then painted) from two different angles.  But enough is different, in terms of hand placement especially, that now I’m thinking two entirely different sets of models were directed into the same basic pose.

This is also the third book in a row I’ve read (Meredith Duran’s Wicked Becomes You is the other) whose cover featured a woman whose dress is undone in the back and sort of falling off.  I wonder if that trend will have run its course by the time someone does the cover art for my first book.  Strictly speaking, Martha ought to be in black, with multiple layers of undergarments so that even if her dress was falling off you wouldn’t see a bare back.  Not-so-strictly speaking, I am in favor of any cover that gets a Wal-mart shopper to pick up the book.

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I’m currently reading Jane Smiley’s Private Life (because next to romance, I love reading bleak, disenchanted visions of love & marriage, and this sounded like a good one).  The protagonist’s mother-in-law shows up pretty early on, and she turns out to be a card counter!  This part of the book is set in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, and the women are having polite card parties, and Mrs. Early is totally counting the cards at poker and vingt-et-un! 

Plus at one point she picks up a deck and can tell right away that one card is missing.  (I was so happy to see this, because Lydia has trained herself to detect this kind of thing too.)  Anyway I hope there will be more of this later in the book.  The protagonist has gotten married and moved to another part of the country, and that part’s interesting too, but I really really want to see more of the card-counting mother.

And in writing news, I’ve finally got my hero and heroine in a clinch.  This has been ridiculously difficult; at times I’ve felt like I was trying to herd a couple of cats into a flea bath.  I gave them solid reasons to avoid it, as we tend to do with our heroes and heroines, and they really embraced those reasons and were also always finding other things they believed were more important to do.  In spite of all my attempts at persuasion. Really, it has gone like this:

Cecilia:  So, Will.  Lydia was pretty hot when she was showing you how she counts cards, huh?

Will:  Lydia was smoking hot when she was showing me that.

C:  So maybe you should make a move.

W:  It’s not that simple.  She’s another guy’s mistress.

C:  I’m pretty sure she likes you better.

W:  Seriously, I wish it were that simple.  But I can’t afford to keep her.  And I really can’t afford to get called out and shot over her.  I’ve got responsibilities.

C:  You’re a romance hero, though.  You don’t let things like that stop you.

W:  Look, I’ll think about it, okay?  But right now I really just want to see her count cards again.  Because My God that was hot.

Nor have I had much luck with the heroine:

Cecilia:  So what do you think of Will?

Lydia:  He’s not without promise.  If he pays proper attention I’m hopeful we may be of use to one another.

C:  Plus he’s cute, right?

L:  Maybe.  I don’t know.   His teeth are irregular.

C:  Of course they are; it’s 1816.  And his teeth are not that bad.  And you totally undressed him with your eyes that one time.  Even he saw it.

L:  Enlightened women do that with men.  It doesn’t mean anything.  And I hope I’m not so foolish as to throw away a man who can keep me for a man who can’t.  Besides my goal isn’t to trade one protector for another; it’s to make enough money so that I needn’t depend on any man at all.

C:  He has big hands.

L:  I know, right?  I mean, the better to hold his cards with.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a card-counting lesson to prepare.

But finally the stars have aligned, the card-counting lessons have paid off, and they’re overcome with Clinch Fever.  And wow.  I forgot how much fun these scenes are to write.  I’d fallen behind in my word-count lately (long story; there were 8800 words of stuff I decided wasn’t sufficiently advancing the plot so I hacked it out and have had to up my daily output in consequence) but now I’m feeling hopeful about catching back up.

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A week ago today, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game.  For the non-baseball fans among us, a perfect game is when the pitcher not only doesn’t give up any hits, but doesn’t walk or bean anybody either.  It’s exceedingly difficult, and, as you may imagine, exceedingly rare.  Only 20 have been recorded in all of Major League baseball history.

Galarraga’s would have been number 21.  But he lost his perfect game on the very last batter, due to a wrong call by umpire Jim Joyce.  Joyce called the runner safe at first, when replays show beyond any doubt that the throw beat him there.  (Scroll a bit down this page if you want to see for yourself.)

Joyce has admitted he blew it, feels terrible, etc., but nothing can be done because baseball does not use instant replay to overturn umpires’ calls.  This one mistake, by this otherwise competent professional, has cost this other professional his place in the record books and the full measure of glory he would otherwise have enjoyed.

And it occurs to me that one of the things I find so compelling about sports is the potential for witnessing great big jaw-dropping mistakes, and the consequences that can ripple out from them.

We’ve gotten so imprecise lately in our use of the word mistake.  “I made a mistake by taking that bribe.”  “It was a mistake for me to say that really rude thing on tv about my colleague.”  And I wish we had another word, a word that specifically labeled an ethically/morally wrong choice that you knowingly made and now sincerely regret.

Because a mistake, to me, is something different, and something that crops up with such clarity in sports.  Steve Bartman reaching for that foul ball.  Chris Webber calling a timeout when there were no timeouts to be had.  An outfielder tossing the ball into the stands because he thought it was the third out when it was only the second.

And Jim Joyce, no doubt swearing he would not be swayed by the pressure to swing a close call in the pitcher’s favor, and stumbling in the other direction instead. It’s a well-intentioned person trying to succeed at something, and, through either a mental lapse or a general lack of competence, coming up short.

Now here’s where it gets to be about romance (and hang on; I’m kinda taking this corner on two wheels).  Historical romance heroes, by and large, do not make that kind of mistake.  They may make mistakes in their emotional lives (wrong assumptions about the heroine, irrational unforgiveness of a parent, etc.), but in general the historical romance hero is thoroughly, not to say relentlessly, competent in his “profession,” whatever that profession may be.  If he’s a spy, he’s a master spy (perhaps even a Spymaster).  If he’s a merchant, he’s the shrewdest wheeler-dealer on two continents.  If he’s an idle rake, the ladies all want him and other men all want to be him.

And I wish I’d see more heroes who screwed up sometimes, I mean not just said something that they later had to apologize for, but really truly screwed up and had to maybe experience a moment of humiliation – or worse – and then deal with the aftermath.

I know a lot of readers approach romance looking for a fantasy, and that’s an entirely valid approach.  But does fantasy necessarily rule out a man who’s not already self-actualized in the professional sphere?  Or a man who, while mostly capable, is also capable of failure?

And are there other readers out there who would like to see more fallibility in their heroes?  I have to hope so.  I’ve written one hero who struggles, and undergoes some humiliation, in the course of assuming his “professional” responsibilities, and I’m working on another who’s carrying around the consequences of having made a disastrous mistake.  (Like Jim Joyce, only not broadcast on national tv and rehashed on Sportscenter.)

I have some vague unformed thoughts on the reader/hero relationship, and how maybe the degree to which you’re willing to identify with the hero drives your tolerance for hero fallibility.  (Think of Luke Skywalker, who screws up a lot early on but that’s okay because we’re taking that journey with him; i.e. identifying with him; i.e. he’s not The Other.)  But I need to let those thoughts simmer a bit longer.

In the meantime, because I’ve read that you’re supposed to put pictures on your blog to make it snazzier, here’s Jim Joyce, fallible-hero inspiration:

Umpire Jim Joyce with a Shih Tzu

Doesn’t he look like a decent guy?  Holding a Shih Tzu and everything.  You can’t really stay mad at him, can you?

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I picked up Sherry Thomas’s latest, His at Night, and tore through it in three days.  (For me that’s fast.)

It was a pretty rich book and I have a lot of thoughts on it, which I may or may not distill into something worth saying later, but for the moment this is the thought at the tips of my fingers:

Last week I wrote a scene for my WiP that referenced the image of Prometheus chained to the rock with that eagle chowing on his liver.  I was kind of proud of this scene.  Such a dire, powerful image, and I liked the use I found for it.

Well, it turns out that the heroine of His at Night has a recurring nightmare in which she’s chained to the rock, like Prometheus, while an eagle comes down and tears at her innards!  For crying out loud!

This is not the first time Sherry Thomas has beat me to the punch with something, and done it with more panache.  Way back when I started on A Lady Awakened – the story of a sexual bargain with an heir as the goal – I actually used the phrase “their private arrangement” to refer to the bargain.  And then I started hearing rumblings about a book that was actually called Private Arrangements, and that featured a sexual bargain with an heir as the goal.

Arrgh.  I have gone through manuscripts and changed certain wording because of encountering the same wording, only put to infinitely better use, in one or another of Sherry Thomas’s books.  More than once.  It’s getting to the point where I open up her vivid jewel-toned covers with a simmering sense of dread.

So what to do about my Prometheus reference?  For now I think it stays.  Perhaps I’ll put a footnote on that page:  Please note that, whatever may be your opinion in regard to the originality of this image, I did not technically rip it off from His at Night.

Now, about my nightmare-prone heroine…

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Yesterday my elder daughter (code name Prima) and I watched New Moon.  Prima is a persnickety reader, and the Twilight books are not actually to her taste.  Snarking over movie adaptations of those books, however, is very much to her taste, and after four-plus hours of taking the SAT, she was in the mood to rent New Moon.

Since I’m the one with the Blockbuster card, I went out to get it.  And I did not realize that its actual title is The Twilight Saga: New Moon, so I went to the N section of New Releases, and did not find it there.  Checked the Top 20 Most Popular New Releases section; it wasn’t there either.  Maybe it didn’t count as new anymore?  Went into the Drama section; no New Moon.

I had to approach a clerk.  He told me about how its title began with a T, and pointed to the far corner of the store, adding, “It’s right under the poster of Jacob.”

And suddenly it became very important to me that this Blockbuster employee, with whom I may never interact again, not believe that I was actually renting New Moon for myself.

So I gave a sort of vague, no comprende shake of the head and said:  “I don’t know who Jacob is.”  Right.  Because I have been living in a CAVE!

He explained, not only which poster was the poster of Jacob, but who Jacob is in the story world (“secondary heartthrob”), and suggested maybe I wanted to start with Twilight and progress to New Moon.

I said, “No, I’m supposed to get the one called New Moon.”  Like a befuddled sitcom husband at the supermarket with a shopping list.  Because I am only following orders for teenagers awaiting me at home, Mr. Blockbuster!

That did the trick.  He said, “Oh, this isn’t for you,” and I muttered something about teenagers, and paid for the DVD and got out of there.  At the time I actually thought I was pretty convincing, but transcribing my lines up above, I realize it doesn’t come off as very convincing after all.  Anyway I told the story when I got home.  Prima and younger sister Seconda thought it was hilarious, but I think my husband found it slightly odd.

About New Moon, I don’t have a lot to say.  We laughed and snarked at all the gratuitous shirtlessness, but the truth is I came away feeling a little bad for Taylor Lautner, the kid who plays Jacob.  Because of course not only do I know who Jacob is, but I know that the producers considered re-casting the role with someone manlier, and that Lautner worked to bulk himself up in order to be a credible rival to Edward, as the story sort of demands.

And honestly, to see all that bulk and muscle definition (seriously, that kid must have made a full-time job of it) on a boy who’s about my own daughter’s age, made me kind of… sad, behind the snark.  When he first pulled off his shirt to reveal it (conveniently standing up from his previous crouching position, with the camera positioned low so that he’d sort of loom over us in all his muscle-bound magnificence), it felt a bit like watching a 17-year-old girl reveal new breast implants or something.  Breast implants gotten in desperation because all the roles she auditioned for kept going to “sexier” actresses.

Anyway, that’s my take.  Prima gave a thumbs-down to the CGI, smirked at all the “You’re the only thing in the world that makes my life worth living” dialogue, and could not believe Bella’s friends would put up with her constantly blowing them off.

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