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Why Are Romance Writing Contests Becoming Less Popular and Can We Save Them?

27 Jan
Awards and contests have historically played a part in helping authors get noticed (and get a contract). (Image purchased with web license via Shutterstock)

Awards and contests have historically played a part in helping authors get noticed (and get a contract). (Image purchased with web license via Shutterstock)

There was a fascinating discussion on RWA (Romance Writers of America) Chapter Leadership group just a few days ago about how so many established chapters are jettisoning their long-established writing contests or have already abandoned them.

This is a bigger deal than it seems since, in the past, contests were a great way for chapters to fill their coffers, supplementing dues with entry fees that enabled its members to benefit by having the funds to get terrific speakers, which in turn attracted new membership, etc. It’s unlikely we’ll see the end of the Golden Heart (the RWA’s premier award for an unpublished romance fiction manuscript) but chapter contests? According to the listserv, there were a decent number of responses indicating they had given up their contest within the last five years.

Will chapter romance writing contests go the way of the dodo bird? (Public domain image via Wikipedia)

Like so many endangered species, the contest appears to be dying, with many RWA chapter board members saying they could no longer garner the minimum number of entries required or that well-known authors cranking out multiple books a year and the overburdened editors reading them were no longer as available to wade through submissions. So why is the demise of such a time-honored writing tradition taking place now?

I’ve got a few educated guesses, but my main reasons for the end of the chapter writing contests are improved technology, the recession, and the meteoric rise of self-publishing.

Technology

Older technology made collaboration and feedback harder. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Older technology made collaboration and feedback harder. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Technology is clearly a biggie. Even ten years ago, social media was still in its infancy (we are talking the Friendster era) and videoconferencing for people who did not work at a fancy corporation with a dedicated room didn’t really happen until 2003 when Skype was born. Even then, most people had a very variable (and slow) connection which would have made the transmission rather hiccupy, so this particular technology was reserved for a few years for loved ones thousands of miles apart (and probably phone sex).

You’re wondering what this has to do with writing contests. Since a major reason for people entering contests is for the detailed critiques often given, entering a contest in the hope you’d make the top entries and warrant detailed feedback from a knowledgeable person in the industry must have been incredibly attractive. Now, we have Harlequin contests where readers can vote on manuscripts in real time and regular writing critique groups meeting on Google Hangout where they can not only chat with each other but look at one another’s screen to see specific comments made on their story by other members. Even editors have said that the electronic revolution has made it easier to find good writers with manuscript acceptances also much faster (sadly, the rejections are faster, too).

With blogs maintained by well-known editors and even publishing imprints (Harlequin is truly a coach to fledgling writers of category romance), authors are no longer writing blind, instead inundated by the crap-ton of information that exists. While this can certainly be overwhelming, none of us lack information from expert sources, which is more than could be said even a decade ago, when would-be authors clutched a copy of The Writer’s Market in one hand, and Stephen King’s On Writing (originally published in 2000) in the other. Both are still terrific, but check out all the other books that now exist – just for romance writers!! Note the majority of them are available in ebook format only. More on that later.

The Recession

With contest fees ranging from $10 (often a member price) and up, entering a manuscript (or just the first few chapters of a hopefully completed manuscript) can get pricey.

We all need a little help getting published. But with so much technology at our fingertips, are contests the answer? (Public domain image via Pixabay)

We all need a little help getting published. But with so much technology at our fingertips, are contests the answer? (Public domain image via Pixabay)

It’s like the college application process – first the standardized testing scores, then the application fees, etc., and all sent to a person (the college admissions officer) whose job it is to tell people “no” and take only the best candidates. With most publishing houses in the “most selective” category – accepting only a tiny percentage of applicants from their slush piles or even agented manuscripts – this business of entering contests to garner attention or have a honor or two for the query letter can get expensive.

There is no writer out there not feeling the recession. Belts have been tightened and while RWA members are scrimping to pay their national dues and perhaps belong to a couple pertinent chapters, I doubt many people feel there is a lot of extra cash to spend on contest entries. The would-be or even published writer’s emphasis is instead on what can be done to bring in income while waiting on their first (or next) contract or working to add to the books or novellas they’ve put out that year. Conducting online workshops, self-publishing (see below), and adding new skills like copyediting, cover design, or helping authors with their WordPress site are frequently heard additions to many a writer’s arsenal. With an unemployment rate of 6.7% as of December 2013 in the United States (and that’s not including all the people who got kicked off the rolls because their benefits ran out – they still don’t have a job, FYI), the pressure is on to bring in income and contests are an outgoing expense with little future realization of funds. In short, they can be a bad investment.

Self-Publishing

With any luck, this fairy godmother has got a publishing contract under that cloak! (Image by Kerri Polizzi via Flickr, labeled for reuse with attribution)

But even with technology offering more options to writers for feedback and the recession putting the kibosh on non-essential expenses for would-be authors, the biggest factor in the demise of the chapter writing contest is undoubtedly self-publishing. The sole reason for entering contests has always been for professional feedback so you could get published. In the past you would hear the occasional NYT best-selling author discussing how they garnered the attention of an editor because of a couple of chapters that got in front of an editor judging a contest…and the next thing they knew they had a contract. *waving fairy godmother wand*

This is a story you rarely hear any longer, first and foremost because there are fewer editors in the world with the seemingly endless consolidation of traditional publishing houses. The ones left are also working their asses off to find fresh voices from the comfort of their offices, while their assistants read slush pile submissions and mine the web for prospects and everyone pulls a ten hour day while wearing the editor uniform of New York Black. But the real reason no one mentions contests as a stepping stone for publication is because authors can do it themselves.

We’ve all heard of the self-published writer who posted something to Amazon and ended up saving their house or the success of the outstanding hybrid author Bella Andre, who was dropped by her publisher, and decided to publish her own books (woo-hoo Sullivan series!) only to make an astronomical amount (in 2011, she reported to the Washington Post that she was topping $20,000 per month and the number was climbing). In an outstanding turn of events, she then was able to turn back around and re-sell those publishing rights to her self-pubbed work back to traditional publishing house Harlequin, who re-released them in paperback form for the readers without a Kindle or Nook on their bedside table.

The dilemma for the self-published always seems to come down to how to reach the target audience. Certainly these authors earn more per book (a LOT more) in terms of profit but move fewer books on average, so self-publishing has its pros and cons. Forbes magazine actually found the authors with the greatest income to be hybrid authors, ones who capitalize on the traditional publishing promotion yet add to their (and the publishing house’s) bottom line by keeping their audience interested with frequent novellas or short stories related to their series between full-length novels.

With authors becoming more comfortable either DIYing their own book covers or having some good friends in their chapter who are excellent copyeditors or website designers (see above recession skills section), authors are feeling like self-publishing is definitely within their grasp. I think most authors I speak to are leaving traditional publishing on the table and participating in online pitches (Twitter is a common space for this) or saving their pennies to attend RWA National or great state conferences (New Jersey’s Romance Writers conference, Put Your Heart in a Book, is popular among mid-Atlantic writers for the number of New York editors who hear pitches at it). Somehow having control over publishing a book or two, while perhaps also looking at going the traditional route, is seen as more attractive then submitting manuscripts to chapter contests, and I can understand why.

How Chapter Contests Could Evolve

Awesome chapters like mine (I had to show our killer logo designed by the ever-so-talented Vikki Jankowski, our president) are eager to combine our efforts with other chapters. Who is with us? What would that look like?

Looking at the above pressures and taking a new approach to chapter contests is the answer to save the genre. The goal is to help writers get published, right? The foremost piece to consider is that there are chapter costs to pay judges (good ones) for their time. Why are we all so separate as chapters even though each of us belongs to RWA? If several chapters in my home state of Pennsylvania could band together with some New Jersey chapters and the awesome Maryland Romance Writers, think of how much money we could offer as a prize or to pay the fee of a big name judge!

This type of contest could also garner more media coverage, giving the contest more cachet in terms of the author actually being able to use the award in a query letter or to help sell a pitch. With videoconferencing available, there are no longer the same set of excuses to not do this kind of collaboration. Let’s wake up, people, and smell the 21st century coffee! My awesome chapter, Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers, is already reaching out to local chapters to see what cooperation potential exists – let me know if you’re interested in getting on our outreach list.

So what are our possible options for the reinvented contest?

  • Since increasing use of technology is vital for successful writers, what about a “best romance author website contest” with maybe unpublished, debut author and published author categories? The chapter can collate a rubric based on the many best practices articles out there by publishing house editors etc. and publish their criteria. Not only does this make what is being evaluated clear, but it can be used as a template for new authors when designing their site. The top 5 finalists could receive a critique and suggestions from the judge(s) with a cash prize or in kind design services (can you give a gift card for WordPress plug-ins?).
  • American Idol and Dancing with the Stars know what they are doing in terms of crowdsourcing with polls. What about a contest for “best use of social media by a romance author”? This doesn’t even have to include a fee but could simply be utilized as a method for getting some media attention to romance fiction and/or the chapter.
  • Best book cover design. There are some truly awful book covers and some that you would never know were not done by a Big Five publishing house. You could have individuals, small presses, ebooks only, and traditional publishing each have their own category in this kind of contest.
  • With academic analysis of romance fiction a growing field, a contest could be built around “best literary, historical or popular culture nonfiction work (article or book) about romance fiction”. Promoting the contest to the universities with romance writing and popular culture programs would garner a slew of entries from students perhaps looking for extra credit and you might be able to convince author/academics like Jennifer Crusie or Eloisa James to be a judge. I bet websites like Popular Romance Project and Romance University would be great partners for a contest like this.
  • Pitches are still something most writers need to do…and they are scary. What about a contest that is a “best pitch” contest with video, Twitter, and email categories? Getting name editors would be key here for cachet and for relevant feedback, but technology would make this straightforward to do.

Contests can be made relevant for the modern age, we may just have to rethink what the current demands are on writers and adjust accordingly.

Have your own thoughts on the romance writing contest? Please feel free to add to the conversation by leaving a comment. Let’s all figure out how best to help writers!

Pets Make Authors Human: A Pictorial Reflection on Animals, Romance, and Writing

28 Nov

Dean Koontz with his golden retriever – yes, I’m going to admit that I bought my first Koontz book because he always has his golden in the author photo!

It’s Thanksgiving, and if there’s one part of my life I give tremendous thanks for beyond the human members of my family, it’s the four-legged creatures who fill my life with joy and laughter. Following so many author blogs and the Facebook pages of writers I admire, I can’t help but notice just how many people post regular photos and updates of their pets…and how many comments and likes they get when they do.

My Romance Writers of America chapter (go Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers!!!) recently had the fabulous Caridad Pinerio give an incredibly informative workshop on social media for authors. One point she mentioned was that recipes and pets (with accompanying photos) are pure gold when it comes to social media. Considering what I stop to read I completely believe her, but it made me wonder, what is it about authors and their pets that we find so appealing?

Ernest Hemingway and one of his many cats

I imagine that it’s a combination of shared experience and humanization. We have something in common with even a famous writer like Lord Byron (who wrote the most heartfelt poem to his Newfoundland Dog Boatswain who he buried with a headstone that exceeds Byron’s in size) or Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway may have been a misogynist, but I bet he had to clean up something heinous his six-toed cats horked up around his house at some point, right? So he and I would theoretically have a conversation starter if we ever met on a distant plain (and I could steer away from the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of his writing).

It’s very easy for me to believe Janet Evanovich invented the successful Stephanie Plum series when I see this shot. Anyone with such a smiley St. Bernard has to have a terrific sense of humor!

There is also the nature of writing – it’s lonely. You usually do it all by yourself, in some cramped, cluttered corner of your house while the humans around you steer clear because you are a) overcaffeinated, b) talking to people who don’t exist (i.e., your characters) and/or c) haven’t bothered to shower because you are headed to a deadline. You know who doesn’t care? Your pet. Your cat selfishly feels you are a terrific source of heat and food as you snack at your desk and your dog simply loves you so much that he or she is willing to drape themselves on your feet and let their bladder the size of Montana fill until you realize it’s been 11 hours since you’ve taken them outside to pee. You do not get that kind of devotion from a person (okay, rarely you do), which could explain writers’ propensity for animal fandom.

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas with their poodle. Every pet owner looking at this photo just exclaimed, "A white carpet! Seriously?!"

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas with their poodle. Every pet owner looking at this photo just exclaimed, “A white carpet! Seriously?!”

I definitely think that authors like Dean Koontz (who actually has given his late golden Trixie her own webpage while celebrating his current golden, Anna) and Janet Evanovich are onto something when it comes time for the author photo. Having a pet in the shot not only differentiates you from the pack, but instantly sends the message, “Oh, wow, this person is an approachable, nice human being” because let’s face it, animals usually only like nice people and are able to detect when some bitchy person carries a whiff of sulphur still lingering from their portal to hell transportation. In Midge Raymond’s “Tips for the Author Photo” article, Raymond emphasizes the importance of maintaining a natural look and that includes your facial expression. It’s virtually impossible to have a pet in the shot with you and not look natural, because you are busy worrying that your dog or cat is going to pee on a light or start barking at a shadow and embarrass you, rather than about how fat your upper arms might look or if you are getting a weird shadow that’s going to make you resemble Winston Churchill when you want the cool J. R. Ward badass vibe (which you probably won’t get unless you have a cool cat in the shot, like a panther).

Don’t let the gigantic dog in the center have you ignore the little King Charles spaniel in the right hand corner – both dogs carry the symbolism of wealth and protection in Anthony Van Dyck‘s Five Children of King Charles I (1637) in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Let’s not forget that the presence of animals in a portrait has always meant something (other than announcing you carry a powerful lint brush in your purse everywhere you go). In the 17th to 19th centuries, animals in a portrait, usually dogs, often indicated that the person or persons in the portrait were worthy of admiration and loyalty, or the breed of animal hinted at the intellectual refinement or wealth of the subject. One of my favorite portraits involving a dog is Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait, Five Children of King Charles I which you can visit in all its splendor in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The gigantic dog being used as an armrest by the future Charles II of England is probably an early variety of Mastiff and the bitty poindexter in the lower right hand corner looking at the chubby (and seriously underdressed) Princess Anne is an early King Charles Spaniel. Mastiffs were frequently owned by the aristocracy for protection, and the King Charles Spaniel was actually named for the young Charles pictured here since he loved toy spaniels, including the one that would eventually carry his name.

Love Bites anthology with stories by Lori Foster, Brenda Jackson, Virna DePaul, Catherine Mann and Jules Bennett (Harlequin, February 2013)

Luckily for us, we no longer look for the deep symbolism when someone takes either a formal portrait immortalizing their puppy or a selfie with their ginormous cat, but readers are still fascinated by the relationship of pets and authors. In the world of romance, we are fortunate to not just have authors who write in terrific animal characters into their books (Laura Kaye’s fabulous three-legged puppy in Hard As It Gets comes to mind, as well as all the animal characters of Jill Shalvis’ Animal Magnetism series), but who actually advocate for them. Lori Foster, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Brenda Jackson, Catherine Mann, Virna DePaulJill Shalvis, Kate Angell, Jacquelyn Frank, and Lisa Jackson are just a few of the authors who come to mind to heighten awareness of animal causes and who even create anthologies where the proceeds go to animal charities.

I’ll leave you with the poem Lord Byron wrote for his Newfoundland’s gravestone since it summarizes a lot of the relationship we have with our pets. Maybe you’d even consider making a donation to your local animal shelter in honor of your favorite romance author – I’m sure they’d be thrilled to hear about that kind of fan appreciation! Whatever your thoughts on how to honor the animals who inspire you – whether they live in your home or are online – let’s all consider ourselves fortunate to have these wonderful giving creatures in our lives and in our imaginations.

Epitaph to A Dog

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

For more great pictures of writers and their pets I’d recommend the following articles:

“Animal Muses: The Pets Of Famous Writers And Artists” by Alice E. Vincent from The Huffington Post UK (June 25, 2012)

“Portraits of Writers With Pets: The Humanizing Animal Connection” by Emily Temple from The Atlantic (November 28, 2012)

“Literary Pets: The Cats, Dogs, and Birds Famous Authors Loved” by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings (April 29, 2013)

MMA, UFC, Sports Galore, But Why Are There No Professional Wrestling Heroes in Romance?

11 Jul

The official logo of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). At one point it was the WWF, but the World Wildlife Federation successfully sued and wrestling made a change.

It’s amazing how you change over twenty years of marriage. When I discovered that my intellectual, graduate student husband was a HUGE fan of professional wrestling, it was difficult to put those elements together.

Really? I mean, isn’t wrestling fake and not a sport? Numerous documentaries, books, and discussions later, as well as Mondays and Fridays given over to reading romance novels while in the same room as Monday Night RAW and Friday Night Smackdown and I’ve got a whole new outlook. Not only are these men and women phenomenal athletes who train for hours in the gym and in the ring, but – unlike so many athletes who are great on the field and monosyllabic at best in front of the camera – the wrestlers from WWE also embody charisma, acting ability, and an incredible teamwork ethic.

Don’t Be Snooty: Look at the Market Potential

But since I am reading those romance novels while keeping one eye on the TV screen, it’s hard not to be struck by an obvious fact. With the rise of fabulous books having MMA and UFC fighters (like Kele Moon’s Battered Hearts series), to say nothing of the many, many sports hero romance novels (Jaci Burton, for example) why has no author used the rich world of professional wrestling as a basis for a romance series?

Before you get too snooty and turn your nose up at professional wrestling, consider how many people do that same thing with romance novels. They aren’t right, just ignorant, and while the WWE may not be your cup of tea, the fact remains that there’s ample fodder for significant romance novels here. I bet you didn’t start watching MMA after reading a book with an MMA hero, right? You don’t have to be a weekly viewer (although you may end up one) but take a look at some of the key elements of WWE wrestling and tell me there isn’t serious romance potential here. Oh, and take a look at the pictures and really tell me there’s not potential!

John Cena, my favorite wrestler, who embodies his personal mission statement of “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect”.

Part of that potential are the fourteen million fans who tune in each week (36% of them women) who certainly can understand the appeal. Those fans who choose to be in the know – regarding the idea that each wrestler personifies a character and who also understand that the WWE writes the storylines and conflict between characters – are known as “smarks” (a combination of the words “smart” and “mark”). Wrestlers are considered “faces” – usually good looking good guys – or “heels” – bad guys you love to hate (who can also be good looking). Being one or the other doesn’t guarantee a role for life; major storylines often dictate a “heel turn” or someone thought of previously as a good guy allying themselves with someone horrible or making a move to the dark side him or herself.

This is an incredible billion dollar industry covering television, film (see the documentaries below for a few examples), music (each character has a signature piece of music), magazines, books (mostly biography and about the industry), and video gaming. Vince McMahon, along with his daughter Stephanie McMahon, built the WWE into an entertainment force to be reckoned with, and while his on camera persona is one of the often evil boss (who Americans of all ages and backgrounds love to hate), watching the many documentaries about various wrestlers reveal a strong businessman who deeply cares for the entertainers who make up the WWE family.

And Then There’s the Eye Candy Terrific Wrestlers

C. M. Punk, probably the strongest anti-hero currently wrestling, has talent and drive, overcoming difficult challenges in his childhood. Across his stomach is the logo “Straight Edge” embodying his lifelong commitment to avoiding drugs or alcohol.

The wrestlers themselves come from backgrounds that seem ideal for romance novel hero status. Whether it’s John Cena‘s unbelievable Make a Wish Foundation work, C. M. Punk‘s difficult family background and earned anti-hero persona, or Randy Orton‘s family legacy of wrestling and the stresses it placed on him, these are men with a depth of personal story that seem very suited to our genre. The fact they earn millions of dollars a year also fulfills a popular trope of the rich entertainer, jaded by women falling at his feet like ripe pears, who is ready to find the love of his life.

Yet, challenges for romantic entanglements are many. These wrestlers spend over 300 days on the road and divorce is understandably common. Even with strong teamwork, their bodies get incredibly battered with injuries sidelining them for months at a time. Wrestlers often start off at seedy hole-in-the-wall regional proving grounds, sometimes moving on to international wrestling venues in Mexico, Europe or Japan before the select few make their way to the national venues of the televised WWE programs. These programs take place in your local huge arena where the wrestlers perform to crowds of tens of thousands of people, sometimes upwards of 80,000 people. Rock stars, eat your heart out!

Randy Orton whose natural ability and hard work has risen him to superstardom, despite his being his own worst enemy.

The Divas (and please note that there is now a reality show about these women on the E! Network) are the female wrestlers who have been over sexualized in the past but are now attaining greater footing and equality. My husband used to fast forward through the Divas (and, no, not just because I was sitting there) since he felt that many of their story lines denigrated the women’s athleticism. As the WWE has become more family friendly (no more Stone Cold Steve Austin spraying beer on his opponents while giving them the double handed finger), I’m pleased to say the Diva story lines have risen in content accordingly. Sometimes male and female wrestlers are “involved” with each other or there is interpersonal conflict between Divas (and male wrestlers) to heighten tensions and allegiances. Not only are several of the Divas former athletes, but some come from dancing, professional cheerleading and modeling backgrounds. A wonderful plus of watching the divas is that a decent amount of them have strong, curvy and athletic figures – even the ones who are model thin seem to have that body naturally – promoting a healthier female body image for viewers.

Fandango, the hilarious heel who has begun a “dance” craze with his theme song and various antics. A perfect secondary character – just “let the ‘a’s breathe”.

Potential for secondary characters abound. Whether it’s the fans (so many adorable kids out in the audience next to rabid adult fans), caring support staff, or the wrestlers who provide villainous or comic relief (Google “WWE Wrestler Fandango video” and get ready to laugh), personalities are ripe for consideration when constructing additional characters who would support a hero and heroine and a strong story line.

So Watch Already!

Now that you have a sense of why the WWE is so interesting, your next step would be to actually watch. See if your local sports bar offers wrestling as an option or a particular WWE pay-per-view. It’s best when you’ve got a docent nearby to explain to you what’s happening (you can’t have my husband, after all) and any important backstory. It’s a lot like when your best friend in high school wanted you to get into her favorite soap opera. Remember how confusing it seemed and how over the top the story lines were? And then three weeks later you were totally into it. WWE wrestling is exactly like that.

The free shows are the easiest to access, either live or online, and introduce you to the characters and their current storyline. Please note that the WWE website is extensive and rich in information. You can look up any wrestler for biographical information, watch videos (usually “promos” where they outline their current grievance or conflict with another wrestler and promise a painful win in the ring during the next match), and look at each character’s customized merchandise. While there are many shows each week, the two most important ones are:

Each year, the pay-per-view event of Wrestlemania brings story lines to a head and sets the stage for new conflict in an epic event combining production and showmanship.

Pay-per-views are a big portion of the WWE business strategy and you get your money’s worth when the matches are so elaborately staged you find your jaw dropping. I’m definitely going to get my husband SummerSlam for his birthday in August, but it’s amazing the level of production that goes into some of these shows. Hell in a Cell actually puts a chain link kennel around the ring and wrestlers are locked inside to battle one another until one of them is pinned for the count of three or “taps out” indicating defeat. Wrestlemania is the big kahuna of the pay-per-views where several story lines come to a head, and you’ll notice if you ever watch any of the documentaries on the wrestlers that the big matches that happen during this event are the ones remembered with the greatest fondness and most emotion.

The Best Introduction: Documentaries

Speaking of documentaries, I think that watching them was actually key to getting me to be interested in the WWE as I could better identify with the hard work and background of each wrestler, as well as understand their many outside interests and talents. Sadly, while the attitude toward Divas has improved over the last years, I can’t find any documentaries that don’t look like a Girls Gone Wild video, so I’m afraid I can only recommend male wrestling superstar films. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Shawn Michaels Story: Heartbreak and Triumph - Shawn Michaels not only possessed a brilliant and troubled career in wrestling but is known as being someone who was able to successfully fight the evils of drugs and alcohol through his religious faith and the love of his wife and family. I confess to getting choked up during this documentary as Michaels is so unflinchingly honest about the obstacles he placed in the way of his success as well as the tough love he received from the many people in the WWE who cared about him.
  • Randy Orton: The Evolution of a Predator – While it’s not the most chronological approach to a biography, this gives a nice understanding of his dealing with the stress of his father’s legacy as a wrestler, as well as hints at his personal battle with his insecurities, which led to drug abuse. Sadly, the documentary focuses on the saving grace of his wife and daughter, but the news outlets just recently announced their divorce. After watching this you’ll appreciate why this happened.
  • C. M. Punk: The Best in the World - This is a well-produced documentary which mirrors Punk’s own unflinching acceptance of his hard childhood and adolescence in Chicago as well as the many friendships which supported him in adopting the “straight edge” lifestyle and anti-hero persona that is entirely his own. He’s a compelling, complex person who would make a wonderful foundation for a romance hero character.
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson not only set the WWE Universe on its ear but also regularly demonstrates his acting chops in Hollywood to strong acclaim.

    The Rock: The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment – Many people who have never watched one minute of wrestling are still familiar with “The Rock” or Dwayne Johnson as he has gone on to have a successful acting career. Between his wrestling legacy in his family as well as his cultural heritage, this charismatic, intelligent man comes across as not only devilishly handsome and playful, but also as a multi-faceted businessman who set the bar for WWE Superstardom. WWE: The Epic Journey of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is also an excellent resource.

  • Stone Cold Steve Austin: The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time – I became interested in the wrestling superstar Steve Austin when my husband wanted to watch the reality show Tough Enough, in which would-be wrestlers attempted to handle the many training sessions and challenges in order to earn a contract with the WWE. Austin reached superstardom during the height of the WWE’s more “adult” focus, but his anti-hero character embodied the hard working everyman with his tough Texas background and gritty determination in the ring. While this documentary makes no mention of his tumultuous divorce from his wife (domestic abuse and possible steroid use appeared to be factors), Austin does clearly state how he failed the most important people in his life while dealing with his own personal issues.
  • Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows – While the WWE appears to be a nurturing business, it’s still a business, and this documentary following the career of superstar Bret Hart demonstrates the tensions that can arise from a strong and talented entertainer and the business interests who may believe in a different direction for his character. What is fascinating (and this documentary intersects well with the Shawn Michaels documentary because of his involvement in the match that severed Hart from the WWE) is the ripple effect of the damage this incident caused within the wrestling world – it’s hard to find a wrestler unaffected by it.
  • The John Cena Experience – John Cena is actually my favorite wrestler, as I admire his work ethic, consistently great performance, and his many talents outside of the ring (he’s a songwriter/rapper as well as an extremely talented actor, watch the heartwarming family movie, Legendary, if you don’t believe me). This documentary not only hits on all his wrestling highlights and career but spends a decent amount of time on Cena’s amazing Make a Wish Foundation work and his commitment to entertaining members of the armed forces. Cena led the WWE in raising over $1 million for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation (which funds research to fight breast cancer) this past year. He’s really worth admiring!
  • Chris Jericho, whose good looks and wrestling ability formed a wonderful foundation for him to pursue his equal talents of music and writing.

    Breaking the Code: Behind the Walls of Chris Jericho – Chris Jericho has certainly played both sides of the face/heel fence, but one thing that cannot be denied is that this superstar has much more than just wrestling as his talent. An excellent musician and a successful author, Jericho’s business acumen has been proven time and again to lead him in a good direction. His cockiness appeals to his fans and even his WWE associates seem to be able to tolerate his attitude, probably due to the fact that it stems from genuine belief in his own abilities. While his showmanship highlights his light up clothing and bad boy persona, in actuality Jericho is probably one of the most well-rounded talents in the wrestling world.

If the WWE Were Smart, They’d Have Their Own Romance Imprint

I certainly have a few story lines bouncing around in my head inspired by this rich world of sports entertainment, but I would strongly encourage authors to consider professional wrestling as a fantastic option for a setting and/or profession for characters in romance novels. While you couldn’t call it the WWE, a composite organization could easily be invented that built upon a familiar foundation. Heck, if WWE was smart, they’d use their publishing branch and hire some good romance editors right now to launch the line themselves!

There is a lot to admire in the world of the WWE and I’d encourage anyone who enjoys drama, humor, and physical entertainment to consider taking a closer look. You just might fall in love.

The Real Romance: Librarians and Readers Find More to Love on Public Library Shelves

11 Jun
Public Domain image via Pixabay

Public Domain image via Pixabay

If you’re a romance reader, chances are the first romance you picked up was in a library. It may have been in the children’s section (or Young Adult space if you’re under 30) or in the adult fiction area, but romance novels and libraries have had a great relationship for decades.

According to a recent article by Publishers Weekly, romance publishers heavily encourage this dynamic, knowing that romance readers – hooked by an author or subgenre – tend to be strong purchasers of romance and the best word of mouth proponents. Whether it’s Harlequin or Avon, publishers and editors make a point of being at library conventions (national ones like the American Library Association conference or regional groups), and run sessions touting the upcoming releases in the hope that librarians will push them to their patrons.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. How many people are going to go out and buy romance novels if they can get them for free at the library? But publishers know that cultivating readers means cultivating buyers. If you were given a piece of free chocolate, chances are that you would go out any buy more chocolate even if you knew you could occasionally find the exact flavor you wanted for free nearby. You’d eat both the free chocolate and the purchased candy, wouldn’t you? It’s the same with romance books.

How Your Library Buys Romance Novels

But how many people read romance from their public library? A Springfield, Massachusetts librarian, quoted at the beginning of the article, indicated that while romance makes up 35% of her branch’s 5000 item collection, it accounts for 43% of the circulation, a ratio that many librarians would agree with across the country. Dollars spent on romance go farther as well, with romance (which is usually in trade paperback form) costing less than other genres and getting more checkouts before falling apart.

Because libraries adhere to a collection development policy, it’s important to note how they choose books for their romance shelves. Romantic Times, PW (Publishers Weekly), Library Journal and Booklist are all professional journals employed when deciding how the budget will be spent. Most policies clearly state that before a book is purchased it needs to get a certain number of positive reviews in these professional resources, which is librarian speak for CYA (cover your ass). If a patron decides to challenge a book being on the shelf (and the sexual content of many romance novels makes this genre vulnerable to this type of complaint) the library is able to show that experts in that field of literature have listed it as being a well-written book.

Note where they don’t look. When I’m not being Tori MacAllister I work as a librarian in education, a job which requires me to be well-informed, not just from traditional professional sources but also all the great bloggers out there discussing young adult literature and services. Romance publishing is no different and we all have great blogs we follow. But when it comes to protecting a book’s right to be on a public library shelf, those blogs don’t count for diddly when you have a uptight patron. Public librarians probably do what I do, which is to find titles raved about on blogs and then search out the reviews from professional sources which allow them to adhere to the policy and put it on the shelf. It’s a pain in the butt (and take a look at PW sometime – there are very few romance reviews in there) but librarians will do anything to get a good book in the hands of someone who is going to read and enjoy it.

Erotic Romance vs. Erotica: Don’t Worry, You’ll Find Both at Your Library

Another theme that came through when reading this article was not just how many great public librarians are out there fulfilling patron needs but how so many of those librarians, like most romance readers, have an interesting idea of what “erotica” means. Prompted by the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Grey, librarians across the country touted the popularity of erotica when the article author asked them about the circulation of more explicit romances like this one.

Yet I was startled to see authors like Nalini Singh (known for her paranormal romances like the Psy-Changeling series as well as her amazing Guild Hunter books), Lori Foster, and Jaci Burton (author of the Play by Play series) compared to Fifty Shades.  Singh and Foster write what I would consider traditional romances with simply a high level of sensuality – what would usually be termed “scorcher” by most reviewing sources – but this doesn’t make them erotica writers by a long shot. Burton does write erotic romance, with more explicit language, longer sex scenes, and occasionally showing characters engaging in sexual behavior like anal sex or BDSM behavior, all of which would fall into more of an erotica category.

In actuality, because Fifty Shades contains a relationship between two people which results in a committed relationship and HEA (happily ever after) it actually falls under the category of erotic romance rather than erotica, which is better defined as a story chronicling an individual’s sexual journey and may or may not result in a committed relationship at the turn of the final page. It seems that librarians and maybe even publishers are still struggling with this terminology as romances get spicier and what was seen as being previously aberrant behavior is more mainstreamed in literature.

If you own an ereader, ask your library if they have an Overdrive subscription. You won’t be sorry!

It was fascinating to see the prevalence of ereaders a key medium for libraries delivering erotic romance to readers. With the advent of the database Overdrive providing libraries with an effortless way of supplying time stamped ebooks to patrons (use your library card to download books to your device and watch them expire on their due date), people who would have donned big sunglasses before checking out a spicy paperback will cheerfully download one erotic book after another from the privacy of their home. Ellora’s Cave, one of the premier publishers of erotica (and Romantica, which is what they call their erotic romance line), offers many of its titles through Overdrive and they like that partnership. A representative of their company clearly states in the article that many libraries, particularly those in the South, were hesitant to carry paper versions of the books knowing that some patrons would have objections. Since no one sees the racy ebooks unless they are specifically searching for them, Overdrive is the perfect way to provide the books people want to read with none of the controversy.

Reader Advocacy

kiss-63054_640Keep in mind if you are an enthusastic romance reader that almost all librarians will attempt to fulfill reader requests, so cultivating a relationship with your local library and letting them know of the authors and series you enjoy will make it far more likely to see those items on your shelves. Ask at the desk who is in charge of purchasing decisions and mention (after looking in the catalog, please!) the books you like that the library doesn’t have, dropping the idea that you have lots of friends who also use the library and would love the chance to check out the books you’re mentioning. Libraries often receive funding using metrics like how many library cards are issued and how many circulating items go through that branch, so your interest and that of others equal more dollars that go to that institution.

Consider donating your read romance novels (in good condition) to the library, knowing that if they don’t put them on the shelf, they’ll probably sell them, using the proceeds to buy more books (print and electronic) for you. Talk to the library about any advocacy you can do (going to a town meeting when they discuss appropriations for municipal institutions, writing a state representative, etc.) or let them know that you have an ereader and are looking for databases like Overdrive.

Every romance reader should cultivate a relationship with their library, not only because its an important local institutions but because they are literally growing more romance readers. That newbie reader might be checking out a YA romance or downloading a book to their iPhone, but they are standing in the place you were years ago – embarking on a relationship with romance that is just the beginning.

Writing Good Sex: Thinking About Steamy Sex Scenes from the Standpoint of a Reader and a Writer

1 Jun

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet by Stacia Kane (CreateSpace, January 13, 2011)

A writer who can pen hot, steamy, and emotional sex scenes – interactions that are a lot more than tab A going into slot B – always win my loyalty.

I know there are people who love sweet romance and don’t need to to see what happens in the bedroom, but for me, those bedroom scenes often say more about a relationship than the dialogue or character descriptions. Sex also strips people down (no pun intended) to their essential self with the result being that it’s often obvious that a couple is in love with one another before they get around to actually revealing that fact in words. As Stacia Kane puts it “… the fact is, the deepest truths of our characters can be found when they are naked, when they are at their most vulnerable both physically and emotionally, when they let their guards down and just interact.” (Kane, p. 125)

A sex scene – a good one – is the epitome of showing and not telling. “I’m so hot for you” is not as strong as “His hand trembled as he touched his thumb to the thudding pulse in her neck, a beat he had to taste under his tongue while he reminded himself, go slow, don’t rush this…” Just like any other writing skill, some writers are better at this than others and no matter how much of a natural you are, understanding the elements of a good sex scene that take it from “okay, they are having sex” to “my book just burst into flames and not from an ereader malfunction” is vital to success.

Why We Need Great Sex Scenes

Stacia Kane’s fantastic primer for writers is infinitely valuable to readers as well. We know that we love a certain author or a certain scene but can’t always put our finger on why. In her book, Be a Sex Writing Strumpet, Kane took a series of blog posts and organized them into densely packed book focused on understanding why sex scenes can be so vital to plot and character development, how to write them well, and exercises to help each writer understand his or her sex writing voice and comfort level. It’s pure gold for $2.99.

But your crotchety uncle and that nun who taught you in the second grade definitely don’t feel sex should be in books, which begs the question, do we really need sex scenes? Hell, yes! I think I’m going to let Stacia Kane answer:

If you can find another way to illuminate the most private acts of your characters, to demonstrate their connection, their trust, the depth of their feelings…, their desire for each other, the moment their relationship deepens and changes beyond anything they’ve been through before, while also strengthening the story, increasing tension, and adding complications, and also—let’s be honest here—giving the reader what they’ve been waiting for, and you can do all of that in one scene, then no, you don’t need the sex scene. (Kane, p. 6)

firework-79374_640That’s a lot of points in favor of the sex scene. Note she didn’t say titillation? One of the major criticisms of romance novels (and clearly plenty of books outside the genre have sex scenes but they are expected in romance) has always been the “pornographic” nature of the sex. This criticism has always seemed like total bull to me; I’ve never seen a crime or horror writer criticized for too gory a murder. Instead the critic just grimly mentions the level of violence to the reader, as if it’s a point in their favor about their writing style and that they don’t shy away from reality. But romance writers – and let’s face it, it’s because they are usually women writing for mainly other women – get the “mommy porn” thing because god forbid we should show anyone what two people engaged in a mutually satisfying, sexually healthy relationship looks like. Those soccer moms might get ideas or *gasp* expectations.

Some key points Kane touches upon for writers (and which are visible to readers) are vital for emotionally tying us to the characters. Her warning to make everyone wait (for example, the suggestion to write an amazing kissing scene that’s clearly headed you-know-where and interrupt it) builds anticipation. For writers blocked about writing sex scenes, she has the brilliant idea of writing a dialogue between your characters where they talk about their feelings – and then you turn it into a sex scene where they are showing all those emotions through their actions.

Because that’s the point, isn’t it? That our characters show their true selves via their actions (and okay, sometimes their words, when they are actually coherent having sex) and that everything – from first glance to foreplay to actual sex to the aftermath – is built around revealing their soul and their emotion for one another. Let’s take a look at my top love scenes that fit this bill.

Memorable Sex Scenes: The Mrrrrooowwww Worth Reading and Re-reading

If you’re a romance reader, there are memorable sex scenes that are so hot you can’t help but think of them as I’m writing about this topic. Naturally, the writers showcased are women who also happen to be incredibly talented at strong characterization and airtight plotting, but since I’ve seen those qualities in other writers who are terrible at writing sex scenes, I consider these ladies to be the total package. Here are my favorites and why, in no particular order.

Author: Jeaniene Frost
Book: This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress series #5)
Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
Couple: Cat & Bones
Why: I adore this series (Jeaniene Frost seems incapable of writing anything that’s not absolutely stellar) and I’m sure people familiar with it are surprised that I didn’t list the famous/infamous chapter from the second book in the series, One Foot in the Grave. I absolutely agree that half-vampire Cat Crawfield and her vampire lover/husband/former professional whore Bones is an unbearably hot combination, but that truly astonishing sex scene is brought about the presence of Bones’ former lover Annette and his need to prove to her that she’s truly the love of his heart after she lays down a challenge to him to make her blush the next morning (and she does).

But the sex scene in This Side of the Grave is one between two people who have weathered ups and downs in their relationship and are secure as a result, and it gets listed here because of one very specific reason. It’s not just the unbelieveably inventive combination of candle wax and fangs, but the fact that Cat consciously lets down her final barrier in her relationship with Bones – the fear of how devastated he would be if she lost him. That realization makes this sex scene one in which she demonstrates how she’s decided to hold nothing back by consciously constructing a night of total pleasure for him. It’s so hot and moving that I find myself alternately fanning my face and choking up whenever I reread it.

Author: Stephanie Laurens
Book: A Rogue’s Proposal (Cynster series #4)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Demon & Flick
Why: I am the first to admit that Stephanie Laurens drives me insane with her tendency for purple prose. But the earlier Cynster books, while peppered with the occasional “flotsam” reference (ocean debris = not sexy, Stephanie!), possess fewer of these references with the sex scenes  stronger as a result, none more so than Flick’s deflowering scene. It happens on a dresser in an inn. Harry, aka Demon, is the most sensual beast of all the Cynsters and – as frustrating as his inability to express his love for her is – the one place he can show her how he feels is when they are intimate with each other. It’s not surprising she feels smug looking at his ass in the mirror as he makes love to her. Who wouldn’t?

Author: Lisa Kleypas
Book: Devil in Winter (Wallflowers series #3)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Sebastian & Evie
Why: Another deflowering scene that’s a favorite and honestly one that probably didn’t stop the clock in terms of how long it took. Sexy Viscount Sebastian needs a fortune and heiress Evie is happy to give him hers in trade for letting her escape her abusive relatives but they both agree the marriage has to be legal. Not a problem for Sebastian who’s seemingly bedded all of London’s females over age 17. Exhausted from their trek to Gretna Green and quickie marriage, Evie awakes from a very sexy dream to Sebastian kissing his way all over her naked body. What makes this so unbelievably sexy? The fact that he talks to her – playful, sexy, Sebastian talk that is the essence of his charming, roguish self – until you’re a puddle listening to him bring her to ecstasy  That he has an orgasm so mind-blowing and long that he feels that he might have been the virgin? Icing on the cake.

Author: Jennifer Ashley
Book: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Ian & Beth
Why: If you have to ask, you haven’t read this book yet! Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of the more memorable and unique heroes I’ve ever read. Landing on the autism spectrum in the 19th century meant you were thought mad no matter how brilliant you are, and it’s not like the era was renowned for the tender care of people with psychological differences. When Lord Ian meets the young and beautiful widow Beth, brought up in poverty and the recent heir to a fortune, he immediately wants her while his honest candor and devastating sexuality proves more than she can resist. While I like all their sex scenes, the one that stands out is the one where Beth visits him at his brother’s art studio in Paris to apologize for being nosy (she really didn’t need to). Ian worried he would never see her again and talks her into baring herself to him. Feeling her freedom, she takes off her clothes and dances a little around the studio in happiness with a sheer scarf, which Ian uses to reel her in and proceeds to bring her to orgasm, while never removing a stitch of his clothing. That in itself is damn erotic, but it’s his utter focus on her pleasure, the sensual enjoyment he takes of every little detail of helping her reach ecstasy, that makes this scene one of my favorites.

Author: Laura Kaye
Book: Hearts in Darkness
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Makenna & Caden
Why: Laura Kaye can throw down the hot emotional sex scenes with veterans in the business and always land at the top of the pack. In this book, our two protagonists are trapped in an elevator together, in the dark, and they didn’t get a good look at each other when they got in. Getting to know one another when it’s hot and stuffy in an enclosed space doesn’t sound awesome, but it is when the two people in question have a lot to reveal and the dark makes for perfect cover. That they get hot and heavy in the elevator (and then take it to her apartment) has been done before, but not like this. The unbridled sensuality and emotion inherent in Makenna, in the pitch black, feeling the piercings and scars on Caden face and connecting them with what he’s revealed to her makes your heart beat faster.

Author: Shelly Laurenston
Book: The Mane Event (Pride #1)
Genre: Contemporary Paranormal Romance
Couple: Dez & Mace
Why: I adore Laurenston’s ability to bring her brand of earthy humor to this incredibly sexy paranormal series. Mace Llewellyn has left his elite military unit (one made up of shifters like himself) and has gone into the security business with his best friend. They’ve based themselves in New York, not just because Mace’s pride is located there, but because this lion has been head over heels in love with the husky-voiced, half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican (extremely busty) Desiree MacDermott since they began high school. He knows that she’s the one for him, and class issues and the pesky fact that he’s a shifter (and she has no idea about their existence) isn’t going to get in the way. This book makes the short list based on one particularly AMAZING scene – and let me tell you, there are plenty of sexy love scenes in this series! – where Dez handcuffs Mace to her bed and has her wicked way with him. The neighbors calling the police is a given since lions are extremely noisy while being tortured with sexual ecstasy. It’s off the hotness meter not just because of what Dez feels comfortable doing with herself in front of Mace but because he wants to prove himself to her so much that he lets her take control.

Author: Kele Moon
Book: Defying the Odds (Battered Hearts #1)
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Melody & Clay
Why: If you haven’t jumped on the Kele Moon bandwagon, I honestly don’t know what you are waiting for. This astonishingly good writer won my heart with her unlikely tale of a working class victim of domestic abuse slaving long hours as a diner waitress who finds love with a UFC fighter. I knew absolutely nothing about this kind of fighting but Kele Moon’s plotting and characterization moved her into my “must-buy the pre-order” category and she’s never let me down. Clay Powers is a disciplined athlete with a tough beginning but good friends and the way he sees through Melody Dylan’s stress and exhaustion to the beautiful woman underneath will have you sniffling. That Melody discovers she is a highly sensual being at Clay’s hands is wonderful, and the make-up sex which occurs when she travels to Las Vegas to cheer on Clay in his big bout will have you never looking at a picture window over Sin City the same way again. Yowza.

The Future of Sex Scenes in Romance

While many people are crediting the Fifty Shades phenomena or the decline of civilization, the fact remains that romance novels, unless of a specific genre (like inspirational or Amish) are becoming more explicit in their sensuality levels. What RT Book Reviews lists as a “Scorcher” now would very likely have been erotica over a decade ago and there are classic romances that were considered hair curling in their time that I flip the page back with a “that’s it?” comment, thinking I’ve missed something.

My hope is twofold. One, that the trend toward explicit sex between characters means that readers and writers are more comfortable with sex as a natural expression between people. Clearly we see more sex on television and in movies, but a lot of it is objectification, not a loving expression between individuals, so romance fits a vital need to remind us of what sex can be. Second, I believe that there are a lot of truly great authors (see my shortlist above) and publishers who want women to demand their due both as consumers of the romance genre (hell, we deserve hot sex scenes between those fictional people we’ve fallen for!) and as healthy sexual beings in the bedroom. In the end, writers who write hot, emotional sex scenes have not only demonstrated their facility as people who have mastered a craft, but as pioneers showing us all what really love can look like in its most elemental form. And I would like to say to all of them – Thank You.

What favorite sex scenes of yours fits the criteria here? I’d love to hear about them. Happy Reading! :-)

References

Kane, Stacia (2010-07-19). Be A Sex-Writing Strumpet. Kindle Edition.

Creatures of Habit: Mapping Out Writing Routines

20 Apr

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Growing up, I was a horrifying child of habit with my mother despairing of getting me to try anything different. Peanut butter and jelly every day from grammar school to high school graduation; my books alphabetical by author on the shelves; and when I wasn’t wearing a Catholic school uniform on the weekends and vacations, I had multiple pairs of the same jeans which I would wear with multiples of the same shirts in different colors. At school, I needed my pens in a certain way on the desk and my textbook always in the left-hand upper corner of the desk, otherwise I had trouble focusing. Looking back on it, I’m glad few people knew about OCD back in the 80s otherwise I would have been taken to a therapist post-haste for evaluation.

I’m sure there was a lot of psychological stuff going on since at the time I felt there was plenty in my life not in my control and these were things I could control. Add to it that I was heavily influenced by being in Catholic school each day – a world in which ritual dominated literally every hour of my schoolday – so how could I not think about adding it rituals in other areas of my life?

Nowadays, I read a lot of nonfiction (yes, I read books other than romance, really!) and while I love history and biography books, I also enjoy social psychology books for the insight they offer on the world we construct for ourselves. As I try and carve out habits of writing, one book that has an application in so many areas is the The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Scouring various forms of behavioral research, Duhigg examines our approach to life, interpreting how and why we create habits. Businesses use social psychology to construct environments which play upon these desires and the health care industry is equally attempting to harness this knowledge to help us combat unhealthy behavior. (i.e., Need to fight your family propensity toward diabetes? Here’s how to map out a 30 day plan to exercise your way to good health.) One of the main points which stood out to me as someone trying to write regularly while also being a full-time (and sometimes more) worker, is that you have to approach any habit creation with steadfast determination, particularly because it takes easily 30 days to rewire the neurotransmitters in your brain so that the new behavior sinks in enough to be a less effort-laden routine.

For me a habit is very much a pseudo-ritual done a similar time of day each day and delivered with the same parameters. When I come home each day, I sit on the same place on the couch and usually eat one of around 12 possible dinners (I eat other stuff, too, but have a set of go-to foods). I read for a certain number of minutes, go upstairs around a certain time, wash up in the exact same order, and have recently trained myself to go to sleep by getting in bed and not reading or looking at a screen since that helps me fall asleep a lot quicker. There’s certain amount of wiggle room in this routine, but I’ll admit to getting a little pissed or at least out of temper if a wrench gets thrown in the works.

So with this revelatory piece of self-knowledge (please don’t judge me), I readily admit that for me to have any hope as a writer, it’s non-negotiable that I figure out some kind of routine or habit around writing. Part of my problem is that I have two routines: the school day routine and the vacation routine. For most people who have two weeks of vacation a year and a smattering of long weekends, a vacation routine is probably less of an issue, but, as an educator in a private school, I’m blessed to have off from early June to mid-August with a couple chunky times around the holidays and in early March where I have another two week block to myself. As a result, I need two writing routines in my life – one for when I am working and have significantly less time and one for when I have off and I have a lot of time.

Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone (Adams Media, January 2008)

Until I read Time to Write: More Than 100 Professional Writers Reveal How to Fit Writing into Your Busy Life by Kelly L. Stone, I honestly thought that there were only a couple types of writing routines and I worried that I didn’t fit any of them. Most recommendations geared toward working slobs centered on training yourself to get up a few hours before work and writing until you need to get ready.

Uh, I know you don’t know me, but 1) I am not a morning person and 2) I am almost Golem-esque in my worship of sleep. If there was a Sleeping Olympics, I’d be a gold medalist in both the Nighttime and Napping events, so writing has to be part of my normal waking hours. Stone’s explanation of the weekend writer, the after work writer, the during breaks at work writer, came as a huge relief for me as I realized there were available routines I could try to help me focus on writing.

But truly the best recommendation she had for me was her chapter on the “Writing Action Plan”. Relying on an individual’s vision of success as a writer and some practical ideas from established successful authors (one of the strengths of the book is the tidbits from name authors inserted throughout the text), Stone recommends applying the SMART acronym to your writing goals: they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited. Long-term goals should also have the subset of short term goals fueled by mini-objectives. Take a look:

Long term goal: Write a 60,000 word category romance novel geared toward Harlequin’s Blaze line by August 20th.

Short term goal: Write 1000 words a day (4 pages)/5000 words a week (20 pages).

Mini-objective 1: Purchase new Blaze books each month and read them to determine pacing, characterization and writing style preferences.

Mini objective 2: Read editor recommendations and preferences on Harlequin Writer’s Community forums to get a sense of key decision makers and their preferences and pet peeves regarding submissions (by May 1st).

Previously my long term goal would have been “Publish a romance novel” but that’s hardly helpful when I’m looking at laundry piles and professional reading obligations. Another terrific perspective with tons of practical advice added was the Kindle book Write Every Day by Michael Haynes. In under 70 pages, Haynes manages to cut right to the chase of writer anxiety, giving excellent suggestions on how to ramp up your writing into a viable habit through various types of accountability, both to yourself and to others. I loved, loved, loved his suggestion that deciding on a word count every day – no matter what kind of writing – so your brain and fingers get used to generating ideas and articulately put them somewhere was genius. Per his suggestion, I set a goal of 500 words per day and have been keeping a spreadsheet to see if I’ve been meeting it (and most days, I do). Haynes also walks the walk on his blog where he regularly discusses his monthly writing goals and fearlessly lets you know whether he’s met them or not in that time period. This is a writer who deserves an award for not only providing a great model but also for being so open as to share his process, warts and all. I know it makes me feel better and inspires me, all at the same time.

My biggest obstacle toward regularly writing is the elusive danger of “procrastiwork,” a term usually defined as important work you do but it’s not the work you should actually be doing at that time. While I didn’t know the name for it, this model was my default setting all through college and graduate school when I had any kind of reading or writing assignments (mostly for writing) and I would decide that my house desperately needed cleaning and why didn’t we have anything made in the fridge? After I got married, my husband adored my graduate school career simply because he came home every day to a pristine house and homemade meals cooking in the oven.

Procrastiwork doesn’t have to be a negative – many creative types think it actually helps them unleash new ideas – but is important to keep a handle on it. I find that while I’m cleaning and doing the laundry, I often am going through ideas in my mind for my writing project so I am more ready to sit down and crank out the word count when the final swipe is made on the kitchen counter. As long as procrastiwork doesn’t morph into a genuine avoidance, its power can be harnessed for good, and I’m hoping that my new series of goals in my writing plan helps me stay on track and keep it to a minimum.

In the end, creating habits isn’t easy work but it can be productive work that hopefully pays off with each writer finding herself closer to the original vision of success which had her begin writing in the first place. I’m certainly going to try some of these proven strategies to make writing the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my adulthood.

Building the Perfect Hero: A Study Using Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

21 Nov

The perfect hero – Sebastian St. Vincent from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas (Avon, February 2006)

I recently listened to one of my downloaded RWA Conference sessions, “Building the Perfect Hero” run by authors Jenna Kernan, Susan Meier, and Debra Mullins at the 2011 conference. I was wowed by their whirlwind tour of all the details necessary to build the ideal hero (I could barely keep up when typing notes and I am a fast typist!) and I couldn’t help but think, of all the romance books I’ve read who is a perfect hero?

Since I’ve read over a thousand romance books at this point, I sifted out only the five star books in my Goodreads account, keeping the four stars in mind. One five star book was hands down my favorite – Devil in Winter, book 3 of the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas. A Victorian era historical romance, I’m not compelled to reread the series over and over (like I do with Kleypas’ Hathaway series – I have to read all five of that series two or three times a year) but it’s rare a two month period goes by without my treating myself to a hot bath and Devil in Winter. In my opinion, it’s the best romance novel. Period.

Kleypas’ Wallflower series centers on four young women – two American heiresses, one penniless British beauty and a stammering redhead with a good dowry – who have discovered they are not hot properties on England’s marriage mart. They form a close friendship, determined to help one another find a good marriage and hopefully happiness. In the book prior to Devil in Winter, the oldest American heiress has managed to marry the Earl of Westcliff, but not before being kidnapped by his former best friend, renowned rake Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent.

In the opening of Devil in Winter, Sebastian is in his comfortable London townhome nursing the bruises from the beating Westcliff gave him after kidnapping his fiancee. Sebastian needs to marry an heiress, and quickly, since his wastrel father has spent almost the entire family fortune and Sebastian is rather used to a certain level of comfort. When Evangeline Jenner, the quiet redhead wallflower, turns up on his doorstep, unaccompanied, he has no idea if she’s there to berate him for his miscalculation in snatching her friend Lillian away from her betrothed or if she’s there to proposition him.

The answer is the latter. Evangeline (Evie to her friends) has kept secret from the other wallflowers just how bad her situation is. Daughter of a well-born woman who died young and cockney gambler, she has lived her life with her mother’s family with only visits to her father, the famous Ivo Jenner, owner of a renowned gambling club. Jenner has provided Evie with a substantial dowry and would inherit his fortune upon her father’s death, but that’s not helping her prospects. While lovely, no one looks twice at her due to her shyness and stammer, both conditions which can be laid at the feet of her highly abusive relatives. After they announce she will have to marry her corpulent and cruel cousin so they can benefit from her fortune, Evie takes a gamble herself. If Lord St. Vincent was desperate enough to kidnap a woman who didn’t want him, wouldn’t he be willing to elope with one who did?

One of the possible mental images for Sebastian

Sebastian agrees, a little surprised that he, a notorious womanizer, has never noticed just how beautiful this awkward young woman is. He bundles her to Gretna Green and then returns her to Jenner’s so she can nurse her father, who is rapidly dying of consumption. The transformation he undergoes in the course of the novel as he falls in love with Evie is what makes him the ideal example for crafting the “perfect hero”.

Using the some of the structure of their workshop, I’m going to highlight why Sebastian is such a perfect hero, but let me first point out that when Kernan, Meier and Mullins use the term “perfect” they are talking about a man who can carry a romance novel on his broad, muscled shoulders (along with the heroine, naturally). He may be perfect for the heroine, but like a rough diamond, a certain amount of transformation is going to take place on his journey and that, after all, our desire to see just that is why we bought the book in the first place. Be warned, if you are unfamiliar with this classic romance, there are plenty of spoilers in this post!

Strong Description of Hero

The first part of crafting the perfect hero is giving the reader a strong description of him. While readers of the Wallflowers series have met Sebastian in the other novels, it’s important that we see him through Evie’s eyes. Sebastian is known for his physical beauty, his wit, and his womanizing, so we already have a sense of a clever but selfish man clearly willing to put his own needs before others.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks…

There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks…His smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.

What I liked so much about the points being made in the workshop was the idea that the description of the hero needs to be richer than just a police blotter sketch of what he looks like. Using the description to incorporate backstory, speculation, attraction, perceptions, unique detail and possible conflict are ways of maximizing a physical description into something much more powerful to the reader. Jenna Kernan’s accompanying handout from the session has some terrific examples of this rich description.

Cultural Heritage

A view of 1840s British society – life would have been largely characterized by being seen at the right events

In contemporary romance, we live in an age where so many heroes and heroines come from diverse cultural and religious traditions, aspects of their culture that clue us in to their character based on how they embrace or reject these pieces of themselves. For historical romance, usually our main characters are white and well-born, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to consider their cultural heritage.

For Devil in Winter, understanding Sebastian means understanding the early Victorian culture of the time period and how it would shape his view of himself as a dissipated nobleman and also affect his view of women. As the son of Duke (and a very old dukedom at that) he would have gone to the best schools and universities, yet be raised for a life of indolence since his father was controlling and uninterested in having his intelligent son help him.

Yet for all we understand that, however distasteful to the modern mind, this profound regular waste of money in a society marked by horrible poverty at its base was accepted by the majority of citizens as simply the natural order. Noblemen were seen as wastrels and the hardworking poor led shortened lives. But Kleypas doesn’t make poor financial ability one of Sebastian’s flaws, unlike many of his ilk. Instead we are given to understand that Sebastian, while enjoying comfort, is not totally of this world of the profligate, but at the same time he’s hardly blazing a progressive trail, either. After hearing of his father’s unbelievable waste, Evie expresses her horror.

“No wonder you’re poor,” Evie said, appalled by such waste. “I hope you’re not a spendthrift as well.”

He shook his head. ‘I have yet to be accused of unreasonable financial excess. I rarely gamble, and I don’t keep a mistress. Even so, I have my share of creditors nipping at my heels.”

“Have you ever considered going into a profession?”

He gave her a blank look. “What for?”

“To earn money.”

“Lord, no, child. Work would be an inconvenient distraction from my personal life.”

Women were also divided into categories usually women you could marry (suitable, dowered, relatively class equivalent) and women you had affairs with (often from the same class, frequently married or widowed).  With no loving female relatives, Sebastian’s view of women is highly skewed as his womanizing puts him largely in the company of the type of women he can sleep with, and virgins like our heroine are very, very different.

Understanding not only the current status of Sebastian’s history and character, but more importantly the type of heritage which has formed him (and to his credit, I can’t imagine the heir to any dukedom taking up a profession) gives the reader a foundation when we watch him change as a result of his falling for Evie.

Naming Your Hero

The actual St. Vincent coat of arms from the Earl of St. Vincent (no relation)

It was interesting to hear in the workshop how authors choose the names of their hero. Names are definitely meant to evoke a visceral response in the reader and taking into account historical uses and the sound of the name (soft consonants could mean a smooth operator, shorter names with hard consonants denote men of action) is crucial.

Sebastian is derived from a Greek word, sebastos, meaning “venerable” which is turn is derived from the Greek verb sebas meaning “awe or reverence”. More tellingly regarding this Sebastian is it is also related to the Greek verb sebomai which translates as “feel awe, scruple or be ashamed”. A big piece of Sebastian’s transformation in Devil in Winter stems from his realization of how innocent Evie is in stark contrast to the debauchery he’s participated in and for which he now feels ashamed. His past gets in the way of his future when he worries he’s literally not good enough for her and the idea that he could taint her, ruining the part of her he admires the most, if he sticks around.

I think the St. Vincent part of his name (since we don’t ever read of a different surname, I’m assuming St. Vincent is both his surname and his title) certainly conjures up two reactions. First, it poses a foil for the current state of Sebastian when the reader first gets to know him. While his appearance brings a fallen angel to mind for Evie, she knows that his looks (and name) actually are the opposite of his behavior to date. Second, St. Vincent as a name hints at Sebastian’s true nature. From the start, he begins taking care of Evie and recognizing the wonderful qualities in her. Like a true saint, Sebastian is almost martyred when he literally dives in front of a bullet for Evie. It’s a very appropriate label for him.

It sounds as if many writers use resources like The New American Dictionary of Baby Nameswhich, despite its title, actually covers names from all cultures, explaining their meaning, the centuries and decades the names were popular, and any important literary references to the name. If you are looking for online resources, the Baby Name Voyager lets you put in a first name and see its rise and decline in popularity, at least from the 1880s to the present.

Family Matters

Heroes (and heroines) always bring a lot of emotional baggage as a result of their family experience, whether it be good or bad. It shapes the person they are.

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Sometimes it’s a little overnight bag of quirks and at other times it’s several steamer trunks worth of crappy home life and a violent adulthood, but our family and background shapes us. Even when your hero’s family is not present, they are still in your novel, since their influence for good or ill impacts how your hero will behave and react to events and people.

On their hellish drive to Gretna Green, Evie and Sebastian talk a little about themselves and their backgrounds, both as a way to pass the time (like soldiers in foxholes bound together by discomfort) and to know each other better since they are marrying. When she asks him if he has any family, he tells her his mother died when he was an infant, leaving him with his four doting older sisters. But all that love drastically changed when he was a child and he lost three of his siblings to scarlet fever – as the male heir he was sent to safety. His eldest sister married but she died in labor as well, leaving him with no one but an emotionally distant, spendthrift father.

Evie was very still during the matter-of-fact recitation, forcing herself to remain relaxed against him. But inside she felt a stirring of pity for the little boy he had been. A mother and four doting sisters, all vanishing from his life. It would have been difficult for any adult to comprehend such loss, much less a child.

It’s Evie’s understanding of this pain in his background – she’s a keen observer and an astute reader of character throughout the books in which she appears – that allows her to push through the walls he desperately tries to erect toward the end of the book when he is overwhelmed with feeling for her. After almost losing her again, he decides to send her away, on the surface for her “safety” even though the threat is removed, but in reality because he can’t handle his emotions or even put a name on them.

…He broke off and stared at her incredulously. “Damn it, Evie, what is there for you to smile about?”

“Nothing,” she said, hastily tucking the sudden smile into the corners of her mouth. “It’s just…it sounds as if you are trying to say that you love me.”

The word seem to shock Sebastian. “No,” he said forcefully, his color rising. “I don’t. I can’t. That’s not what I’m talking about. I just need to find a way to -” He broke off and inhaled sharply as she came to him. “Evie, no.” A shiver ran through him as she reached up to the sides of his face, her fingers gentle on his skin. “It’s not what you think,” he said unsteadily. She heard the trace of fear in his voice. The fear that a small boy must have felt when every woman he loved disappeared from his life, swept away by a merciless fever. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or how to console his long-ago grief. Raising on her toes, she sought his mouth with her own. His hands came to her elbows, as if to push her away, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. His breath was rapid and hot as he turned his face away. Undeterred, she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his throat. A low curse escaped him. “Damn you,” he said desperately, “I’ve got to send you away.”

Of course, he doesn’t and in fact Evie reassures him that the unsettling new feelings surging through him are not only natural but that he will adjust to them in time. As with so many crisis moments in romance novels, fear motivates a character to make a drastic decision, in the hope that they’ll avoid pain. Half the time the character isn’t even fully thinking through the situation. In Sebastian’s case he thinks that by sending Evie away, he’ll both keep her safe and have time to get a handle on his feelings. I think he would have lasted a whole hour without her before ordering his carriage!

Moral of the story: always consider what the family of the hero has given him and, in most cases, how it relates to his internal conflict (which is a whole separate section below).

Flaws

I gather from the knowing murmurs of the crowd at the RWA workshop and from the statements of the authors themselves, editors will often ask for a character’s “fatal flaw”. It seems like writers don’t seem to prefer that term (and it does sound like a terminal disease diagnosis, so I can’t blame them) but understanding the flaws of a character, and more importantly comprehending how to use those flaws in the course of a story, is the mark of a good writer.

What is a flaw, then? A flaw is a trait unique to your character that can be perceived as negative. Habits, attitude, or even physical imperfections all constitute areas for possible flaws. These details help people relate to the character which makes the story compelling, and a compelling story keeps readers coming back. (And as an aside, the speaker mentioned that stories must possess four qualities: they must be interesting, compelling, credible and consistent. I agree. Usually when I get cranky at a book, one or more of these pieces are missing.)

According to our experts, flaws play a few key roles in a story. Let’s take Sebastian as an example, specifically the flaw that he seems to be by his very nature, selfish. This is even acknowledged by the other characters in the book, like when Evie’s friend Lillian comforts Evie that Sebastian will not die of his wounds. “‘He’s not going to die you know. It’s only nice, saintly people who suffer untimely deaths.’ She gave a quiet laugh. ‘Whereas selfish bastards like St. Vincent live to torment other people for decades.’” But Sebastian’s selfishness plays a key role, one that I don’t think could have been fulfilled by different kind of flaw.

  • The flaw needs to fit in the story. Considering the fact that this is a story of a selfish man transformed by love, it’s a great fit.
  • Make your character empathetic but not perfect. Selfishness is often a developmental stage and the argument can be made that his age, his financial circumstances, his lack of responsibility and the absence of anyone who loved him all gave Sebastian a rather extended adolescence. The sudden acquisition of a business and a lovely wife who depends on him to live up to her expectations are all bound to challenge his selfish flaw.
  • What purpose will the flaw serve? Sebastian’s selfishness forms a clever barometer of his level of transformation (see the transformation section below for more information on this key factor in a perfect hero). He relapses here and there, but for the most part is faced with one situation after another in which he must choose to put his own comfort and needs behind that of others, thus eroding his selfishness and beginning his transformation.

The key piece to remember about flaws is that a hero shouldn’t possess a flaw that doesn’t in some way contribute to the story. Like everything, valuable word space is not to be squandered and detailing a flaw is no exception.

Internal Conflict

The hero’s sudden realization that his core belief is actually incorrect is a lot like the coyote having an anvil fall on his head. It’s painful and often requires recovery time.

Meier, Kernan and Mullins make the point in their workshop that all internal conflict arises from what they term “an incorrect core belief” the character has regarding themselves. This was utterly fascinating to me, since I hadn’t really spent any serious brain time contemplating core beliefs as they relate to characters, but obviously it is a great way to go more in depth with characterization.

A core belief is a broad and general conclusion people form based on life experience. Basically everything people do is for the express purpose of avoiding pain and creating pleasure. In thinking about Sebastian’s previous history of womanizing, it’s obvious that, in taking into account his personal history of losing his mother and four sisters, his core belief regarding women is that 1) women are designed to give him attention and 2) women don’t stay. These key points would make it a logical behavioral choice to sleep with plenty of women who are admiring you for your beauty and the great sexual reputation you have and then leave them before they can leave you. Core beliefs rule behavior.

However, most people have an incorrect core belief and these are core beliefs where the conclusion is not based on fact but instead often relate to shame or lack of trust (in self, in others, in life in general, you name it). Certainly Sebastian’s internal conflict centers on his understanding of his nature, which he feels is that of a totally debauched nobleman unsuited for life with Evie. You could say his incorrect core belief is that he doesn’t feel he can be trusted with anything innocent because prolonged contact will sully that which he most admires. His belief is delivered in the novel under various guises and with his characteristic wit, as evidenced by his reaction when Evie stubbornly refuses to move to Sebastian’s nearby townhome and instead insists on staying in the gambling club to nurse her dying father around the clock.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

While in the midst of attempting to prove himself to Evie, Sebastian even ponders how his very past would corrupt her, preventing him from having any real relationship.

He was in a peculiar state, struggling to understand himself. He had always been so adept at handling women. Why then, had it become impossible to remain detached where Evie was concerned? He was separated from what he wanted most, not by real distance but by a past tainted with debauchery. To let himself have a relationship with her…no, it was impossible. His own iniquity would saturate her like dark ink spreading over pristine white parchment, until every inch of clean space was obliterated. She would become cynical, bitter…and as she came to know him, she would despise him.

The fact that this supposition is incorrect is even reinforced by other characters who see the truth. While awaiting her husband and Cam, Lillian tells Evie that Westcliff believes Sebastian to be in love with Evie, a fact which startles her and gives her hope. When she asks why the Earl thinks this, Lillian answers.

“…Westcliff sees an odd sort of logic in why you would finally be the one to win St. Vincent’s heart. He says a girl like you would appeal to…hmm, how did he put it?…I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like…you would appeal to St. Vincent’s deepest, most secret fantasy.”

Evie felt her cheeks flushing while a skirmish of pain and hope took place in the tired confines of her chest. She tried to respond sardonically. “I should think his fantasy is to consort with as many women as possible.”

A grin crossed Lillian’s lips. “Dear, that is not St. Vincent’s fantasy, it’s his reality. And you’re probably the first sweet, decent girl he’s ever had anything to do with.”

Every editor wants to see characters grow, and having them correct an incorrect core belief is the easiest way to satisfy this need in a story. It doesn’t happen overnight, but instead it’s a gradual change with a satisfying ending. It begins with awareness “What if I’m wrong?”  The hero starts to watch for times when he’s wrong, begins experimenting with the veracity of his belief, and then finally undergoes the realization that he’s wrong. By using the idea of correcting the incorrect core belief, we can see how internal conflict leads right into breaking character or “the big transformation.”

Breaking Character or the Big Transformation

A phoenix rising from the ashes is a decent metaphor for a character’s transformation.

Our workshop authors tell us that “Donald Maass calls this the BIG TRANSFORMATION, not just character growth but the moment when the character is changed forever and will never be able to go back to who and what they were before. He calls this: ‘deep-down, soul-shaking, irreversible transformation for good and always.’” The easiest way to demonstrate this change is to show the hero putting someone else’s needs above his own. Despite the constant reminder, usually from Sebastian himself, that he is self-centered, evidence begins to pile up throughout the novel to the contrary.

The early flashes of kindness are the first clue that there is more to Sebastian than merely being a selfish womanizer and Evie sees this when she is taking stock of her fiancee’s character on the hellish ride to Gretna Green.

As the journey continued in a companionable vein, Evie was aware of a contradictory mixture of feelings toward her husband. Although he possessed a large measure of charm, she found little in him that was worthy of respect. It was obvious that he had a keen mind, but it was employed for no good purpose. Furthermore, the knowledge that he had kidnapped Lillian and betrayed his own best friend in the bargain, made it clear he was not to be trusted. However…he was capable of an occasional cavalier kindness that she appreciated.

After they arrive back in London as a married couple, they proceed straight to Jenner’s so Evie can see her father. Sebastian almost instantly begins to evince a strong interest in the gambling club he and Evie are about to inherit. For a man of his dubious personal background, a gambling club is all-too-familiar territory and he has a strong knowledge base. But having declared to Evie his abhorrence at anything resembling work, she’s surprised at his demeanor.

“I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all it’s secrets.”

Taken aback by the statement, Evie gave him a perplexed glance. She realized that subtle changes had taken place in him from the moment they had entered the club…she was at a loss to account for the strange reaction. His customary languid manner had been replaced by a new alertness, as if he were absorbing the restless energy of the club’s atmosphere.

The only thing that Sebastian is more interested in than the club is Evie, who is still refusing to sleep with him out of self-preservation. His obsession with Evie rapidly becomes apparent to others. Cam Rohan (future hero of the first novel in the Hathaway series, Mine Till Midnight) works in the club, having been friends with Evie since she was a child. Sebastian is jealous of their comfortable relationship and warns Cam to stay away from his wife, a wife he has said he has little interest in, despite evidence to the contrary. Cam observes:

There it was – a flash of warning in St. Vincent’s ice-blue eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would not admit to. Cam had never seen anything like the mute longing that St. Vincent felt for his own wife. No one could fail to observe that whenever Evie entered the room, St. Vincent practically vibrated like a tuning fork.

His obsession with Evie reaches a crescendo when, after some passionate kissing, Sebastian asks her why she won’t sleep with him when it’s obvious she desires him. She lets him know that she has too much self-respect to become one of a stable of women who he sleeps with.

“All right,” Sebastian said huskily. “I agree to your terms. I’ll be…monogamous.” He seemed to have a bit of difficulty with the last word, as if he were trying to speak a foreign language.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good God, Evie! Do you know how many women have tried to obtain such a promise from me? And now, the first time I’m willing to take a stab at fidelity, you throw it back in my face. I admit that I’ve had a prolific history with women -”

“Promiscuous,” Evie corrected.

He gave an impatient snort. “Promiscuous, debauched – whatever you want to call it. I’ve had a hell of a good time, and I’ll be damned if I say I’m sorry for it. I’ve never bedded an unwilling woman. Nor, to my knowledge, did I leave anyone unsatisfied.”

“I don’t blame you for your past…or, at least…I’m not trying to punish you for it.” Ignoring his skeptical snort, she continued, “But it doesn’t make you an especially good candidate for fidelity, does it?”

His tone was surly as he replied. “What do you want of me? An apology for being a man? A vow of celibacy until you’ve decided that I’m worthy of your favors?”

Struck by the question, Evie stared at him.

Women had always come far too easily to Sebastian. If she made him wait for her, would he lose interest? Or was it just possible that they might come to know each other, understand each other, in an entirely new way? She longed to find out if he could come to value her in ways beyond the physical. She wanted the chance to be something more than a mere bed partner to him.

“Sebastian…” she asked carefully, “have you ever made a sacrifice for a woman?”

He looked like sullen angel as he turned to face her, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, one knee slightly bent. “What kind of sacrifice?”

That drew a wry glance from her. “Any kind at all.”

“No.”

“What is the longest period of time you’ve ever gone without…without…” She floundered for an acceptable phrase. “…making love?”

“I never call it that,” he said. “Love has nothing to do with it.”

“How long?” she persisted.

“A month, perhaps.”

She though for a moment. “Then…if you would forswear intercourse with all women for six months…I would sleep with you afterward.”

Six months?” Sebastian’s eyes widened, and he threw her a scornful glance. “Sweetheart, what give you the idea that you’re worth a half-year of celibacy?”

“I may not be,” Evie said. “You’re the only one who can answer that.”

It was obvious that Sebastian would have loved to have informed her that she wasn’t worth waiting for. However, as his gaze traveled over her from head to toe, Evie saw the unmistakeable glow of lust in his eyes. He wanted her badly.

“It’s impossible,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”

He was so arrogant, and so indignant, that Evie suddenly had to gnaw on the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. She struggled to master her amusement, and finally managed to say calmly, “Surely it wouldn’t harm you to try.”

“Oh, yes it would!” His jaw hardened as he labored to explain. “You’re too inexperienced to understand, but…some men are possessed of a far greater sex drive than others. I happen to be one of them. I can’t go for long periods of time without -” He broke off impatiently when he saw her expression. “Damn it, Evie, it’s unhealthy for a man to not release his seed regularly.”

“Three months,” she said, “and that’s my final offer.”

“No!”

“Then go find another woman,” she said flatly.

“I want you. Only you. The devil knows why.”

But in the end he agrees. So astonishing is this promise that when Evie tries to convince her friend Annabelle (the heroine of the first Wallflowers novel) how Sebastian is changing by trying to be celibate, Annabelle almost has a heart attack and exclaims, “Good God. I don’t believe St. Vincent and the word ‘celibacy’ have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before.”

Evie’s idea works amazingly well, with both of them spending time together refurbishing and running the club. He continues to kiss her (and in some very provocative places) but they don’t have sex. After Sebastian takes a bullet for Evie while protecting her from a deranged assailant, he realizes that he in all likelihood won’t survive the infection that’s bound to set in. Lord Westcliff, his former best friend, had come to see that Evie was all right and to offer to take her home to live with him, but is able to see just from Sebastian’s demeanor that he has strong feelings for Evie. Returning to help combat the fever, Westcliff has the unique experience of Sebastian begging for protection for Evie, and apologizing to Westcliff for kidnapping Lillian. This uncharacteristic behavior prompts the following reflection from the Earl’s perspective.

To receive an apology from a man who had never expressed a single regret about anything, and then to hear him practically beg for his wife’s protection, led to an inescapable conclusion. St. Vincent had, against all odds, learned to care more for someone else than he did for himself.

In caring for Sebastian as he thankfully recovers from his infection, Evie begins to provoke both admiration and fear in Sebastian. He is moved by her tenderness and desires her presence all the time but finds himself overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings for her.

He hadn’t comprehended her strength before now. Even when he had seen the loving care she had given her father, he hadn’t guessed what it would be like to rely on her, to need her. But nothing repelled her, nothing was too much to ask. She was his support, his shield…and at the same time she undermined him with a tender affection that he had begun to crave even as he shrank from it.

Even after Sebastian is up and about, a second attack on Evie causes him to feel that it’s too risky for him to love her. Luckily it’s transparent to her what is happening and she’s accumulated enough confidence at this point to speak her mind and gently demand what she needs from her scared husband.

“You’re not trying to protect me. You’re trying to protect yourself.” She hugged herself to him tightly. “But you can force yourself to take the risk of loving someone, can’t you?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes. You must.” Evie closed her eyes and pressed her face against his. “Because I love you, Sebastian…and I need you to love me back. And not in h-half measures.”

She heard his breath hiss through his teeth. His hands came to her shoulders, then snatched back. “You’ll have to let me set my own limits, or -”

Evie reached his mouth and kissed him slowly, deliberately until he succumbed with a groan, his arms clamping around her. He answered her kiss desperately, until every part of her had been set alight with tender fire. He took his mouth from hers, gasping savagely. “Half measure. My God. I love you so much that I’m drowning in it. I can’t defend against it. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is that if I give in to it entirely -” He tried to control the anarchy of his breath. “You mean too much to me,” he said raggedly.

In the end, the real resolution of Sebastian’s big transformation comes when he finally understands that Evie knows him and loves him for himself, understanding every sordid thing he’s done in the past, and she is still the same wonderful, innocent person he first fell in love with, unchanged by this intimate knowledge..

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sebastian interrupted roughly. “Your stammer would never bother me. And I love your freckles. I love -” His voice cracked. He clutched her tightly. “Hell,” he muttered. And then, after a moment, with bitter vehemence, “I wish I were anyone other than me.”

“Why?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Why? My past is a cesspool, Evie.”

“That’s hardly news.”

“I can’t ever atone for the things I’ve done. Christ, I wish I had it to do over again! I would try to be a better man for you. I would -”

“You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.” Lifting her head, Evie stared at him through the radiant shimmer of her tears. “Isn’t that what you told me earlier? If you can love me without conditions, Sebastian, can’t I love you the same way? I know who you are. I think we know each other better than we know ourselves. Don’t you dare send me away, you c-coward. Who else would love my freckles? Who else would care that my feet were cold? Who else would ravish me in the billiards room?”

Slowly his resistance ebbed. She felt the change in his body, the relaxing of tension, his shoulders curving around her as if he could draw her into himself. Murmuring her name, he brought her hand to his face and nuzzled ardently into her palm, his lips brushing the warm circlet of her gold wedding band. “My love is upon you,” he whispered..and she knew then that she had won.

You can see from these excerpts how Kleypas manages to do it all. She shows the minimization of Sebastian’s flaw of selfishness, resolves his internal conflict by correcting his incorrect core belief that he would somehow corrupt Evie and alter her personality, while simultaneously completing the transformation he began in the first chapter. It’s a masterful piece of writing and characterization. Jenna Kernan also has a great handout on some of the key features of this big transformation (along with other terrific examples of transformation) that would be of great use to anyone working on their own perfect hero.

Since the tagline of Tori Macallister is “because in love we discover our best self” I’m naturally a huge fan of the big transformation. I firmly believe that strong, true, unselfish love for another person is the crucible that can strip away our worst qualities and transform us into a better person. Lisa Kleypas, by creating the immortal character of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, gives us literally a textbook example of creating a perfect hero. As a final note, I thought I’d leave you with a list of the other perfect (or damn close to it by these criteria) heroes I can read over and over again.

Perfect Heroes I Never, Ever Tire Of:

  1. Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas
  2. Cam Rohan, from Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas
  3. Leo Hathaway, from Married by Morning (Hathaways #4) by Lisa Kleypas
  4. Bones, from Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
  5. Simon Cynster, from The Perfect Lover (Cynster #10) by Stephanie Laurens
  6. Alasdair “Lucifer” Cynster, from All About Love (Cynster #6) by Stephanie Laurens
  7. Sylvester “Devil” Cynster, from Devil’s Bride (Cynster #1) by Stephanie Laurens
  8. Cameron Mackenzie, from The Many Sins of Lord Cameron (Highland Pleasures #3) by Jennifer Ashley
  9. Ian Mackenzie, from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1) by Jennifer Ashley
  10. Lucas Hunter, from Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh
  11. Nicholas St. John, from Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love by the Numbers #2) by Sarah Maclean
  12. Douglas Kowalski, from Midnight Angel (Midnight #3) by Lisa Marie Rice
  13. Dimitri Belikov, from Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

Enjoy your perfect hero, whoever he is, whether reading about him or creating him from the ground up. Just like the heroine who believes in him, he’s worth all the hard work to see him become a better, wiser person in love.

Reflecting on Cranking It Out: NaNoWriMo vs. Fast Draft

11 Nov

As most people who either write or who follow author blogs know, November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo to devotees. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words during the month, hopefully concluding their endeavors on the 30th with a decent draft to edit and then ship off to a publisher. (Does that make December National Novel Editing Month?)

There is a whole culture around NaNoWriMo, including t-shirts, comic strips, parody musicals, etc. and clearly they are all methods of procrastination. It’s a lot of writing and a LOT of pressure, but, as the Leonard Bernstein quote indicates on the flyer, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” As participants attest, you must average writing 1,667 words per day in order to make the target of 50,000 words.

While I do well under pressure, not having writing partners who I would be held accountable to certainly makes NaNoWriMo like exercising or dieting – it’s totally up to me to make it work and when life gets in the way, writing (and exercising) has a tendency to be the first thing to go by the wayside when I have kids and faculty relying on me for whatever is taking precedence.

When I went to my monthly meeting of the PLRW (Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers) Chapter of the RWA, not only did we do our holiday schmooze but we also decided to listen to a couple recordings from past RWA conferences. Our scheduled speaker had to be canceled due to weather complications (a few of our members from New Jersey and Pennsylvania couldn’t make it because they were still without power – thank you Superstorm Sandy).

Lovely, funny and authoritative writer, Candace Havens

With NaNoWriMo on the brain, the even more outrageous goal set by “Fast Draft: How to Write Your First Draft in Two Weeks” by author Candace Havens seemed downright laughable. And it was…until she started speaking. It turns out that not only is Candace Havens a hilarious public speaker, but she puts her money with her mouth is, not only using this technique personally but also teaching thousands (yes, I said THOUSANDS) of writers how to implement her Fast Draft method with the end result being 30% of them going on to actually publish their book.

Because I think you should actually buy the workshop (that’s the above link and it’s only $8 to download the hour-long seminar), I’m only going to highlight a couple key points that stood out. The number one way to get me to buy into an idea is to give me actual research, and Candace did that, right off the bat referring to the Fast Draft method of writing 20 pages a day (*gasp*) as tapping into a specific part of the brain. Once she started speaking, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Model Marine by Candace Havens (Harlequin Blaze, October 18, 2011) – If this is what she can write in Fast Draft mode, I’m trying it!

Candace said that, as writers, in actuality our creativity – our ideas, characters, plot, etc. – stems largely from our unconscious or subconscious parts of the brain. Our conscious brain fulfills the role of a highly critical editor and, unfortunately, when we write a small amount at a time painstakingly rereading our previous writing (and I am in no way casting aspersions – I know there are lots of people for whom this is a good method), we are feeding that conscious editor. The difficulty lies in the fact that he/she gets in the way of our creativity which is then relegated to the back of our minds where we are unable to benefit from it as directly.

The Fast Draft method takes into account the concept that “the more you write, the faster you write” and that by utilizing a methodology in which you agree to write for two and half hours a day (some people do a block of time, other people do snippets during the day which add up) and refuse to go back and read what you wrote or edit your writing, you are letting your creativity bubble to the surface. Because she offers Fast Draft in both a free Yahoo forum or a paid class where you get personal attention from Candace, she has said that by day 3 of the program, she receives a slew of emails from participants astonished by not only how much they were writing, but by how good the ideas were. Many people mentioned having no memory of several of the pages they wrote, yet those pages contained high quality material.

A visual of how “flow” works – note how participants need to have a high challenge level and combine it with skill in order to reach the psychological state that unleashes creativity

This description of participants’ experience made me think of the psychological concept of “flow” developed by Hungarian psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, discusses how people are happiest and most productive when they are completely absorbed in whatever activity they are doing. Writers, artists, gardeners, and athletes all describe a feeling of “being in the zone” where they lose a sense of time and feel like what they are doing is fascinating and exactly right. In essence, Candace’s description of the state experienced by her writers mirrors Czikszentmihalyi’s work, showing that Fast Draft has tremendous potential to unleash creativity.

It also makes me wonder if the successful participants of NaNoWriMo actually are using, perhaps unknowingly, Candace’s methods. I get the sense many participants sit for a few hours a day and work to crank out as much as possible, a process that would shut off their inner editor and be more likely to induce a state of “flow”.

Because I have the terrible habit of rereading everything I have written in a project and then continuing with part of the next scene, I tried Candace’s method when I got home from the workshop last night. I was astonished at how well it worked! I’m happy if I can reach about 1000 words in a session, but by giving myself permission to not have every sentence as perfect as I can make it (and by writing little notes to myself about things I needed to look up during the revision stage), I wrote almost 2900 words in about two hours. Considering that next week is fall term exams (meaning no prep for classes at night) and then I have a week off for Thanksgiving, I plan on putting this method to the test each day and see how I progress, with the goal of getting to her twenty page/5000 word mark each time.

Many thanks to both NaNoWriMo and the talented Candace Havens for helping me understand my creativity – and giving me a swift kick in the pants to write my novel! May all November writers find equal inspiration. :-)

Video Wednesday: J. J. Abrams and the Mystery Box

21 Mar

J. J. Abrams is a powerhouse of creativity.  A renaissance man, he is and has been a screenwriter, producer, actor and even a composer, and even if you don’t know his name, you do know his work (unless you’ve been living under a rock).  Current fans of the tv shows Fringe and Person of Interest know that Abrams has the ability to grip viewers and keep them waiting with bated breath for the next episode.

It’s a talent he’s always had. Fans might have been alternately elated and frustrated with the turn of the plot but they were never, ever bored. In Lost and, my personal favorite, Alias, Abrams employed not only his incredible sense of suspense-building but constantly brought the viewer along by employing a technique he calls “the mystery box”.

I first heard about the mystery box when I stumbled across Abrams’ TED Talk (embedded below).  In it, he presents a sealed box of magic tricks, purchased for him by his grandfather when Abrams was a child.

Never having opened it, Abrams uses the mystery of what is in the box as inspiration in his work. “So there’s this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling compelled. Then there’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination – the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.” Witholding information, answering the question, and then posing the next question, is something every good writer does.  Remember the first time you read The Hunger Games?  That book should have come with a warning “Don’t plan on doing anything else while reading this” because you couldn’t put it down.  Suzanne Collins was trained as a screenwriter and it shows in her ability to keep us turning the page, even if it is 3 am, and the alarm is going to go off in three hours.

As writers, we must all think of employing a similar device to keep our work moving.  Not just from a mechanical perspective, but for something bigger.  To Abrams, the mystery box:

“represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential.And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. Now, it’s not the most ground-breaking idea, but when I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge, I started getting interested in this.”

The presentation is about 20 minutes and it’s FABULOUS – Abrams is funny and uses examples from famous movies and television shows to help illustrate his ideas about how writers can use good writing and principles like the mystery box to keep people interested.  You won’t be sorry you watched it!

On the Importance of Archetypes: Jayne Ann Krentz’s Perspective on Romance Fiction

16 Mar

I vaguely remembered English course discussions (mind-numbing ones) centering on whether or not (insert protagonist name here) embodied the archetype of (hero, villain, trickster, etc.). Invariably some ass-kisser would bring in the Jungian archetypes (she had clearly taken a 200 level psychology class and wanted to show it) and I would start doodling in my notebook while the conversation took on the quality of Charlie Brown‘s teacher “wah-wah-WAH-wah…”.

So who the hell cares about archetypes anyway?  Well, it turns out writers should care, because a study of archetypes can offer tremendous insight into the characters we try to flesh out in mere words.  Sometimes books and writer’s guides call them simply archetypes, but there are other versions that exist like personality types, enneagrams, and zodiac signs which can all prove to be the brain jumper cable we require to see our character as a three dimensional person and transmit that understanding to our reader.

But before we go further, what exactly is an archetype?  At it’s most basic, an archetype is “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” usually seen as a general label that invokes immediate understanding in the listener or reader (like when someone calls your character a “player” in contemporary romance or a “rogue” or “rake” in historical romance).(New Oxford American Dictionary)

The psychology piece takes it a step deeper as Jungian psychology believes in archetypes as “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) In this school of thought, the idea reigns that we have embedded in our cultural psyche ideas of “the hero” or the “wise old woman.” Jung and some other psychologists believe tarot cards to be an example of people channeling the idea of archetypes and creatively using them to understand their world and their future.  This is really rather helpful for writers, since it means that we can spin variations of this theme but often merely have to invoke this archetype in the minds of our reader with a few broad strokes and the reader’s brain will automatically categorize the character accordingly.

When entering into a “literary” discussion of the romance genre, it helps to get an intellectual heavyweight on your side.  Jayne Ann Krentz, known to her fans under either her actual name or one of her many pseudonyms – Amanda Quick or Jayne Castle, are two popular ones – is an award winning author who is able to encapsulate the key points of romance in language that ties critics in knots.  Try telling the following to the next brandy-swilling snootypants who attempts to suck the fun out of you.

“The thing is, romance novels, like the other genres of popular fiction, descend from a different storytelling tradition — the heroic tradition. They feature the ancient heroic virtues: honor, courage, determination and the healing power of love. Most modern literary critics are stuck in a time warp that dates back to the middle of the twentieth century when the only fiction that was considered GOOD fiction was that which was heavily influenced by existentialism, various social agendas and psychological theory.” (Source: interview with Jayne Ann Krentz)

Krentz knows what she’s talking about.  Not only did she get her bachelor’s degree in history and her master’s in library science (whoo-hooo!! fellow librarian!!), but she worked for years in academic libraries.  Add in her thirty plus years of being a published author and you have someone who REALLY has given a lot of thought to the genre.  (For an even clearer view, take a look at the collection she edited, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance.)

Archetypes have definitely been a piece of this thought process.  In a recent interview given to the Popular Romance Project (SUCH a good site with one amazing video interview after another, like Jayne’s, and well-written guest articles, be sure to check it out), she paints with a few words why we love romance so much. It’s (thankfully) not about existential post-modernism or the deeper symbolism regarding the parrot on page 73, but instead about a story that is about two people on a journey, facing their problems with characteristics we can all admire. “[T]he hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues and they’re always the same. It’s courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love, and that’s at the core of all our heroic archetypes.”  Can you even think of a hero that didn’t have, at his or her core personality, these values?  Of course you can’t, because we wouldn’t love him or her as a reader.

Popular fiction employs archetypes as much as literary fiction or sweeping Greek epics do, because they are essential to our understanding of story.  Noting that no one seems to ask what need popular fiction fills in our mind and heart, Jayne has a theory.  “…I’ve, over the years, sort of evolved a Jayne’s theory of popular fiction evolution, which is that it wouldn’t survive unless it served a real purpose for the survivability of our culture; and I believe that it’s in popular fiction that we preserve our society’s—our culture’s—core values.”  If those core values are about love and caring, about courage and integrity, then I am incredibly glad that I live in a society that recognizes their importance.

One of the other criticisms I hear of popular fiction is how “unrealistic” it is. Conversely the opposite is praise for literary fiction (which never gets called popular fiction no matter how popular it gets) which is often touted for being gritty and realistic. But Jayne Krentz has a rebuttal for this negative perspective.

“It is not the task of popular fiction to be realistic. It may feel realistic upon occasion…. Popular fiction encapsulates and reinforces many of our most fundamental cultural values. Romance is among the most enduring because it addresses the values of family and human emotional bonds.” (Interview)

Is this the reason women in particular value romance so much?  Because we are geared to value those emotional bonds between people, particularly those of love and passion? The “realistic” thing always makes me cranky.  No Harry Potter is not realistic, or a girl falling in love with a vampire, or a guy who dresses in black and protects Gotham City with his ginormous wealth and infinite array of gadgetry. Are they stories people love to read?  Hell, yeah, and the characters are all archetypes at their core.

With this in mind, understanding archetypes is an important tool in the writer repertoire. There are plenty of books for writers out there that deal with character development, but one that might help is a book by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.  I have so many post it notes in this book, it looks like a pink paper porcupine!  After a brief discussion of archetypes and their importance, Victoria Schmidt goes into several female and male archetypes, discussing their overall character traits, their flaws and positive qualities, how other characters view them, and, for many of the archetypes seen as positive, how they could become villainous.

Supporting characters are also given their own mini-archetypes and it’s impressive how as you read, you can’t help but think of characters of books you loved.  The last part of the book is spent outlining the feminine and masculine journey our characters/archetypes might take.  It really gets the brain juices flowing!

So for writers or would-be writers of popular fiction, don’t underestimate the power of archetypes to help your character development and plot brainstorming. Remember popular fiction is worthy of respect and admiration for the same celebration of human values that literary fiction possesses. By learning about the commonalities between them, we can appreciate all fiction and what it teaches us about being our best selves.  Enjoy!

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