She Who Hesitates

While waiting for my mom to get ready for a trip to the grocery store, I passed the time by perusing the San Diego Union Times. I saw an article go by that described a book touting the idea that in addition to everything else our hurry-up, go-go, do-do lifestyle is costing us, it’s also tempting us into more and more stupid decisions.

I regret I cannot recall the name of the book, but it purported to be a well supported, scientific case for the idea that the best decisions are the ones made with the greatest deliberation, just short of waiting too long. This flies in the face of much that we hear:

Go with your gut.

Your first choice is usually correct.

He who hesitates is lost.

Just do it.

By contrast, the author pointed out something I think should be obvious to everybody who’s ever started doing the homework assignment before the teacher finished explaining it (only to find when they get their grade that they did it wrong): Good decisions are made based on good information. Ergo, the longer you sit with a choice, gathering data about the options, pluses and minuses and your reactions to them, the more likely you are to make a good decision for you.

My editor may be on to the same reasoning, because she has challenged me with my next book (about Sebastian and Milly, whom you haven’t met and I’m just getting to know), to up my craft. Madam Editor says to take my time, to nibble and nosh my way through this book, not set the world on fire with a land speed record.

The result so far (about ten percent done), is a process I’m enjoying very much. I made myself figure out the entire general plot before I worked on the opening scene (thank you, Kansas). I don’t start a scene until I know what makes it an “uncuttable” addition to the book. When I write the scene, I’m mindful to put that uncuttable aspect as close to the end of the scene as I can, and I’m trying to make the writing vivid, precise and wracked with tension.

This is fun. Instead of telling myself, “If I average 3000 words a day, I can finish a draft in a month,” I’m telling myself, “It’s not done until you say it’s done, so take your time, and write the heck out of it.”

We’ll see if I can sustain this approach for an entire book, and what the results are. My next step is to figure out what about impulsive decisionmaking is so attractive, and how I can slow the process down to improve its results.

Do you have any rules of thumb regarding decisions? Do you wait twenty-four hours if it involves money? Always consult your spouse if it’s kid-related? Put off until tomorrow if you can?

To one commenter below, I’ll send a signed copy of the Advanced Reader Copy for “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” or the Grace Burrowes book of their choice.

My Favorite Line

I have a lot of favorite books. As a kid, I loved the Uncle Wiggly series, mostly because my dad read it to us at bedtime, and seemed to enjoy the Skillery-skallery Alligator more even than my brothers did. Dad also referred to my mom, a registered nurse, as Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy, which probably endeared the series to us further.

I adore certain passages of the Bible as translated in the King James version. Regardless of any theological inclinations, this is gorgeous, vintage English employed in the expression of some beautiful sentiments.

In first grade, I read about Dick, Jane and Sally (though I always wanted more stories for Spot and Puff), and was soon reading every horse story the school library contained. I quickly moved on to anything Hardy Boys, some Bobsey Twins, and a smattering of biographies.

Then, in third grade, we had a story hour one day over in Mrs. Sofranko’s room, and that is when I learned the meaning a “favorite” book. Mrs. Delores Sofranko was cool. She’d done a Peace Corps year in Nigeria, she was pretty, and she had a smile that said every child she ever met was a wonder to her. The lady could teach.

The book she chose to read to us that day was simple, not even a chapter book, though her audience had reached the venerable and smug age of eight. I mean, this was a children’s book, but I gobbled up every word of, “The Dot and the Line.”

A tall, dark, relentlessly straight Line, falls in love with a carefree, happy-go-lucky Dot. She thinks he’s serious, dull and not worth a second look—the mad Squiggle is ever so much more fun— until the Line realizes he can… bend. With some effort and imagination, the line bends to form an angle, and then he contorts himself into increasingly fascinating geometric shapes. As the book progresses, so does the romance, until at the end, the Dot and the Line realize they can live happily ever after.

Put them together as illustrator and author Norton Juster did at the end of the tale, and you get an exclamation point! In the movie version (there was one), the tagline is: To the vector go the spoils.

The subtitle for the book is, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics.” I loved it. When we were given an art assignment to draw a scene from the book, I drew the Dot and the Line eating popcorn on a park bench. They didn’t quite sit next to each other, so we know the scene was from the first half of the book—right?

I loved the cleverness of the book, the utter impossibility of two such different characters finding a way to be together. I loved that the Dot had to realize that the Squiggle was silly and disorganized, while the Line had find the courage for self-expression and creativity. These characters had arcs, they had to risk changing their self-concepts, and they found their Happily Ever After.

When Jo Bourne won her RITA for the Best Historical Romance of 2011, she used her moment at the microphone to thank her teachers. I didn’t start writing romances until I was in my late forties, but my enthusiasm for the genre traces back to that day 45 years ago, when I heard an inspired teacher read a simple book, “The Dot and the Line.”

 What’s the first book that stuck with you? Any idea what made it so memorable? To one commenter, I’ll send a Toby Stephens version of the “Jane Eyre” DVD.

The Big Squee

The 2012 Annual Conference for Romance Writers of America has just wrapped up, and I think it’s pretty much true a good time was had by all. This, to me, is remarkable.

Take 2000-plus, articulate, talented, determined women, put them essentially in competition with each other for very scarce publication resources, add some alcohol (some is a relative term), sleep deprivation, travel hassles, and awards-ceremony tension. Toss in the zipper that sticks just before a pitch session, the room key that won’t work, and the crises at home that MUST pop up when Mom or Wife goes AWOL for more than a day, and…

You get one of the nicest gatherings of any professional association I’ve ever attended. I put off attending any writers’ conference at all until I had nearly two dozen completed manuscripts. I dreaded giving up any of my precious unstructured time to a gathering I was certain would be a cross between Survivor and Sorority Carnivores From Outer Space.

I could not have been more wrong. Maybe I’ve spent too much time around litigating attorneys, maybe I don’t understand my own gender; more likely, romance writers are a culture unique on the planet. They believe in true love, they believe the big prize is a chance to live a life based on honor and integrity, they believe in an abundant universe despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

I was nominated for a RITA award this year, which went to the very talented and gracious Tessa Dare. She deserves it–she deserves several RITAs, come to that–but being nominated made me ponder what I’d say to my professional community if I had their attention for ninety seconds.

I’d say what every award winner said when it was her turn in the spotlight: Thank you. Thank you for being such a supportive, adult, generous, constructive group of people. Thank you for offering a sense of community, regardless of our differences. Thank you for writing all those wonderful books, because the world needs happily ever  afters and the people who believe in them.

OK. Now, over to you. You have the microphone, the spotlight’s on you. If you could tell your immediate community anything, if you could focus their attention in any direction, what would you say?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Joanna Bourne’s RITA award winning historical romance, The Black Hawk.


Be Angry and Skim Not

Once upon an earlier time, I took an interest in Family Systems Theory. How do families work and what happens when they don’t? How are families the same from culture to culture, how are they different? The topic is absorbing, and even if you started life in a basket surrounded by wolves on a hillside, you have issues about family (or the lack thereof).

In the middle of this preoccupation, I also took an interest in the emotion of anger, partly for its universality. In every culture, there are expressions of anger, some subtle, some violent, some humorous and everything in between. Then too, anger is a handy tool. It connects us and distances us at the same time. The object of your anger, be it a person, ideology, trauma, or parking ticket, exerts great sway over you, even as you wrap yourself up in the righteous conviction that you would NEVER pass a law that lame, act like such a jerk, or otherwise resemble the object of your ire in any way whatsoever.

Some people excel at using anger as fuel. They steam around on the strength of resentments, old wounds, and seething fantasies of revenge and power. Take their anger away and their identities would collapse—countries can function this way too, of course. If you don’t know what you stand for, you can generally avoid the hard, scary work of figuring it your identity by making a loud, messy business out what you’re know you’re against.

Personally, I’m not on keen on carrying around a lot of anger, though I understand it’s a useful emotion if properly dealt with. When I feel it getting a grip on me, I try to find some micro ritual for getting off the anger hamster wheel. A good book can figure prominently in that process, but so can cleaning off my desk, taking a load of novels to the women’s jail, talking to a good friend, or journaling.

As a writer, though, anger for my characters is good stuff—not because it leads to fight scenes. Oddly enough, as author and literary agent Donald Maass has pointed out, fight scenes (like intimate scenes) can be down right skip-able, particularly if they’re all action and no empathy. (For that and other brilliant writing insights, check out his “Writing the Breakout Novel” series.)

What I like about anger as an author, and have come to respect about it as a human, is that it generally disguises some more complicated emotion. The villain is angry at the hero, but if that villain is going to pull his share of the dramatic load, then as an author you’ll reveal that hurt, loss, powerlessness, and family honor (and perhaps a hint of egomania) are all fueling the Bad Guy’s dastardly plot.

Generally, if a character is acting, speaking, or reflecting angrily, we’ll soon catch a glimpse of shame, fear, exhaustion, bewilderment, or a more humanizing emotion at work. If the Regency heroine is ready to wallop the hero’s cheek for challenging some drunken lout to a duel over her honor, behind her fuming about men’s crack-brained arrogance, you will soon sense that she’s scared not of the ensuing scandal, but of losing her beloved.

Anger for the novelist points the way to the emotional minefields that make books so interesting to write—and hopefully to read.

Was there a time though, when you read a character who was angry, angry, angry, and that character just didn’t work for you? If so, was it because the underlying emotion never quite saw the light of day, or was there another writing flaw at work?

Plugging Into My Outlet

There I was, sharing a cup of hot chocolate at Panera with my friend Graham, relating the challenges a published author faces—I was not whining—when he casually observed, “You need an outlet.”

I hopped into the Wonder Tundra and drove to California and back a couple weeks ago, with his advice ringing in my ears. What did he mean? Six thousand miles later, I have a Clue.

Once upon a time, I was an aspiring musician. I wallowed in music and got a sense of competence and confidence from my increasing skill, and a lot of joy from indulging a personal passion. Then I started supporting myself with my music, and… the game changed. I had to worry about what to play for this ballet class or that class reunion, I had to chop down some repertoire to fit into perfect eight measure phrases, I had to simplify pieces to be able to handle them up tempo, and so on.

Love became tempered by the need to eat.

When I became a mother, I adored my newborn child and got up five times a night to tend to her smallest whimper, and I delighted in doing so. A few years later, love had to be tempered with boundaries, or nobody in the house was going to be functional for very long.

When I rode horses, I did so out of sheer love for the beast, and the saddle was my happy place. I again enjoyed a sense of competence and confidence from growing (though never very impressive) skill, and when I was on my horse, the big, bad world, with its unfairness and bigotry, violence and injustice, did not touch me. I cannot afford to ride like that any more, so alas, that happy place went on hiatus.

But I still had the writing… another happy place, where for hours at a time, I could fashion worthy characters, big challenges, and a reliable Happily Ever After, which I badly needed after a day in court.

Except the writing now has to be tempered too. I need a little thicker skin for when reviews that are not just critical, but downright mean, come raining down on my parade. I need discipline, because deadlines wait for nobody’s mojo. I need marketing savvy, because the publishing industry isn’t merely changing, it’s in outright revolution. The sense of growing confidence and competence I had as an aspiring writer is tempered with caution and humility. Nobody gets published without an entire village behind them, even if it’s the publisher’s village on salary whom you never get to meet face to face.

So…tempering makes things stronger, and I hope as a writer I’m being tempered by wisdom and experience.

And yet, Graham was absolutely right: I need an outlet. A place I go to out of sheer love for the things I can do and experience there. A place free of judgment, and full of good will and the pleasure of growing skill. Maybe I’ll take up knitting, maybe I’ll write some nonfiction, maybe I’ll join… a book club (do not laugh, please).

Or maybe—radical thought!—I’ll open the lid of the piano that has sat silently in my living room for ten years.

What about you? Where’s your happy place, and how did you find it?

Why Do You Women Read That Stuff?

I had dinner with a good friend the other night, and in the course of the conversation, the question came up that blights many an otherwise sanguine exchange with a romance aficionado: Why do you women read that stuff?

What he was asking, though, was: Why do you women write that stuff? There are as many answers as there are authors, or readers, but this was a guy, a spectacularly nice guy, but a guy just the same, and I think what he was trying to find out was what I hope to accomplish by putting my books out in the world for purchase.

Or to put  it in guy-speak: What is that stuff supposed to do?

One answer that came to my mind (later, of course) was: Romance is an antidote to cable news.

We’re taught from little up that it’s a privilege to participate in a democracy, and many people around the globe throughout history haven’t had the freedoms we do. With the freedoms, and representative government, goes an obligation to remain informed about what our society is up to, and to contribute knowledgeably to the decisions it makes. This duty to remain informed has been parlayed by some, or constricted by market forces, into a presentation of the nightly news that grabs the viewer’s attention, chokes it viciously about the neck, and flings it thoroughly overwhelmed and wrung out into the corner at the end of 48 minutes of programming, and twelve equally predatory minutes of advertisements.

And what do those 48 minutes consist of?

A race among the horsemen of the Apocalypse for top story. A tour de force of misery and mayhem, and we’re told this is what it’s important to know about the world around us (though I suspect, these are the stories most likely to raise viewers for the advertised products which now support the entire journalistic endeavor—alas for the fourth estate). Yes, there are journalists who focus on the positive, occasionally, and there are human interest stories, but when are they ever at the top of the hour?

Romance, to me, is about the belief that if you love yourself and others with integrity, if you take responsibility for your personal growth and maturation, your relationships will be healthy, and your life will be blessed with love. This is a hopeful outlook, not always easy to maintain. There are big black moments in life, and they’re hard as hell.

When I face them, I do not want to be pounded with all the times my species has failed this very day to meet the challenges of living together with respect and cooperation. I want to be reminded that love does conquer all, human kindness is a quiet and powerful tide all around me, and the path of life need not be lonely even at its narrowest points.

It is important to be informed regarding current events; it’s more important to be reminded of the eternal verities.

Writing a Resurrected Dream

 My editor once observed that the heroes of my first three books are “so different.” Gayle Windham, The Earl of Westhaven, from “The Heir,” is a studious fellow with a legal bent, a man comfortable with management and the complexities of business. His older half-brother, Devlin St. Just, from “The Soldier,” excels at the equestrian arts, has little use for polite society, and loves the scent of freshly baked bread. Rounding out the trio is Valentine Windham, who by virtue of obsessive focus has perfected musical skill to the point where his book is titled, “The Virtuoso.”

At first I considered that their individual traits were simply large-family dynamics at work, where differentiation occurs because (in my opinion) parents can’t focus as closely on eight separate children the way they can one. Then too, if a child is competing for scarce parental attention, the child is more likely to hone individual strengths and even capitalize on weaknesses, the better to stand out from the crowd.

Then I looked more closely at the heroes I’d written: A consummate manager, a consummate equestrian, a consummate musician. Heaven help me, I’d written into these men three of the largest dreams I did not make come true for myself.

When I started law school, I worked for Fortune 100 firms as a contract administrator. I negotiated deals with the federal government, oversaw subcontracts in the tens of millions of dollars, and generally wallowed in commerce—only to find I stank of corporate endeavors, and it was not a pleasant scent to wear eighteen hours a day.

Before that, I’d wallowed in music. My friends were musicians, my profession was music, my academic focus was music, and my recreation was music. I was playing catch up, though, because as intuitive as my grasp of music theory was, as much as I loved music, I was a lousy performer who’d gotten a late start with my instrument. I saw a lifetime of feeling inadequate stretching before me as a musician, and I headed off to law school instead.

And the horses? I love horses, but again, my love does not equate to proficiency in the saddle. I thought I’d contribute something to the sport by managing recognized equestrian competitions. I was good enough at it, but the job was thankless, full of liability, and without remuneration. I have managed my last horse show.

I still own horses, I still have a piano, and I still run my little law practice. My musical, business and equestrian dreams did not come true, though. I’d thought I chosen different roads in the yellow wood, and set aside the dreams I’d originally envisioned. Now I find those dreams served one more purpose by defining the heroes of my first three books. Their Graces have eight surviving children, and I’m looking forward to finding more resurrected dreams in their books.

What about you? Have you set aside dreams, only to find them back in your life in some altered, more enjoyable form?

To one of this week’s blog commenters, I’ll be giving away a signed copy of “The Virtuoso.”

On the Shoulders of Giantesses

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” (letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675-76). I haven’t read romance for almost forty years without coming across some giants, or giantesses, as the case may be.

The first was Judith Ivory, then writing as Judy Cuevas. I was at the end of a miserable pregnancy, on complete bed rest, in bed on my left side, trapped in a little apartment with My Mother the Registered Nurse, and scared to death of impending motherhood. Into this slough of despond dropped a little book called, “Starlit Surrender,” an earlier incarnation of “Angel in a Red Dress.”

I devoured it, and for the first time in my reading experience, went right back to the start and devoured it all over, right then and there. It is my all time, best ever, favorite book. Drug addiction, divorce, intrigue all in a historical package (Georgian, technically, though the feel is Regency). And the writing—sumptuous, glorious, wonderful writing, and she does it in every one of her books. If ever there was an author whom I wish were more prolific, it is she.

Then there’s Mary Balogh, author of one of this year’s Publishers Weekly Best Romances, “The Secret Mistress.”  A big portion of my keeper shelf is Mary Balogh, with the Simply’s having pride of place. And the whole time I’m reading her books, in the back of my mind, I wonder, “Is it because she’s Welsh that the language is just so exactly right? Does Welsh origin give one a spectacular touch with sexual tension? ARGH. How does she do this?” (And when can I start dating Welshmen?) I buy Mary Balogh hardbacks the day they come out, without reading the flap. Have to have them. And when I go to heaven, Bewcastle is going to give me that smile that’s worth waiting three hundred pages to see. He is.

Eloisa James is another must have. She has the knack of sketching a character’s internal landscape in little, deft strokes, even as the overall image emerges lush, nuanced, and perfectly meshing with the other characters. I could eat these books up with spoon. And I heard her speak at a national conference. For the words, “Love heals shame,” I will dwell eternally in her debt.

J.R. Ward, for many, many reasons is on this list too. I think she more than any other author has hit the nerve of men’s loneliness for each other, of their need for fathering, and brothering, and purpose shared with other men. This is touching stuff, occasionally profound, and it requires a very confident, daring hand. When it’s wrapped up in paranormal creativity, vampire libido, and alpha-dawg dialogue, it’s irresistible. I periodically read through the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood series from start to finish.

There are many other authors about whom I will gush at another time–Joanne Bourne, Carolyn Jewel, Loretta Chase, Meredith Duran, Julie Anne Long, Jennifer Ashely, to name a few. These are some of the ladies who are mega-vitamins to my motivation. For me, their books function just as effectively as pharmaceutical stimulants, (about which, more later), and you can’t overdose on them. To these writers, I cannot offer enough thanks. If I never put fingers to keyboard in pursuit of publication, I would still owe these women for the relief from loneliness, boredom, fatigue, and frustration their works have given me.

It’s a wonderful world when for just a few bucks you can stand on the shoulders of giantesses such as these, again and again and again. Now, if you will excuse me, my keeper shelf is calling me, and not even for a hot Welshman will I ignore that.

So whose shoulders do you like to stand on, hmm?


The Virtuoso’s Play List

For each book featured in a newsletter, I’d like to answer a question that either came up frequently on the blog tour for that book, or should have come up frequently and didn’t. The Virtuoso being about a musician, I expected to be asked if I listen to music when I write. It doesn’t say so on the website, but I have a Bachelor of Music degree in music history and my instrument was piano.

When Lord Valentine was acquiring his skill at the keyboard, the entire repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Handel, CPE Bach, and some J.S. Bach would have been available to him. Over in Vienna, Beethoven would have written all but his ninth symphony, and pianist and composer Muzio Clementi would have been touring to packed houses.

So what did I listen to when I wrote “The Virtuoso?”

Unless you count the contented snoring of my bull mastiff, I listened to silence.

In hindsight, I think I would have been happier had I pursued a college degree in composition rather than musicology, because even more than I liked to create music, I liked to listen to it being created. When I listen to music, my ear is not passive. I take apart what I’m hearing the way an art historian might assess a painting, even the mass produced art hanging in a hotel room.

You hear a string quartet, I hear a cello getting too bossy and a viola hiding under the second violin. I hear magnificent close harmony, or a bass line going muddy as the tempo picks up. In other words, I listen analytically.

I cannot turn this off any more than I can turn off the senses of taste and touch. It’s work for me to listen to music, just as it’s work for me to write. I enjoy both—enjoy them tremendously—but both take focus and effort.

Composer G.F. Handel

So, no, I do not listen to music when I write. That would be like trying to dance and write at the same time—nigh impossible for me. But—and you knew there would be a but—when I was writing “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish,” time was of the essence, and a Christmas feel for the book was also of the essence. To help me get a sense of Christmas into the book, I listened to Handel’s “Messiah” (the Christmas portion) almost incessantly when I wasn’t writing. I hummed it, I sang it, I whistled it—and happily “lost” the CD once the book was written.

The neat thing about that work is that even in the Regency period, it was popular Christmas music. Hearing the oratorio over and over, knowing my Regency characters would have been thoroughly familiar with it, helped the story flow more easily.

If there’s a question you’d like to see addressed in a future blog, send it along and I’ll try to work it in. If YOU had written the Virtuoso, what might you have listened to (beside my snoring bull mastiff)?

Web In-site by Grace Burrowes

A new author is warned that publicity will be a significant part of her responsibilities post-publication, and a website is one of the cornerstones of that publicity. I’m not a cyberphobe, but I’m not a techie, either.

And I am a Warp Nine introvert, the same as most other writers. I crave long solitudinous hours filled with only the sounds of my fingers tapping on the keyboard and my bull mastiff snoring contentedly at my feet. This business of building a website loomed for months as the nearest thing to housework: Necessary and a relief to get done, but hardly satisfying.

It will astound you to know my prognostication was wrong.

Having the talented ladies at Waxcreative, Inc., develop a website for me has meant I had to take a look at my author bios, and tell the thumbnail version of the Story of Me yet again in a way that might connect with readers. It means I’ve had to go sifting through my first two books looking for those few paragraphs that will best grab the reader, those snippets of dialogue that surprised me when I first reread them because, what do you  know, they’re good.

This is like looking at baby pictures with a younger version of me as a writer in the background. It shouldn’t be fascinating, but to me it is.

I’ve had to look at the earliest versions of my books for the scenes I deleted, some because they just didn’t propel the book forward, others had to be cut to make the almighty word count. The whole time I was on a scene-cutting revision—killing my darlings!—in the back of my mind, I consoled myself with the thought: I’ll have plenty of material for the website this way.

And of course, some of the scenes I had to cut felt as well written as anything elsewhere in the books. I loved those scenes and cutting them was painful.

Then too, I like websites with interesting little quotes sprinkled around on them, so I pawed through my Bartlett’s, hunting for the perfect words from the great and powerful, and what writer would not enjoy that exercise?

With my website up and running (soon!) I’m going to have my own blog again (to wit), and that means hunting up books to blog about. There is so much good writing out there, so much creativity and graciousness…. With my nose buried in a WIP, I forget about the pleasure of browsing among the websites of the authors who’ve comforted and inspired me as a writer.

And if that’s not enough to change my mind about the fun of developing a website, I hear from other authors how nice it is to be so directly accessible to readers. To get those encouraging emails and to be able to respond, almost real time, with the dog still snoring contentedly at my feet.

Hmm. Suppose I’ll go goggle at the pages under construction. I’ve done enough on the WIP for today and nobody is going to steal my dust woofies. What a wonderful thing it is to have a site under construction.

And how wonderful too, to be so pleasantly surprised by life, once again. To inaugurate the re-emergence of Her Grace Notes from developmental hiatus, I’ll give away a signed copy of “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish” to one person commenting on this blog. Just leave some version of your email, and I’ll contact you for more information within the next week if you’re our winner.