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My brush with a vanity press

With all the hoopla surrounding the launch of Harlequin Horizons last week, Harlequin's new vanity press arm, I thought I'd share my own brush with a vanity press, which happened about fifteen years ago.

I was in my last year of high school, which at the time in Ontario, was the OAC year (it came after grade 12, and was kind of like the qualifying year for university). One of the courses I'd been dying to take throughout my high school career was OAC English: Writer's Craft. That's where we really focused on learning how to write--though don't ask me to tell you what we actually learned. This was 1995, remember, and I'm getting old.

I'd been writing since I was about 13, and I had completed a YA science fiction novel. For my independent study in the class, I proposed to my teacher that I edit the novel and send it out to publishers so I could undergo the process...not of publication (I wasn't that naive), but of rejection, feedback, etc.

Looking back, I know now that I did everything wrong. But, again, the Internet was just a baby at this point. The World Wide Web had just bloomed. I got a copy of Writer's Market and went to town, mailing out my manuscript to anyone who took unsolicited submissions.

Rejection. Rejection. Good luck with your project, but...rejection. Wait, acceptance???

For anyone who hasn't had that amazing letter or call or e-mail that validates all those years of writing and slaving and trying, let me tell you: your heart freezes, then starts bumping along horrendously fast; your skin cools and heats, cools and heats; and your breathing becomes erratic. I was on cloud nine...

For all of ten minutes. Until my dad read the letter a little more closely than I was capable of (being in cloud nine as I was), and found that this company would be happy to publish my novel--because it was so great and had real potential, and it was a wonderful story--as long as I would pay them $1500.

Yep. Vanity press. And oh, it was tempting. But even then, my less-than-knowledgeable self knew that something wasn't right. And...I didn't have $1500. That was probably a good thing, actually.

I remember going from that ultimate high, right down into the depths of despair, as Anne of Green Gables would say. It wasn't a fun experience.

Since then I've learned one of the most important lessons any career-minded author needs to know: Money flows to the author, not away.

And what was the novel? I called it Troubleshooters, and it incorporated a cyborg, a psychic, aliens, a space war, time travel and a talking car. Here is an unedited excerpt from 1995:

I turned to help Andru and found him lying flat on his back while the second alien typed something into the Zanro'ide console. I took a few running steps and tackled the injured alien, but not before he'd struck the final key needed to start the bomb's timer. I got up off the floor and tried to stop the timer. Of course, I couldn't read any of the keys, so I had no idea what to press. The only figures I could read were the numbers, counting down, that I'd studied during my recovery.

"Tat! Start a total evac!" I screamed, tapping my comm. "We've got a bomb, ready to blow in five minutes!"

"Forceshield standing by, Kasi," Tat replied. "We can't set it up till you're outta there. Once it's up, it won't come down until all explosive devices are destroyed."

"Oh, isn't that great," I said sarcastically. "How big an area?"

"All the hangars and outdoor displays."

"Acknowledged." I tapped the communit to silence it.

I ignored the two Zanro'ides for now, knowing they would be invaluable to the WGSO, but unwilling to sacrifice Andru for them. Leaning down next to my partner, I noticed, with relief, that he was still breathing. I bent to sling him over my shoulder when something hit me in the back.

A laser shot.

"Oh, damn," I said.

Fortunately for me, the shot was from my own discarded gun, which was at one of the lowest intensities you could get. But it still hurt like hell. I turned to see the blond alien launching himself at me, but the shot had screwed something up, because I couldn't get out of the way. He landed on my back, and wrapped something around my neck. The world swiftly began to turn black and spin uncontrollably. Just before I blacked out, I swung my right fist up, and hit the alien firmly in the nose. His hands went slack and he slumped onto the floor. I held my throat for a minute, gasping for breath. I glanced at the alien to see what damage I'd done, and wished I hadn't. His face was a ruin, with dead, glassy eyes staring blankly, accusingly at me.

"It was you or me, buddy," I said.

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby: Romance isn't Porn

I was going to write just one post on sex in romance novels, but I think it's a topic that deserves more attention than that. So, look for this series to continue on Fridays, to get you all hot and bothered for the weekend. Oh, and thank you, Salt 'N Pepa, for the title.

Romances have gotten a bad reputation in the past for being "porn for women" or full of filler to pad the pages between sex scenes. This categorization is unfair, and I would have to ask if the people who make statements like this have ever sat down to read a romance novel.

Romance Writers of America says that:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
You'll notice the absolute lack of the word sex anywhere in there. But romance novels include sex to varying degrees, because in a story about two people falling in love, it's going to come up (no pun intended). Whether the author leaves the bedroom door closed, or treats her readers to a steamy, pulse-racing scene, or just has sexual tension building through the story, sex is there.

In romance and its sub-genres, the degree to which sex is included in the story varies, depending on the publisher, on the author, and on the sub-genre. In an inspirational romance, for example, sex will occur only after the characters are married, and will likely not be described in detail. In contemporary, paranormal, romantic suspense, and other sub-genres, there are few genre-based restrictions on how much sex is included. It would typically be up to the author and/or the publisher to decide how detailed they should be. In erotic romance, you'll see graphic sexual encounters, but the driving force of the story is still the relationship between the main characters (which is different than erotica, where the sex is the focus of the story).

Sex scenes in romances can run the gamut from sweet and tender to hot enough to make you want a cold shower. But the thing they all have in common (or should, if the author's done her job correctly) is that the sex is a natural extension (again, no pun intended) of the relationship. The hero and heroine don't meet in chapter one and fall into bed in chapter two (usually). It takes time to get there. Sexual tension needs to be built to the point that it's inevitable for the characters to take that next step. We believe they're hot for each other because we've felt that tension and need rising for the last umpteen chapters, so when they do finally consummate their relationship, it's the start of that "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" mentioned by RWA above.

So, do romance novels have sex? Yes, because relationships do. It's as simple as that. It's not dirty, it's not obscene, and it's not a reason to trash the romance genre. It's just a reflection of life.

Next Friday: Sex as a Plot Device

Happy writing!

Learning from others' mistakes

When you're writing a novel and you take a break to read one, would you rather read a really good book or a bad one?

Me, I'd rather read a mediocre one. (Yes, I know that wasn't one of the choices, but it's my blog, after all.) A book that is enjoyable, but maybe not so out-there good that it makes me wonder what the hell I'm thinking, trying to write my own book. I can still learn from a mediocre book. Bad books just act as a cautionary tale, and I try to forget them as quickly as possible. Luckily, I haven't read too many really bad books.

I have read a few books lately that fell into the meh category. They were enjoyable; the stories were pretty good, the characters were half-decent, but they just didn't resonate with me on a level that made me want to re-read them. (Which is the metre-stick of a good book for me.) But I learned from them.

1. Watch out for repetitive sequences. In one of the books, there was a lot of the same kind of action in the first half of the book: the MC goes out, discovers a snippet of information, and comes back to her apartment. Rinse, repeat. About three times. It got a little boring. When you have a lot of the same type of action, without really moving the story forward, it slows the pace.

2. Don't beat readers over the head with narrative. In another book, the author had a lot of repetitive narrative. Circular thinking on the part of the POV character, where she reiterated her motivation/goal over and over again. If a particular revelation/plot element is extremely important to the story, give it the weight it deserves and trust your readers to remember it without repeating it every five pages.

3. In a romance novel, sex does not equal romance. Anyone who's been on the WD Forums for awhile knows my thoughts on this, though I don't think I've ever had a full blog post on it. Hm. Fodder for another day. At any rate, romance novels are about the romance, not the sex. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy steamy love scenes (writing and reading them), but I'm seeing a trend in some paranormal romances to skip the relationship part of the romance and head straight to the sex. Sex should be a natural progression of a relationship that's developing, but emotions need to be engaged. And please, for the love of all that's holy, don't use sex as a convenient plot device, wherein the MC has to sleep with people to gain their abilities. Sigh.

4. Make sure your characters' Happily Ever After feels real. Even in a paranormal romance series, with loose ends flying about, you can give your readers a satisfying ending. But part of having an awww moment in your ending is making sure your characters' relationship throughout the book rings true. You want your readers to feel like the relationship will survive, no matter what life throws at the characters next. In one of the books I read recently, I didn't get that awww moment. Maybe because the characters didn't have a whole lot of one-on-one time; most of the time, there were other, secondary characters in the mix. Including the MCs from the previous book, who had a fair number of scenes to themselves.

I'm trying to keep these lessons in mind as I revise TOPAZ SKIES. What have you learned from books you've read?

Happy writing!


I am the subject of an author profile over at Emily White's Stepping into Fantasy blog today. Go check it out!

My deep, dark secret

I'm a writer.

I write weird stories about people with strange powers.

And it freaks me out to talk about it.

There's an opportunity coming up, care of my RWA chapter, to pitch to an editor. The idea of sitting there and telling someone about my writing--selling it in person--is seriously freaking me out. I know that this is something I'll have to get over as I foray more and more out to agents, etc., but it just feels weird to talk about my stories.

Like when I'm at my RWA chapter meetings, and someone asks me what I'm working on, I can feel the blush start to rush up my neck and into my pale, freckly Irish complexion. (World-class poker player, I am not.) I have this irrational urge to apologize for my stories being odd.

Except...they're not really all that odd, considering that paranormal romance is a pretty hot sub-genre right now. I mean, are my stories any weirder than a werewolf named Kitty?

Does anyone else have this problem? Please?

Short and sweet

My blog has been poking at me for a couple of days now. "Write something," it hissed. "C'mon. You have ideas."

To which I stuck out my tongue and went back to working on my revisions of TOPAZ SKIES.

The revisions aren't done, not by a long shot, but I'm feeling pretty good about them. I have a better handle on my characters, I've gotten rid of some coincidental elements that were bugging me, and things are looking up.

So, short and sweet blog post today. Do you have any news to share?