Of stereotypes and heroes

The men in my brain have a tendency to ambush me at the most inappropriate moments. Note the men in my brain: in real life, I have only one man, and he is not much given to ambushing me—and when he does, he calls it a surprise, ergo the ambush is a (supposedly) pleasant experience. Which it mostly is.

Anyway: while hubby (in singular) is a singularly one-of-a-kind gift to womankind (well, to me, at any rate), the men that populate my brain come in all kinds and shapes, and they’re not always warm and cuddly. Especially not when I am planning to put them through their emotional paces. For some odd reason, neither Matthew nor Adam nor Jason nor—OK, won’t bore you with this never-ending list—appreciate it when I place the lives of their beloved in jeopardy. Hence the ambush, with me being crowded back in one mental corner while facing three glowering males.

“Hey, it’s an opportunity for you to show off your hero qualities,” I tell them.
“So stereotypical,” Jason replies. “The damsel in distress saved by her white knight.” He claps Adam de Guirande on the shoulder. “Problem is, only one of us is a knight.”
“But you’re all heroes,” I try, fluttering my eyelashes at them. “Besides,” I add in view of their icy silence, “your damsels do a pretty good job of saving themselves—and you.”
“They do,” Adam says. His mouth tugs into a smile. “Without Kit, I’d be…” He drags a finger over his throat, making me shudder. Yes, had Kit not risked her own life, he’d have been feeding the crows since seven centuries or so.
“I don’t like it,” Matthew mutters. “And this new book of yours, what will you put us through this time?”
I’m about to say that he doesn’t need to worry, this time his Alex is safe and no one will die. Until I remember that isn’t the case. So I hem and haw and say something vague about hoping he’ll like his new adventure. He gives me a penetrating look. I pretend a major interest in my nails.

Once I’m alone again in my mental space, I spend some time considering the stereotyping accusation.  And yes, I’m guilty as charged in that all my male protagonists are strong and reliable men who will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their loved ones. This does not necessarily make them a stereotype, though. Matthew Graham, Adam de Guirande and Jason Morris are all very different men, shaped by their experiences and their times. Are they all a tad possessive when it comes to their women? Yes. Are they all very protective of their lady love? Absolutely. Are they all good-looking? To me, yes. (And here I must admit to teetering on the edge of stereotyping in that they’re all tall and well-built, but one of the benefits of being a writer is that I can please myself in these matters) Are they stereotypes? Nope. Adam, Jason and Matthew all agree: they’re quite unique, thank you very much.

Likewise, my female protagonists are no stereotypical damsels in distress – I don’t believe all that many women are. Instead, they are as strong as their men, albeit at times restricted by their gender. Accordingly, my 14th century female lead, Kit de Guirande, is no atypical sword-swinging female.
“Thank the Lord for that,” Adam mutters. (See? They’re always there, eavesdropping on my thoughts)
No, Kit is strong and determined, but she is also very often pregnant which sort of puts paid to any Wonder Woman aspirations she might have. On the other hand, strength comes in many forms, and sometimes it is our lot—whether we be women or men—to just bear things, survive despite the obstacles along our way.

In difference to Kit, both Alex and Helle are capable of fighting to defend their man. Both are modern women, albeit that I’ve sent Alex falling through time to live out the rest of her existence in the 17th century. Very much fun, that, even if Alex doesn’t always agree. The challenge when it comes to Alex is that she must reasonably change from the out-spoken and very independent woman she is when she first crash-lands at Matthew’s feet to a woman more in sync with her times. After all, no person is ever written in stone, we evolve throughout our lives this due to our experiences and the expectations on us. And so Alex Lind learns (and slowly accepts) that in this new world of hers she has no legal status. She is only an extension of her husband and has no choice but to accept his decisions. A hard road to travel for one as independent as she is. Fortunately, Matthew is an intelligent man who loves his wife dearly and therefore involves her in the decision-making—as long as they agree…

“As it should be,” Adam says.
“Aye,” Matthew agrees. “My wife is mine to care for, mine to cherish, mine to discipline as she might need it.” His eyes twinkle. “Mind you, disciplining Alex is a tad dangerous: she may very well end up kicking me to the ground.”
“Too right,” Alex says. My time-travelling lady has a black belt in Karate. Has come in quite handy when she’s had to save Matthew from all sorts. Not something Matthew likes to discuss, though: in his book, he’s the one supposed to do the protecting.

“I’ve never disciplined my wife,” Adam says. “For a man to bear hand on a woman…” His voice trails off, his cheeks going a dull red when Kit just looks at him. “Once,” he says quietly. “I did it once and was immediately ashamed.”

“Well, anyone tries to discipline me and they won’t know what hit them,” Helle says. In tight jeans showing off her strong legs she looks extremely self-sufficient, especially standing the way she does, arms crossed over her chest.
“My lioness has quite the bite,” Jason says proudly, ruffling her blonde curls. And he’s right. Helle saves his life on a number of occasions no matter the cost to her. As I think it, Jason’s face clouds. No doubt he’s recalling just how much it cost her the first time round…

I guess if there’s any stereotype I’m guilty of it’s believing in love. Not your romantic pink-flushed love, more the gritty lasts-for-a-lifetime love that somehow manages to overcome everything from the loss of a child to the loss of your dignity and pride. That’s how my male protagonists love their women, that’s how they’re loved in return. They stand and fall together, my Adam and his Kit, Matthew and Alex, Jason and Helle. A bit like hubby and me if I may say so—albeit that so far our lives are rather ordinary and humdrum compared to the exciting times my poor characters live through.
“Good. Keep it that way,” hubby says, stooping to kiss my brow. “I’m not sure I’m made for all that hero stuff.”
Silly man. He is a hero. My hero.

To write or not to write

I must admit straight off that the title to this post is a tad misleading, as it is not so much about writing as it is about everything that comes with it – at least if you’re writing for publication. And seriously, there are days when I want to chuck it all in. Not the writing as such – I don’t think I can chuck it in – but the sheer slog of spreading the word about my books is, at times, borderline exhausting. Plus, I am way out of my comfort zone here, having little idea what will work and what won’t. Even worse, sometimes what works one day falls flat on its face the next time you try it. Very disheartening, putting it mildly.

I believe most writers experience some sort of passion over their writing. Okay, so some crank out like three books a year that are formulaic and a tad repetitive, but even these authors probably experience moments of passion for their craft. I also believe very few authors enjoy the promotional side of things. First of all, it steals time from writing. Secondly, few authors are entirely at home discussing targeted ads and punchy one-liners. Thirdly, many of us writers are uncomfortable with the commercial aspects of writing.

Now, if the writing is done purely as a hobby, marketing your book is not a must. Maybe it suffices seeing it up there on Amazon, maybe holding a couple of copies of the book is enough. But for most writers, it isn’t. We want sales & reviews, some sort of recognition as to the merits of our work. Pretty silly, really, as what one person thinks is a great read, another may very well throw at a wall.

If you want to sell, you have to promote.
“Ah,” someone may say, “that only applies if you’re self-published.”
Nope. It applies to ALL authors. Publishing companies don’t exactly spend tons of money on all of their releases—they can’t afford to. Instead, they’ll concentrate their marketing efforts to the books they expect will sell really well, while their mid-list authors and downwards are expected to contribute to their own promotion.

Ironically, this means a lot of promo money is poured into books that don’t need it. Take Diana Gabaldon as an example: She publishes a new book and it takes on life of its own, snowballing through the sales ranks. (Having said that, Ms Gabaldon is an active tweeter, thereby maintaining a strong & growing platform. See? She too invests time in promotion!)

If, like many writers, you’re the ambitious sort, the one who wants to see your sales ranking improve and the reviews coming in, there’s no way around it: you MUST promote. But how? Ah, therein lies the question, does it not?

Blog tours help to create a certain buzz—a short-lived burst of interest that the savvy writer can milk for some months afterwards by reposting guest posts and reviews. Or you can do ads. Yup, write your own “copy” and put up FB ads or Amazon ads or BookBub ads. Not as easy as it sounds, but, I believe, relatively effective—assuming you’ve analysed your targeted audience, your targeted markets, your comparable authors. I.e. successful ads require a lot of work—yet another time thief, eating into precious writing time.

Mind you, all promotional activities take time. But there is no such thing as a free ride in a marketplace which sees millions and millions of new releases on a yearly basis, so either you promote or you drown in the deluge of books. Now and then, drowning seems the better option…

Alternatively, the happy writer concentrates on just that: the writing. Forget about publication, ignore the call of the market. No need to promote, no need to worry about pleasing anyone but yourself with your writing. I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. I need that ephemeral recognition, some sort of verification that what I write has the capacity to touch my readers. And so, dear peeps, I must bow to the inevitable: I write, therefore I promote.

The Critical Friend – a friend indeed!

friends-old-images-050Us creative types have somewhat sensitive egos. We invest so much of ourselves in our creations that we can’t quite separate our work from ourselves, leaving us very prickly when it comes to criticism.If the critic says “this was a bad book”, the sensitive writer will rationally tell themselves that one can’t please everyone, but inside, our fragile author will be weeping blood at being so brutally rejected.

Over time, writers learn that just because someone hates their book this doesn’t mean they would hate the writer per se. Mind you, most writers aren’t that interested in even attempting to get to know someone who dismissed their magnum opus as “badly written” or “bland”. Over time, writers get reconciled to receiving bad reviews – but hate them all the same. That feeling of being eviscerated upon reading someone’s scathing comments just never goes away.

In some cases, the negative reviews reflect a difference in taste. Where the writer loves pink and fluffy endings, the reviewer can’t abide this unrealistic nonsense. In most cases, reviews point at things the writer needs to work with. Some reviews are just spiteful and should be totally ignored. Others highlight the fact that this particular writer did not have a Critical Friend.

A classic, if non-writing, example of when a Critical Friend is a friend in need, is when people apply to talent shows – such as American Idol. The eager and talent-less applicant is totally torn apart by the jury, and says things like “My mother told me I can sing,” or “my best friend always said I’m the next Whitney Houston.” To judge from the recent performance, mother and BFF are as tone-deaf as the would-be Idol. Or uncomfortable with telling the truth.

We don’t like telling people truths we suspect might hurt them. If someone asks us how they look in something, chances are we’ll tell them they look fine, even if the overall impression is that of a bratwurst about to burst apart. Honesty can kill a friendship unless delivered with enormous tact, and so many of us opt for less of the honesty by making vague approving sounds while not going so far as exclaiming “Wow, you look smoking hot in that!”.

By not telling the truth, chances are we’re doing our friends a major disfavour. That young boy with a voice like a rusty saw would have been better off had he not applied to American Idol, there to make a fool of himself in front of millions of viewers. Our friend that we sent off in that far too tight skirt, would have preferred to hear from us that maybe that skirt was not the most becoming.

Enter the Critical Friend. Now, to be a Critical Friend, you first have to qualify as a friend, which essentially means you’ve proven time and time again that you always have your friend’s best interests at heart. You’ve listened to hourly monologues about cheating partners. You’ve stoically tolerated being yelled at when you’ve stopped your BFF from leaping onto a motorbike with an unknown, if gorgeous, man. You’ve held hands in moments of grief, you’ve danced polka over the kitchen floor to celebrate degrees, jobs, babies, weddings. You’ve sat all night on a bench outside the police station so as to be able to be there when your BFF is released next morning. You’ve dashed across town at four in the morning because your friend woke you up yelling emergency and you were expecting a bloodbath but found him/her crying over their dead hamster. You know, the stuff friends do for each other. Real friends, that is: those friends who also speak the truth when it comes to singing abilities and overly tight suede skirts.

For an author, a Critical Friend is worth their weight in gold. A Critical Friend will deconstruct your tottering plot line before a reviewer does. A Critical Friend will point at plot holes, at unrealistic characters, at pages littered with adverbs. A Critical Friend will tell you this story will never fly, because there isn’t anyone in the world but you interested in a book featuring a worm and a pine cone. Even when you try to explain the worm and the pine cone are symbolic, Critical BFF will be unimpressed, thereby saving you from publishing a book that would have you squirming on a hook some years from now.

I have a Critical Friend. I have a person who loves me enough to look at me and say “hmmm.” I know what that means: it means whatever she is presently reading is really, really bad. She only uses a long “hmmm” in such situations. A “huh” indicates she doesn’t buy it, but sees the potential. And when she grins and goes “kssksskss” I know I’ve struck gold.

My Critical Friend told me to hide my first few manuscripts wherever the sun wouldn’t find them and forget about them. My Critical Friend has read my books in version 1 through 10. She sends me cryptic messages along the lines of “what happened to the burlap sack?” at five a.m. and I have to think really hard to identify what burlap sack she might be referring to. My Critical Friend is happy to sit for hours and dissect my characters – and my plotlines. I’m not always thrilled by the outcome of all this dissection, but in general it results in a better product, even if I’ve had to cut out my three most favourite scenes.

Does having a Critical Friend preclude negative reviews? Of course not. But with Critical Friend and Amazing Editor scrutinising my every word, I am pretty confident the book isn’t as bad as the reviewer thinks. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” I’ll say with a bright smile—which doesn’t mean I don’t gnash my teeth and stick pins in my voodoo doll in private. Hey, what can I say? I’m one of those sensitive creative types, remember?

In my very own bubble

reading-franz-eyblThe other day, I was feeling a bit wilted around the edges. Best cure for that is to curl up somewhere and escape into a book. Quite often, I’ll opt for a book set in the past, one of those books that combines blood and gore with courtly love and honourable men (like my own books, come to think of it. But I cannot read my own books to escape: I end up using a red pen and doing further corrections…)

When I am feeling very, very low, I prefer it if the book in question is one I’ve read before – I need the warmth of familiarity rather than the suspense of new adventures. In these situations, my go-to books are rarely any literary pearls. I’m not in the mood to savour carefully constructed sentences – I need love, and preferably steamy love. So I read Sylvia Day. Or Amanda Quick. Or (yup: I do) E.L. James.

I have a crush on Gideon Cross (Sylvia Day’s very hot, very powerful, male protagonist) I have less of a crush on Mr Grey, but both these men hide scars under polished exteriors, and I like that. In Amanda Quick’s case, her heroes are less scarred, less powerful, just as hot – and seriously, peeking as a Regency hero undresses is something else, starting with those tight, tight Hessians.

Now, when I’m re-reading Ms Day or Ms Quick, I can always argue I am doing it to hone my writing skills. These two ladies are accomplished writers, delivering well-wrought characters and (especially in the case of Ms Quick) delicious dialogue. I read Ms Quick to laugh. I read Ms Day to fan myself.

Ms Quick writes romances set in the 19th century (all through the century) and has a preference for male heroes with green, grey or amber eyes. Her heroines are determined young ladies who set out to sort whatever problem they might have all on their own, and invariably the hero comes to their aid – well, except for when the hero is the problem. Excellent historical context, vivid descriptions and intelligent plotlines make Ms Quick’s books fun to read – several times.

readers-jean-jacques-hennerMs Day does write historical romances – quite adeptly, I might add – but it is her Crossfire books that I return to time and time again. A male protagonist burdened by his past encounters an equally scarred young woman. Sparks fly, and just like that, Eva and Gideon grow into my heart. Eva is no retiring violet – but her past haunts her. It is Gideon who saves her from her past, and she in turn takes on the task of freeing this man from the shadows of his childhood. Two damaged people trying to heal each other – a somewhat combustible combo, all of it delivered in well-paced prose, generously laced with hot, steamy sex scenes.

In comparison with Ms Day, Ms James delivers clunky and tedious sex scenes. So boring, in fact, that I rarely read them. The dialogue is awful, cliché stacked upon cliché. Anastasia Steele is an anachronism: here we have a young, pretty woman in the 21st century who does not have a laptop (seriously?) who is unused to smartphones (err…) and is also a virgin – a total innocent when it comes to sex. Which makes it sort of incredible when she accepts Grey’s proposal to enter into a Dom-Sub relationship with him.

The writing is generally awful. The supporting characters are caricatures. And despite all this, Ms James’ books have sold millions and millions. Why? Well, that is what I try to work out as I re-read them. Pure research, people…Ha! Who am I trying to fool? I read them because I like them, and I know why I like them: Ms James offers a new take on the oldest story around, that of love as a healing force. Like The Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia saves Christian. From himself, from his self-imposed loneliness, from his past, from his self-hatred. Come to think of it, all good romances are variations on this old chestnut. The interesting thing about Fifty Shades is that it’s not a good romance, in the sense that the writing is sub-standard. And still it sells. Obviously, Ms James has succeeded where it truly counts: she has given the readers protagonists they truly care about.

reader-fragonard_the_readerNone of the above crosses my mind when I retreat into my escapist bubble. In my bubble, all I want is to be entertained, dragged out of my reality which, at present, sucks. Any writer who can create an illusion strong enough to yank me out of the here and now has, IMO, done their job. Kudos to them, I say.

When life sucks the words out of you

IMG_0093Sometimes, things happen that sort of whack Ms Inspiration senseless. It may be too much work (but that rarely fazes my Ms Inspiration, who just snorts, shakes out her long and colourful skirts and tells me not to whinge but get on with it) it may be life in general. Or, in some cases, Ms Inspiration decides she needs a long vacation and scoots off somewhere else entirely. Knowing Ms Inspiration, she’s likely hiking the Annapurna ring or paddling up the Amazon or doing some mountaneering in the Rockies. (Ms Inspiration is not only my muse. In some ways, she’s my alter ego, all the way from her long, dark curly hair to her dainty Victorian half-boots)

Whatever the case, there are times when the words just dry up. There I am, eager to get cracking, and I stare and stare at the cursor, trying to come up with one good sentence. When I’ve written the equivalent of “once upon a time” ten times, i know it is best to give up – for now.

Thing is, for me, words are a way to handle my reality. So when I can’t express myself,  there’s a lot of stuff roiling round in my belly and generally generating quite some discomfort. Especially when things are happening in life. Difficult things, that require to be processed. Elements of guilt, of frustration, of feeling utterly helpless – all of this tumbles round and round and is at most expressed in a succinct “Shit.” Not much help in processing things, let me tell you… Plus, Ms Inspiration is of little help – unless she finds a way to translate my personal experiences into fiction. Knowing her, she will. Once she’s back from Tibet or the impenetrable jungles round the Congo river.

I guess all writers draw on their own experiences when writing. We are also a bit like magpies: we steal other people’s experiences, gestures, ways of speak and incorporate them into our work. We watch those around us avidly, we register mannerisms and laughs, the interaction between friends and lovers. “I spy, with my little eye” – that’s a writer for you, entranced by the everyday drama of human interaction around us. So all of you (us) who have writer friends, best beware: at some point, something you did or said will end up in a novel. The important thing, of course, is to anonymise what you steal. The girl who decorated her hair with lacquered chopsticks will never recognise herself when she pops up in one of my coming books, neither will the rather gorgeous young man whom I once saw comforting his weeping girlfriend in Hyde Park.

gabriel-metsu-writingWhat any of the above has to do with my lack of words, I don’t really know – beyond concluding that by writing about this, I suddenly seem to have recouped some of my capacity for verbal expression.
“See?” Ms Inspiration whispers in my ear. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sitting down and putting one word before the other.” I glance at her: she’s sporting a lovely tan and has eschewed her normally so dark clothes for a creation in burnt orange and green, reminding me of a vivid tiger. “You’ve been gone for a long time.” Long enoght to sunbleach her hair and cover her nose with a smattering of dark freckles.
“Yup.” She shakes her forearm, and her multiple bangles jingle. “Did you miss me?”
“Not much.” Liar, liar pants on fire. Ms Inspiration arches her brows, no more.
“Okay, a little,” I tell her. Her brows rise all the way up to her hairline. I press my lips together. I’m not giving her more than that, not when she’s left me stranded and wordless for weeks and weeks. Ms Inspiration smirks – I always forget that as she lives inside my head, she hears all my thoughts. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she wonders what I think of the following:

She was soft and round and so short she had to crane her head back to look at him. Big dark eyes in a face that still retained the softness of childhood, dark hair that spilled unbound down her back, and a plump lower lip that bore the indents of her teeth – she must have been biting it just seconds before. A child, he reflected, trying to recall just how old this bride of his was. Fourteen? She didn’t look fourteen, but when his gaze dipped lower it encountered a promising swell over her chest, so maybe she wasn’t quite as immature as he had first thought. He smiled. She blushed, but did not avert her eyes, studying him as intently as he was studying her.

It seems the words are back, peeps. Or at least Ms Inspiration is!