Introduction: I read books, and as a consequence I look at a lot of them. I look at more books than I read, in fact! Sometimes looking at books makes me want to say things about what I see. So there will be an ongoing series on this blog to talk about book cover design. And the name of this series is Coverings. Don't laugh. That took me like ten minutes to think up. You don't want to hear about the options I discarded.
This afternoon I stopped at the library to pick up my egregiously large pile of books on hold. In the two minutes I spent there, somehow I found both the best and the worst covers I have seen in some time.
Both made me laugh right out loud.
Man, it's been years since I've been actually shushed in a library. That takes me right back.
The first, worst cover: Eternal Kiss of Darkness by Jeaniene Frost.
Hey there, Creepy Stare-y Dude, either you've got yourself an old-fashioned nosebleed or you should really wipe the ketchup stains away before you try to seduce the girlfriend.
Add in the inexplicably cliché blue-skinned people (what is this, nighttime in a silent movie? Avatar? when did "blue skin" become code for "scary preternaturals"?) and the magenta text (eye-popping in a bad way) and you have yourself a mediocre cover-turned catastrophe.
I've saved the best for last: The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian:
This cover, of course, is so deliberately bad that it turns brilliant. Especially since the obvious mistake in centering that bold sans-serif title underscores the title's meaning. What's more, the invisible F has the added benefit of softening what might otherwise be a more provocative and troubling cover. As is, it looks funny, and then sad. Even before I've read one word of the novel, the cover has told me a story made of only half a word and a great deal of wit.
Plus: gray. There are very few gray book covers out there. Especially a dull, slate gray like this. It's unique and impossibly boring at the same time -- a perfect combination. I am so excited to read this book that I can hardly stand it -- which is precisely as the cover designer hoped.
It is summer, I just got married, and I am a writer, so lately many of my days involve A) drinking, B) writing, or C) both. Lucky me! Lately everyone has advice about these activities!First, there is the NYT essay, which is delightful -- and now, a Jezebel article, which makes me want to take issue with a couple of the points they obviously think are hilarious.
Full disclosure: at present, I am writing this and also drinking some delicious local wine. Plus that Dry Fly gin and tonic aperitif before dinner. So, hey! Drinking and writing!
To begin, the New York Times.
Honestly, I've read a lot about wine, and booze, and history, and the history of wine and booze, and literature about wine and booze, and so on. I am totally behind Geoff Nicholson's point that fictionalized drinking (or history of same) is more fun than instructions on drinking correctly tend to be. (And hey! I had a recent post on that too!) His connection between drinking advice and writing advice strikes me as witty and revealing. In sum: I liked it, and have nothing besides more uninteresting praise to offer.
And now: the Jezebel article.
I read it. And the arguments marshaled themselves and marched full-tilt in the direction of this blog. This may get pedantic, but if I don't let it out my head will explode, so in the interest of, um, not-explodey, here goes:
1. The article's thesis: "This article makes an insightful connection between the uselessness of drinking advice and the uselessness of writing advice -- let's reduce this to a series of pithily described drinking games! Because writing a great work of literature ourselves would take too long."
2. The David Foster Wallace game could easily kill you. Seriously, ten pages or less.
3. Jane Austen: In college, some friends and I came up with a drinking game for the film version of Sense and Sensibility: drink whenever someone dies; drink whenever it rains; drink whenever Fanny says something horrible; drink whenever an engagement is announced; drink whenever Marianne cries; drink whenever someone mentions the letter F. We poured homemade wine into thrifted tea cups and sat back. Twenty minutes later, we had to slow the game. I did not go to the partiest college, is the upshot here.
4. Jezebel knows nothing about Sappho. "Hot or disgusting"? That's the best you can do for the foremost female writer of the ancient world? I mean, yes, there's the "don't prod the beach rubble" fragment, but that's way more poetic in the original Greek, and the few complete poems we have are just stunning . . . (rambles on about love triangles and splintered selves until everyone moves on to the next in the list . . .)
5. Or Homer: ancient Greek wine was thick and hugely alcoholic, like port or vodka if you could make vodka from grapes. It was watered down with strict proportion so that it resembled the red wine we know and love today. People who drank unwatered wine were barbarians, and not worth talking to, much less drinking with.
6. Or Twilight: seriously, there's not nearly enough blood-drinking in Stephenie Meyer for this rule to result in any drinking game worth playing
7. Any James Joyce drinking game is hilarious.
7. Any Dylan Thomas drinking game is in the poorest of poor taste.
I've been going strong on my RITA reading, but somehow or other (wedding, honeymoon) have fallen behind on the actual writing-up of my thoughts. So this post is going to tackle two RITA winners -- plus, a bonus book! -- for reasons that should become obvious.
Ultimately, what I've taken away from these three books is: location, location, location.
First up: The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase.
Brief admission: Loretta Chase is currently my number-one favorite romance author, and for the past year and a half I've been reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. This one was a new one, and unlike many of her others it moved around a lot from place to place: India, onboard ship, a country manor house, and India again.
From a writers' craft standpoint, each of these locations provided a framework for a different part of the story:
India holds the initial moment of contact, where the thief-hero steals the titular princess statue from our heroine. But it is also the home of the sly, elderly whose failed long-ago romance is the impetus for the plot, and a foil to our hero and heroine.
On the ship back to England, our hero masquerades as a servant, a deception which succeeds but which does not prevent the heroine from stealing the statue back from the false master she believes to be the real thief. It is also a space where neither the hero or heroine is entirely at home, and being jarred out of a familiar setting leads to more intimate conversation than each might otherwise have permitted.
Once in England, the heroine realizes the statue is missing and follows the heroine north to find an opportunity of stealing it back -- which means convincing the heroine he was fired by his master once the statue disappeared from the ship. She hires him as a secretary/butler, which allows them to spend hours together in a cozy domestic setting, enjoying one another's company and falling even more deeply in love.
The thief ultimately has to steal the statue back, for some reason, and everybody goes back to India, where the final twist is revealed and both romance plotlines find a resolution.
Ultimately, the locations are a shorthand for the developing relationship, as often happens in romances (I'm looking at you, Pemberley, and every manor house descriptive passage you've inspired in two hundred years). It's usually a pretty good trick, even when the seams show.
But it has a downside: it can make your hero and heroine seem like they are an entirely different person when they are in a different location. Sometimes this is important, and can shake up a complacent character -- again, PEMBERLEY -- but sometimes it just starts to feel a bit whiplash-y for the reader. "Wait -- who the hell is this person with the same name as that person I was just getting to know? That person would never do this. What's going on?"
Unfortunately, this is what happened in The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale, which was absolutely jam-packed full of things. Anything that could be made interesting was interest-ified within an inch of its life.
The hero is a half-deaf hermit and former highwayman still wanted in England, whose best friend is a tame wolf. The heroine is the only survivor of a family wiped out by a malicious pastor's oppressive cult in her home village. (No, really.) They meet the totally squicky Marquis de Sade, and later a group of aristocratic snuff enthusiasts -- and, to clarify, not the "Oh look at my tiny dandyish habit" snuff. The "Oh look at me choke a woman to death during sex" snuff.
But I'm getting off-track.
I stumbled upon another Kinsale romance, An Uncertain Magic, which had the same rampant busyness. (Psychics! Repressed memories! Revolution in Ireland! The Sidhe! An adorable brandy-drinking pig!) What's more, it had the same unconcern with locations as the first one. Kinsale's places feel ephemeral, as though the characters are only tangentially rooted there. Perhaps this is because the couples in both novels are somewhat unrooted themselves: there's a lot of things that happen on the road, or in houses being falling down or being rebuilt, or in inns and waystations and the like. And I have to admit to being really, really fond of the hero from Prince of Midnight, mostly on account of how different he is from the usual alpha hero. (Very broken, and more than a little sad, and very aware that his desperation is not attractive, which paradoxically makes him quite attractive as a character.)
And maybe it's something about the way the two authors (Chase and Kinsale) think of characters. Chase's style is a much more invisible thing, a mostly realistic narrative voice. Kinsale, though, is a little more fluid and suggestive, a little more poetic, which can be very effective but which always kind of reminds me of Terry Pratchett's description of reading the human mind as "trying to nail fog to the wall." You get all these rich and evocative phrases, but the thread of a specific character's personality tends to wax and wane, disappear and reappear.
Frankly, much as I love an evocative phrase, I want to keep my writing as rooted as possible. Maybe when I make it through all the relevant RITAs I'll start by taking apart a particularly admirable scene or two from some of my favorite novels. Hey, who ever said a comparative literature degree couldn't be useful?
Internet personality quizzes are my Achilles heel. I enjoy finding out what interval best embodies my complex individuality (major 7th, as it happens) and what the shape of my letter A's says about me on a fundamental level. If I'd been around in the late eighteenth century I would have been totally into phrenology, though it pains me to admit it. But there's something eternally seductive about the idea that my self is just a code waiting to be decrypted. I'm always looking for the key.
So when Twitter alerted me to the existence of I Write Like, I jumped all over it. Into the machine went my favorite part of a blog post on my recent honeymoon in Helsinki.
But wait. I had put in a sex scene -- and a very purplish one, at that. We've already seen Dan Brown's name, and someone else on the internet has gotten Stephen King, so modern (male) genre authors are totally bring-uppable. Is Lovecraft really the closest thing this site could get to a romance author?
Online I found an excerpt from Danielle Steele's The Journey, and put in a goodly chunk of text.
At this point I was getting a horrible feeling that whoever built this site did not think women could write anything significant, memorable, or worth imitating.
Of course, modern romance authors are still kind of ghettoized, sure. So I went classical, and pulled the start of chapter 38 from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The one that begins, "Reader, I married him." Who does Charlotte Bronte Write Like?
At this point I started to go a little crazy, throwing anything and everything into that damn white frame on the site and growing increasingly sure that my outrage was more than just a figment of my imagination. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own:
If you've noticed there's an elephant in the room, sipping tea and wearing an empire-waist gown and arguing that the choice of who to marry is screamingly important when it's the only real choice you get to make in your entire life, you're correct. I'd been avoiding putting anything by Jane Austen in here, because honestly it would break my heart to see Jane Austen writing like James Joyce, or Dickens, or frakking Lovecraft. But the question had to be answered.
Jane Austen's beautiful, perfect opening scene from Pride and Prejudice:
In conclusion: no female author has ever produced anything important unless they are Jane Austen.
A sly thought occurred. I went back to the Gutenberg Project, and looked up the truncated and very sarcastic History of England that Austen wrote in her youth. I entered this passage:
"The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a YORK, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it. "
So lately -- on Shakespeare's birthday, in fact -- there was this Huffpo post by Jason Pinter, which then meandered through the blogosphere until it reached my habitual environs (NPR's delightful Monkey See Blog). The article alleges that there are not enough books for men because of a publishing mantra: men don't read. So there should be more books marketed for men. And I got very angry and had to kill some pixelated zombies in Castlevania until I calmed down a bit.
The comments are pretty evenly split between the expected "Oh man you are totally right publishing is totally sexist to dudes" and "what are you talking about I'm a man I read/I know a man he reads." And, of course, absolutely everyone heaps scorn on the romance novel, as represented by Twilight, chick-lit, and Danielle Steele. Negative bonus points for Huffpo commenter RobinSeattle, who offered the following gem: "There is almost no piece of advertising on tv that doesn't make men look like knuckle dragging hapless boobs. Feminists are silent on this sort of sexism because they are largely a bunch of intellectually dishonest opportunists anyway." On RobinSeattle's profile: comments: 6243, friends: 2.
But that's not what I wanted to pinpoint here.
One of the things Pinter laments is the way e-readers are supposedly marketed primarily to women, and cites the ads for the Nook:
. . . and the Kindle:
Pinter then offers this lovely sentiment:
Why would men buy an e-reader, considering the takeaway from these ads is you can a) learn about your pregnancy after falling for Mr. Darcy, or b) become Amelia Earhart or Holly Golightly?
Yeah, Amelia Earhart's alright -- for a girl. And no man in the history of men has ever found Holly Golightly interesting -- except, you know, the dude who created her. And who needs to learn about pregnancy? Nobody important, that's for sure.
I like to think that every time a male writer dismisses the attractions of Mr. Darcy, somewhere in the world a romance novel is born.
Luckily, according to Mr. Pinter, the iPad ad gets things right:
Cool, right? They catch your attention without alienating half the consumer population. Why can't we do that? Make a fun, cool campaign that doesn't cut your audience off at the knees?
It's funny he should mention knees, because here are the full lyrics for that particular (admittedly catchy) song:
Be Be the charming type
Take off your gloves
And show what they hide
Please take my naked wrist
With your hands and fingertips
And please, baby get on your knees
Don’t bare bare bare your teeth
I’ll let you pry if you close your eyes
I’ll have an answer for your wives
There goes my love
There goes my love
There goes my love love love love love
There goes my love
There goes my love
There goes my love love love love love
Why be the charming kind?
Oh you’ll get yours when I get mine
Oh no it’s not for me
If you’re too good you won’t be free
Meanwhile, the full lyrics for the song in the Kindle ad (which Pinter dismisses as "twee") are:
Silver Moons and paper chains,
Faded maps and shiny things.
You're my favorite one-man show.
A million different ways to go.
Will you fly me away?
Take me away with you,
Painted scenes, I'm up all night.
Slaying monsters, flying kites.
Speak to me in foreign tongues.
Share your secrets one by one.
Will you fly me away?
Take me away with you,
Now I cant think what life was like
Before I had you by my side.
Cant say what I'd do without you,
Knowing what its like to have you.
Hidden walk ways back in time.
Endless stories, lovers cry.
In my mind I've been set free.
Will you take this Journey
You and Me?
Will you Fly me away?
Take me away with you,
Fly me away with you,
Take me away with you,
In sum: the Kindle wants to keep you up all night with adventures, words, and monster-slaying. The iPad wants you naked and submissive. Which one sounds more like a satisfactory reading experience?
Here is a list of things momentarily featured in the iPad ad above: photo displays, a romantic suspense/mystery novel by Tami Hoag, the New York Times, the new Star Trek, Ted Kennedy's memoir, and some kind of dude-heavy outdoorsy document/blog called "The Powder Report," which the user is editing. Note how many of those things are not books.
A list of things that are featured in the Nook ad: Where the Wild Things Are, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Pride and Prejudice, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The Book Thief (which if you haven't read you should do so immediately, but have a hanky close to hand). Of course, all these are also coyly referenced in the first-person female voiceover -- which then gives way to a male voiceover, which says this: "Experience the only e-book reader from the bookstore you've grown up with. Nook, by Barnes and Noble. Browse and download over a million titles wirelessly, and take your story wherever you want it to go."
The Nook ad is, of course, personal. It is designed to be this (undoubtedly fictional, but thoroughly plausible) story of one woman's history with books. And the male voiceover at the end reinforces the fact that this is one particular story, and that you (whoever you are) have a story of your own, and somehow buying a Nook helps you tell it or relive it or something. (Also: putting The Book Thief right there in an e-reader commercial is kind of hilarious for several reasons.) There is a mix here of books by male authors (Sendak, Zusak) and female authors (Blume, Austen, Murkoff and Mazel).
Whereas the iPad ad does feature both male and female hands on that pretty, pretty touchscreen, the content displays one female author (Hoag), one male author (Kennedy), a newspaper (journalism being an industry notorious for its sexism), a movie written by, directed by, and starring mostly dudes (though at least they tried to clarify Uhura's job in this one, but come on, we know it's all about the Kirk-Spock bromance), somebody's kids, and snowboarders. Moreover, the only book opened in the iPad commercial is the Kennedy memoir -- the Hoag mystery only appears as some kind of ad or banner that the user's hand never touches.
By preferring the iPad ad to the Kindle and the Nook, Pinter is saying two things. One: despite his screed against the publishing industry's neglect of men, Pinter is more interested in shiny gadgets with a rock soundtrack than in something that uses actual books, and not just the latest trendy political read. (Partly this is because the iPad is meant as a media-consumption device rather than just an e-reader -- but don't get me started on that whole mess.)
And two: gender disparity in the material (so many dudes in that iPad!) looks like equality to Pinter if you see both men and women dealing with it, and something closer to actual equality (60/40 if you count Murkoff and Mazel as one author) looks like it's skewed because the ad's protagonist happens to be a woman. The same is true of the music above: Pinter likes the male vocalist's rock song despite the lyrics, which are questionable from an advertising standpoint (how does this song sell iPads aside from being catchy?), and dislikes the female vocalist's piano melody despite the appropriateness of the song's sentiment for the product being advertised. (Shades of the recent Tiger Beatdown guest post on dude music, anyone?)
Pinter does not expect to identify with a woman -- but he expects women to identify with men. Because men are the default. (White men. Straight white men. With short hair. And guns.) All this tends to take the wind out of the whole "I don't read because publishers make books look girly" argument, which essentially amounts to "Why don't they put some explosions on the cover so it won't threaten my masculinity to be seen holding it?" Men shouldn't have to imagine themselves in a woman's place -- because that's a woman's place.
My first form-specific look at a past RITA award winner: The Bride, by Julie Garwood.
First off, I must explain that this is one of the first romance novels I read growing up. And it is definitely the one I've reread most often: probably upwards of a hundred times, easily. There are scenes and sentences here that are now part of the physical makeup of my brain.
So learning that it was a RITA winner was a delight, but no surprise. What's more, the book holds up surprisingly well considering it's now old enough to order alcohol (should the book decide it wants a cocktail). But I'm not here to review the book -- I'm here to look at how it's written.
In the forward to my copy, a reissue, Garwood explains that "experts" advised her to leave the humor out of her story: "I had tried my best to follow their advice for a couple of books, but with The Bride, I simply couldn't help myself . . . I finally gave in to the urge and wrote the story as I saw it."
Nor is this the only writers' rule that Garwood breaks in the book. How well do I remember the switches of POV (point-of-view, for you rookies out there) that drive not only the humor, but the developing romance. Like so, when our heroine Jamie learns at the last minute that she is to marry Scottish laird Alex Kincaid at the king's behest. We begin with our hero:
She still hadn't caught on. Alec sighed. "Change your gown, Jamie, if that's your inclination. I prefer white. Now go and do my bidding. The hour grows late and we must be on our way."
He'd deliberately lengthened his speech, giving her time to react to his announcement. He thought he was being most considerate.
She thought he was demented.
Jamie was, at first, too stunned to do more than stare in horror at the warlord. When she finally gained her voice, she shouted, "It will be a frigid day in heaven before I marry you, milord, a frigid day indeed."
"You've just described the Highlands in winter, lass. And you will marry me."
Exactly one hour later, Lady Jamison was wed to Alec Kincaid.
According to the hundreds of writing how-to guides out there, this is wrong. Supposedly, to jump from one character's POV to another is confusing and leads to the reader gripping their head in pain and yelling AARGH and throwing the book against a wall and who will give you royalties then, hmm?
But I love and remember and admire the passage above, and every other similar passage in the book. Romances written entirely from one character's perspective (in the vein of a lot of the novels of Georgette Heyer godsavethequeen) aren't as appealing to modern readers. We like being in the hero's head; we like it when he's not some giant impenetrable mystery figure. We want him to be a person, with thoughts and worries and emotions, like the heroine is and has always been.
At some point, if you are writing a romance novel, you are going to have to switch POV. Mostly this happens between scenes, and the general rule is that once you start a scene in one character's POV you stick with that character until the scene break. But if you do it mid-scene, like Garwood, if the reader sees what the heroine above is thinking while the hero's thoughts are still echoing in the reader's -- oh, who am I kidding -- in her memory, you get a moment where it feels like there is a point of contact between the mind of the hero and the mind of the heroine. A moment where Alec's and Jamie's experiences seem to touch, unbeknownst to them, through the medium of the reader.
This is a powerful tool, and it is clear that the reason the how-to guides recommend against it is because such power could spin out of control in the hands of a novice writer. The POV switch is a tool to be used with restraint -- like garlic. Delicious, even occasionally necessary, but repellent when overdone.
The switches in The Bride are primarily used to jump between the hero and the heroine, but not exclusively. Secondary characters get a lot of play, too, which is a neat way of solving the perennial problem of the Infodump. By the time we get a few chapters in, we know how our main characters think about themselves, and about each other, and we also know how they seem to the other people around them. Handy for things like physical description and background info, but for the romance it's just as important to know that Jamie's view of herself as capable and talented is borne out by the opinions of several people around her, even when Alec himself hasn't been convinced yet.
In fact, because Garwood allows us to flit from one character's consciousness to another, she has the luxury of beginning from the POV of Jamie's father:
They said he killed his first wife.
Papa said maybe she needed killing. It was a most unfortunate remark for a father to make in front of his daughters, and Baron Jamison realized his blunder as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He was, of course, immediately made sorry for blurting out his unkind comment.
As a side note, beginning with a secondary character before proceeding to the hero/heroine is a technique frequently used by Jane Austen, most notably in Pride and Prejudice (Mrs. Bennet), Persuasion (Sir Walter Elliot). Garwood's opening technique has a sterling literary pedigree.
In more than one bookstore, you can find lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners posted in the science fiction/fantasy sections. Displays of the recent Pulitzer winners are currently everywhere. Man Booker Awards, American Book Awards, National Book Awards -- these will all be noted on shelf cards or pointed out. The reason for this is simple: a good way to sell books is to convince people of a book's importance and quality. Winning a prestigious award is a shorthand for both -- plus, it makes the reader look sophisticated and intelligent when trying to hit on other humans.
You know what I have never seen in an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore? A list or display of RITA award winners (formerly known as the Golden Medallion). It's the romance genre's most prestigious award -- which critics will argue is like frosting on a shit sandwich. And hitting on someone when you are holding a romance novel -- drenched fatally in pink and white, or else covered in cursive lettering, or else lounged upon by a scantily clad and heavily haired couple who may in fact be orgasming as you watch -- well, it just plain does not work. The prime cultural tone associated with romance novels is desperation, the antimatter to seduction.
Of course, this is absurd, as anyone familiar with the fine work done over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books can tell you. Romance readers are smart, and romance is no less powerful a genre than fantasy or science fiction or mystery. It has a craft, and a history, the same way any subset of literature does.
Many of you already know I've been trying my hand at writing romance, which has turned out -- surprise! -- to be hard. It's also amazing, and now that I've started I don't think I can ever stop. It has begun to rewire my brain: everything becomes a potential narrative, the start of a story I haven't learned how to tell yet. And I'm getting better -- but slowly. It is time to take a more organized approach.
Which brings me back to the RITA Awards.
From henceforth, I will be going through the list of RITA winners (focusing on the historical and regency categories, which were once the same but are now separate) and writing about each. This is not going to be merely a process of review -- there are plenty of very thorough and delightful review sites out there already (hello, Mrs. Giggles!). What I am going to be looking at, specifically, is the way the romance is written: the plot setup, the prose craftsmanship, things that leap out from a writing perspective. There will probably be many swearwords.
One of the reasons for this is a piece of writing advice I've been thinking about a lot lately: never switch from one character's POV to another. This makes good sense, mostly, because leapfrogging around from brain to brain tends to give unpolished prose a feeling of whiplash. But I keep remembering my favorite moments from Julie Garwood's The Bride, one of the earliest romances I read and in fact the first RITA winner for Best Single Title Historical. And many of those moments -- which are hilarious -- depend upon a deft switch from one character's perspective to another.
So sometimes the rules need to be broken, apparently. But we knew that. What other rules can I break, in useful ways? What rules are holding me back, or helping me tell a better story? I intend to learn from the best.
First up: The Bride by Julie Garwood (Best Single Title Historical, 1990).
After that: The Rake and the Reformer by Mary Jo Putney (Best Regency Romance, 1990).