The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review

For the past few years, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Graduate school and a long string of deathly dull reads had convinced me that the new literary novel was of interest to nobody who didn’t live in New York City and/or worship John Updike (or at least Cormac McCarthy) as a god. But this year, I’ve decided to return to my roots and at least read all the novels that made this year’s long list for the National Book Award. I started with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because it’s the only one on the shelves at my local library—thanks, Oprah! And reading it has confirmed my faith in the experiment. All kidding and personal prejudice aside, good books are being published every week in every genre, but not so many great ones. The Underground Railroad is great.

I won’t spoil the experience of discovering this story for anybody else by describing any single incident of action—it’s too damned awful and too damned good. It’s an epic saga, a journey of discovery like The Odyssey or Ulysses or Lord of the Rings. The heroine is Cora, an escaped slave who is neither Eliza Harris nor William Styron’s version of Nat Turner but a well-rounded, specific, relatable human being as all great epic heroes are. She moves through the various hellscapes of the 19th-century American “slave states” of the South and Midwest via the Underground Railroad which in this allegorical fantasy is not a metaphor but a literal railway system under the earth and the story’s central symbol. Like all great epics, Cora’s story brims over with poetry; Whitehead uses a clean, caustic prose style and his heroine’s unflinching point of view to create some of the most horrific scenes and incidents I’ve ever read without ever once resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Again unlike Stowe or Styron, he doesn’t try to tug our heartstrings or even inflame our rage; he’s not arguing a thesis. He’s just telling the horrible truth. The novel is more artful than historical in its structure and approach, but everything that happens to Cora happened to somebody; it’s the history of slavery distilled.

The book directly references Jonathan Swift’s great fantastical allegory, Gulliver’s Travels, and the comparison is apt. I also saw a lot of Dante in Cora’s journey through layers of darkness toward the light. But if I had followed my original career plan and become a lit professor, I’d be assigning my students to read this book alongside Mark Twain’s great contemporary novel of the slave states, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve adored Twain’s book since I first read it as a child, and the recent backlash and charges of racism made against it make me sad. But most of those complaints are aimed directly at the character of Jim, an escaped slave who becomes a father figure to the scrappy, abused, white trash child hero, Huck. Twain has great respect for Jim (his word choice in his naming notwithstanding) and great affection, and Jim is a great character. But he’s not real. Like Eliza and Styron’s Nat, he’s a white man’s fantasy of blackness. With Cora, Whitehead (among other accomplishments entirely unconnected to any other work at all) fills in that gap. He gives us the view from the other side of the raft—or rather, not from a raft rolling down the open air above the mighty Mississippi but from a broken boxcar steaming through a dark hole in the earth. There are also interesting parallels to be drawn between Whitehead’s villain, the slave catcher Ridgeway, and Huck Finn himself, and even Jim’s legal owner, Miss Watson, has her own dark shadow in Whitehead’s tale, a dotty old dear who dies without a will and damns the slaves she leaves behind to hell. A comparison between the two books could make one hell of a paper.

But the point is, it’s a great book. Don’t miss it.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!

The Shocking Truth About What Writing Fiction Pays (a personal comparison)

librarianEarlier this week, I got my royalty statement for Little Red Hen Romance for September 2015 from Amazon and went into a full-blown fidget. In spite of the fact that we had outsold our previous best-selling month, June 2015, by more than two to one, moving more than twice as many books to paying customers (excluding promotional freebies from both months’ sales figure, of course), we made less than one-quarter as much money. How the fuck does THAT happen? I shrieked, racing figuratively around the internet squawking for most of the afternoon.

The villain who had stolen from me, I soon determined, was that damned Jeff Bezos with his double-damned Kindle Unlimited – specifically, the new rules for Kindle Unlimited that went into effect July 1, 2015 (you know, the day after our big month). Under the new system, publishers and self-pubbed writers get paid by the page read instead of by the copy downloaded. In June, the Hens were paid $1.25 per KU download, quite a trick since our books average about 25 standard pages and only cost 99 cents each. We were, to be perfectly bald-faced frank about the thing, one of the short works publishers who were unintentionally scamming the KU payment system, collecting as much payment on our short stories as novelists at comparable sales rank were getting for full-length books. Even in mid-squawk, I had to admit that wasn’t fair and that some sort of correction had been required. But I still felt screwed by the steepness of the sudden drop.

After a little arithmetic, I figured out that for KU downloads, we were now being paid about 12 cents a book or $0.005 per page. Since the royalty on those books when sold outright is about 35 cents, Kindle Unlimited still seemed like a really bad idea for us, money-wise, and I met with my fellow Hen, Alexandra Christian, to discuss how much we wanted to continue to help Amazon sell free shipping and baby diapers with our books.  We’re still working on that, and to that end, I sat down this morning with my calculator and contracts (including the stone tablets on which my traditional publishing contracts were carved back in the 2000s) to do a little comparing. I also took into account good points made by friends on both sides of the issue about what something like KU takes away from authors and publishers versus what it offers in exposure and promotion. My findings surprised me, and since I know a lot of other people are trying to make the same kinds of decisions at the moment, I thought it might be helpful if I shared them here.

I have published just about every way there is except Xeroxing my fan fiction and selling it out of the back of a van in the parking lot at Comic Con. For my purposes here, I’ll compare traditional publishing (contracts under Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster for full-length romances under the old template, about 400 pages/100,000 words), independent small press publishing (contracts under Purple Sword Publications, a fairly typical, better-than-average small press for full-length romances under the new template, about 250 pages/60,000 words), Little Red Hen Romance (a sort of self-pubbing co-op my sister and I started for short story romances, about 25 pages/7500 words), and Kindle Unlimited downloads of those same shorts. (None of the other stuff is available from Kindle Unlimited; the people making those decisions have already voted no.) All of these figures are for e-books; the Pocket contracts were primarily negotiated for print sales, but they do establish an e-book royalty that I’m still collecting on e-book editions of those books today.

Traditional Publishing: My cheapest e-books from Pocket retail for $8.99 (yeah, I know, no kidding), and I get paid a 15 percent royalty or $1.34. The books are about 400 pages long, so that works out to be about $0.003 per page. My two most successful books with them retail in e-book for $15.99 for 400 pages, with the same 15 percent royalty. So if anybody is desperate enough for medieval vampire romance in e-book to pay that, I make $2.39 or 0.005 per page (which, incidentally, is the same rate KU downloads pay–probably a coincidence, but I don’t know). The obvious advantage for Pocket in print is scope and reach–those books in print sold in the tens of thousands, not the tens, because Pocket was able to ship and place multiple copies all over the world at once and did; you could buy my books in any mall in the US and most of the world. But them days are over, for chain bookstores and for me, and these e-books are competing on the same digital playing field as stuff that’s much, much cheaper. I suppose there are probably readers who are more likely to buy a book from a traditional publisher (assuming they happen upon it in their keyword search), but at those prices? And by this royalty scale, if the sales figures aren’t hugely better, I’m not making any more money; my share comes out to be about the same in spite of the inflated price tag.

Small Press:  Most of my e-books from Purple Sword cost $6.99, run about 250 pages, and pay me a more-than-fair royalty of 50 percent. This works out to be about $3.49 or $0.01 per page paid to me, which for me is as good as it gets. (Writers who self-publish AND self-distribute are working in a different office.) Problem is, I don’t sell any books through Purple Sword. It’s not their fault; other PS writers are doing much better through them than I am. I’m pretty sure the problem here is me and my books–not enough active promotion on my part of those titles and books that don’t really fit the brand of the press as a whole.

Little Red Hen:  My sister and I started Little Red Hen as a way to try to give the people what they want – good, cheap romances short enough we could afford to sell them for only 99 cents each. (Because it takes us a couple of weeks to write each one versus the six months to a year we’d put into a full-length novel.) Currently, we distribute them only through Amazon, and our royalty for each one sold is 35 cents. This works out to be $0.01 per page, the same as the small press books, except that I’m actually selling quite a few. So while I’m still not pricing summer homes in Tuscany, I am able to call the experiment a success; the co-op is self-sustaining. But obviously I’d prefer to do more.

Little Red Hen – Kindle Unlimited: And here’s where we get to the problem of today. Little Red Hen shorts downloaded through KU pay us $0.005 per page or about 12 cents per full book, less than half what non-KU sales pay. We also tend to have 3 KU downloads for every 1 outright sale. (This is not an exact statistic – some books do better in KU; some books do better in regular sales. But it’s a fair generalization for the press as a whole.) Amazon is obviously committed to promoting KU; consequently books listed through KU are treated more kindly by their sales ranking algorithms. We’ve also been doing a free book promotion for every new release, something that’s only available through Amazon for KU books. Like a writer friend who is listing his on-going serial with KU pointed out, we are almost certainly reaching readers through KU that we would never reach without it, and that can’t be easily dismissed. But are we losing royalties to Amazon on readers who would want the book enough to buy it if they had to but are downloading it through KU instead? The many KU haters would say of course; Amazon would say certainly not. Me, I just don’t know.

I’m still mad at Amazon for the snake oil salesman approach they’ve taken with writers about KU. I get emails from KDP every month congratulating me on my brilliance for signing up and promising the moon when in fact, best case scenario, it’s paying me at exactly the same page rate as the fat cat traditional publishing model Amazon keeps saying it means to vanquish forever. (As I wrote more than a year ago in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.) But KU’s sins aren’t nearly as black as I wanted to paint them when compared to the alternative. My guess is Lexie and I will end up compromising, listing some books through KU for the sake of the promotional push and withholding others; in any case, we will have to take a hard look at every step in our current protocol. And I would advise any other author who isn’t James Patterson to do the same.

An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Coming October 27!

SHA_finalHey kittens, guess what? I have a story in this anthology coming out October 27, 2015 from Mocha Memoirs Press. Doesn’t it look awesome?

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable characters in Western literature.  Conan Doyle’s inimitable detective has been the subject of literally thousands of books, movies, television shows, plays and even songs.  With the rise of the BBC series and the release of all copyrights, the beloved character has found a new life among modern audiences.

In An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 14 authors of horror and mystery have come together to create a unique anthology that sets Holmes on some of his most terrifying adventures.  A pair of sisters willing to sacrifice young girls to an ancient demon for a taste of success, a sinister device that can manipulate time itself, and a madman that can raise corpses from the dead are just a few among the grisly tales that can be found within these pages.

Curl up with a warm cuppa and leave all the lights on.  This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.

Wanna sneak peek? Here’s an excerpt from my own story (and first ever mystery tale), “The Fairy Pool:”

Watson packed his case with grim determination, preparing for an outing to the countryside as if for a bivouac through the wilds of Afghanistan. But the most perilous frontier to be crossed was the front parlor of his own London lodging where his accustomed adversary lay in wait.

“Watson, where are you going?” The ambush came as he’d expected from the dim recesses of Holmes’ library, a shout through the open door.

“I told you.” He placed his case by the door and went calmly to the cupboard for his overcoat and hat. “Mary and I are going to visit an old school chum of hers in the country.”

Sherlock popped out of the library like a jack from a box. “It’s a lie.”

“It is not.” Watson smiled the mild smile of the righteous man. “Why should I lie?”

“Well done, John.” His friend’s color was high and dramatic. Either he had already imbibed some chemical stimulant at nine in the morning or the mere fact of John’s leaving had sent him into the first stages of frenzy on its own. “For once, you’ve hit upon the crux of the question without prompting. Why indeed?” John removed the train tickets from his pocket, and Sherlock snatched them from his hand. “Ravenglass,” he read.

“In the Lake District,” John said, taking them back. “Mary’s friend Seraphima grew up there. It’s meant to be quite lovely.”

“In summer perhaps.” The great detective was obviously unconvinced. “In October it will be a miserable bog. And really, John, Seraphima? Is that the limit of your invention? Seraphima is the name of an Italian carnival dancer, not the school chum of one’s respectable fiancée.”

John was inclined to agree. “Nevertheless, that is her name. Her aunts are the novelists Nora and Mirabel May. Perhaps one of them chose her name.”

Sherlock frowned. “That does seem plausible.” He took the tickets again and sniffed them. “As spinsters and the most prominent and financially successful members of the family, they would no doubt exert a certain influence over the naming of offspring, particularly those from poorer branches of the clan.”

“Seraphima was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the aunts,” John said. “So I’m sure you must be right.”

“One hardly follows the other, but yes, I must be.” He sniffed the tickets again. “When did you purchase these?”

John took them back. “Yesterday afternoon.” He put them back in his pocket. “I had just returned from the station when I told you about our trip.”

Sherlock’s smile was positively demonic. “That is a lie.”

“Holmes, really—“

“Those tickets rested for no small time in close proximity to the bare skin of your fiancée—next to her bosom, unless I miss my guess.”

John’s eyes popped. “I do beg your pardon!”

“They reek of her perfume—an ordinarily subtle scent intensified precipitously by abundance, heat, moisture, or some combination of the three. Since Mary is an extremely hygienic young woman not given to bathing herself in perfume or acts of great physical exertion, I deduce that she carried the tickets next to her skin while in a state of anxiety which resulted in greater than usual perspiration.”

“Have you been sniffing my fiancée?!?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No, but really!” Ordinarily Holmes’ deductions were a source of wonder and no small delight to his friend, but this seemed not only improper but highly perilous. “Who are you to recognize her scent?”

“I recognize the presence of Mrs. Hudson’s favorite hack driver by the lingering aroma of horse shit on my hall rug,” Holmes said. “This in no way represents a symbolic romantic attraction.” Now that he had the upper hand, his smile was almost warm. “Tell me the truth, John. Why are you going to the Lake District? What has Mary so frightened?”

“She isn’t frightened, Holmes; don’t be so dramatic.” He handed over the newspaper clipping Seraphima had enclosed with her frantic letter. “Merely concerned.”

“Search continues for missing child,” Holmes read the headline. “Hope fast slipping away—good lord, who writes this drivel?”

“The missing girl apparently has some connection to Seraphima and her family,” John explained. “She’s only seven years old, and Seraphima feels responsible for her in some way. She wrote Mary to ask if I might come and offer my assistance to the police.”

“You?” He handed back the clipping. “She asked for you?”

‘Why not?” John said, trying to remain unruffled. “She has read my accounts of your exploits, so she is aware of my expertise in such matters.”

“Your accounts, my exploits.” Holmes was heading for his bedroom. “Expertise indeed—do they want a nicely typed story for the newspapers, or do they want the girl found?”

“Perhaps they don’t want their lives turned upside down by a raving madman whose methods of investigation require the emotional ruin of everyone even remotely involved.” John followed and found him throwing a seemingly random collection of personal belongings into a case of his own. “Holmes, you are specifically not invited.”

“Nevertheless, I shall go.” He latched the case and handed it to John. “Come, come, Watson; Mary will be waiting. We mustn’t be late.”

“No.” There was no use arguing, and if put to torture, John might have admitted to feeling a wee bit relieved. “All right. Let’s go.”

End of excerpt – sounds pretty good, right? And here’s a list of the rest of the stories and authors involved – they all look fantastic to me:

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Hungry Ghost by Katie Magnusson

The Diamond Carter Ghost by Matthew Wilson

The Haunted Branch Line by Tally Johnson

The Arendall Horror by Thomas Olbert

Worlds Collide by S. H. Roddey

Time is Running Out, Watson by Adrian Cross

A Voice in the Blood by Dan Shaurette

The Hunt of the Red Boar by Thomas Fortenberry

The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine by Robert Perret

The Chase by Melissa McArthur

The Adventure of the Missing Trophy by Mark W. Coulter

The Case of the Rising Dead by Trenton Mabey

The Adventure of the Slow Death by Harding McFadden

If she could read his mind, love – A romance writer’s take on POV

GeminiThe biggest news in romance writing the past month or so has been the publication of Grey, author E.L. James’ follow-up to her wildly successful Fifty Shades trilogy, written from the point of view of her problematic hero, Christian Grey. When I heard this book was coming out, my first thought was, “Jeebus Krispies, you mean those first three books were all written from the POV of that dippy Ana girl?” My second thought was a suspicion that a lot of the reviews have borne out – that seen from inside his own head without Ana’s romantic projections to diffuse the light, our boy Christian is at worst a dangerous sociopath and at best just kind of an ass. Sales queen Stephanie Meyer ran into a similar problem when she thought to rewrite her Twilight series from the POV of her vampire hero, Edward – that project was so unsuccessful that it never made it to publication. A copy leaked on the internet, and the response was so hateful, she pulled the plug.

Generally speaking, romances are written to engage the tastes and instincts of the female psyche in a relationship – they know what girls like, and they give it. A lot of smart people will tell you this is why these books from the man’s side of the bed just don’t work–they can’t work because men don’t think like women want them to think about love connections; therefore, any attempt to portray the inner life of a dude in love is going to either be unrealistic or unromantic. To which I say, bullshit. It’s perfectly possible and highly desirable to show the male point of view in a female-male romance. You just have to let your guy be a guy–and a guy worth wanting. I totally understand writers who don’t want to risk it–they don’t want to write a woman with a penis or expose the hero they love to the scrutiny of readers who might not understand him the way they do. And it’s perfectly possible to write a great book entirely from one point of view; some books need that. But at some point, the romance reader needs to know how the hero feels, which means the writer has to either show him feeling it or have him say it or both. And if he’s been the strong silent type through the whole book then suddenly pops out with a love sonnet that would make Lord Byron blush, it’s going to play fake; as a reader, I’m not going to believe him. (This is where that whole ridiculous romance cliche of, “Okay, yeah, he slayed the dragon, saved my ranch, and made me orgasm four times in three minutes, but he’s never said he looooooves me!!!!!’ came from, heaven save us.) It’s much better, I think, if she’s not keeping us in the thoughts of her heroine for some other good reason, for a writer to give us at least a peek inside the poor boy’s head or heart as we go along–we need to see him falling in love at the same pace as the heroine, just not necessarily the same way. Basically, let the poor guy be a person. You know guys, right? Write one you could love not as you think every woman would want him to be but as you know he is and trust your reader to fall in love with him. Odds are good she will.

kingspossessionThree of the books we’ve got coming out this month from Little Red Hen Romance give a nicely broad spectrum on this topic. In The King’s Possession (Chapter 2 of her For the Love of the King series), Delilah Dove stays entirely in the point of view of her heroine, Catriona, a former mistress of Louis XIV who is attempting to teach his twin brother, Phillipe, to impersonate the king and hopefully replace him. And of course, in the process of doing so, she falls ever more deeply in love. Cat and Phillipe are an interesting reversal of the usual historical couple–he’s the wise, loving innocent and she’s the damaged rake. By keeping the story in her point of view and letting her discover that Phillipe really is as wonderful as he seems gives the reader a journey that a mixed point of view couldn’t.

AnnabelNew hen Malinda Mockingbird starts a new steampunk series, The Clockwork MacGuffin, July 17 with Miss Annabel Lee and the Clockwork Wolf. Annabel is a scientist turned schoolmarm who finds a gravely injured airship captain, Nick, and brings him back to almost too much health–he’s half werewolf and not entirely in his right mind when she wakes him. While most of the action in this first installment takes place from Annabel’s point of view, Nick’s perspective is presented, and seeing him come back from animal to intelligent charmer is what makes us–and Annabel–fall so hard for him.

But my favorite new story this month also presents the most interesting point of view challenge. The lovers in Gemini, a sci fi romance by Sonja Sparrow, have been bio-engineered as a symbiotic couple, created to fight as dual assassins and to be entirely interdependent emotionally as well as physically–they don’t so much love one another as need one another to survive. When the story begins, Kaia is rescuing her beloved Xander from a frozen prison, so we see the action from her perspective. But once he’s awake, their thoughts become one–they can literally see through one another’s eyes. For us mere earthbound lovers, that sounds a lot scarier than any killer robot, but these two make it work beautifully–it’s a gorgeous romance right in the center of some genuine hard sci fi world building.

The King’s Possession and Gemini are both available right now from Amazon–and they’ll be free all through the holiday weekend, so snag your copy now. Miss Annabel Lee and the Clockwork Wolf will be out July 17 and free the weekend of July 17-19.

Because life is too short to read crap

the king's tutor coverLike more than 20 million other people, I read e-books on a Kindle, and my favorite genre is romance. A quick search on Amazon for romance titles this morning yielded me 365,065 options to choose from. I know from experience that there are treasures to be found all the way up and down the charts. But the vast majority of these 365,065 e-books calling themselves romances are total, unmitigated, stinky, slimy, sloppy crap. The Wild West world of e-publishing combined with a media that continually broadcasts romance as that world’s most popular and therefore most potentially profitable genre have shaken stuff out of the bushes that would make Grace Livingston Hill say “Fuck this noise” and switch to thrillers. Well-meaning amateurs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack with a box cutter and a blowtorch have unwittingly conspired with cynical assholes who say flat out they hate romance as they write the dumbass porno to prove it. Together they’ve created a digital Bog of Eternal Stench where readers who actually love the genre can only cling to the few writers they already know they can trust and pray for daylight—and better pricing.

Life is too short to read crap. That’s the idea that inspired Little Red Hen Romance, a smallest-of-the-small-time e-book publisher that I hope will give me and readers like me a better option. The plan is to publish at least four new romance short story titles every month starting on May 1. The stories will be absolutely free for their first week of release (and only available through Amazon) then 99 cents forever thereafter (and available from B&N and iTunes, too). If things go well, we’ll do longer anthologies and maybe even full-length books, but for now, we’re trying it out with the shorties, 3000-8000 words each. But short as they are, every story will be an actual romance by a criteria that might be entirely subjective to me but that I really think a lot of readers have been missing. When I started thinking about what I wanted and wasn’t getting from new romance, I came up with a list of three things:

1 – Sparkling dialogue: Nothing kills a love connection for me faster than dull, flat, lifeless talk, and what passes for romance these days even on the bestest of bestseller lists is full of it. Before I can care about people falling in love, I have to like them; I have to want to listen to them; I have to see the sparks fly between them. Not every story has to be a laugh-a-minute romantic rollick (though there will definitely be some of that, too), but I promise, the characters in the stories from Little Red Hen will be able to carry on a conversation before they start stripping off their clothes—and after.

 2 – Tender sensuality: I love me some smut. Explicit sexuality has been a hallmark (and some would say the major selling point) for romance since the 1970s, and as a reader, I want and expect it. And I’m not squeamish about the mechanics—twosomes, threesomes, up, down and sideways, with handcuffs or without; I’ve read books that rocked my world from all of these, books that I would definitely call romance. What set them apart was the attitude of the characters getting it on toward one another, their reasons for hopping in the sack (or the haystack or the space bunk or that big ol’ hot tub full of banana puddin’) in the first place. Not every character who has sex in a Little Red Hen book will be madly in love when they start, but they’ll at least be considering it by the time they finish. The person or persons they’re sexing will have value to them as people, and their physical actions toward them will reflect that. Nobody is going to get genuinely humiliated in a LRH book (and no monster will ever “turn anybody gay” because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of in my life, and I work at a law firm). We in the Hen House want to turn our readers on and make their toes curl but let them still feel clean and able to look their preacher in the eye afterwards.

 3 – Heart-melting romance: This one is the most important. It’s what’s most often missing from the books I hate, and I think it’s what embarrasses the haters most about romance, far more than any kind of sexual content ever could. If a story is going to be a romance by the genre definition (not the literary, which is a whole different thing involving a much wider range of happy endings), it has to be a love story; it has to be the series of events which leads the characters into (or deeper into) love. It doesn’t have to end in marriage or a marriage proposal or a declaration of eternal devotion. But it’s got to mean more than an orgasm, a contract, or the acquisition of a business partner to pay the household expenses. It’s about people touching soul to soul, something I believe in very strongly. Otherwise, for me, it’s not a romance. Every Little Red Hen story, whether it’s historical, contemporary, paranormal, steampunk, straight, LGBT, funny, dramatic, or just plain weird will be a love story by this definition.

For more information about the press or the individual titles coming up at our launch on May 1, please drop by the website at http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance or come like us on Facebook. And by all means, come hang out at our Facebook launch party on Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm EDT—yes, we’ll mention the books, and yes, there will be preview giveaway swag, but mostly it’ll be a bunch of romance lovers chatting and snarking and having fun, and we’d love to see you there: https://www.facebook.com/events/807514879343283/

And ladies of the club . . .

librarianMy mama was always my first reader and main support system as a writer. And whenever I would get discouraged and start complaining that this whole becoming a New York Times bestselling author thing was taking too damned long, she would remind me that Helen Hooven Santmyer was 89 years old when her third novel, And Ladies of the Club, finally hit it big. “And she wrote that book for fifty years!” she would finish with an air of triumph suggesting she had solved my problem entirely. God rest her soul and seat her next to Patrick Swayze, she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t helped.

I was reminded of this earlier today when I heard that a talented writer and publisher of my acquaintance was desperately discouraged. She’s been at this thing for a long time, too, and major success still eludes her. She writes great books, but she doesn’t have great sales, and her stack of rejections keeps on piling higher. She’s starting to worry that maybe she won’t ever hit it big, that maybe she’s been wasting her time. A mutual friend (my baby sister, who has more in common with Mama than she’d ever want to admit) told her it could be worse; she could be me, and if I can keep soldiering on, she certainly can.

Ahem.

As I told her, I still have those thoughts all the time. And even though Mama is gone, I have a wonderful support system that encourages me and talks me off the ledge, and I appreciate them all more than I can say. But sometimes what really gives me the kick I need is a much-less-loving little voice inside my own head.

“If you want to quit, honey, quit,” she says. “Who’s stopping you? Who’s gonna care besides you? Writing is hard work, and publishing is a pain in the ass, and if you’re not making any money at it, what are you suffering for? You can cross-stitch, crochet, play piano, and make biscuits, all perfectly nice hobbies that don’t take nearly as much energy or require nearly as thick a skin–when was the last time somebody handed you back a biscuit and said it was nice enough, they supposed, but not what they were looking for right now? No law says you have to be a writer.

“And it’s  not like you’ve ever actually published a book . . . well, all right, yes, you’ve published ten. But nobody’s ever read them except for those few tens of thousands of people who bought them, and what do they know? What have  they done for you lately? And all this time you spend working on your so-called craft, has it made you any better?”

You’re damned right it has. Every story I’ve ever written, published or not, finished or not, has taught me how to write cleaner, clearer, smarter, sharper than I did before I wrote it. More to the point, the very act of putting words on paper keeps me sane. It’s what makes me the person I am in all those other things I do. Writing is my talent, my best thing, my thing I do better than I do anything else. It siphons off the voices in my head into something useful and meaningful that connects me to other people. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.

And I don’t. So when that voice pipes up, I know exactly what to tell her. I have applied my many years’ experience writing dialogue to honing the perfect response.

Fuck you.

There are writers who do it for money, but most of us do it for love. Bless our pitiful hearts. And ladies–and gentlemen–of the club, if we have to wait until we’re two years out from dying of old age for the rest of the world to notice, I promise you, it will still be worth it.

For the Love of Writing

librarianAs a writer, I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution for 2015: To enjoy the process more and worry about the product as a product less.

Publishing right now is batshit crazy, and it’s changing so quickly, I seriously doubt anybody can really keep up. When I started writing seriously with the intention of profit, the process was cruel but simple. You wrote the best book you possibly could. Then you sent it out into the world to be brutalized by strangers until you wanted to kill yourself. If you were blessed in talent, timing, and/or acquaintance, you eventually found an agent to champion your poor battered baby and hopefully get you published. By and large, you took the agent you could get who found you the publisher they could get, and you considered yourself lucky and kept your whining to yourself. The actual marketplace was considered to be a mystery beyond your ken in which you were invited to participate in only the most peripheral way. (Though if your book didn’t succeed there, it was always your fault.) I published 6.5 books in this system, and it still exists. Too many people depend on it to let it die any time soon. Even Amazon, the big giant head that’s been threatening to vanquish it for years, doesn’t really want to kill it. They don’t want to slay the dragon; they want to keep it as a pet.

When e-books became a thing for the masses instead of a novelty for geeks, a whole new world opened up for writers. Sort of. Now you could publish your own stuff without that clunky apparatus that took so long and treated you so mean. For a while, it looked like writers would take over the publishing world. If we were willing to do all the work of packaging and promotion (a viable option when it all happened in The Cloud), we didn’t have to answer to anybody but our readers. Best of all, we got to keep all the profits. This system still exists, too, of course; the mainstream media is still touting it as the brave new world. The problem is, without those profit-skimming, soul-sucking gatekeepers of mainstream publishing standing in the way, the marketplace got flooded with anything anybody could type and slap up. And prowess in packaging and marketing doesn’t necessarily equal writing talent. A whole lot of “writers” are skipping that step where you write the best book you can. Either that, or the best book they can write is a big, old, stinky turd. And in this brave new world of indie publishing, that turd carries just as much cachet and earning potential as a good writer’s polished diamond–more if the turd maker is better at marketing. And turds, by and large, sell cheap. And readers just loooove cheap. And they love to bitch about turds in reviews, too. They bitch, but they buy–if they don’t have to pay more than a dollar.

So right now, everybody–writers, agents, publishers, bloggers, marketing gurus, and Jeff Bezos–are scrambling to stabilize the process, to find a compromise that provides readers with books they actually want to read at a price they want to pay, keeps the great machine of traditional publishing adequately fed, sends Amazon’s profits up, up, up, and oh yeah, makes writing books a viable occupation for grown-ups who aren’t necessarily on anti-psychotic medication. And believe me when I tell you, that last item is last on way more lists than mine. Believe me also when I say this is the stuff that keeps me up nights wondering if it’s too late to go to law school.

Luckily while I do write to be read and I do want to make money at it, I also write because I have to. My mental health demands it. My soul is nourished by it. The construction of story is my favorite pastime and has been since I was a child. I can’t control the marketplace. I can’t predict it. Most days I barely understand it.

But I can write great books. I can pour my heart out in a story and touch a reader’s heart in turn. So while I know I have to keep trying to market and make good choices and be smarter about my work as a widget to be sold, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to lose my mind over it. I can revel in the joy of making stuff up. I can write the book I really want to write because why not? Writing to the market, for me at least, for now at least, makes no sense. In 2015, I just want to write a great book.

 

Falconskeep Trilogy E-Books, $8.99 each!

ENJ-89956-La-Belle-Dame-sans-MercFinally, finally, finally!  Simon & Schuster have FINALLY released my first three books (A Falcon’s Heart, This Dangerous Magic, and Wicked Charms) in e-book at a consistent and pretty decent price – $8.99 each!  And to celebrate, I’ve given them their very own blog with all the info – synopses, reviews, inspirations, etc., with excerpts to come.  Check it out! http://falconskeep.wordpress.com/

Hot Summer Bash – Much read-y stuff to win!

strangeasangelswblueeyesMe and a whole slew of other amazing writers of paranormal and supernatural horror and romance have gotten together to wind down bikini season with a “Hot Summer Bash.”  The grand prize winner will get a $100 Amazon gift card (aaaaiiieeee, the irony; it burns us!), plus a long, cozy autumn’s worth of e-books from me, Marcia Colette, Alexandra Christian, Selah Janel, Siobhan Kinkade, Crymsyn Hart, Traci Markou, and S.H. Roddey.  Vampires, werewolves, bounty hunters from hell, a couple of fallen angels – if that’s not enough to get you all inspired for football and Halloween, I don’t know what will.

Enter to win at the Rafflecopter on Crymsyn Hart’s blog here:  http://crymsynhart.blogspot.com/2014/08/hot-summer-bash-with-lucy-blue-marcia.html