musing Feed

RWA15: Wrapping it up.

Right now my twitter feed is full of people saying goodbye and thank yous to everyone they have met this week and I can't help but want to favorite every post. I had wonderful friendships and connections with people before I came here but the time at RWA affirmed and deepened them.

RWA was exhausting, exhilarating and thought-provoking. Again and again I am struck with how accessible everyone is at this conference. I rode the elevator with some of my favorite authors, shared drinks with others at the bar. I had the fun of seeing authors be unapologetic fans of each other.

I loved that everyone wants to know what was the last book you loved.

 

I had the chance to smile and share with people just starting out writing Romance and people with 30+ plus years and dozens if not hundreds of novels to their name (or names) and every one of these people were impressive to me.

 

They are navigating a very tumultuous and ever-changing market.

 

They are trying to figure out how to hone their craft, how to best market their stories and how to cope with the pressures and stress of it all.

 

They do it because they love these stories. They love to read

 

& write them and they want to share them.

I was struck by the incredible variety within Romance. All the little nooks and niches people write in and for. I only had a chance to attend a fraction of the panels offered and I think depending on your track and interest you could walk away with a completely different conference expereince than mine.

 

Outside of the Keynotes, people had the opportunity to engage in the conference in different ways, and will take away different impressions.

 

I was happy to see a larger conversation about diversity and for that conversation to spill out of the sessions into the general conference.

 

When I was among other bloggers and readers I took part in a lot conversations about how fragmented and specialized the blogging community has become. There has been a lot of turnover and shifting of the conversation to different platforms away from traditional blogging. I'm a newcomer to blogging romance so a lot of the older voices were before my time, but it was still fascinating to see how the community has evolved and changed.

Many of conversations I had this week with writers centered on how much there is to do as a romance writer. Most people have day jobs and families to support.

 

They squeeze in writing around the fringes. Yet there is incredible pressure to produce, produce, produce.

 

The keynotes

 

spoke again and again of slowing down to think, slowing down and refocusing on their love of writing, slowing down and connecting with others. As a reader, I know that I always want a new novel or work from an author I love but I am always happy to wait for it. I rather have a late novel, that has been well edited, and produced than one that was rushed out. I can wait for quality. But it is clear that writers feel pressured to give readers what they want as soon as possible.

 

The panel of depression was incredibly powerful. Again and again the reminder to love and care for yourself, by knowing yourself and doing for yourself what you would do for a friend really stuck with me.

 

I am so glad I came. I hugged so many people

 

(probably a couple who didn't want to be hugged, sorry Erin!) and I laughed a lot.

 

I've gone to lots of conferences with booklovers but it was such a treat to be at conference with people who don't even question but instead celebrate the very things I love to read the most.

I hope everyone had as good of an experience as I did. I know I will be back for another. Safe travels home everyone!

 


But I had a plan! Organizing my reading & reviewing life.

Screenshot 2015-04-21 09.02.19I'm coming up fast on my second anniversary as book blogger/reviewer. So I've been doing a lot of thinking in the past few months about how and why I do this.  As reviewer one of the biggest perks and challenges are ARCs.  Free books offered by publishers and authors for review consideration. ARCs are both a blessing and curse.  They are a blessing in that they allow me to try books I might have not tried otherwise.  But ARCs come with implicit and sometimes explicit expectations.

When I first started using NetGalley, I was using it as a librarian. Which meant I requested books to evaluate purposes.  Often I requested for a chance to look  at the format more closely or double check it had the content I was looking for.  I didn't feel any responsibility to offer any additional feedback except through my ordering. Eventually however I started using my NetGalley account to request books that interested me personally (Romance & adult fiction), and  I started writing reviews since I was not requesting those books as a Librarian.  Then somewhere along the line NetGalley changed their dashboard and user profile.  They started posting reviewing/request stats. Mine were abysmal (under 30%), because I had dug myself a pretty huge hole during my library evaluation copy request period.  Because I am easily affected by grades, seeing the stats in my profile made me more selective. While I'm as susceptible to the lure of a pretty cover and interesting blurb as the next person (okay...maybe more so),  I stopped requesting unless I was absolutely sure I wanted to read it or someone I trusted a lot told me I really should try it.  As a result my request to review stats started climbing, and I don't have as many unread ARCs haunting my TBR.  My stats are still under what NetGalley thinks should be the right amount (hoovering around 50% vs 80%) but I don't feel so badly now.

One of biggest challenges as a reviewer however is not the over-abundance of ARCs but the fact that I'm a moody/emotional reader. I have never had much success reading on a schedule.   When I feel like reading, it is all I want to do.  I walk around with my book, and steal moments of reading whenever I can.   But reading is not discipline for me, even if it is habit. I like to read to everyday, but every so often I get stuck and I can't power through. Maybe I don't have the right thing to read, or I'm not ready to return to a book that I was enjoying but it is going to take me places I don't feel like going to.

 I really respect people who can read one book cover to cover without picking something else in between, but I rarely do that, even with books I adore.  One of my favorite things about reading on a e-reader is that no one needs to know about my poly-readerish way. They don't have to know that I read sections from six different books yesterday, they only see that I'm reading.  The only place they can see cheating ways is if people peek at my currently-reading shelf on Goodreads.  Late last year I started tracking my reading on GR more faithfully for two reasons. One is that  I've been reading romance regularly for about four years now, so I have read a lot of books, after a while they can start running together and I hate having to rely on my own fuzzy memories. Secondly because I read on mixture of platforms at the end of the year I rarely know how many books I actually read, I only know the number I reviewed.  I want to see how many books I actually read in year. Because I do like stats I'm enjoy checking on my Reading challenge numbers.   My currently-reading shelf is quite cluttered. About a third of books the books on it are ones that I'm actually reading, and 2/3rds are books that I will eventually DNF but I am not ready to admit defeat on yet.

While I am loving participating in SuperWendy's TBR reading challenge my real challenge right now isn't remembering to dig books out of my TBR, it is making sure I write the reviews of what I have read in a timely manner.  Because I read based on my moods, I can get well ahead of myself.  Last month I ended up reading four books due for review in May, a couple due in April but ignored several of my March books. As a result I have started using a spreadsheet to track my reading and keep myself accountable for reviews.  I'm really liking how it is working for me.  While I refuse to treat reading as discipline I can treat review writing as one.  I am now tracking release dates, source of ARC, whether I have read it, and if I have started a review.  As a result those May books that I read ahead of schedule all have reviews in progress.  It is simple enough of a system for me to use regularly and even if I end up reading books all out of order, I can at least make sure the reviews come out in a timely manner. Sometimes I still end up waiting a long time after a reading a book to review it because I need to wrestle with it, but I think I write better reviews if I at the very least write down my impressions pretty soon after I read it. 

What are you biggest reading challenges? Do you track or schedule your reading? Do you have system? What works for you?

 

 


World-Building in Romance

Books that have a strong sense of place really help me sink right in. It makes the story feel solid and tangible.

— Ana (@anacoqui) April 9, 2015

 

Last week I was reading two very different kinds of romance novels (Joanna Wylde’s Silver Bastard and Laura Florand’s upcoming All for You).  Although they are both contemporaries on the surface, you can’t pick two more different types of stories and settings yet I felt fully engaged and immersed both these books in no small part because of the way the authors described and rooted the action in their locations in macro and micro ways.

The novels didn't use their cities/towns as interchangeable backdrop or wallpaper but instead took the time to develop a distinctive location for the reader. Locations were consistently described, attention was paid to the way people experience and interact differently with the landscape when walking versus when they are driving. While I couldn't have drawn you a map based on the descriptions I had a sense that the writers could have. 

I grew up reading Fantasy, Sci-fi & Mystery and I still have weakness for novels with maps. I love books that take the time to develop a setting so it feels like it had depth and solidity. I don’t care if we are talking about books set in steam-punk China or Victorian England, a post-apocalyptic future or planet far far away,  small-town or urban contemporary, world building is important to me. I think one of the reasons books by Jeannie Lin, Courtney Milan,  K.J. Charles, Kit Rocha, Shannon Stacey & Julie James work so well for me is that they do excellent world building.

Reading is an act of trust. As a reader I routinely gift authors with my goodwill and enter their books with a willing suspension of disbelief. When I do that I trust the author to take me someplace amazing, some place worth going.  There are lots of ways to screw that up. Everyone has different things that trigger disbelief and kick them out of story. For me repetitive vocabulary, vague geography & continuity mistakes are some of the more common ones.  

How important is place and world building to you?  What are your essentials? I've listed a few authors I think do a consistently good job, any authors you feel do this particularly well? Do you have higher expectations from some kinds of books than you do of others?


Character Catnip

Since I’m not an aspiring writer and a moody rather than trendy reader and have little interest in predicting and anticipating the the kinds of stories, protagonists and heat-levels that I will likely encounter on the shelves in a year’s time, I generally don’t pay much attention to wish lists posted by agents and romance publishers. But every so often I do stumble upon one of those lists. This week a friend sent me a link to an post by an editor describing the kind of heroes this particular line was looking for.

When I get comfy in my nice big armchair with a cup of tea close at hand, I like to read books with heroes who are confident and sexy and, well, heroic. I don’t want too much realism. We all know guys who tell gross jokes or refuse to clean their bathrooms, so reading about them kind of ruins the mood, you know? I like a hero who has a bit of an edge and is tough enough to protect the woman he loves. Oh, and he has a sense of humor, too. The perfect man, right? Well, he doesn't have to be perfect; he can have flaws and vulnerabilities, and this is what makes him seem attainable.

http://www.readersentertainment.com/blog/2015/harlequin-blaze-editor-johanna-raisanen-talks-blazeblitz/

 

I ended up thinking about that post for a long while. I was particularly struck by the fact that she seemed to be saying that the flaws and vulnerabilities are there to make the character seem attainable.

I know everyone has different kinds of character catnip, but attainable is probably the last thing I look for in romance novel protagonists. While rock-stars, billionaires, sports-stars and CEO’s are all over the place, I personally really enjoy blue-collar or no-collar protagonists the best but not because they are more attainable. While I might be inspired to sigh at a romantic gesture or find a particular character incredibly swoon-worthy, they are in the end fictional. My enjoyment of romance is not tied to whether I think or dream about that story happening to me. Some of my favorite romances have been ones set in times/places completely apart from my life experience and when I judge my satisfaction with the romantic arc I care a lot more about whether they are attractive & attainable to the other protagonist, not to me personally.

What I look for in romance protagonists is wider and murkier. I love characters who are competent and love their jobs which is why so many of Julie James’s & Emma Barry’s heroines appeal to me. I love it even more when characters who are super-competent in one part of their life but not super-competent at the rest of their lives like Tamsen Parker’s India Burke in the Compass Series or both Charlotte & Gabriel in Nalini Singh’s Rock Hard. I like cranky, grumpy protagonists like Ilona Andrews’s Dali Harimau and KJ Charles’s Stephen Day. I love witty & charming characters who use their humor to hide their pain & vulnerabilities like Courtney Milan’s Sebastian Malheur & Blake Reynolds. I like humble, earnest & some-what self-conscious characters, like Laurenston’s Lachlan "Lock" MacRyrie, Meg Maguire’s Patrick Doherty or Florand’s Matthieu Rosier while at the same time enjoying deadly & dangerous characters like Kit Rocha’s Lex & Dallas & Carolyn Crane’s Thorne.

I know some readers are very hero or heroine centric, readers who love to read a fantasy about their perfect kind of man or woman, and I am not judging that. I can understand the appeal of a great care-taking alpha fantasy, or being able to sink into a story because you are able to deeply connect with one of the characters. For me only characters that evolve beyond their “type” will allow me to develop a lasting interest in a story. Just recently I DNF’ed a promising book because 25% of the way in the characters were still describing each other in the same repetitive & superficial fantasy-word-soup, all the descriptors were incredibly attractive but if the characters could only see each other as that limited list of descriptors that far into the story I was not going to invest any further time into trying to finish.

Yes, I want to read characters with flaws and failures, characters that are imperfect because our imperfections highlight our common humanity. They are not just qualities that make idealized characters seem attainable. I want the characters I read about to have vulnerabilities because I find character arcs richer when I see characters grow and mature through the course of the story.

I know many readers have bright lines about needing their romance protagonists to be heroic. I while I have lines, I have to admit that they might not be as bright for me as they are for some other readers. I've come to terms with my weakness for bad-boys (Spike over Angel, everyday!). I will happily read about pirates, outlaw bikers, con artists, fortune hunters, spies and assassins. I frequently read stories about morally compromised men and women finding love they surely don’t deserve and enjoy it. What matters to me when I read these stories is not whether the character’s morality is compatible with my own, but whether I believe the character to be capable of loving the other protagonist and able to do right by them.

I do love a good redemption story, but my acceptance of non-heroic characters has limits. I will not apologize for avoiding stories that center on slave traders, slave owners & exploiting colonizers. While I believe they like all sinners are able to be recipients of God’s incomprehensible Grace, I am not interested in reading their stories of romantic fulfillment.

One of my gray areas is characters who hold racist, sexist or homophobic views. My acceptance of those kinds of characters depends greatly on whether those views are presented in order to be challenged in the course of the story. If there is no change or rebuke, if those views are not a source of internal or external conflict, I am not likely to enjoy that book however compelling the romantic arc is. The way the author handles people of color and other marginalized people in the story is also going to greatly affect if the book is successful for me. Life is too short to read yet another “privileged person learns a lesson” story where marginalized people are nothing more than props.

So whether the main character is a troubled con artist or a lonely firefighter the biggest thing I am looking for is that they are rounded and real enough to carry stories that illustrate hope and joy. I want characters who reflect the same capacity to love and fail as the people I live and work with everyday. Sign me up for protagonists that are not simply attainable perfection but whose flaws, quirks and failures illustrate a shared humanity that shines through whether they live in ancient Rome, a story-book castle, a cramped urban apartment, a starship in a galaxy far away, in steam-punk China or a small suburb much like my own.

 

What qualities are you looking for in protagonists? What kinds do you want to read more of? The quirky, witty, competent, unlikable, sweet, feisty, troubled…? What are your bright lines? What are your exceptions?

 

 


Seeing myself in Romance Novels

In the last day or so there has been some discussion on twitter and Dear Author about a upcoming Kristan Higgins' book that a blogger cited as part of Harlequin's strategy to address the overwhelming whiteness of their books.  The cover features to white-looking protagonists, one who is described as Irish American and another as half-Puerto Rican.  As mother of two half-Puerto Rican children, I am more than happy to count a half-Puerto Rican character as move toward diversity, however I do think the blogger/article author over-stated the impact the book is likely to have and Dear Author commenters are right to point out that there is something very off about having this promoted as in any way ground-breaking.

I don't go out of my way to find Latino/Hispanic characters but I am almost always excited to see them.  Finding Hispanic/Latino characters that feels right is hard can be hard because we are such a complex fluid bunch.  We have immigrant/native Latinos, legal and undocumented, urban and rural, poor and rich, Spanish or Spanglish or English speaking, and that isn't touching the complex brew of racial, national and cultural heritages we carry. An author could be trying to craft complex Latino characters and still get slammed for not crafting one just right.

As Puerto Rican of predominately White European descent, growing up I have often feel the weird outsiderness of people judging me as not Puerto Rican enough, because my skin is not dark enough, or my Spanish accent not strong enough.  One my most painful moments in high school when I had a classmate and rival for exchange student slot, said to me that because I was lighter skinned than he was, I would have a easier to time fitting in at the rural Western NY school we were  doing the exchange with, thus he should be selected the opportunity because he was more Puerto Rican than I was.  In the years since then I have come to appreciate the privilege my white skin and my minimally accented English grant me.   For the most part, unless I tell someone, people don't immediately know I am Latina. I don't wear my culture on my skin, and that is awkward thing in our heavily racially focused American culture.  I have ended up hearing many a bigoted comment from people who don't realize they are talking about my people or had people try to compliment me in weird ways because I don't fit their stereotype. So as result I usually extra glad to see Latino characters with non-stereotypical backgrounds, characters whose racial/cultural identity is more complicated.

Last year I really enjoyed Audra North's One Night in Santiago because the hero  Bruno Komarov, was a Chilean American with Russian ancestors.  He was California born and bred but with strong historical and cultural ties to his parents and grand-parent's Chile.  In Laugh, Mary Ann Rivers' upcoming book the heroine is a first-generation Mexican American, born in the US to migrant worker parents.  Although she is described as having her father's strong Mayan features, and dark hair, she was raised English speaking, and the strongest elements in her identity are not necessary about being Mexican-American but being a daughter of a migrant farm laborer,  her grief and urban farm.  As I read the book I ended up contacting Rivers over Twitter to ask her about Nina's use of the curse word 'joder' un-conjugated as replacement for 'fuck'.  It jarred me when I read it because I am more familiar with the conjugated uses of 'joder'.  Turned out that Mary Ann Rivers had Nina use it that way, because the primarily-English speaking 1st and 2nd Generation Mexican-Americans she recorded speaking as part of her research used it that way.  I loved learning that.  Cursing is so regional in Spanish, and it just added to the building of character that is uniquely themselves and not just a token.

Last year I read most of Serena Bell's "Yours Keep” which featured an undocumented Dominican Spanish tutor, heroine, Ana Travares. While ended up bailing on reading the whole book because some ass-hattery by the love interest Ethan, I thought Bell did a great job crafting a complex Dominican family for Ana.  The book actually touched on some of the complicated racial politics within Latino cultures, where variations in skin shade/hair texture within a family are often commented upon and whiteness often privileged.   I liked having this internal racism acknowledged and getting that detail right gave me confidence that the author had some actual knowledge of the workings of Dominican families.

But sometimes a character can be given all sorts of little details, and still not feel true. I read and enjoyed "A Righteous Kill" by Kerrigan Byrne, even though the hero, Luca Ramirez described as half-Puerto Rican, half-Brazilian, felt off to me.  His mother was supposed to have been a Puerto Rican underage stripper from El Paso, TX who got involved with violent "euro-trash" Brazilian that gave Luca nothing but grief and abuse.  Beyond mentioning their ethnicity, there was little about this back-story that carried into the characterization of Luca.  Maybe it wouldn't have felt that way to others, but I thought, why go to the trouble of giving this character this back-story and not do something with it.  Ramirez was completely disconnected to his family or ancestral cultures and so it was nothing more than window dressing. But maybe I am being unfair, and out there are Puerto Rican/Brazilian Texans for whom Luca feels familiar but I doubt it.  I thought Hero, the heroine's Irish-Russian, Shakespeare spouting spy family received much more development and weight.

One thing that does ring true in all these recent depiction of Latinos is the fact that they are entering into multicultural/interracial relationships.  According to  recent Pew Studies, Latinos and Asians have the highest rates of intermarriage to whites, and some of the highest rates of acceptance of marrying out.  In my family, all my siblings and step-siblings have either married out or involved with people  partners who not Latino (White, Indian-American, Japanese-Brazilian), and all but one of my high school best-friends have also married out.  This is my reality and I certainly want to see more of it in Romance novels I read.