Frahgilé

It’s a Major Award.

Today is an exciting day in the romancey community. RWA is a well-oiled machine, as you have to be for a major advocacy group with over 10,000 members. Today is the day RWA announces the finalists for the Golden Heart Awards for unpublished writers and the Rita Awards for published writers.

There are multiple categories such as single-title contemporary (that would be your standard Nora Roberts/Linda Howard novel), or series (such as Harlequin), or paranormal, or romantic suspense and so forth.

Everyone submitted their books or manuscripts back in December and now all the judging is in (from fellow RWA members). Finalists are notified today and the winners will be announced at the big awards ceremony at the RWA National Convention in July.

That’s when you get to see Nora in her Ferragamos accepting her trophies.

All across the internet, there are blog parties today. People chime in when they’ve heard that they finalled and others comment to congratulate. The people you don’t hear from are the ones still clutching their cell phones, waiting for it to ring.

A lot of hope out there today, swirling through the interwebs.

Which means there will also be disappointment. A lot of phones won’t ring.

Golden Heart, particularly, can be held up by the unpubbed writers as the pinnacle of success. It’s a particularly nice deal in that, if you are a finalist, you get first pick of the agent and editor pitch appointments at the convention. Theoretically they’ll take you more seriously, having been vetted by your colleagues.

But that only points up that the Golden Heart is only an intermediate step to the REAL prize: publication. Which is the whole point, after all. At least for the upubs. Clearly all those Rita finalists are hoping for another level of validation, likely just as crucial to them. Maybe more so.

I’ve seen several “studies” – bloggers doing informal surveys of Golden Heart winners – to see if there was a correlation between winning or finalling and publication. The answer, as always, is yes and no. It looks to me like it helps, but it’s far from a sinecure.

Like all contests, it can be wonderful validation from your peers, but it really doesn’t put your book before readers’ eyes. Readers who will pay you to eat so you can keep giving them stories, much less readers who will give you enough money to buy Ferragamos.

I don’t know if I’ll check into the blog parties or not. I’m keeping my phone off until my writing is done. That part must remain sacred, as it’s the core of it all.

It’s hard to wait. Hard to rest your hopes on whether someone gave you a score of 7 or 9, or even an 8.8. You take a little piece of your heart and lay it on the marble slab under the judges critical eye.

But, in the end, an award is only what it means to you. Even a Major Award.

Even if it’s Italian.

Forever Stuck on the Road Less Traveled


I may have made a mistake.

I know, I know — we can crack all the jokes we like about writing it on the calendar, etc. But I’m begining to think I really miscalculated, becoming involved in this whole genre thing.

When I first began writing, and I really trace this back to grad school, since I don’t believe childhood stories and adolescent angsty poetry really count, my work came out as essays. To get some relief from what had become the crushing pressure of my PhD in Neurophysiology program, I began taking classes with the visiting writers program.

And, oh, the excitement of those days.

I loved meeting the visiting writers, and the other students. I loved the workshops, the stimulation of it all. And they supported me in very useful ways. I learned to explore my new art. An artist’s retreat accepted me to stay for two weeks, I received fellowships and other awards.

And I was rewarded early on with publishing success.

I wouldn’t say the magazines fell over themselves to publish me, but it was fairly steady, from Redbook to Literary Mags, I published in several a year until, eight years after my first class, I held my essay collection, published by a university press, in my hands.

Then I stalled.

There were a lot of reasons. Mainly I couldn’t quite get the two nonfiction projects I was working on to gel. So I wrote a novel, Obsidian, about sex and magic. I thought, oh, I’ll sell this and the genre work will bring in the money so I can focus on the nonfiction projects.

Yeah, it didn’t work out that way. Even though one of the editors at a sci fi magazine I’d published with said that an agent would snap up a writer like me, no one has. One agent early on wrote me a letter saying how disappointed he was, because he’d loved my idea but then I’d gone and written it like some kind of literary book.

A few months later, I went to the RWA National conference, where my name tag identified me as unpublished. Because Romance Writers of America considers you published only if it’s in the genre. A month before, I’d been a featured writer on a panel at a book festival. At one lunch, I sat next to a woman I didn’t know. In fact, I did at every meal since I knew no one. I don’t remember her name — she was another unpubbed wannabe like me. At the end of the meal, she said she looked forward to reading my book. Foolishly, I pulled my essay collection out of my bag, saying I had some with me. She looked at me like I’d offered her dog shit and said, no, she meant my romance novel, whenever I got it published.

I sent my first query on Obsidian 12/20/07. Just over two years ago, for those keeping score at home. Admittedly, it wasn’t really ready for prime time then. Hindsight is 20/20. Meanwhile, a gal I know wrote a book while snowed in during December 2008, that she just sold in a three-book deal.

Jayne Ann Krentz wrote an interesting post on the FFP blog recently. She speaks frankly about writing as a business, which she’s clearly better at than I am. She says this:

DON’T GET TOO FAR AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Trust me on this. I’ve been there and done that and it rarely goes well. Back at the beginning of my career I tried to do a futuristic/paranormal. That very first manuscript had all of the elements that I now work with freely: romance, suspense and a psychic twist. I can’t tell you how many rejection slips the manuscript garnered. They all had the same theme: “Really enjoyed the writing but unfortunately there’s no market for this kind of romance.”

She could be talking about me. For some reason, no matter what I’m doing, I never quite fit neatly into what everyone else is doing. I didn’t in high school, I didn’t in my PhD program. I don’t now.

I really don’t think I’m doing it on purpose.

At any rate, I’m back where I was three years ago when I started writing Obsidian. Unable to sell my current project, I think I’m going back to nonfiction. I actually know where to take one of the two I was working on then.

I have learned one thing, that querying and selling have to be background activities. You can make yourself crazy if they’re your main focus.

It might be precious to say, but it forever and always must be mainly about the writing.

No, but What Do YOU Think?


This morning in the Water Cooler, we had an interesting conversation about contests and a pitfall I’d never considered.

The Water Cooler is a chat room on the website of our Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Chapter. One of our board members is an amazing web designer and she created these various chat rooms for us. The Water Cooler is for hanging out while you write. Sometimes we do timed sessions and then report back word counts or pages edited. Sometimes we throw out problems we’re struggling with, for feedback.

Sometimes we just yak.

This morning, one gal mentioned that she wasn’t working on her WIP — lingo for Work in Progress — but instead doing penance and judging a contest entry. Penance because she’d failed to notice that one of the entries given her to judge was the exact same entry she’d judged for another contest the week before. These are for our chapter On the Far Side contest and everyone is supposed to be done judging by tomorrow.

She turned the entry back in and took another because she “would have had to write all the exact same comments.”

So, it’s an interesting thing. So many RWA chapters sponsor contests that the market is arguably flooded. And yet, these are opportunities unmatched in the business, that you can get your work in front of agents and editors who serve as final judges, but who won’t accept unsolicited submissions. Some people get caught up in collecting contest finals and wins (one group keeps count and actually gives the person with the most finals in a year an actual TIARA — yes, these are all women). But really, the point is that this is a chance to get your manuscript that much closer to publication.

The real prize.

The editors and agents serve as final judges, meaning that they judge the finalists. As determined by the chapter members who volunteer to judge. And sometimes people from outside the chapter, if the chapter in question can’t get enough volunteers.

Now, many people in RWA belong to several chapters — maybe a local one or two and a couple online groups. So there are two or three contests you’ll be hit up to judge right there. More if you’re feeling generous and volunteer to help another group. The pool of people submitting to the contests is largely this same group and they usually hit as many contests as they can, to maximize their chances.

There’s a word for this syndrome.

MFA programs have been accused of producing literary clones. (I tried Googling “MFA Syndrome” to give you a good link to an article, because I know I’ve read a couple, but all the hits were in other blog posts. Hmmm….) The academic/MFA environment produces literary writers who get university posts to teach MFA programs.

Right! Incest.

And we all know what the product of incest is. Lethal mutation at worst; reduced heterogeneity at best. Reduced heterogeneity in biology leads to weaker individuals, for those not up on their genetics and evolutionary biology.

There have been complaints that the contests are past their prime. That the agents and editors don’t request full manuscripts as much. That they aren’t making as much money for the chapters.

Maybe we should think about doing something different.

Full Moon on the Rise


I’m taking a plotting class.

For the second time now. Not as in, I flunked the first time so I have to take it again to get a passing grade for my major. That was Immunology. Why Immunology among all those hard-core pre-med courses I took? I have no idea. No one knows which heel is the one that didn’t get sufficiently dipped, I suppose.

No, this is a different online plotting class that I’m trying because I keep feeling like I should learn how to plot better.

And no, this has never been feedback on my book, that the plot has to be stronger. I think I have this idea that if I learn to plot, everything will be much easier. See, the RWA folks are all about plotting vs. pantsing. In fact, they ask you that after they ask your name and where you’re from at receptions. The first time someone asked me, I couldn’t even figure out what word they were saying. “Pantser” is a person who writes by the seat of her pants, rather than plotting out the story ahead of time.

I’m not fond of the term, frankly.

I dropped out of the first plotting class because I hated it so much. They had us start with loglines, which is basically your pitch line. “A beautiful young girl, abused by her family, sneaks into a dance where she captures the heart of the local charming ruler. Afraid that he’ll spurn her once he discovers her base origins, she flees, forcing him to search for her so they might live happily ever after.”

That kind of thing.

And my deal is, I don’t know how you can know what the story is about until I write it. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write essays the same way. And these blog posts. You can probably tell that half the time I don’t know what my point is. I start with an image or an idea and talk about it for a while. Sometimes I make it to a point, sometimes I don’t.

When I *do* find a point, it’s a wonderful moment. My friend, Craig Arnold, now a dead poet, which he might actually find kind of amusing, taught me a way to think of it. I think it was the Chinese, he said, who talk about the moment the poem “opens its eyes.”

I live for that moment. Which I suppose makes me a crazy writer, even if not a cinematically worthy one.

Starting with the logline is, to me, like starting with the moment the story opens its eyes. Which feels fundamentally wrong and backwards, like I’m jumping to the end without having earned it.

Like all ventures that can end in a thrilling reward, there’s also doubt and fear. Which is probably why I keep thinking I should learn to plot. Just in case. So I started a second class. And we’re starting with loglines. I’ll give it a few more days.

Prophylactic heel-dipping, as it were.

Mind the Step!

I am reminded, yet again, of my bad blogging habits. I can’t tell you who by, because my mother made me promise not to say in my blog again that she was nagging me.

Yes, I am a terrible, horrible, irresponsible, bad and wrong blogger.

I think that, sometimes, there’s an inverse relationship to input and output for me. The more input I have, the less I write. Once the input is over, I can process, assimilate and write. Kind of like a plant: I’m all about dark photosynthesis. But take heart. During the bright daylight, I’m storing up all kinds of brilliant bits, ready to convert them into radiant blogs.

Just you wait.

So, I have to tell you my trials of leaving RWA. Which, by the way, was covered on NPR. Listen here if you’re interested. (HOW could you not be?)

There I was having lunch/drinks with Keena Kincaid, author of Anam Cara, who I met for the first time at real life and feel like I’ve known forever. We ended up skipping vital convention stuff, just to yak. Doesn’t get better than that.

So, I’m late leaving for the airport, but not terribly.

I walk back to the Omni, the overflow hotel that was FAB, retrieve my suitcase from the luggage room and head to the Metro. The bell captain asks if I want a cab and I say, no, I’ll take the Metro back. I then pause, ask how much a cab is and he says $17. Cheap! So, I hesitate, but he says, ah, the Metro is easy. And I agree. It’s $2. The station is right there and it’s green. I do try.

I drag my stuff to the metro: my laptop bag, my suitcase, my purse on one shoulder. A passing smart ass notes I need only one more item to have a full suite. But it’s okay. I take the hugely long escalator down to the platforms. You’ve seen them: the escalators to the DC Metro are stories tall and super steep. But I have this technique. I spin my wheelie laptop bag around, push it onto one step, I step onto the next and pull my suitcase onto the level behind me. Standing considerately to the right, I am a streamlined linear travel group.

I ride down. I see the signs that say “major delays.” I see the teeming, hot crowds for the trains that aren’t coming.

I decide to take a cab.

So, I go back up the hugely steep escalators, using my streamlined technique. I’m nearly to the top when I turn slightly, brushing my suitcase behind me… and it falls.

I’m not kidding.

It was like a bobsled. The curved, glossy hard surface turned it into a sled worthy of a luge competition. It rocketed down the escalator at lightning speed. All it lacked was purple midget riders.

I confess, I’m punchy enough that I doubled over laughing at the sight.

Fortunately no one was on it behind me, because no trains were arriving, were they?

This lovely woman at the bottom, who fortunately arrived late enough not to be flattened, picked it up and brought it up with her. God bless friendly strangers.

Oh, and we got three offers on our house yesterday, so now you can ask how the house sale is going!

Heading home and loving it.

Bouncey bouncey, fun, fun, fun, fun

Okay, I confess I’m starting to lose track.

It’s 11:18 pm here in D.C.. Which is 9:18 pm in Laramie and 5:18 pm in Waikiki. And no, I have no idea which time zone my body is on, much less my brain.

I mentioned this before, the new research on jet lag. See, the way sleep works is, a person spends the first part of the night in Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), which is the deep, healing sleep. Dreaming or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep occurs only in brief periods between the sometimes two-hours-long stretches of SWS. As the night progresses, the proportions shift, with more time spent in REM sleep and less in SWS. This is why you usually wake from a dream in the mornings, and you dream more if you sleep in. It’s also why the afternoon nap can feel so deadly — that deep sleep can be hard to shake off.

So, for those who don’t care to link to the article, the upshot is, even though you may adjust to a new time zone and sleep during the ambient night, the parts of the brain that regulate the sleep cycle may be continuing on their regular schedule. So when I flew to Hawaii, that meant my usual dreaming time of, say, 2am to 6am, was shifted to 10pm to 2 am, skipping SWS altogether if I didn’t go to sleep before 10. Which, erm, I didn’t. Now, if I adjusted to Hawaii time, which, after nine days, I likely did, now my dream time is occurring from 8am to noon.

The interesting thing is, the studies showed that if you don’t get enough REM sleep for a while, you start to get REM intrusion — which means your brain clicks into REM state even when you’re awake.

Yeah.

You know that surreal, dreamlike feeling? There you are.

So it’s hard to say which state I’m in. We’ll choose “deprived” as an umbrella term. Soon I’ll be overstimulated. Which is worse?

You be the judge.

And the German Judge Gives It…

I realize my title is probably dating me.

There’s a whole couple of generations who don’t understand references to German judges. Or who think Mikhail Baryshnikov is just a cute guy on Sex and the City; they’re surprised to hear he’s a dancer and ask what kind. I swear to God I’ve had this actual conversation. I have witnesses. They didn’t understand about Political Asylum either, or why he might have claimed it.

The German judge, for those who didn’t watch the Olympics in the 70s and 80s refers to the international panel of judges scoring the various Olympic events. There was often a perception that the German judge was a) tougher and b) inclined to mark down competitors from the non-communist countries. For accuracy, we should really say the “East German judge,” but idioms aren’t about accuracy.

There’s been an interesting conversation on the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal writers loop the last day or so, about contest judges. I’ve written before about the RWA chapter contests, so I won’t reiterate here. But the way it works is you generally get scores from two or three judges. In many contests, if the point spread exceeds a certain margin, a discrepancy judge is called in and the lowest score is dropped. The idea is to account for reader preferences, which can really affect scores. For example, on a recent contest I entered, one judge gave me a perfect score of 100 (with comments that it was so splendid she couldn’t gush enough) and another judge awarded me a 54 (with a snarky comment that beastiality is not an appropriate subject for a romance.)

One got me; one didn’t.

In the real world, this would translate to a person who would buy my book and one who would burn it. Fair enough. The common wisdom is that these kind of splits result from having a “strong voice” — readers tend to love it or hate it. All of this is lead-up to using one of my favorite examples, from country music. (Yeah, you saw that one coming, right?)

I heard this story on NPR many, many moons ago, but it’s always stuck with me. They were discussing the perception that country music radio stations had become less, well, interesting. It turns out that there had been a huge study where “they” looked at what caused people to change the radio station — anathema for advertising, of course. They found that people changed the station, shockingly enough, when a song they hated came on. So, it seemed simple: don’t play the songs people hate. BUT, what the studies showed is that the songs people rated as most hated were also rated most loved by an equal number of people. Where people converged was on the songs that they neither loved nor hated. More importantly for radio, when a song played that a person neither loved nor hated, they were likely to let the radio station play on.

Thus country music programming went to playing music that the vast majority of people neither loved nor hated, playing innocuously in the background, exciting nothing untoward.

I’ve seen this play out in writing workshops, too. Half the class will love a particular scene and half will insist it ruins the piece and must be removed. The profound emotional reaction means the writer has hit on something, but it takes courage to accept that for every person who loves what you wrote, someone else will hate it.

And it’s tempting, especially in genre, where people hope to actually make money with their books, to write the thing that will sell to the most people, innocuous and exciting no untoward responses.

Then again, it can be a little satisfying, too, to throw a little bestiality in the way of the book-burners.

Do Blond Genre-Writers Have More Fun?

I noticed this at the RWA convention, too: genre writers are way more fun than the literary ones.

As a general rule.

Sure, there’s some competitiveness and there are the divas. There’s a bit of division between the published authors and the “aspiring” ones. (Yes, it says so on our nametags.) But the published writers are so interested to talk to the lowly aspiring ones. I just spend 2.5 hours at the author book fair, talking to everyone on god’s green earth. At least it felt like it. There were purportedly about 300 authors signing, in long rows, each with their displays and stacks of books. And nearly everyone I talked to spotted the “aspiring” on my tag and asked me what I write. In a genuinely interested way; no tail-sniffing involved.

My writer-friend, Chavawn Kelley, invented that term back in 1996 when she and I first started attending readings. We met in a class, Essays on Self and Place, taught by a visiting writer to the University of Wyoming, Don Snow, then editor of Northern Lights Magazine. And we attended a few university-sponsored events. Readings by various writers passing through, that kind of thing. At those, every other person would ask the same pair of questions: are you a writer? what have you published? Chavawn compared it to a pack of dogs, sniffing each others’ tails to determine who was alpha.

Granted the first question was necessary in that setting, since our tags didn’t say. But the second was said as a kind of challenge. A kind of are-you-anyone-I-should-pay-attention-to question.

I’ve since become better able to answer those questions. I’ve been publishing as an essayist for 12 years now. I have a certain amount of cred that keeps me from being at the bottom of the pack, anyway.

But while it’s kind of lowering to be back to “aspiring,” (RWA doesn’t consider you published unless you’re published in the genre, which I find an annoying double-standard) I love that the genre writers manage to ditch the condescension. They are enthusiastic and encouraging.

It makes me wonder about the literary clenched-sphincter.

It makes me think it’s all about money. The old saw that the fights in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low. In genre, there’s a convivial quality, an idea that the more people who are writing it, the more there is for a growing audience. The market share for romantic fiction is huge. And getting huger.

Or it could all just be that all of these people are pretty much writing about sex all the time. That’s got to make anyone happy.

Multiple Identities

Many writers use pen names in the genre world. Some are just deviations or abbreviations of their day-to-day names like Chuck Box writing as “C.J. Box.” Others use multiple names for the various “types” of stories they write, like Jayne Ann Krentz who uses that name, her married name for contemporary romantic-suspense, her maiden name, Jayne Castle, for paranormal romance and Amanda Quick for her historic romantic-suspense. She gave an interesting talk at the RWA National Convention about how she’d destroyed the “Jayne Castle” voice for a while, because readers wouldn’t buy it. She later resurrected the name with the upsurge in interest in paranormal romance.

So, I can see the point: Chuck picks something that looks good on a cover. Jayne uses several names, to guide readers to the kind of story they like to read.

But it starts to get silly in the world of online writers loops. Maybe it’s complicated by the fear of internet stalkers thing. But often someone will have an email address like bethwrites@whoosies.com and then her IM avatar will be called Stella, Queen of the Night. Then she’ll email you and say her name is really Mary Beth Jones, but that she writes as Angora Conch. It splits my skull, I tell you. Especially if I’ve only met her online and have managed to recognize bethwrites and Stella as the same person, but she wants to hook up at the RT convention, but her name tag will probably say Angora.

I know, I should talk. But I’m only Jennifer for legal stuff. Everything I’ve written is as Jeffe Kennedy. My email address is my name, at my domain name, which is my name. My avatars are all some version of Jeffe. I contemplated seperating my fiction and nonfiction selves with a pen name, but all my stories feel like a part of me. I want them all to belong to the same name.

It’s interesting to me, because the literary types rarely do this. Oh, they’ll do the Chuck Box thing, or like I did. But, as a “serious” writer, your name, your self, is your copywrightable product. Much was made for some time of making sure you got the yourname.com domain, since your name is your product.

Of course, there’s the element of fantasy in the world of romance. Readers escape into it, so it’s natural that the writers do, too. Everybody wants to be the spy or the superhero, with multiple secret identities. But there’s also some obsfucation involved. Anne Rice wrote BDSM stuff as A.N. Roquelaure and another novel that toyed with pedophilia as Anne Rampling. Perhaps it’s a nod to the Puritanical whispers in our culture, the urge to hide behind an alternate identity. Though the trend these days seems to be to proudly acknowledge all pen names, which to me begs the point of having them in the first place.

Of course, the most interesting part of any spy or superhero story is when the secret identity is revealed. Noteworthy that it’s also the crisis point when the hero is brought down. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night follows day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

I wonder sometimes, if the secret identity makes one more true or more false, inside our skulls.

Genre Schizophrenia

I’m beginning to feel a bit between worlds, as a writer.

Today I head to Evanston, at the behest of Carol Dee at Dee’s Bookstore (& Boutique). I’m meeting with some kind of ladies group at 2 o’clock, to read from and discuss Wyo Trucks. Then there’s a spaghetti dinner at 6, to encourage more folks to come visit with me. You now know pretty much everything I do. The funny thing is, Carol emailed me about this gig a couple of months ago — when I’d initially emailed her back in 2004, when the book came out. I’d contacted most of the Wyoming bookstores and visited many of them for various events. She was going through old emails and found my note. And here we are today.

When the Evanston newspaper called to interview me yesterday, the reporter was surprised that this isn’t a new book. I told her I didn’t know why now. But that the Georgia Review published a review of it in 2006. Things move slowly after publication sometimes, too. I’m expecting Oprah to call in 2012.

It’s funny to me, because I’m doing less and less for Wyo Trucks these days, which is natural, since the book is now five years old. I’ve been doing fiction since, cloistered away writing novels. Then less-cloistered trying to sell at least the first one. Worse, I’m writing genre-fiction — whether you consider it romance or sci-fi/fantasy, so I’m feeling like a bit of a pariah from my erstwhile literary community. I used to be on the university’s Creative Writing MFA email list, but have been dropped. Sometimes I was invited to speak to university classes on writing, but no longer. A lot of this is because people have moved on and times change. But some is also because I’m no longer really investing in the literary nonfiction world. It’s not where the lion’s share of my attention is focused. Instead of hanging with the MFA types, I’ve been going to meetings of the Colorado Romance Writers, the Romance Writers of America national convention, and interacting online with the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal writers.

So, this feels like a distraction, doing this today. And more than a little schizophrenic. Which surprises me, since I made a deliberate decision to publish my speculative fiction under the same name as my essays, believing that all my writing is really of one piece. Clearly I see a split, since my website poses the fundamental dichotomy up front.

Apparently it’s up to me to hold the pieces together.