A Splendid Jape, and my crankiness with the Washington Post

Because one of their reporters characterized romance as “fill-in-the-blanks”.

Seriously?

Yes, there are genre rules, and some sub-genres/writers adhere more closely to formula than others, but… Wow. Good grief. Merciful heavens.

It is true that a romance novel (as opposed to a literary love story, where the rules are slightly different unless you’re Nicholas Sparks) concludes with a successful romantic conclusion, but it’s all about the journey. The characters and where their path takes them; how they surmount the obstacles to happiness, be they internal, external, or kind of improbable (which is a whole other blog post).

I have gone on at length about the difficulty and importance of writing historical LGBT fiction. I have a story out tomorrow, A Splendid Jape, which is set in 1817. On the whole it’s reasonably light, but I’m aware that it’s also set in an era where sodomy is a capital crime. As in death by hanging.

It’s not easy to turn that into an HEA. I did (and my early readers claimed I was successful) but that’s not exactly fill-in-the-blanks. Neither are other romance stories, even ones that adhere much more closely to formula.

A Splendid Jape Final Front Cover 10 1 2015

I do my own tricks.

Really, my own covers on self-pubs.

This has been something of a learning curve. I can’t draw, but I do think I have a decent sense of design, with the glittery pumpkin drying on my counter to prove it. I also have no graphic design training, so some of first efforts were… interesting.

At this point I’m in a groove, I have sources for graphics and software to make my layouts on, and I usually feel I don’t embarrass myself. The process is still a little more haphazard than I think it is for pros.

I usually go through several versions (which I know is perfectly normal) and sometimes have a couple of quite different graphics. Then, when crafting a cover for my new Halloween story, I ended up with this.NYCAnd somehow, this as well.

Bump!Different look and feel, even a different title. I actually liked the second one a bit better, but I went with the first because I thought it was A) grabbier, and B) fit the story better.

Hopefully my readers agree.

This is last year’s Halloween story. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Bats-Four-Skulls-Scare-ebook/dp/B00P5D7F5K/ref=la_B00CAQ7MBW_1_17?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1445962980&sr=1-17&refinements=p_82%3AB00CAQ7MBW

That one was published with MLR, and they did a beautiful job with the cover (I wish, but I can’t do that).  Unfortunately this year, I barely finished my story in time for a self-pub, let alone a publisher deadline.

I did, however, write a story for their spooky season prompt, which was a masquerade. It’s not a Halloween story, since it takes place in June, but I’m thrilled! Here’s the cover. A Splendid Jape Final Front Cover 10 1 2015

It’ll get it’s very own blog post later this week, when it comes out.

Happy Spookies, Everybody

I usually stay out of this stuff completely, but…

This time I’m not.

I’m not using names or distinguishing details either, although I’m pretty sure everyone knows what I’m referring to.

Plagiarism is bad.

I sometimes think that there are people who don’t understand what is and isn’t plagiarism. I could believe that a hobbyist, or someone who hasn’t had a lot of contact with other writers, might believe that reworking someone else’s story with different genders and a few distinguishing details, leaving a majority of passages intact, was substantively different work. I have trouble believing that a seasoned professional could believe such a thing was legally or morally acceptable.

That what might be an interesting creative writing exercise is not publishable because it is not original work.

It’s not a gray area. It isn’t accidentally creating a nearly identical plot, which happens. It isn’t inadvertently repeating phrases from a research book or a similar novel that you read ten years ago, which also happens. It’s not even taking the germ of someone else’s idea and running with it, such as when you read a story about someone kissing a statue, mentally telling yourself, “No, that’s not what happens!” and writing a completely different tale. Or even taking someone else’s characters/universe and creating an original work from that as a jumping off place (and determining the exact place where it becomes original is apparently a fine legal tangle).

It’s really hard to construe this as anything but outright theft. Much worse in my mind than the writer who took sex scenes from fanfic, cleaned them up, changed the relevant details, and inserted them into her own work. It was a lazy (and deservedly illegal) shortcut, but the resulting story was still essentially hers.

This isn’t. It’s the entire fabric of someone else’s work. I have no idea why someone would do that, either. It’s a ridiculous risk, in addition to being empirically wrong, and I can’t believe that a seasoned professional didn’t know both of these things.

I have read a few of this author’s books in the past, but even as freebies, I didn’t necessarily bother because I found them very uneven. Some decent, others nearly unreadable. Now I wonder if this is because they were a pastiche of other people’s work.

Writing history, aka getting it wrong

There’s a famous quote by L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Every time I try to write in a historic period, even a very recent one, I take that to heart. I also get it wrong, no matter how careful I am.

The longer ago the setting, the harder it is to make it reasonably accurate, although there is more license. No-one alive remembers what the weather was like in the English midlands  on January 8th, 1818. Mess up Halloween in Las Vegas in 1968 and someone might call you on it.

It doesn’t actually matter, because it’s fiction. It’s a made-up story.

Still. I’d like to think my made-up story could actually happen the way I wrote it. I feel particularly responsible because I’m writing a history, that of queer people, that’s largely invisible.

That invisibility can make it easy to pretend that we showed up out of the blue about fifty years ago, rather than always having been here. So I chase tiny clues out of the historical record, and try not to be tempted to buy very expensive books that are mostly conjecture, because they are also based on a paucity of evidence, no matter how diligent the researcher.

In the end, I do my best. I try to recreate how people thought two hundred, or even forty, years ago, and write a story that is true to that understanding.

What I try not to do, is pull my punches. I may get details wrong. I may even get broad attitudes wrong, although I try very hard not to. What I never, ever want to do, is gloss over historic realities. I can give my Regency-era gentlemen an HFN, or try for an HEA, but I can’t let my readers not realize that our heroes could be hung by the neck until dead for the “crime” of physically expressing their love for one another. Because if I even approach veracity, if this is a story that could have really happened, our heroes never forgot that, not for one moment. My mid-twentieth century guys knew that a less than accepting family and an unfriendly judge could keep lifetime companions away from each other in sickness and death.

I need to remind my readers, and myself, that the past, that foreign country, interesting as it might be, was not always a gentle or friendly place. That it could, at various times, be dangerous for women, for queer people, or for those of color. Or sometimes, for everybody.

More thoughts on the value of negative reviews

As usual, I had a lot of random thoughts in my head that I had planned to blog until they flew away the minute I sat down and started to type. I had also started to write a post about parallel stories, and how the very similar tales of Drew and Jeff (Closer than Brothers, Call it Forever) and Wake and Cody (Indian Summer, A Family Christmas for Wake and Cody, End of Summer) were influenced by age and geography and privilege and general life experiences.

That’s probably still a post worth writing, but I really don’t have my thoughts organized on the subject, so it’s not going to be now.

I’m often reluctant to call attention to negative reviews, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m complaining about their existence. They sometimes sting, but they are part of the territory of a professional writer, and grown-up professionals regard negative reviews as someone else’s valid opinion. Even if it’s a DNF, or seems to be about another book entirely. Or if the reader completely missed the point you were trying to make, or never seems to read anything that they like enough to give it more than two stars.

Not only are negative reviews completely legitimate free speech,  even if the review is scathing, sometimes you get a valuable take-away from it. Possibly particularly if the review is scathing, because then you are looking at someone else’s unvarnished truth. They are not trying to be diplomatic, and they are definitely not telling you what you want to hear.

And yes, they may be turning some readers off.

Sometimes though, a really good negative review, by which I mean a scorched earth, take-no-prisoners breakdown of exactly what that reader didn’t like, quoting chapter and verse, can influence readers to pick up your book.

Because their curiosity has been piqued. Two gay men and a lesbian in bed? Really? How does that work?

Or those readers are wondering just how bad the story really can be. Or why some people love it and some people hate it. Or they notice that the reviewer used the word “free” and they’ll download almost any freebie that catches their eye. Or something that was a big issue for the reviewer is something they love to read about. Or who knows what.

I don’t quite subscribe to the idea that any publicity is good publicity, but reviews can be pretty darn close to that. Even if they sting. Even if the reviewer perceives something you didn’t intend, and you then beat yourself up over whether it’s really coming out that way. Even if you wonder about the wisdom of having freebies available, because they always review lower on average than the ones you charge six bucks for (and not, I think because people don’t value what they get for free, but because only someone who really wants to read the book will shell out the six dollars, and plenty of people will download any freebie that might have gay sex in it).

I’m not linking to a particular review, because I can see the potential for mischief and misinterpretation (and while I did have a specific one in mind when I wrote this, it certainly wasn’t the only one I was thinking of). I’m not even linking to my free title, much as I love an opportunity to plug it, because I don’t want to be perceived as posting obliquely to any particular review (and to repeat, even if you think you’ve found the one that got me thinking this morning, this post isn’t only about that review, or even only about reviews of my books, and I would be horrified with a capital “H” if someone challenged a reviewer on my behalf.)

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but I don’t think you can say it too many times. Writers need to be philosophical about negative reviews. Even from other writers, people who are reading out of genre, and furry green pandas. The real underlying reason is the value of free speech, which I think authors have a particular obligation to defend, but the silver lining is the intrinsic value of dissenting opinions.