Where do I find inspiration for mysteries? Check out the NYTimes, Wash. Post; Boston Globe or WSJ for daily insights into human depravity. Then think, ‘What if?’ Works every time.
It hurts to abandon beloved characters who’ve become both friend and fantasy, especially when you MURDER them. Welcome to the world of an inveterate, slightly jaded mystery writer who can make the tough calls. ‘Kill your darlings”–how about slaughtering them!
How do writers strike a balance between self-confidence and delusion? After constant rejections, a wise person must consider that the book of his heart might be irreparably flawed. (or is a masterpiece far ahead of its time). Either way, prudence dictates a course correction. Write a stand-alone, something entirely different. I did and it worked!
Hurrah!! Yesterday I put the finishing touches on “MANTRAP”, the sequel to “SWANN DIVE”. (pub. date 2014). It’s so exhilarating when everything comes together just right. Monday I’ll start an outline for my next book as yet untitled. Today I’ll luxuriate in this small triumph.
MOMMY PORN — Trashy sex or smart marketing?
A Romance Writer’s take on Fifty Shades of Grey
I confess. When a fledgling novelist captures the front page of the New York Times, I get curious. I’d never heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, even though I regularly follow the best seller lists. Moreover, the term “Mommy Porn” inspired me to immediately speed dial Amazon, and order the e-books. After all, what kind of erotic writing captivates an audience of well-educated, comfortably fixed female readers and creates a major sensation? Most modern versions of erotica that I’ve read are unimaginative and sadly boring. Biology texts have never enticed me to do more than yawn.
I paged through the work, telling myself it was research. After all, as an author I have to keep abreast (pardon the ghastly pun) of any book that nets a seven figure deal plus movie buzz for its creator. Approach Fifty Shades of Grey as you would a case study, I told myself. Analyze everything dispassionately. As if.
I’d allocated 30 minutes to skimming the first few chapters, convinced that they’d confirm my most dire suspicions. Instead, two hours of my precious writing time later I joined the ranks of (mostly) female readers who were entranced by Anastasia Steele and her libidinous lover and billionaire hunk, Christian Grey.
Writing in the intimacy of first person narrative, the clever author introduced me to a protagonist I both liked and identified with. Anastasia is smart, self-deprecating and somewhat naïve. She succumbs to the charms of the devastating Christian as easily as most of us would. Sure he has kinks. Lots of them. But the author also portrays him as brainy, sentimental and curiously vulnerable. How many women could resist that heady cocktail?
“Grey” succeeds in two other key areas—plot and pacing. I zipped through the pages anxious to learn the fate of this intriguing couple as they followed the rituals of pain, pleasure and mutual affection.
About the sex—it was frank, anatomically challenging but not repugnant. I must admit that the sado-masochistic bits were interesting and sometimes puzzling. Uninitiated readers (like me) probably learned a few things, although I marveled at Ana’s limitless capacity for orgasmic bliss!
Since Ana is our narrator and spirit guide, we experience things through her eyes without the snickers and snobbish asides that an omniscient voice often provides. Somehow it seems right, even though reviewers have denounced Fifty Shades of Grey as everything from sexist drivel to anti-feminist tripe. Get a grip, people!
Most of the women I’ve spoken with say this: 50 S of G appeals because of the love story not the mechanics of sado-masochism. It’s fantasy of course, a latter day Cinderella story, (sans Disney), where true love ultimately triumphs. Silly—maybe; unlikely—probably. Romances typically are.
I read all three volumes and didn’t want their story to end. Like many readers I asked myself this question: Would you have succumbed to this gorgeous young billionaire with peculiar tastes but a capacity for love? My answer — a resounding YES.
And that, dear readers, is the secret to writing a best seller. Create attractive, endearing characters, hook the audience with a unique plot element, and play to the secret fantasies we all nurture. Be gone, cynics. Love will set you free.
BIG BOYS DON’T CRY—BUT MAYBE THEY SHOULD
Many women admire strong, silent guys who would rather chew nails than express emotion. Chalk it up to our Puritan heritage, or the vestiges of the Wild West. The cult of the Alpha Male dictates that strong arms and minds are perfectly acceptable but strong feelings should be under wraps at all times. I’m discounting an alarming trend among male politicians to blubber like babies over almost anything. When adults, both male and female, are in charge of our destinies a little self-control goes a long way. (That means YOU, Mr. Speaker).
The tension between virile and sensitive heroes is the ying and yang of sexy. Most readers want balance — a guy who can hold his own in a fight but is no Neanderthal; a man with a sizzling intellect who enjoys brainy babes. Naturally great hair and sculptured abs are always a plus as are sizable holdings or a royal title.
A man who’s comfortable with feelings is sexy through and through. He’s self-confident, in touch with the world and loaded with testosterone. Smart too, because sensitivity is the secret to scoring with the opposite sex. Not weeping random buckets but gestures, generosity, tenderness and kindness toward other living beings. Men who hug their child or pat a puppy are winners. Similarly, kissing a lady’s fingers, stroking her hair, or dancing to Coltrane, fuel an intense emotional connection between lovers.
Writers have always known this. The banter between Rhett and Scarlett, backed up by that incredible staircase scene made feminine hearts flutter then and now. But Alpha Captain Butler also greatly loved and grieved for his daughter Bonnie Blue, adored Melanie and admired Mammy and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
The appeal of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga rests with the romantic relationship between Bella and the other worldly Edward. His physical abilities could easily vanquish her but he wins her heart with a rocking combination of strength and tenderness sans sex. Abstinence never looked so good.
In my novels, I exploit the push/pull of virile men who pursue their dreams with intellect, physical prowess and humor. That’s an intoxicating mix guaranteed to captivate most women of substance.
So gather ‘round all you heroes and listen: big boys don’t (necessarily) cry, but through words, deeds and gestures they must show feeling. Unleashing emotion takes work and attitude adjustment. Change never felt so good. It’s just such sweet surrender.
HAWKING MY WARES — THE DOWNSIDE OF PUBLICATION
I’m no salesperson: shameless self-promotion makes my skin crawl. It’s a necessary component of success, however, in the brave new world of publication. Pity the reticent or abashed author standing quietly waiting for her light to shine. Hope she’s got a flashlight at the ready because wallflowers are box office poison to their editors. The name of the game is sales. It’s a numbers game, nothing malicious, simply business. Successful salespeople regard every individual as a potential target of opportunity. I cringe at the thought. No wonder solicitation is a crime! Like a lady of the evening, I paint a confident smile on my face and mingle with the unsuspecting throngs, proud of my product, shamed by my tactics.
How would my literary heroes have handled it? Jane Austen might have gathered the local gentry for tea, crumpets and conversation. Edgar Allen Poe would have challenged his critics with a ‘publish and be damned’ attitude. Arthur Conan Doyle had the Great Detective available to convince skeptics to purchase his works through the relentless use of logic; James Patterson has piles of money to fund lavish media campaigns. And Jessica Fletcher, that creature of television and now bookshelves — she had it made. Glamorous locations, fawning publishers and the assurance that another body would conveniently pop up once a week. I loved the old gal, but honestly, would you invite her into your home? Meanwhile I sit alone at a bookstore table with a tepid grin and flashy poster for company.
Internet methods are more to my liking. Blogging, tweeting, and facebooking seem more anonymous and less intrusive than corralling the errant bystander or looking pathetic. I’m awed by authors with real talent for shameless self-promotion. Some of them literally tackle passers-by and make their pitch. Others flash a confident grin that inveigles consumers to take a chance and open their purse.
One thing I’ve gained from the process is compassion. So, if you catch a whiff of desperation when you pass a booksigning, stop and say something. We’ve probably never met before.
Meet Candace Ott, from INTRUSION
I’ve always worried about Betts. Kai’s death destroyed her, almost as if she died too on that mountaintop. She was always way too serious, not like me in any way. We roomed together at Georgetown, shared a townhouse with Tom Yancey. All very platonic mind you. Betts was always shy around men. Study, study, study — that’s all she did. I tried to tell her, tried to make her relax and have fun. Nope. She wouldn’t hear of it. Said she planned to be a spinster. Old maid, I called it, but she said no. Spinsterhood had an honorable tradition. It was a lifestyle choice; Old maid meant no one wanted you. That all changed once she met Kai.
Kai Buckley — smart, rich and smoking hot. He liked brainy women. Never looked at anyone once he met Betts. They went on to business school — Tommy too. Not me. I’d had enough book learning. This sounds conceited, but I’m the brains behind SWEET NOTHINGS, the fantastically hip on-line makeup empire. Academic stuff bored me but give me a pot of eye shadow and some lip-gloss and I can change your world. They all helped me of course: Kai, Betts and Tommy did their thing, using all that B school knowhow. Our lives were perfect. Then it all fell apart. First, Kai died in a freak accident. Then Tommy. Murdered.
Betts became a different person — strong, energized. A Valkyrie without the horns and fat. She vowed to find Tommy’s killer and she dragged me into it. I’m no coward but I plan to live a long life. The new Elisabeth Buckley, Esquire, is a daredevil who risks her life and mine too just to prove a point.
I can’t abandon her. Loyalty is as important to me as good grooming. That means I have to help her find the murderer. Even if it kills me.
Meet Elisabeth Buckley – From Intrusion
Until I met Kai, I never really lived. When he died, when he threw his life away on that mountain, my life ended too. My vital organs just hadn’t gotten the message yet. I drifted through each day, oblivious to anything but an aching sense of loss and my dog Della.
Kai Buckley embodied every superlative in five languages. He transformed my humdrum existence into a fantasy where anything was possible and every dream came true. I’d always been smart, head of my class at Harvard Business School. But with those brains came a painful shyness that crushed any hope of a social life. Until I met him.
His physical perfection was stunning: thick black hair threaded with a hint of grey, lovingly sculpted features and the lean muscular body of a dedicated gym rat. He was a god, straight from Mount Olympus, and he chose me to love. Through law school and the startup of our business we were an unbeatable team focused on our future. Then it ended.
He was a daredevil who couldn’t resist a challenge. Mountain climbing! What kind of man does that for a hobby? I never even dreamed of trying it. My nickname says it all: Giraffe. Kai called me ‘willowy”, but ungainly was more accurate. I could trip on a blade of grass. Maybe it’s a redhead thing. There aren’t too many of us natural redheads around, and I like it that way. My one mark of distinction.
Besides Della, I had two best friends whose loyalty meant everything to me: Candace Ott and Tom Yancey. We’d roomed together at Georgetown, and cooked up the scheme that ultimately became our livelihood: Sweet Nothings, a cosmetic empire. They buoyed my spirits, hectored me and forced me to face the impossible—life without Kai.
Tommy was always there for me, but I betrayed him. I ignored his pleas for help, refused to take his calls. His murder roused me from my self-indulgent cocoon and activated every primitive instinct I possessed.
I vowed to avenge my friend, find his murderer, and reclaim my own life. Nothing could stop me. Kai and Tommy were counting on me.
LEARN MORE ABOUT ELISABETH IN INTRUSION
AVAILABLE NOW FROM MAINLY MURDER PRESS, AMAZON AND BARNES AND NOBLE.
SULTRY, SENSUAL, NOT SLEAZY
What puts sizzle in a novel without igniting the book? The popularity of Erotica raises some intriguing issues that each author must consider. Elisabeth Benedict in her classic The Joy of Writing Sex makes a key distinction: a sex scene is not a sex manual. Moreover, even though a sex scene and a love scene share common elements, emotion carries the day in a true romance. Personally, my feelings about erotica range from mild distaste to utter boredom. Biology was never my favorite subject. I know the names for male and female body parts and they have all the allure of a frat house stag film.
Euphemisms can also be cloying. “Throbbing member” is a term popularized ad nauseaum by early romance writers. While it gains points for subtlety, it fails the reality test big time!
Most adult women have seen a representative sample of said product, but honestly, how often were they in motion? Moreover the term ‘member’ suggests a man more comfortable with Sam’s Club or the Kwannis than a passion pit.
I’m a strong advocate of sultry, sensual love scenes in which protagonists use each of their five senses to further the experience—a gentle touch on the cheek, a feathery brush of his lips against her neck, the faint hint of a masculine fragrance, (Creed’s Green Irish Tweed is my personal fav), the taste of honey cream on a woman’s skin, and the sweet sound of words that touch the heart. These things coupled with emotion will heat up any page without triggering the ick factor.
Let’s face it: strong, intelligent heroes with great hair and smoldering eyes rightfully claim their place in any love scene. Guys with a sense of humor and skill in martial arts surge right to the head of the line. Wimps, whiners and bullies can head for the exit sign anytime. In my novels, the most erotic scenes involve two dominant personalities whose hunger for each other overwhelms them. They unite despite their differences and find in each other that ‘missing self’. The experience for both the reader and the characters is heightened when the imagination is engaged. Consider this scene from The Abacus Prize as Grace Quinn and Patrick Fong find each other.
He rose and slowly walked toward me. “It’s not a crime to love something beautiful.”
I stepped backward. “You charmed your way into my life. You used me. I was a fool.”
Patrick smiled. “I didn’t hear you complain.”
My hand found the doorknob. I could escape, run away if I chose to.
He took slow, deliberate steps until he reached me. I caught my breath unsure of what would happen next. Patrick unclenched his fists and closed the bedroom door. He took my hand, gently kissed it, and pulled me to him.
“I never lied to you,” he said, “and I never will.”
He scooped me up and carefully placed me on the bed.
Bring out the fans, ladies! That’s my concept of a sexy scene that stimulates the imagination more than a description of body parts ever could. Margaret Mitchell understood the power of suggestion when she penned the famous staircase scene between Rhett and Scarlett. Without using explicit language, that Southern belle ignited passions and inspired sermons that reverberated worldwide.
To my delight, thriller king Lee Child included a tender love scene in his most recent Reacher novel,The Affair. He chronicled the union of his tough guy protagonist with a beautiful ex-marine in understated, exquisite prose that added dimension to his characters and his writing.
Bottom line time: sex, romance and love are interrelated concepts that spice up our reading material and our lives. The “X” factor is emotion, engaging the mind as well as the body of our literary creations. Novels offer a full menu of choices. I’ll take mine ala carte, please.