Voice Part VI

Le Mariage

‘Le Mariage launched my phase of infatuation with Diane Johnson and her work about expats, a somewhat separatist culture with which I am very familiar. I still read snippets of this book and ‘Le Divorce’ (never, never, never see that movie, it was an awful adaptation) every once in awhile. The author has a wonderful eye and ear and attention for the detail that distinguishes one culture from another, and the idiosyncrasies of each. I think she’s influenced my writing tremendously because her voice is both dispassionate and intimate.

She seems to be hovering somewhat above and apart from her characters, and yet we learn very intimate things about them. We are privy to some of their thoughts but at the same time, we get the sense that we do not see everything, leaving room for the element of surprise.

I tried to do some of that in my book ‘Unsuitable Men’. We learn something about Brendan and Tracy and how they feel and see the world by getting into their heads, but there are still things that the reader learns that are not completely apparent, though hints were provided along the way. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m no Diane Johnson. At least not yet. 😉

Happy Reading.

-Nia-

Tell Me You Love Me . . . (or that you don’t)

I don’t know any writers who do it for the money. Not one.

I’m definitely one of those who write for other reasons. Now if the money you get through sales is in some way a reflection of how many people were moved by your work then perhaps it becomes important. Still, when I check online to “see how I’m doing”, I hardly ever check my sales. I check for reviews. And when I do check my sales, it’s only so I can see how many people may have read my work and might leave a review. Each royalty payment I get deposited into my account perplexes me each month. There’s always a moment of, ‘what is this? oh yeah, for the books.’ The sums have been larger lately so there’s a brief moment of exhilaration but only because it helps me envision that one day I might be able to pass on the day job altogether and only write, all day, every day. And what bliss that would be.

Still, it’s all about the reviews for me. Good or bad, the feedback you get as a writer feeds your creativity and pushes you to do and be better. I was having a little bit of a block a few evenings ago, and had that moment of desperation that almost every writer experiences, where you wonder whether the angst is worth it, whether you might not be better off spending your time doing something more ‘practical’ than writing fiction. And then I read two of the most complimentary comments on my blog about how a couple of my readers felt about my work. That quickly, and blockage was gone. It was like a well-timed gift, and I was able to write another 100 or so pages that night.

Writing, I’ve said many times before, is the most solitary of pursuits. It isn’t like many other arts (music or visual art, for instance) where the reactions are immediate and apparent. When you write fiction you go into a secret place in your mind and you sequester yourself there, tunneling in, listening only to the voices of your characters and living only their lives, finding everything else to be an irritant. And then you emerge sometime later, squinting against the bright lights of reality and wondering whether the journey was worth it. The process alone justifies some of it: I like writing just because I do and would do so regardless of whether anyone else cared what I wrote. But there is no denying that the greater reward, the better prize is hear that my writing meant something to someone other than me. That it aroused curiosity, interest, passion or even anger and dismay.

So if you’ve read anything at all recently (not just my stuff, anything) take a moment to go to Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari or whatever your preferred site may be and tell that writer you loved them . . . or not.

Happy Reading!

-Nia-

Secret – Coming Soon!

I recently “outed” myself to a friend as a writer of contemporary romance. To date, very few people I know are aware that I have this other persona who writes women’s fiction by night and is tortured during business meetings because she would rather be thinking about the fictional characters rattling around in her brain. Anyway, I shared my work with this friend and she read one of my books and came back with a favorable review. Kind of.

“I liked it a lot,” she said. “But nothing actually happens.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Nothing happens,” she reiterated. “It’s just about the ups and downs of this relationship.”

So I mulled that over for awhile and decided that she was right. And she was also wrong.

While I’m still in the process of finding my voice and perfecting my craft, I know one thing for certain. I am not the kind of writer who cares much for action and intrigue. I don’t need there to be a murder, or a stalker or anything of the sort in my novels. In fact, I prefer that there not be any of those devices because in most of our lives, none of that stuff happens, and yet our lives are not static or boring, they are filled with intriguing occurrences that might at first blush appear to be of not much importance at all. What I try to do in my work is examine the progression of relationships through everyday occurrences.

Nights out with friends.

Parties.

Interactions with family.

All of those situations are to me ripe with possibilities for characters to learn and grow. So I use a lot of inner dialogue and write from multiple (usually two) points of view.

In the book I’m working on now, ‘Secret’ – the main characters are in a relationship that they keep secret from others, and one of them has a secret from the other. I explore what it’s like to live with secrets and how that can color how we see the world and interact with others. The secret itself is somewhat explosive, but it isn’t the point of the story. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out because at this point I honestly have no clue. That’s one of the main joys of writing for me.

The outcome itself is secret, even from you, the writer.

Happy Reading!

-Nia-

Falling In Love and Out Again

I fall in love with all my characters. I come to know them as I write, and slowly fall for each and every one. It is sometimes a slow process and other times moves at lightning speed. The attachment feels as real as though they are living breathing individuals. And when the time comes, it can be difficult to let go. But I manage it because I know that holding on past the affair’s end is often way more destructive.

In the past, I’ve been a little critical of the trend of writing sequels and trilogies because in some cases, it feels a little like a reluctance on the part of the writer to let go when it would be healthy — both for them and for the work they’ve created — to do so. I recently read a sequel to a surprise indie hit because, like most other readers, I was curious about where the author might take the characters. I liked the original well enough and the story, as far as I could see, had been very completely told in that first book. But still, I decided to take a crack at the well over four-hundred-page second installment wondering whether the writer might pull off something that could stand on its own as an independently solid piece of work, and hoping to learn something if she did.

It was very difficult for me to complete even the first chapter. One of the very first things I noticed was that it immediately “picked up where we left off” leaving little doubt that had you not read the prior installment, the new book would make no sense to you whatsoever. Still, that could have been a marketing ploy to reinvigorate sales of the first book, and I’m all in support of writers (especially indie authors) making gobs of money, so I chose to overlook that. I pressed ahead, intrigued by the idea that later on she may have managed to produce scenes that would expose new dimensions to her protagonists.

I was sorely disappointed. Instead, their already established character traits were amplified and became almost cartoonish. The jealousy became insane jealousy, the dysfunction became certifiably lunatic behavior and finally I stopped believing they were real. I could no longer picture these people in my mind’s eye: they became storybook people. Paradoxically, the more she amplified their personalities, the flatter they became. And to add insult to injury, new and outlandish characters and situations were added that sometimes felt like a distraction from the author’s fundamental inability to give us new fodder to fill out our remaining questions about the main protagonists.

I think I know what happened. The writer had fallen out of love with them, and was now belaboring their story to satisfy the appetite of her considerable fan base. And if the fan reactions are any indication, they were predominantly very happy. Still, a minority of fan reviews alluded to what I felt. Some used words like “staged”, “pointless” and “convenient” to describe the situations crafted by the writer.  One reviewer said that she was bummed that the female lead “didn’t grow as a character.” Those criticisms are, I think, at the crux of why it’s tough to follow the same characters over time. Unless as a writer you’re still madly in love with them and able to discern and share new and fascinating things about their lives and their journey, I think the second or third in a series should remain unwritten.

I took a chance when I wrote Unsuitable Men because it revisited secondary characters from Commitment. I wanted to make sure I didn’t say something that had already been said, or say something that was a glaring contradiction of what had been said in ‘Commitment’. What it forced me to do was revisit my long-ended relationship with Commitment‘s main characters. That was tough and felt like the literary equivalent of sharing a house with your ex-husband. But what it did do is give me new respect for people who write long series of books that involve the same people over and over again and make each and every one seem new and fresh. If you can pull it off, more power to you but I suspect that a majority of us writers ought to accept the end of the affair and move on.

Every Book I’ve Ever Read . . .

For the remainder of this year, I’ve decided to go on a quest to recall and catalog every book I’ve ever read. With the help of Goodreads and the onset of colder weather in my part of the world, I think I can probably find time to comb through my memory banks, my bookshelves and the internet to remember each and every book I started and completed without skimming or any other little tricks.

The last I heard, the average person reads only about 100 books in their lifetime. I don’t believe this can possibly be true. Of course, “the average person” is highly contextual. The average person in America? In the “developed” world? In countries where women are not subject to restrictions on learning and access to information? The list could go on forever. So, I’m going to assume that this 100 books rule applies to Americans. Still sounds a little low to me. I’ve asked around and a couple people have told me I’m naive, and that the average person probably reads only as many books as they are required to read for school and work, with one or two culturally mandated reads thrown in there, like the Harry Potters and Fifty Shades. God I hope that’s not true.

At the National Book Festival this past weekend, I was struck by how many people braved the heat (yes, it was hot in Washington DC this past weekend) and the chill (it was also a little chilly in Washington DC this weekend; hey, climate change) just for a chance to look through and buy books, and possibly catch a glimpse of their favorite author. Even in a time of e-books and Kindles, Nooks and iPads, thousands turned out to look at books!

I know that Washington DC is probably the part of the country that is less representative of “real America” than just about any other place, but my optimistic nature makes me want to believe that had the festival been in Des Moines, Iowa, the turnout would have been just as great. Still, in DC we are blessed with many esteemed colleges and universities and virtually all of the “think tanks” of note in the nation. Not to mention countless not-for-profit organizations whose sole purpose is to educate and advocate for current and emerging issues. So I suppose there is an argument to be made that in this city, there is a proliferation of people who read and think about stuff all day long just because they get paid to do so.

Anyway, enough about Washington DC, otherwise I run the risk of slipping into a political diatribe of some sort.

So, back to my quest: as I embark on this journey of cataloging every book I’ve ever read, I invite anyone who’s interested to join in and do the same on Goodreads or Shelfari and to friend me. I don’t just want to remember what I’ve read, I would love to see what other folks are reading as well. Happy Reading!

-Nia-

Is My Kindle Making me Stupid?

Last week, I hit the ‘Buy’ button on Amazon.com, completing my purchase of a book titled The Inconvenient Mistress of an Italian (not the precise name, but very close). Now, under normal circumstances and in my right mind, I would never consider buying an actual hard copy book with such a title. But it was an e-book, AND free, so I consummated the “purchase” and put it in my Kindle collection entitled “Trashy Romances” (not to be confused with my also burgeoning collection of “Trashy Romantic Erotica”). By trashy, I don’t mean that it uses “naughty” words; naughty words are important and fun, and I use them frequently in my own writing. By trashy, I mean that these books are like candy: pleasant to taste but with no nutritive value whatsoever. In this case, however, it is not my body, but my brain that may be malnourished. When I go to Goodreads and peruse the books I’ve read, I’ll be honest, I feel a little self-satisfied. All of the so-called classics are there, many Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and more than a few obscure but stunningly talented writers. And when I buy books by authors such as these, I tend to want the hard copy. I like the feel of the pages between my fingers, the quiet whisper they give as I turn them. And perhaps most of all, I like later looking at the book on my shelves and having a memory of how it felt to discover it and enjoy it. It is as comforting a ritual as visiting old friends.

The e-books on my Kindle are different. They are like my dirty little secrets; books about women who “surrender” to something or “succumb” or “give in” which is curious because women who “give in” are a particular pet peeve of mine in real life. On my e-reader, I also have a fair number of books about monsters and vampires, killers and miscreants of various stripes. And lately, I have been devouring all of these genres, sometimes at a rate of three per week because they are so easy to consume. In fact, Amazon sells about one and a half times more e-books than they do hard copies, according to 2010 figures. But if my personal experience is any indication (and it may not be) I don’t think we should take this as evidence that we have a more literate society or anything. If anything, I’ve learned that men in erotic fiction are as likely to “growl” as they are to speak, and that the women will “squeal” and “whimper” quite a bit. I’ve also learned that there are many, many euphemisms for the female anatomy that I would never have even considered.

And most of all, I’ve learned that there is a fair chance that when you pay $0.99 for a book, that’s about all it’s worth. But as a self-pubbed writer myself who hesitates to charge more than $4.99, I don’t knock it. I love that publishing has become a super-democratic process where readers get to make their own choices about the value of someone’s writing, and that mammoth publishing houses no longer get to be the arbiters of what the reading public should have access to, because for sure I’ve discovered a few gems, countless diamonds still in the rough and one or two writers whose lack of a six-figure book deal is a travesty.

Still, there is that part of me drawn to the illicit hunt specifically for corny, poorly-written fiction which I devour at 3 a.m. both fascinated and repulsed. Oh, it’s all in good fun I tell myself. But I wonder, ultimately, is my Kindle making me stupid?