Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Empathy Works Against Comedy

I'm working on the revisions for Lord Lightning and in the process I'm getting a bit more insight into what distinguishes comedy from drama.

It turns out to have a lot to do with how much insight the author gives us into the characters' motivations.

Take for example Austen's brilliantly funny character Lady Catherine De Burgh. All Austen shows us about her is what we would see observing her from the outside: what she says and how she treats people. These become very funny at times, for example when she meddles in Charlotte's housekeeping, or explains that her daughter would have been a wonderful pianist if she had only taken up the instrument. And of course she's extremely comic when she confronts Elizabeth and insists that her engagement is impossible since Darcy is engaged to her daughter, leading Elizabeth to ask why, if it is impossible Lady Catherine has made a long journey to demand she give up that very same engagement.

But look what happens if we take the identical character and tell the same story writing from deep within Lady Catherine's point of view, which provides the reader with far more information that reveals why she acts the way she does.

For example, if we saw Lady Catherine's meddling from her point of view we might learn that when she was a child no one ever gave her any advice and as a result she made a very poor choice of husband that ruined her life. Her meddling is meant to help others--she sees others as being continually on the brink of making dangerous mistakes. That they don't understand this makes her sad, but she can't give up.

Narrate the scene with the piano in her POV and as she looks at her sickly daughter let the reader learn that her husband turned out to have syphilis. She is terrified that her daughter's sickliness is the result and blames herself for her condition. The dream world she has created about her daughter's abilities is an attempt to drown out her fears.

And her obsession with her daughter marrying Darcy? Stay in her POV and let the reader learn that she wants to protect her daughter from marrying someone dangerous, as she did, and the only way she can think of to do this is to marry her someone she can completely trust--her nephew, Darcy.

Were we to experience these scenes this way, Lady Catherine would no longer be funny because the reader would understand her motivations in a way that creates empathy. Then Lady Catherine's self-delusion, meddling, and matchmaking are no longer comic, but depending on how the author spins them, might be tragic or ironic.

The POV convention used in today's romance novel is the deep third person POV that takes us deep into the characters' personalities and builds empathy with them. That's important because we want our readers to fully enjoy the romance. But if you want your readers to laugh at characters, you have to step back from them and avoid those deep points of view. The less your reader knows about why the character is doing what they do, the funnier that character will be.

The Omniscient POV that Austen uses so masterfully is very well suited for comedy, as is the entire medium of film where we are always outside of the character judging them only from what they do or say, or what others say about them. Blending comedy and empathy, which is what I've tried to do in Lord Lightning is challenging. I start my readers out laughing and by the end, they are, I hope, feeling the emotions that my characters feel. Doing that turns out to be all about just how deeply I take my reader into their POV.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Research: Tom Brady in a Wet T-Shirt


One of the toughest challenges we face when we write love stories is coming up with heros who excite our readers. Those making movies or TV have only to find someone who looks and sounds the right way to get the ladies slavering.

After all, when you can show your audience someone who looks like what you see above, it almost doesn't matter what story you put around him.

But when we write stories we have to make readers feel that kind of zing using only what our hero says, does, and thinks and what other characters can put into words about their perceptions of the hero.

This would appear to place us at a disadvantage, but it could be argued that if we do our job properly, the heroes we construct are more satisfying to us, emotionally, than are those pretty boys we see in films.

That's because when we read about them we engage with them so much more deeply. We know what they're thinking. We know what emotions they experience and how intensely they they experience them. We know how they think about their past and how they dream about their future. Movies rarely show us that.

What, after all, is Mr Firth really thinking in this photo? Does his soul resonate with the intensity we imagine him having, or is it just a trick of the light? Is he brooding about his wounded heart or fighting an attack of dyspepsia? Could the pain he so obviously feels be due to the poor performance of his stock portfolio? With the image, we never find out. In a romance, because we learn so much about the hero's inner life, we do.

Still, once we have written our hero and made him think and behave in ways that render him irresistible to our readers, we do have to put some work into conveying what he looks like. When we do, we have to struggle mightily to avoid cliches. Craggy brows, high cheekbones, and hair as black as ravens' wings do not distinguish our hero from all the other aspirants to the hero's crown.


So what does? In an attempt to answer that I turn to Google Images and hunt up photos of attractive men. Then I challenge myself to see if I can describe their faces or physiques without using any of the standard cliches.

Amid my researches I went looking for images to help me describe the Cavalry Officer hero of my WIP. Given how fit such a man must be I turned for inspiration to that modern warrior, Tom Brady and I did not come away empty handed. Peyton may be having a better year, but he will never look this hot!

How useful this particular research technique will be, only my eventual readers will be able to tell me. Meanwhile, as print-outs of hunks come to adorn every free surface of my office, the World's Nicest Man has suddenly adopted a new fitness regimen and is working very hard on his pecs.

There are days when it is really a lot of fun to be a writer of Romance!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is the Seventh House?

"Lords of the Seventh House" is the title of this blog. It may also end up being the title of the series of romances I will be publishing with Avon. The words have a nice ring to them. Everyone loves a lord, and the phrase, "The Seventh House," has an archetypal feel. But what does "Lords of the Seventh House" actually mean?

The phrase is one that comes from traditional astrology, which is the kind of astrology the heroine of my first book, Eliza Farrell, uses. Eliza is a descendant of William Lilly, England's most famous astrologer, so she naturally draws heavily on the techniques and terminology described in his landmark book, Christian Astrology. Christian Astrology was first published in 1647 and has remained in print ever since.

The term "House" as it is applied to a chart goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is the term used to describe each of the twelve segments into which the astrological chart divides the sky. Houses Seven through Twelve represent the portion of the sky that is above the horizon at the time and place for which a chart is cast.

The Seventh House itself represents the section of the sky that is closest to the western horizon--the place where the sun, moon and planets set.

Charts can be drawn up to investigate the nature of anything that can be defined with a place or a time. When a chart is drawn up for a person using that person's time and place of birth, each house on the birth chart describes how specific areas of the person's personality and life experience will play out.

The First House on our charts, for example, describes the way we assert ourselves in the world as well as the personality we show the world--a personality that may be harmonious with, or greatly at odds with, how we feel inside depending on other planetary placements.

The Second House describes our relationship with our material obsessions and more broadly what kinds of things we value. The Third House describes how we communicate with our immediate environment and those in it, including the siblings whose presence or absence in our immediate environment is so decisive in early life.

The Seventh House is where we look to find out information about the people with whom we form important, long-lasting connections. The Seventh House has become known as the House of Marriage because for most of us marriage is the most important partnership we will ever form.

But it's worth pointing out that the Seventh House is emphatically not the house of Love. The brief fling falls into the purview of the Fifth House, which is traditionally associated with, among other things, play, gambling, and love affairs. Astrology knows that marriage is not always or even mostly about love but is, instead, about functioning together as a unit in the eyes of the world.

When planets are found in the portion of the sky mapped by a specific house they color how the affairs of that house will play out. If Mars is in the Seventh House of a birth chart, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with astrological theory will expect that the person's marriage will be energetic, sexualized, self absorbed, perhaps, and prone to flare up in dramatic quarrels. A person with Mars in the Seventh House is likely to be attracted either to a partner who has a strong Mars on their natal chart, or who is experienced by the chart's owner as having Mars-like characteristics: a strong sense of self, impetuosity, a taste for combat.

But what if, as so often happens, there are no planets in the Seventh House? It is then that Traditional Western Astrology comes to our aid, because it interprets houses by looking at the planet that rules that house--its "Lord" in Lilly's parlance.

Finding the ruler of a house is easy. When a chart is drawn up, each a specific degree of a sign is placed on the cusp or boundary of every house in the chart. Each sign, in turn, is ruled by a specific planet. If you understand the strength and chart placement of that planet, you can learn a great deal about the house it rules--though this is a BIG "if."

If the planet that rules the house is in a sign where it expresses its energy easily and if it makes harmonious aspects to other planets, the affairs of the house will unfold effortlessly. If the planet is placed in a sign where its energies are hindered or if it makes harsh square aspects to other planets they will present challenges.

Traditional astrologers evaluate that planet's strength using a highly complex set of rules that have been passed down and elaborated on by astrologers starting back in the days of the ancient Romans.

I have been having a great time this past year delving into traditional astrological techniques that have once again become fashionable in modern astrology over the past decade,and applying them to the charts I study--including those of the protagonists in my novels. I've found these traditional techniques extremely helpful as I go about writing the second book in my series.

I use real charts for my protagonists--a process I'll describe in a future post. The lovers in my second novel turned out to be two people with Scorpio Suns because it is standard astrological belief that Scorpios are happiest mated with other Scorpios. When I came up with charts that fit them, both of the lovers turned out to have Seventh Houses packed with planets.

This sent me back to studying the traditional meaning of the Seventh House. One thing that emerged was that in traditional astrology, while the Seventh House is indeed the House of Marriage, it is also the house that describes a person's enemies.

A person with a strong Seventh House filled with conflicting planets like those of my protagonists has a choice. They can engage the important people in their lives as partners or they can turn them into enemies. Couple this insight with the naturally suspicious nature of the person with a Scorpio Sun and their tendency to keep their real self hidden, and the conflict described by my protagonists' packed Seventh Houses began to emerge.

Can they trust each other enough to become partners or will these two passionate Scorpios end up as enemies? That is the dynamic that is driving the storyline of my second novel.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Praise of Mrs. Oliphant

Imagine if there was a Victorian novelist as skilled as Dickens whose works were completely unknown. Guess what, there is!

Her names is Mrs. Oliphant. She lived a life of unparalleled frustration and tragedy and throughout it supported herself, her son, and a gaggle of parasitic relatives with her pen. You can read a brief biography of her HERE. Unfortunately, her only biographers are scholars and their books are not easy to find.

Literary scholars decided long ago that Oliphant's works were too "popular" and sloppily written. I find it hard to understand why, because I found her novel, Kirsteen, a sheer delight. In fact, it kept me up turning pages way past my bedtime. Dickens and Thackaray never did that for me.

Kirsteen was published in 1888 but caught my interest because it is, in fact, a Regency novel set in Scotland and London in a period that starts in 1814 and ends in the early 1820s.

I picked it up because figured someone who was born in 1828 as Oliphant had been would have had enough contact, growing up, with people who had lived through the Regency period to be able to give us the telling details missing in works that depend on dry scholarship or male written texts. I hoped too that she'd provide new insight into the emotional climate of the period.

And does she!

Just as we write Regencies filtered through our 21st century values, Oliphant writes her Regency-set historical novel with the outlook of a Victorian. But she is not a male Victorian. She's a woman, and most importantly a single woman who was a breadwinner, whose marriage stunk, whose family disregarded her Victorian-approved sacrifices, and whose life span encompassed the shift from Regency values to those we now call "modern."

Kirsteen, then, is a novel that explores the psychology of women raised with traditional, Regency values from the perspective of a woman who lived by those values, suffered from them, and presents us with a book that teaches us what it took for a woman raised that way to survive.

Unlike the novels that have become required reading in Feminist Studies courses, Kirsteen makes its points subtly, in a way that a speed reader reading for plot might not even notice, but which leaps out at you once you start paying attention.

The story describes the family life of a beautiful Scottish redhead whose family is obsessed with the fact that its head is the traditional head of their clan, though their family lost their land and wealth in the Jacobite rebellion. The father has managed to buy back a small holding with his earnings as a West Indies slave driver. That gives you some hint as to the kind of family life you are about to explore, though since these are Scots everything is happening behind passive exteriors and nobody ever says a word about what they are feeling.

We have some real Scots in our extended family, and I have to say, the portrait of the emotional style seems pretty true to life.

Kirsteen, the heroine, gets into a situation where she is pressured to marry a pleasant older man. The marriage will provide benefits for everyone in the family, including herself. But she has secretly troth plighted herself to a soldier and cannot accept.

This forces her into an independent life in London. I won't give away the rest of the plot, because the way the plot develops is a large part of the pleasure of reading this book. All I can say is that you will not get a HEA. Instead you get something equally fine: a lesson in why HEA is only one of many satisfying possibilities for a woman's life.

For those of us who collect small details of daily life in our period, Kirsteen is a treasure trove of information about early 19th century life in Scotland, though one that confirms my sense that the passionate emotionally expressive Scottish hero is very much a fantasy that could only flourish somewhere devoid of real, culturally intact Scots.

As to why Mrs. Oliphant is so unknown, my guess is that she dropped out of the canon because she is so very much a woman writing for women. Her sensitive nuanced descriptions of women's inner life were dismissed as "sentimental" while Dickens and Thackaray's unrealistic female puppets still make the cut.

I found Kirsteen far more readable than Dickens and I must admit Oliphant managed to bring a tear to my eye. If that means she is a "sentimental" author then so be it. Since I read fiction to explore emotional states, it worked for me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have We Got Stuck in a Rut?

I've just finished reading some novels written in the 1980s by Eva Ibbotson. I learned about her work on the All About Romance forum, which is a place where readers discuss their favorite romances.

I'm finding her work delightful--far more delightful, I have to confess than the current crop of romances I've been reading. They are historical novels with strong romance elements. But what makes them so pleasurable for me is that they break every rule that we modern day romance writers have been told we have to follow to please our audience.

1. Ibbotson uses several two points of view (POV) in her novels which you will no longer find employed in today's romances. One is the omniscient POV where the narrative voice is the voice of the author.

Austen wrote in that voice. P.G. Wodehouse wrote in that voice. It is a voice that lends itself to humor and word play. It works best for comedies of manners or any other kind of story where we don't need to get deeply into the emotions of the major characters. But Austen shows us it can be used to tell an emotionally moving story too. No one would ding Pride and Prejudice because it isn't written in a deep third POV that switches back and forth between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. In fact, P&P would be less entertaining if Austen, the narrator, didn't play the part she plays in telling the story.

Reading Ibbotson's hilarious Magic Flutes (recently reissued as The Reluctant Heiress) made me yearn to write a book in this wonderful, ironic POV. But its unlikely any Romance editor today would allow it.

Magic Flutes is being reissued, ridiculously, as a YA title, probably because it doesn't have hot sex scenes, though its humor and subject matter would be much more likely to appeal to an educated older woman with wide cultural interests and enough experience in life to recognize the targets of Ibbotson's wit.

Ibbotson's Madensky Square was written in the first person POV. She uses that voice to tell a story of a group of inter-related characters in a foreign culture in a way that reminded me very much of Maeve Binchy's best novels--the ones written before she descended to writing sickeningly sweet sentimentality.

Madensky Square is not a romance, though there are love stories in it. Still, the technique of using a first person narrator who functions much like an omniscient narrator while having her own, moving emotional story to tell really intrigued me.

Bottom line: I came away from reading these books thinking that whoever decided ALL romances have to be written in Deep Third Person POV with the POV ping ponging from heroine to hero and back again should be shot.

2. Common wisdom is that you can only sell historicals today if they are set in a time and place the even the most ignorant reader is familiar with. Hence we have book after book about Henry the Eighth [yawn], or set in the Regency, a period which, as much as I used to love it, has become a bit like a wonderful little town in Tuscany that is now so crowded with tour busses you would no longer want to go there. (My next book is set in the years just following the end of the Regency for that reason.)

Ibbotson sets several of her best stories in a historical time and place that was completely new to me: early 20th century Vienna. She brings a completely alien, unknown world alive for her readers to where you end up feeling when you put down the book as if you just took a brief but illuminating vacation somewhere new, exciting and completely undiscovered.

How I would love to read more romances set in new times and places, written by people who have their facts straight and who tells stories that make their historical period come alive.

Unfortunately, Romance has moved in the exact opposite direction with editors wanting stories where heroines behave in ways that would be believable in modern New Jersey, but not 19th Century England. Gently bred virgins jump in bed with handsome men, just because they're sexy. The exquisite sense of propriety which defined that time period for more than a century is forgotten, and the reader who longs for a historical romance finds a modern romance in fancy dress, which is something else entirely.

3. Ibbotson's heros and heroines do not go through wrenching emotional journeys. They do not deal with abuse. They do not suffer intense but highly predictable Dark Moments three quarters of the way through the book. Even so, we end up with a satisfying love story.

Several of her stories turn on Rival themes. The hero is engaged to a woman who is the kind of women other women love to hate. Beautiful. Vain. Materialistic. They kick small dogs and are mean to children. The hero has idealized him, but over the course of the story the scales fall off his eyes and he sees that he has made a huge mistake. The heroine, of course, is all that the Rival is not. Eventually the Rival gets what's coming to her and the heroine gets her man.

It's not noble, but I have to admit, this kind of story can be very fun to read. I also have to admit, I've gotten to the point where all too often I can predict ever single thing that is going to happen in a conventional romance because editors and agents are so wedded to a certain form that no one can publish romances that wander from it.

4. Ibbotson's stories do not focus obsessively on the hero, heroine, and their sexual tension. In fact, they are remarkably devoid of sex and yet great fun to read.

In the place of sexual tension we find richly developed settings and characters. We learn the intriguing details of the environment in which her characters operate. In A Countess Below Stairs we learn all about the "below stairs" world of servants in a large estate. In Magic Flutes/The Reluctant Heiress we learn about what it is like back stage in an Opera company that is filled with wonderfully drawn characters whose peculiarities are both hilarious and believable. In Madensky Square we learn what it is like to be a dressmaker in 1911. In all these stories we meet strongly painted supporting characters who stay in our minds after we put down the books because their characters are so skillfully developed.

In short, her external plot is stronger than the internal plot, something forbidden tho those of us writing in today's romance genre, but something that Ibbotson proves can, in the hands of a skilled writer, provide a delightful, entertaining reading experience.

Of course, the explanation for why we don't see books like this anymore may be that there are very few people writing today who have the writing skill Ibbotson has. That may be why the genre, which now demands that its practitioners crank out a book ever 3 to 6 months, avoid the kinds of books she writes, because written too quickly by writers who don't have her level of talent, the result might be unreadable.

What do you think? Do you long for something just a bit different in the books you buy when you are looking for Romance?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Discipline

No, this is not a post about what it takes to write a book on deadline, though discipline certainly plays a part. I wouldn't dare write about that topic until I've finished my next manuscript. Instead, the discipline I refer to is the book, Discipline, written by Mary Brunton and published in 1815.

Discipline was very popular in its day. Jane Austen made fun of Brunton's first book, Self-Control, for its improbable plot saying, "I do not know whether Laura's passage down her American River is not the most natural, possible, everyday thing she ever does." But Self-Control was a bestseller.

Discipline was Brunton's second book and unlike her first, it takes place in a world much closer to that of our Regency novels, at least for the first half which, I must admit here is all of the book I could get through.

Because unlike some other treasures rescued from obscurity, Discipline is one of those novels whose appeal is not timeless--whose appeal, is in fact entirely lacking, even for a devoted student of the period. After fruitlessly hunting for little tidbits about daily life she can work into her own prose the Devoted Student is very likely to toss it away as a lost cause.

But that isn't really fair to the book. Discipline is full of little touches that teach us not about the material details of life in her day but its psychological texture. It is just that none of what it tells us about that psychology is useful to the modern novelist writing stories set in the Regency, because Brunton's effect on the modern reader is to remind us how fundamentally alien the world of the Regency was, psychologically, to us here now and how utterly off the mark we are when we imagine the Regency Shared World we so love.

Piety underlies Brunton's work, indeed her tone seemed to me to be what we generally consider "Victorian" as it is dominated by a deep belief that we must strive to overcome innate vices and become better people because at any moment we might die and when we do we face a stern judge and a terrifying possibility of punishment.

This separates her definitively from most of us here in the 21st century who live in a world where most of the time we can ignore the precariousness of life and live as if we will all live forever, or at least will if we eat right, hit the gym, and take the right supplements. In our world, when someone young dies, we greet the event with shock, dismay and even horror. In Brunton's such a death was exactly what you would expect and provided an opportunity to rededicate oneself to the hard work needed to prepare for one's own sudden call to heaven. Even though this is a Christian perspective, it is very different in feel from the way today's Christians would write. Brunton would have looked with horror on prosperity ministries. Her good Christians are largely poor Christians and this is not accidental.

Brunton died in childbirth at the age of 40, three years after publishing her second novel. Knowing this, we can conclude that her world view with its focus on preparing for death was not a morbid obsession but a realistic assessment, especially for a woman.

Jane Austen's letters are filled with references to death in childbirth, explicit and veiled, but unlike the case in Brunton's book where deaths abound, young people don't die in the world Austen created. Even on her own death bed, Austen entertained herself making fun of the day's real estate developers in the unfinished Sanditon, rather than meditating on her sins or urging her reader to learn from her mistakes--the basic theme of the story told by the narrator of Discipline.

Reading Brunton is tough. She sets her story among the ballrooms and parlors of the wealthy. Her heiress heroine is betrayed by a money-grubbing sprig of the nobility. But that storyline is almost obscured by the sermonizing that accompanies it.

Still, I wonder sometimes if books like this one better reflect the real feelings the people who inhabited an Age rather than those that are timeless. Brunton's obsessional spiritual perfectionism is evident in diaries written by non-literary women who lived in the same time period. Her self-examination is characteristic of the writings of most women until the late 19th century. It was then that massive public health projects and a growing understanding of germ theory started whittling down the horrifying death rate that the world had taken for granted up until then.

I love the fantasy today's novelists have created and set in the English Regency period. But as a student of human life, I think it helps to remember every now and then that in 1815 marriage, to no matter how romantic a Duke, brought with it the likelihood of experiencing anywhere from 10 to 23 life threatening pregnancies unless one's husband succumbed young--Clara Schumann had a mere 7 children before her husband died in her early 30s. Of those children one must expect one in three to die young, perhaps more.

The mind set of a person living in that kind of environment is impossible for us to recover. Obviously, people dealt with it different ways: By drinking themselves insensible and gambling as if there was no tomorrow--as well there might not be, by constructing elaborate mental defenses rich in wit, or like Brunton, by attempting to prepare for the inevitable in a way shaped by the religious beliefs of the time.

The ladies waltzing at Almack's probably read, and enjoyed, Discipline. After doing so, some may have questioned the frivolity of their life and spent a moment at least pledging to do better. That would have pleased Mary Brunton, though she probably reminded herself, pride goeth before a fall. One wonders what she would make of our day's novels set in Regency high society.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Invented or True? When Imagination Hits on Something Real

As I work on my next novel something really strange keeps happening. I'll invent something, start researching, and discover that the thing I invented, even if it sounds far-fetched, is grounded in reality.

I made up one character and gave him a job title, only to read in an obscure history book about someone just like him--with a very similar job title. This occurred in a context I had never researched before, so it wasn't that I'd learned about him in the past and forgot it.

Then I came up with an idea that could provide a nice way of resolving an important exterior plot point. The only problem was that for it to work the astrological charts of two historical personages would have to fit some very narrow parameters--down to the times of day they were born. I figured if they didn't, since I was writing a novel, I'd just glide over the astrology part and tell the story.

Except that when I found the personages' birth data it turned out both of them were born exactly at the time of day when they'd have to be born for my plot device to be true.

It's all very strange. Almost as strange as the feeling many writers report that their characters are real and that they tell us their stories rather than being artificial constructs we invent to tell stories we want to tell.

Have you had the experience of making up something out of thin air that turns out to be something that really happened to a real person you knew nothing about?

Monday, August 31, 2009

What My Typewriter Taught Me About Revising

Years ago when I got serious about writing, back before computers were something an ordinary person could own, I bought an electric typewriter. It cost $100 used, which was a lot of money. My monthly rent for the three bedroom apartment in a small depressed mill town where I did my writing was also $100.

I did a lot of writing on that typewriter, including the piece that became my first sale. It was a long biographical sketch of Louisa May Alcott's childhood which I sold to American Heritage. Unfortunately, the editor who purchased it died shortly after the sale, and that piece never saw print--though, rather miraculously, I did get paid in full for it.

Typing my manuscripts on that venerable machine taught me a valuable lesson I frequently forget now that I have computer. When I was done typing up something new, I'd often go over it and revise, writing my revisions in pen or pencil in the spaces between the lines. Invariably, when I went back to the piece the next day, I'd note that the revisions I'd made at the end of my writing session had weakened the writing. Since the original was still there, this was not a serious problem. I just ignored the revisions and stuck with the typescript.

But then the computer came in and made it easy to revise away the first draft simultaneously with writing it. Those revisions left no trace of the original behind.

Now, knowing that revisions can weaken my writing, I do my best to keep earlier drafts and compare them to revisions to make sure I haven't drained the life out of the piece. But it's a constant struggle.

One way I fight this tendency is now is that I write my first drafts using a simple writing device called the AlphaSmart. I learned about this device from other writers who recommended it on one of the RWA discussion loops years ago. I have written several books on it since.

The AlphaSmart's interface is so clunky it is difficult to do anything on it but straight ahead typing. It weighs almost nothing, so I can curl up in bed with it, snuggle into my pillows, close my eyes and start reporting on the scenes that fill my imagination. When I'm done I plug it into a USB cable and upload whatever I've typed into a text file or Word. It runs on 3 AA batteries which will usually last me about four months with daily use.

The AlphaSmart helps avoid the revision demon, but only for the first draft. I learned a vital lesson last year when I pulled up what I thought was a current draft of one of my novels and got to work on it, only to realize a few chapters later that what I'd been working on was not the current draft, but an older one. When I went back to look at what had been my real current draft, I was struck by how much better the earlier draft was. The writing in the older version was spare and to the point. The earlier revision I had done to it had added lots of words, phrases and descriptions that slowed down the reader.

This past winter, when I revised the version of Lord Lighting I just sold, mostly what I did was take out the extra words and scenes I'd put in in previous revisions. I cut a good 7,000 words out of the manuscript and it was a lot better for it.

So now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book, I'm giving a lot of thought to how to restrain myself from what I am starting to think of as "destructive revision." I've gone so far as to contemplate writing my second draft the way I wrote drafts in the bad old days--typing the whole thing in from scratch while reading the printed version of the first draft.

I'm not sure I'll go that far. Human fingers can only take so much and after a lifetime of typing mine have a tendency to protest when I type for 5 hours straight every day. Still, I'm going to do what I can to keep myself from adding anything but the words and phrases that have to be added to make the story make sense, to set the scene more clearly, or to strengthen the dialogue or character motivation.

It's a balancing act--in my revisions last winter I did add a couple paragraphs to the beginning of Lord Lightning that made the difference between the query bouncing back unread, as had happened in the past, and my getting four requests for the full manuscript from top agents. Sometimes something is missing and putting it in makes the book better. But if nothing else, I'm going to keep my early drafts, and check back from time to time to make sure that my revisions have made the work better, not worse.

I'll also wait before revising. The most destructive revisions, in my experience, are those I make when I'm soaked in the work and haven't taken a bit of time to step back and get to where I can read what is on the page, not what I think I've written.

What do you do to prevent destructive revisions from draining the life out of your work?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What Keeps Us Turning The Pages?

Well, I finally made my way through all 700 pages of Vanity Fair. The more I read the more I remembered why it was one of my least favorite Victorian novels.

The critical edition I was reading included several contemporary reviews and modern appraisals, and I was fascinated to read that my suspicions about what Thackeray's portrait of Amelia revealed about him was true: Amelia's character, was indeed based on that of his poor wife who became mad. And that is why he paints her so affectionately and so sentimentally, and ultimately, why she is one of the least engaging characters in the book.

The idea that he was being ironic about her masochism and stupidity never occurred to his contemporaries or any critics until the post-modern period. Most tellingly, most of his contemporaries found his authorial adoration of her puzzling and repellent. As oppressed as Victorian women might be, readers in Thackeray's day, including men, did find Amelia's behavior abnormal.

But that said, one important fact stands out: I read every one of the 700 pages of this book. And this stood out to me because you do not want to know how many recent novels I've abandoned 100 pages in because I was so bored and so unable to get into the characters that I couldn't bear to read another word.

So that got me thinking about what it is that Thackeray was doing right. His plotting is humdrum. You aren't on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen to his characters. His characters' emotions are blunted and every time they threaten to turn into people with feelings you might care about, Thackeray steps out from behind the curtain and reminds you they are puppets meant to teach you a lesson about how rotten people really are.

But even so, Vanity Fair is still fun to read.

A couple reasons why suggest themselves. Even though each of the characters is meant, quite blatantly, to teach us a lesson, Thackeray makes them come alive with that brilliant choice of detail. Every scene and every bit of dialogue is grounded in reality. People walk around real rooms in real neighborhoods and talk to each other like real people would. And each character is painted in a way where they are unique, no matter what use the master puppeteer intends them for.

Becky's speeches could only be Becky's. Miss Crawley behaves as only she would do. This realism was what Thackeray contemporaries found so impressive in his writing. Tellingly, the only passages I found myself forced to skip were those where Thackeray descended to painting an ethnic stereotype--the Irish commander's wife and some of the European scenes where, having got rid of his most interesting characters, Thackeray seemed to be flailing around for something to say until he brings back Becky and finishes his book off with a denouement in which he proves just how little he understands about the emotional lives of actual women.

The other thing that kept me reading was what I think of as the "Gossip Factor." Once people seem real, we want to know what they've been up to. Think of how when you get together with people you haven't seen in a while, you want to know what all your mutual acquaintances are up to. They don't have to have been attacked by a vampire to interest you. You just want to know, are they dating someone, did they change jobs, what happened to their son? So it is with Thackeray's characters. He makes you want to know what they did next, whatever it might be, and that points to what a very good writer he is despite his tin ear for human emotion.

So I came away thinking that Vanity Fair is a puppet show, but realizing too that a good puppet show is compelling entertainment, which is why children even now enjoy them.

What can the aspiring writer take from this? How important it is to ground your characters in reality, to paint them with the telling details that turn them into individuals. That we must make sure our characters; personalities come through in the way they speak. Don't obsess about crafting an unusual plot because if you make your characters real enough, your reader will want to know more about them, even if the "more" is not all that astonishing.

I'd love to hear your ideas about what makes this book work for you, or if it didn't why it didn't.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thackeray: The 19th Century's First Punk?

I've always loved 19th century novels, with one exception. I could never quite get my head around Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Thackeray subtitled it "A novel without a hero" and I suspect that might have something to do with why.

Thackeray's view of humanity is dark. The way he tells his tale a lot closer to the tone of David Byrne and the other ground breaking punks of the 1980s than it is to Austen or Dickens. The latter are social satirists, but behind their writing you sense that as much as venal or even evil people infuriate them, they believe people could be kind to each other and that redeeming love is possible. There is something fundamentally optimistic about their vision of humankind, no matter how dark their stories may become--and Dickens' can become quite dark indeed.

But though Thackeray's tone, on the surface might make him seem closer to Austen than Dickens, in style, this is misleading. Thackeray has a much bleaker view of life. He gets you laughing, but when you are done laughing at his character-puppets--which is his characterization of them, not mine--you feel a bit less sure that any happy ending is possible, anywhere, for anyone.

It's possible the dark world-view seeping through his wit stems from the tragedy he experienced in his marriage. His young wife, whom he adored, became schizophrenic and had to be institutionalized. The law of the day made it impossible for him to divorce her and he might not have even if he could, given his love for her. This condemned him to live without a partner for the rest of his life and may have fatally affected his ability to trust in love, given how happy he had been in the early days of his marriage.

Whatever the explanation for Thackeray's dim view, his masterpiece, ironically, is a lot less popular now among serious readers than it was fifty years ago at the height of the uber-optimistic, totally fake 50s. Perhaps the degree to which cynicism pervades our media now takes much of the fun out of reading him. Readers have to turn to fiction to find satisfying happy endings and a positive world view--one reason why Romance, as a genre, continues to sell so strongly, even in a brutal market for all other kinds of reading.

The other problem with Thackeray is that much of his humor resembles what you see in today's cynically comic movies in that it is full of self-referential cultural references. But the culture he is referring to is too far in the past for us to get the jokes.

Austen's humor works a lot better for the modern reader because she stuck with making fun of universal traits of human nature. Everyone knows someone like Lady Catherine De Bourgh or Emma. But Thackeray frequently raises a laugh by poking fun at the novels his readers were familiar with, and that kind of humor goes right over the modern reader's head.

Fortunately, since I have been soaking my head in obscure early 19th century writing of late, I have been getting quite a few of his references and enjoying Vanity Fair far more than I could before.

Any of you who have ever researched Regency thieves' slang (cant) or read your way through Pierce Egan should still get a laugh from this Thackeray parody:
One two three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.
"Mofy! is that your snum?" said a voice from the area. "I'll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin."
"Nuffle your clod and beladle your glum banions," said Vizard with a dreadful oath. "This way men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark to the old gaff's mopus box! and I," added he in a lower but more horrible voice. "I will look to Amelia."
This very passage is cited online by a blogger who used it to illustrate why he hates 19th century novels. All that impenetrable prose! The blogger, obviously, missed that this was parody. But in 150 years you can be sure the self-referential content today's cynical punk culture loves so well will be likely to suffer the exact same fate.

If there's a lesson here it is probably that if you want your work to live forever, stick to making fun of basic human nature. It worked pretty well for Shakespeare, too.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Music in the Regency Period

I have been reading a wonderful book, Johannes Brahms: A Biography.Though it is describing events decades after the Regency period, this book is making me understand an important way in which the lives of all people living in the 19th century and before differed from ours.

In the Brahms biography the author points out that in his 34 years in Vienna, the center of the European musical universe, Brahms would have had 13 opportunities to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed by an orchestra. That works out to one every two and a half years. Mostly he became acquainted with great works of the past by reading the sheet music or by hearing his friends play simplified arrangements of these great works arranged for the piano or perhaps a string quartet.

Most people, of course, would have had no chances to hear a professional production of most contemporary music. An English music lover like Jane Austen, experienced "music" in the context of neighborly get togethers where people performed piano arrangements of famous works that had stood the test of time.

In Austen's day, Beethoven's Ninth hadn't been composed yet, of course, as it came out in 1824, but his sonatas would have been available in sheet music form in the Regency and his other Symphonies and concertos would have been known and possibly available in sheet music forms arranged for piano or piano and violin.

However, it took a while for the musical amateur to appreciate the works of his middle period. Even critics considered them "noise" and "nonsense" when they first heard them, as they were so different from the orderly arrangements of notes and the logical chord changes they were accustomed to hearing from beloved composers like Mozart, Haydn and Handel. Austen never have heard a note of Beethoven.

But it is the rarity of music in this period that fascinates me living as I do in a time when music is so omnipresent. My dad was born decades before the advent of radio and widespread marketing of recorded music He told me once that he still remembered the first time he heard a piano. He was almost six years old and the piano was being played in a department store.

It was a revelatory moment for him that left him standing transfixed, while his mother tried to tug him away and get on with her shopping. It was a moment he remembered all his life. He attended live concerts almost weekly throughout his later years and owned one of the first stereo phonographs so he could listen to his music at home. But recorded music never satisfied him the way live music did.

His experience of music was entirely different from that of anyone now alive. But it gives us a hint of what music might have been like for people in the Regency period. Hearing music was a relatively rare event--especially music that was well performed beyond the amateur level--and it was valued in a way we can't imagine and probably had a psychological impact beyond anything we can imagine, overwhelmed as we are in an environment that is so filled with music that we have lost our ability to marvel at it.

In the Regency period, if you wanted to listen to music when you were alone you could chose from any piece you could play on whatever instrument you owned--assuming those you lived with would put up with it. With an invalid mother, Austen must often have had to console herself with the memory of the pieces she liked rather than the actual sound which might have disturbed the invalid's sleep.

With this in mind, you can see what a valuable present Jane Fairfax's piano really was. Without it she would have had no access to music except when her betters invited her to a musical evening where she'd be at the mercy of the tastes of the other invitees.

The only other place she would hear music would be at a ball where a small group of musicians of varying ability would play dance music. Many people probably attended these balls because it was their only chance to hear even semi-professionals play.

To hear professional musicians play music often--and by often we mean that you might have heard a favorite piece played once every 30 months or so, you would have had to be well off. To hear what you wanted to hear more frequently you would have had to be a dukes or a nabob. Only they had the resources to bring famous European performers and composers to England where they would perform privately whatever they were instructed to play. The super-rich could also afford to commission the pieces to which their names are still affixed.

Austen's collection of sheet music gives us an idea of the kinds of music she valued. It includes " songs by Handel and Haydn and by English composers of the day, like Dibdin, Samuel Webbe the younger and Shield, plus folk songs popular ballads and comic songs, Italian songs, French songs and operatic selections, also instrumental pieces by Corelli, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Pleyel, Cramer and John Christian Bach." This last quotation comes from a discussion about music in Austen's writings and life you can read HERE.

Here is a snippet of the kind of music Austen and other Regency music lovers would have heard at the orchestral recital that would be, perhaps, a once in a lifetime event:



Here's another, with good video of the small orchestra used for the popular Baroque pieces still popular in the early 19th century.



Here is a song by Charles Dibden that Austen might have heard sung by friends:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Real Regency Astrologer

In the course of avoiding writing, I mean researching my book I ran into a fascinating account of a real astrologer who flourished in the Regency period.

He was John Varley who lived from 1778 - 1842. He is much better known to the world for his other claims to fame. He was a well known landscape painter who specialized in water colors. You can see many of his paintings by following the links you'll find on this Google Image Search.

But the main reason Varley is remembered is because he was a friend of William Blake, and scholars believe that it was his influence that led to Blake completing the astonishing series of drawings including The Ghost of A Flea which you can now see at the Tate Gallery.

Varley is dear to me because it turns out that it was he who first figured out the astrological function of the newly discovered planet Uranus. Readers of my novel, Lord Lightning, will find that the astrological meaning of Uranus plays an important part in that story.

Histories of science often claim that the discovery of new planets in the 1700 and 1800s dealt a death blow to astrology. But this is simply not true. Astrologers like Varley did what astrologers always do. They tracked the movements of the planets and watched their own charts to see what impact, if any, the new planet would have. Varley did just that, with impressive results.

As recounted by his son, Varley would get up every morning and look in his ephemeris to see what his daily transits would be and work out his secondary progressions. (We'll talk about what these astrological factors are in a future blog post.) Varley had some suspicions about what the new planet might mean, so when he saw an important Uranus transit to his natal chart one morning, he was convinced some dire event must follow.

As recounted in a public domain Google Book James Holmes and John Varley By Alfred Thomas Story, on the day of the transit, Varley was away from home, but when nothing disturbing occurred, he concluded that the event must be manifesting at his house. He rushed home. When he arrived he heard a cry of "fire!"and found his own house in flames.

His son Albert reported that Varley was so "delighted" at having discovered what the astrological effect of Uranus was that he sat down while his house was burning, even though he knew that his house was not insured for a penny, and wrote up an account of his discovery. He had timed the catastrophe to within a few minutes. His son said that he had suspected that the square or opposition of Uranus would have a bad effect but not exactly what. Although he lost everything in the fire he regarded that as a small matter compared with his discovery of the new planet's way of manifesting.

Any serious astrologer will have no difficulty understanding Varley's excitement, though most of us will have a difficult time timing events as closely as Varley did. Many of the traditional techniques Varley would have used were lost in the decades that followed his death when Astrology went through the transformation most closely associated with the Theosophists.

Modern psychologically-oriented Astrology derives from the teachings of people associated with the Theosophists who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century. Though some of their techniques add richness to the traditional teachings, all too often they discarded time-tested ancient techniques they didn't understand in favor of new ones they'd made up.

Varley also predicted the death of fellow artist, William Collins RA to the very day years before the event took place.

Varley is only one of many people who are well-known to the world whose astrological pursuits have been dismissed by mainstream historians. William Blake took them seriously which is one reason he spent so much time with him and ended up doing his greatest drawings at Varley's home.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Adventure Begins: Avon Buys Lord Lightning

Publishers Marketplace: Dealmaker: Avon (Imprint)

Jenny Brown's debut LORD LIGHTNING, the first in an astrology-themed series ... to Tessa Woodward at Avon, in a three-book deal, at auction, ...by Emmanuelle Alspaugh at Judith Ehrlich Literary Management

Jenny Brown is my maiden name. I'm using it because I've used Janet Ruhl and Jenny Ruhl on other published nonfiction books.

This is a life-long dream come true and my excitement is tempered only by the fact that I have to produce another book as good as Lord Lightning for delivery next June.

What makes me the happiest about this sale, besides the fact it happened, is that Lord Lightning is the kind of historical romance I love to read. The details of the historical setting are accurate. The language has the feel of early 19th century prose, though it flows easily enough that a 21st century reader will enjoy it. My characters are driven by motivations that make sense in the context of their times. My characters are not only passionate and involved, they are witty and intelligent. If you enjoy Jane Austen and the genre of Jane Austen continuations, you will probably love this book.

Even the astrology my heroine uses is real astrology rooted in the techniques used in the Regency period. Astrologers will find birth data at the end of the book so they can create their own charts for my protagonists. But don't let the astrology scare you off. You don't need to believe in astrology to enjoy this compelling love story.

I'm pretty sure that it was the astrological theme that finally made me that rarest of aspiring novelists, the "debut author." That's because it helped me solve what some Regency writers call "the problem of the 10,000 dukes." Thousands of Regency romances have been published over the past 90 years, all of them set in the same, brief time period. Authors have created thousands more noblemen heroes than ever sat in the House of Lords in the Regency period or, for that matter, in all the centuries before or after it. Every detail found in every possible primary source has been worked into a plot by any one of dozens of talented authors and by hundreds of not so talented ones. This makes breaking in very hard, and I am very glad I was able to offer publishers something new, and even gladder I could do it in a way that did not involve zombies.

But none of this touches on what everyone is asking me about. So I'll cut to the chase: Yes, Lord Lightning does have sex scenes--and yes, they're hot. Not all my research has been confined to reading medical journals.

I don't have a firm publication date yet, but my wonderful agent believes it will be November 2010. That seems like a long time to wait, but I'll just have to live with it. I've been waiting to publish a novel since I was in elementary school.

From time to time I'll be posting here about Lord Lightning's progress and on other topics related to the novels and the astrological ideas that play a part in the series.

In case you wonder about the title of this blog, the whole series is tentatively named "Lords of the Seventh House." The Seventh House is the part of the chart that describes a person's marriage. In traditional astrology the "Lord" of a house is the planet whose own placement has a strong impact on how the house expresses itself in the person's life. Regency romance is all about Lords, of course, so I hope the title gives a hint of the fun that awaits readers.

Each of my books will feature a hero with a different Sun sign. Since I take the astrology seriously, the sun sign is only a starting point. Each hero has an entire chart filled with all the other planets that provide nuance and internal conflict.

I wish my readers didn't have to wait SO long to read about my deliciously wicked bad boy Leo, but that's how publishing works.

Meanwhile, it's back to work for me on my second hero, the Scorpio. . . .