Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Describing a Hero

Description has been the topic in a number of online discussions recently, and since describing in too much detail is one of my weaknesses as a writer, it’s also something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to as I work on my own mss. One reader said she didn’t want any description of the character in the novels she read. Physical details, she said, interfered with the image of the character she created as she read. I hope that reader represents a small minority because I don’t think I can write a book totally lacking in hints about what my characters look like. I see them clearly, and I want readers’ views to at least approximate mine.

A couple of years ago I entered a contest, my sole venture on the romance writers’ contest circuit. I edited, proofed, and polished my entry until I had practically memorized the pages. I spent a great deal of time cutting description and other narrative detail. I was surprised when I received my entry back with the judges’ comments that one generous judge who had taken time to comment extensively cautioned me about omitting such details. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “you need to tell, not just show.” Her comment has stayed with me, and I’ve made an earnest effort to find the right balance. I struggle to avoid info dump, and I’m conscious of linking descriptive details to action and dialogue. But I also know such linkage, like any other strategy can be overdone and become just another rhetorical tic.

I spent a great deal of time trying to write a description of the hero of the third book of my trilogy. Exhausted by a dozen attempts that ranged from a single sentence to several hundred words, I did what I often do when I hit walls. I turned to books with descriptions that worked for me as a reader. I limited my research to descriptions of heroes in contemporary romance since that’s what I was writing. Here are four that I studied:

1. He was dressed in faded jeans with slashed knees and a too-tight olive green T-shirt stretched over muscled biceps. Ruggedly tanned, he had sun-streaked russet-brown hair curling past his collar.

It wasn’t that he had a five o’clock shadow at nine-thirty in the morning that screamed “bad boy.” To Rachel’s eyes, that simply made him look scruffy. And most certainly his menace wasn’t in his boots, butter-soft leather and, good Lord, purple?

No, it was the arrogant way he stood, feet planted wide, arms folded across his impressive chest. It was the dragon tattoo curling the length of one muscled arm. But mostly it was the sleepy sensuality in the hooded hazel eyes casually scanning Rachel as if she were part of a female buffet.

Devin Freedman through the eyes of heroine, Rachel Robinson, What the Librarian Did by Karina Bliss, 125 words

2. He was more handsome than ever he’d been as a boy. And the women of the village had talked of his angel face in those days. Now there was a good bit of the devil as well to add impact to those vivid blue eyes and quick, crooked smile.

The outdoor life he led suited him, and over the years his face had fined down to a kind of sculpted leanness that drew women’s eyes. . . His unruly thatch of black hair defied proper combing. His body was tough with muscled arms, broad shoulders, narrow hips.

Murphy Muldoon seen through the eyes of his long-time friend Brianna Concannon Thane in Born in Shame by Nora Roberts, 98 words

3. In a thick plaid mackinaw jacket, faded jeans, and snow boots, he looked like a character from a storybook—the noble woodsman. A prince in disguise. I’m in a Disney movie, she thought.

Noah Shepherd through the eyes of heroine, Sophie Bellamy, Snowfall at Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs, 33 words

4. Everything about him radiated strength and darkness. Eyes, hair, energy. A dangerous archetype. Like Hugh Jackman in X-men, minus the claws, facial hair, and super powers.

Mark Bressler through the eyes of heroine, Chelsea Ross, Nothing But Trouble by Rachel Gibson, 26 words

After looking at these and several more, I returned to my attempts and reevaluated. This is the one I decided to use:

Caleb looked enough like Max to be his brother. Both were Marshalls bred true. They had the long legs, broad shoulders, and large, graceful hands of all the Marshall men. And the eyes . . . Lauren had those eyes—Marshall blue, Dori called them, a blue that verged on purple but never quite made it. But Max’s eyes were often lit with laughter or soft with thought. Caleb’s gave less away. They dared the world. The small, crescent-shaped scar on his right cheekbone and the scornful curve of his mouth assured that he’d never be confused with Max. Caleb might ride to the rescue, but it would be on his terms and on a bad-boy Harley, not a white horse.

Caleb Marshall through the eyes of heroine, Zan Killian, 121 words

If you are a writer, how detailed are your character descriptions? As a reader, how detailed do you want character descriptions in the novels you read? What do you think of my examples?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Keeping On: Lessons from Madeleine L’Engle

Over the past month or so, I have been reading three volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals: A Circle of Quiet (1971), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974), and The Irrational Season (1976). At the heart of these books, which are sort of but not exactly memoirs, is Crosswicks, the pre-Revolutionary War house in Goshen, Connecticut, that L’Engle and her husband, actor Hugh Franklin, owned. The journals are about L’Engle’s life at Crosswicks with her family, but they are also about other pieces of her life—as a writer, as a Christian who struggles with her faith, as a human creature caught up in the experience of being. I’ve read the Crosswicks Journals several times at different stages in my life, and each reading has been different because I was different. Have you ever read a book and known that it was exactly the right book for you to read at the particular moment? I felt that way with this rereading of these books. It was the words about L’Engle the writer that spoke to me with the greatest urgency this time.

In A Circle of Quiet, she writes of her 40th birthday, a day on which she receives another in a series of rejections. Because it is the most recent of many and because it arrives on a turning-point birthday, L’Engle is devastated. She concludes that the rejection is a sign that she should abandon her writing and devote herself fully to domestic responsibilities. She covers her typewriter as a gesture of finality, but even as she weeps over her farewell to her writing life, a novel about failure begins to gestate.

She writes: “I uncovered the typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not. It didn’t matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing.”

I needed the reminder that a writer is defined by writing, not by publication. L’Engle reached this conclusion about writing in 1958. In 1960, she completed A Wrinkle in Time, a book with an awkward, irritable heroine and her five-year-old bother, a genius whose difference lead people to believe he is “slow.” A Wrinkle in Time was rejected twenty-six times before it finally found a publisher. L’Engle was told that the book was good but too difficult and too different to find an audience. She writes, “What matters is the book itself. If it is as good a book as you can write at this moment in time, that is what counts. Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”

L’Engle found success. A Wrinkle in Time won the Newberry Medal in 1963 and became one of the best loved children’s books of all time. (On a side note, it plays an important role in the 2010 Newberry Award winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.) L’Engle went on to write more than fifty books after AWIT, making her an inspiring example of productivity after a certain age.

Age—that’s another concern that has had me questioning my writing a romance novel. I have thought that perhaps at my time of life I should turn to women’s fiction or some other genre. Geriatric lit? But L’Engle has words for that concern too. In The Irrational Season she writes, “I must be able to recall exactly what it was like to be five years old, and twelve, and sixteen, and twenty-two, and. . . . For, after all, I am not an isolated fifty-seven years old; I am every other age I have been, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . all the way up to and occasionally beyond my present chronology.”

I printed that quote and added it to my quote board along with another L’Engle quote on the subject from another book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art: “Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. . . . If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

If Madeleine L’Engle were still alive, I’d write her a letter, thanking her for her wisdom and for her books. Since I can’t do that, I’m writing this blog. Perhaps by sharing the lessons I’ve learned from rereading the Crosswicks Journals, some other discouraged writer who is thinking of giving up will be reminded of what makes a writer.

A last quotation from L’Engle, also from The Irrational Season, and one that speaks to every writer: “Writing a book is work; it involves discipline and writing when I don’t feel like writing. Robert Louis Stevenson said that writing is ten percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration. The inspiration doesn’t come before the perspiration; it’s usually the other way around. Inspiration comes during work, not before it.”

I’m going back to work, thanks to Madeleine L'Engle.

What writers inspire you? Have you ever read a book that at exactly the right moment?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Summer Reading

Officially the first day of summer is June 21. Traditionally, the summer season runs from Memorial Day (May 31 this year) through Labor Day (September 6). My summer has always been tied to the school calendar. Since the last day of school for the grands is Friday, May 21, my summer begins Saturday, May 22. Summer is not my season. I hate days when the temperature hits 90 and then goes up and up, when the heat is a muggy blanket enveloping everyone who steps outside to challenge the sun. But I do like the lazy pace of summer—late breakfasts and lingering at the table to engage in meandering conversations, slow drives along back roads to vacation sites, porch talk after sunset with honeysuckle perfuming the air and fireflies dancing in the trees. And reading--summer means more time to read, more time curled in a chair with a book and a glass of iced tea within easy reach or stretched out in bed, oblivious to the numbers on the clock face.

Summer 2010 promises a gracious plenty for romance readers. I have more than fifty books on my must-read list of summer releases (May 25-August 31). I’m particularly thrilled about a tantalizing trio of tempting titles by three remarkable writers whose books I’d rave about even if they were not good friends.

Tempting the Marquess, the second of Sara Lindsey’s delightful Weston family series (release date June 1) boasts a Welsh setting, a brooding hero, a romance-reading heroine, secrets, laughter, and wonderful secondary characters. How can anyone who loves romance fiction resist such a combination?

Tempting Eden, the sizzling debut novel of Margaret Rowe, a. k. a. Maggie Robinson (release date June 1) is darker and more erotic than my usual fare, but I have been fascinated by Eden and Hart’s story since I read the first snippet. I so want to see them win their HEA. I expect to read this one non-stop.

Twice Tempted by a Rogue, the second of Tessa Dare’s not-to-be-missed Stud Club series (release date June 22) features war hero Rhys St. Maur, a complicated and fascinating character, and Meredith Maddox, a fresh and unexpected take on the historical heroine. The mystery thread captivates, but it never overpowers the romance. Book one in the series, One Dance with a Duke, releases May 25, and it has already earned glowing reviews, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and a Top Pick! from RT Book Reviews magazine. If you haven’t already seen the buzz-generating, author-created book trailer for the series, be sure to visit Dare’s web site and view it.

Another book that I’m anticipating with a special eagerness is Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer. It too is a debut of sorts. Dreyer has written eight excellent mystery novels and collaborated with Jennifer Crusie and Anne Stuart on The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes. (For those who have read TUMF, Dreyer wrote Dee’s story). She has also written more than twenty category novels as Kathleen Korbel. I’ve read and loved most of them. Three of them—A Rose for Maggie, A Soldier’s Heart, and Some Men’s Dreams-- are on my list of all-time favorite romances. Each shows the complexity and emotional power that can be achieved within the limits of category when a gifted writer is in charge. These are books that change the reader. Read them and you’ll understand why Korbel/Dreyer is a multiple Rita winner and in the RWA Hall of Fame. Despite her many achievements, Dreyer is a debutante writer in historical romance. Barely a Lady is both a reunion story and an amnesia tale. I can’t wait to see what Dreyer does with these themes. But I guess I have to contain my eagerness until June 29, the official release date of BAL. Meanwhile, check out her great essay on writing romance.

Other late May and June releases that are much anticipated parts of my summer reading plans include:

May 25 releases:

Sugar Creek, Toni Blake (I love Harmony and can’t wait to go back, but I probably need to kick the air conditioner down a couple of notches when I read this one.)
My Reckless Surrender, Anna Campbell (This one has to be terrific. It’s Anna Campbell with another Regency noir tale. I used to say I didn’t like dark stories. AC changed my mind.)
Married by Morning, Lisa Kleypas (Leo’s story! How long have Hathaway fans been hungering for this HEA? I see myself staying up all night to finish this one too.)
Ten Things I Love About You, Julia Quinn (Sebastian stole my heart in It Happens in London, and I’ve read the excerpt. This one may rival JQ’s best—which is immeasurably good.)
When Marrying a Scoundrel, Kathryn Smith (I was delighted when Kathryn Smith returned to historical romance. She creates unforgettable characters, and this one is a reunion story, my favorite trope.)
His at Night, Sherry Thomas (Even if I weren’t so in love with Sherry Thomas’s prose that I’d read a McDonald’s menu if she wrote it, the book trailer, which left me laughing in appreciation, would have persuaded me to buy this book.)
Honeysuckle Summer, Sherryl Woods (What a great title for a Southern summer book! And I’m loving Woods’ Sweet Magnolias, second generation, stories.)

June 1 releases:

The Forbidden Rose, Joanna Bourne (If you’ve read Jo Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady and/or My Lord and Spymaster, you probably know this long-awaited book is a prequel, Maggie and William Doyle story. To say I want to read this book is such an understatement. I hope Adrian’s book is next.)
The Irish Warrior, Kris Kennedy (I’m not a fan of Medievals, but a friend who is also not too fond of them recommended I read Kris Kennedy’s The Conqueror. I did, and I became an immediate fan. I’ve been waiting eagerly for her next book since I finished the first one. I read the excerpt, and now I’m beyond impatient.)
Seven Secrets of Seduction, Anne Mallory (I first read Mallory when Three Nights of Sin got a lot of buzz on the EJ/JQ bulletin board. I’ve been working on her backlist, but I’ll leave the older books to read the new one, which sounds intriguing.)
Crush on You, Christie Ridgway (This starts a new series for Ridgway, one set in California wine country. I like Ridgway’s voice, and I like her characters. I especially like the promise of a new contemporary series that is romance with no suspense in the mix.)

June 8 release:

Along Came a Husband, Helen Brenna (Brenna’s Mirabelle Island books were among my favorite series last year, and I was happy when I heard she was continuing the series. This is Book #4, and I expect the same combination of sweetness and steam that made me love the others.)

June 29 releases:

The Duke’s Captive, Adele Ashworth (I reread My Darling Caroline recently and was reminded of how much I enjoy Ashworth’s books. This is her first new one in a couple of years. I’m excited about reading it.)
A Summer in Sonoma, Robyn Carr ( I think Carr’s Virgin River books are wonderful, but her women’s fiction novel The House on Olive Street is also a favorite. A Summer in Sonoma sounds as if it will be just as good as THOOS, which is being reissued in June.)
My Dangerous Duke, Gaelen Foley (Book #2 of Foley’s Inferno Club series should unravel more of the mystery that captured readers in Book 1. I’m hooked on this series.)
Love in the Afternoon, Lisa Kleypas (What a treat to get two Kleypas books so close together! I’m doubly pleased to see this one released. I’m eager to read Beatrix’s story, and I’m equally eager to be that much closer to a new Lisa Kleypas contemporary.)
One Season of Sunshine, Julia London (Another writer known best for her historical, London has also written some marvelous contemporary romances. I loved her Lear trilogy and was totally engaged by last year’s Summer of Two Wishes. The description of OSOS persuades me that it will be just as good.)
I Kissed an Earl, Julie Anne Long (I’ve been a huge JAL fan since her first book. All of her books have been keepers for me, and I think the Pennyroyal Green series is the best thing she’s written. I’m so jealous of friends who have already read this book that I’ve been waiting for forever—or so it seems.)
Almost Perfect, Susan Mallery (I like small-town romances, and I like Susan Mallery’s voice. AP is the second in Mallery’s Fool’s Gold series. The first book, Chasing Perfect, was a good blend of humor and pathos with a really interesting hero. I know I can count on Mallery for another good read.)

Then come the dog days of summer with sultry days and evening thunderstorms and more great romances to read. July begins with The Bikini Car Wash (release date July 1) by Pamela Morsi whose books are so superbly written that they make me want to throw away my WIP. The first Tuesday in July will see Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, another Mackenzie book by Jennifer Ashley on shelves. If this one is a tenth as good as last year’s Lord Ian, I’ll read it and head to the boards and the blogs and Twitter to rave about it. Then the last Tuesday in the month will deliver Last Night’s Scandal, Loretta Chase (Peregrine and Olivia all grown up!), Three Nights with a Scoundrel, Tessa Dare (Julian for whom there should be something greater than a K.I.S.S. award), and A Kiss at Midnight, Eloisa James (her first stand-alone novel, a Cinderella tale).

Other can’t-wait-to-read-this-one releases in July are:
Chains of Ice, Christina Dodd-- Book 3 of The Chosen Ones (7/6)
The Wild Irish Sea, Loucinda McGary (7/6)
The Wicked Wyckerly, Patricia Rice (7/6)
The Search, Nora Roberts (7/6)
Money, Honey, Susan Sey (7/6)
Home is Where the Bark Is, Kandy Shepherd (7/6)
Cupid Cats, an anthology with novellas by Connie Brockway, Katie MacAlister, and Vicki Lewis Thompson (7/6)
Charlotte’s Homecoming (HSR), Janice Kay Johnson (7/13)
Daring a Duke, Claudia Dain (7/27)
All I Ever Wanted, Kristan Higgins (7/27)
White Heat, Brenda Novak (7/27)
Summer Brides (anthology): "The Borrowed Bride" by Susan Wiggs, "Bridge to Dreams" by Sheryl Woods, "Sister of the Bride" by Susan Mallery (7/27)

Summer winds down with some sizzles and surprises. Elizabeth Hoyt starts the month with an August 1 release of the first book in her new Maiden Lane series, Wicked Intentions. I don’t know much about an August 24 release, The Devil Wears Plaid (cover not yet available), but I know it’s by Teresa Medeiros and I assume it another book set in Scotland—two good reasons for rushing to the bookstore. The last day of the month Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time (cover not yet available), her first solo book since Bet Me in 2004, will be released. There will be much rejoicing in the land, so my cheers and toasts won’t really be noticed.

Other books that will make my end-of-summer doldrums disappear with the turn of a page:

The Smuggler and the Society Bride, Julia Justiss (8/1)
Burning Up, Susan Andersen (8/31)
Just One Taste, Louisa Edwards (8/31)
Much Ado About Marriage, Karen Hawkins (8/31)
You Only Love Once, Caroline Linden (8/31)
1022 Evergreen Place, Debbie Macomber (8/31)
Finding Perfect, Susan Mallery (8/31)
Body Heat, Brenda Novak (8/31)
Wicked Delights of a Bridal Bed, Tracy Anne Warren (8/31)

Do you read more in the summer? What books are on your summer reading list?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Gifts: A Blog for Mother's Day

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Twelve days later will be the anniversary of my mother’s birth. This May is the thirteenth without her presence, but May is still Mother’s Month for me and my siblings. As I write these words, she smiles at me from a photograph on my dresser. The picture, one of my favorites of her, is a candid shot taken on her 80th birthday. She’s in her element surrounded by beautifully and clumsily wrapped gifts and by her grandchildren.

Mother was a wonderful receiver of gifts. She unwrapped them slowly, examined them carefully, and exclaimed over each in words that let the giver share her delight. Whether the gift was a child’s handmade offering or an expensive piece of jewelry, it was cherished as a token of the giver’s love. I remember once I gave her a pair of earrings I had made for her. Mind you, these earrings were obviously the work of an artistically challenged child, and, given that they consisted of green beads and pink sequins stuck into a piece of cork and glued to a screw back, they were just as clearly the work of a child with questionable taste. But my mother told me they were lovely. Over many years, few things have made me prouder than seeing my mother wear those gaudy earrings.

Mother’s favorite gifts were books, but all the family knew the risk of giving her a book. She would open it and start reading, blinking guiltily when someone recalled her to the celebration at hand. If the book were a particularly good one, she’d say, “Just listen” and begin reading aloud. I count it as a great gift that I had a reading mother. Further back than I can remember she read to me. One friend declares Mother insured I would be a lover of words by reading to me from her treasured Victorian poets and the KJV version of the Bible when I was still in the womb.

I grew up reading the books beloved by my generation and those my mother loved when she was growing up. While I was reading the YA books of Janet Lambert and Anne Emery, I was also reading the works of Gene Stratton Porter and Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first literary argument I remembering engaging in was with my mother over whether The Secret Garden (my choice) was a better book than The Little Princess (her choice). And I think the reason I’ve continued to read YA books is that my mother was never loath to read the books I loved and to find in them something to value.

I owe my love of romance fiction to her as well. The summer I turned ten, there was a polio scare in a neighboring town and my cautious mother forbade us to go to the community swimming pool, the center of social life for the pre-teen set. By Wednesday, I had finished all my library books and was whining incessantly about being bored. Mother pointed to her books and said, “Find something to read.” The first adult book I read was Jane Eyre, followed within the day by Pride and Prejudice. I then discovered the romance novels of Emilie Loring. That summer I read dozens of Loring’s tales of strong, stoic heroes and independent heroines involved in kisses-only love affairs. I loved those stories—from the great titles like The Solitary Horseman, The Trail of Conflict, We Ride the Gale to the HEAs. All these decades since, I have followed my mother’s example and happily read a mix of literary fiction and romance.

If my mother ever dreamed of being a writer, she never told me. But from the poems I began writing in first grade through my doctoral dissertation on poets of the contemporary South, I wrote to the music of her praise and encouragement. When I had poems published in a national anthology when I was in junior high, everyone in her circle of family, friends, and co-workers was forced to hear the poems. She carried in her purse copies of articles and editorials from my college newspaper days. I always thought of myself as a writer because she believed I was one.

These days when I reach an impasse in my writing or when I grow discouraged and tell myself that I’ve missed my chance to sail on the sea of dreams and should surrender to a land-locked life, it is her voice I hear telling me that dreams have no age limits. If I ever do become a published writer of romance fiction, I will have many family members and friends who will be happy for me, but the voice cheering me most joyfully will be one I hear only in my heart. I’ve already written the dedication for that first book, just in case: In memory of my mother, my first and best teacher.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’ll wear a white rose, wipe away tears, and be grateful for all the gifts my mother gave me. Then, I’ll read a book my mother would have loved.

What gifts do you count dearest from your mother? If you have children, what gifts do you most want to give them?

Friday, May 7, 2010


Well, only one winner actually. :)

Congratulations to Rachel Jameson, the Randomizer's Choice to win a copy of Maggie Robinson's Mistress by Mistake.

Rachel, if you will send your contact info to me at janga rho at g mail dot com, using the standard email address format, of course, I'll get your book in the mail right away.

I'll be back tomorrow with a special post for Mother's Day.