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In Summer 1995, I picked up a book in a bookstore in Keene, New Hampshire where I worked before heading home for the weekend.

I was enticed by the Stephen King blurb.

I lived nearly 180 miles north in North Troy, Vermont.

Now, I didn’t always start books right away, but this one I was really looking forward to. In its own weird way, it changed the course of my life. Two years later, I’d be working as an immunology software engineer, though I ultimately decided not to pursue the additional degree(s) needed for more work in that particular field.

The blurb?

“The first chapter of The Hot Zone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life—and then it gets worse. That’s what I keep marveling over: it keeps getting worse. What a remarkable piece of work.” —Stephen King

Richard, then my partner and later my husband (not to be confused with Rick, my husband of 14 years) marveled that I was able to read the book in bed, turn off the light, and go to sleep. And stay asleep.

It’s not that I didn’t find the book terrifying. I did. It’s just that, for me, those horrors were so much worse than what I’d imagined, my own fears began to subside.

Before reading The Hot Zone, The Coming Plague, A Dancing Matrix, and other related works, I was always very fearful and squeamish about things medical. I was the kid who ran and hid under the doctor’s desk when it was time to get a shot.

I couldn’t watch a surgery scene on TV or in a movie. Just couldn’t.

After Richard died, I found myself watching a show about organ transplantation, showing transplant surgery, less than a week after I’d donated his organs. My neighbor wanted to make sure I was really okay with it. I was, which surprised me. I still avoid surgery scenes in movies and TV, but I’m not as horrified by them as I used to be.

I’d taken astronomy and geology rather than biology so I wouldn’t have to dissect anything. In Vermont, I finally took biology and the only things they made us dissect that first term were black flies. I hated them so much by that point (nasty, painful welts from bites if you didn’t know), I looked forward to stabbing them.

Eventually, I realized it would be a really long time before I could get through a Ph.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. program, so I decided to focus on the Master’s degrees I wanted.

But still, that book changed the course of my life.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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I’ve had this post sitting around for six weeks or so since I last modified it. About time to publish it, right? I was talking with a friend at dinner, then realized, “Gosh, if I’d published this post, she’d already know.”

I really think New Adult Romance is the killer category for indie publishing. It’s certainly one in which I’ve found a some great books, though several of those have been picked up by mainstream publishers after initial publication.

The basic romance formula is simple: two people (or, sometimes, more than two people) who have various obstacles that prevent them from having the One Great Relationship, who overcome those obstacles because the other person (or people) change them enough.

Not so easy to write, though.

Here’s some I’ve loved.

Sarina Bowen, The Year We Fell Down

Linky link.

I picked this one up based on the DA review.

She’s a varsity hockey player who’s had a career-ending injury. He’s a hockey player who fell off a climbing wall while he was drunk off his ass, and he’s taking the year off to recover.

“Instead, we went into the hallway together in silence. But there, my reverie was broken by the sight of a guy hanging up a white board on the wall outside of his door. My first glimpse was of a very tight backside and muscled arms. He was attempting to tap a nail into the wall without letting his crutches fall to the ground. “Damn,” he said under his breath as one of them toppled anyway.

And when he turned around, it was as if the sun had come out after a rainy day.

I really felt her frustrations, being that person who’s often sitting in a corner at parties because I can’t stand for very long. And yet, she doesn’t let you feel sorry for her, because she mostly doesn’t feel sorry for herself.

Most importantly, she never feels that she’s not good enough for the guy in question (which is one of my pet peeve romance tropes). Meanwhile, he’s still got this sucktastic relationship with a woman who needs a man with an expense account, and he knows he’s not “good enough” for her. In fact, the reverse is true.

This one’s still an indie book, and I want to add: it’s one of the cleanest (copyediting-wise) I’ve seen from any publisher. Kudos.

Sarina Bowen, The Understatement of the Year

Linky link.

This is the third novel (fourth book) in the Ivy Years series. I really loved the second book also. The novella’s fine, but this book is what really stands out of the later books in the series.

I’ll just let her tell it:

Five years ago, Michael Graham betrayed the only person who ever really knew him. Since then, he’s made an art of hiding his sexual preference from everyone. Including himself.

So it’s a shock when his past strolls right into the Harkness College locker room, sporting a bag of hockey gear and the same slow smile that had always rendered Graham defenseless. For Graham, there is only one possible reaction: total, debilitating panic. With one loose word, the team’s new left wing could destroy Graham’s life as he knows it.

This book brought back what it was like to be the straight best friend of a young, closeted gay guy who was trying to navigate his sexual preference for the first time.

If I had to pick my favorite book of the year, so far the above two are tied. I’ve got quite a few on my shortlist, though.

Katy Evans, Real

Linky, link.

This one I found on the iBooks bestseller charts and downloaded a sample, and it’s one of those that was picked up by a big publisher.

I don’t normally like books about fighters because I’m really seriously not into the alpha men who fight for a living. Except in books, apparently.

“I dare you to look at him and tell me you wouldn’t do anything for that man.”

“I wouldn’t do anything for that man,” I instantly repeat, just to win.

“You’re not looking!” she squeals. “Look at him. Look.”

She grabs my face and swings my gaze in the direction of the ring, but I start laughing instead. Melanie loves men. Loves to sleep with them, stalk them, drool about them, and yet when she catches them, she can never really hold onto them. I, on the other hand, am not interested in getting involved with anyone.

Not when my romantic little sister, Nora, has had enough boyfriends, and drama, for both of us.

I stare up at the stage as the guy whips off the satin red robe with the word RIPTIDE on the back, and the spectators stand screaming and cheering as he slowly turns to acknowledge them all. His face is suddenly before me, illuminated by the lights, and I just stare like an idiot from my place. My god.

My.

God.

Dimples.

Dark scruffy jaw.

Boyish smile. Man’s body.

Killer tan.

A shiver shoots down my spine as I helplessly drink in the entire package everyone else seems to be gaping at.

Remy’s not neurotypical, and I loved the descriptions of the nuances of his character. I think once she labels it, it feels less real, so I’m glad that is very minimized. It’s not “he’s got X,” it’s all in his behavior.

There are aspects of this relationship that are troubling. Sure, she’s got her dream job and he’s got his, but the relationship is so tightly interwoven that it just feels like it can’t help but being unhealthy. And yet, it shifts in the second book, which I’m now reading.

What I love, though, is that no one is giving up their careers. Unlike a lot of other romance books, their particular careers mesh.

After having read all the books now out, I’ll add: they all three work, and the book from his POV (Remy) helps fill in the cracks.

Dear Author review.

Jay Crownover, Rule

Linky link.

I loved the first book, not as crazy about the subsequent books. Also wish there were a stronger command of language or, failing that, copyediting. Now that she’s got a major publisher, one would hope there’d be a larger budget for that. (Update: I just read the fish book, Rowdy, and it didn’t have the same problems.)

The characters, however, are broken in just the right ways. It’s told from alternating first POV, which I personally like a lot when it’s done well.

She’s always been in love with him, but he goes through women the way some women go through Kleenex. He’s always been interested in her, but believes she was the girlfriend of his twin who committed suicide—and therefore off limits.

“You’re going to get all that junk that’s in your hair all over my window.” Her voice—all cigarettes and whiskey—didn’t match the rest of her, which was all champagne and silk. I had always liked her voice; when we got along I could listen to her talk for hours.

“I’ll get it detailed.”

She snorted. I closed my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. I was all set for a silent ride, but apparently she had things to say today, because as soon as she pulled the car onto the highway she turned the radio down and said my name. “Rule.”

I turned my head slightly to the side and cracked open an eye. “Shaw.” Her name was just as fancy as the rest of her.

Despite the fact that this is weaker in some respects than other books I’m listing, it was my gateway drug into new adult romance.

Kylie Scott, Lick

Linky link.

One of my sweet spots is a reader is rock ‘n roll heroes.

It’s a variant on the old “secret wedding” theme: in the book’s opening, the heroine wakes up married. Hilarity ensues.

“Something winked at me from my left hand, snagging my attention. A ring, but not just any ring. An amazing ring, a stupendous one.

“Holy shit,” I whispered.

It couldn’t be real. It was so big it bordered on obscene. A stone that size would cost a fortune. I stared, bemused, turning my hand to catch the light. The band beneath was thick, solid, and the rock sure shone and sparkled like the real deal.

As if.

“Ah, yeah. About that …” he said, dark brows drawn down. He looked vaguely embarrassed by the ice rink on my finger. “If you still wanna change it for something smaller, that’s okay with me. It is kinda big. I do get your point about that.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling I knew him from somewhere. Somewhere that wasn’t last night or this morning or anything to do with the ridiculous beautiful ring on my finger.

“You bought me this?” I asked.

He nodded. “Last night at Cartier.”

“Cartier?” My voice dropped to a whisper. “Huh.”

Unlike many of the others, this one started out with a major publisher and was never self-published.

Dear Author review.

H. M. Ward, a metric ton of books

Linky link.

There’s no easy way to say this other than be truthful: H. M. Ward writes my kind of crack. She could use a proofreader, though not as much as Crownover.

Ward’s best known for the (currently) 16-volume (each novella length) Arrangement series, but there are side series that are related, too.

The Arrangement

Avery’s a college student with an impossible work/courseload and too little money whose parents died in a car crash. She only has herself to rely on.

Sean’s an incredibly rich (of course) guy who wants a certain kind of relationship. In the opening, someone steals Avery’s car as she’s trying to spray-start it. He helps her go after the thief, which is how they meet.

“Does your car always do that?” A pair of blue eyes meets mine and the floor of my stomach gives way. Damn, he’s cute. No, not cute—he’s hot.

“Get jacked? No, not always.”

He smiles. There’s a dusting of stubble on his cheeks. I can barely see it because of the helmet. He raises an eyebrow at me and asks, “This has happened before, hasn’t it?”

More times than you’d think. Criminals are really stupid. “Let’s just say, this isn’t the first time I had to chase after the car.”

Melony, Avery’s closest friend, takes her for a job interview. Avery thinks it’ll be for something like hotel clerk, but no, it’s for becoming a call girl. The interviewer, Miss Black, shows Avery the photo of a new client. It’s Sean.

Just one problem: Avery’s still got her v-card. Will she? Won’t she?

This series takes some incredibly wild-ass turns, and I loved it. Some of them I saw wind up like clockwork, and some surprised me. I can’t wait until the whole thing’s finished and I can re-read it from scratch.

The Secret Life of Trystan Scott

This is a five-part young adult story of Trystan Scott’s high school years. It’s set three years before The Arrangement. He has a pretty awful home life, but no one quite understands how broken he is. Fortunately, things improve for him. Eventually.

Trystan isn’t a Ferro, but he later becomes a good friend of the family and appears in the later Arrangement books.

There will be a later Trystan Scott series contemporary with The Arrangement; the first volume is due out soon.

Scandalous

Scandalous is a two-volume book that’s not Ferro, but is mentioned in the Ferro series. He’s an artist who paints nudes. She got away from him and has been a preacher. She becomes his muse. Nice inherent conflict. Really loved it.

The Proposition

After her father dies suddenly, college student Hallie writes a torrid erotic novel about the love she lost: Bryan Ferro, the man she loved, lost, and never told anyone about. Catch is, she’s now with Neil, who’s just Mr. Blah, and fears that other people will think the novel’s about his relationship with Hallie.

The novel has attracted enough buzz that seven-figure offers are coming in, so Neil’s tune starts to change.

Bryan, however, hasn’t forgotten Hallie, and shows up in her life. Only he’s got secrets of his own.

Secrets & Lies

The first of this seven-part series is out.

Kerry’s luck is hilariously bad, from accidentally winding up with a school bus to having her possessions shipped accidentally to Guam. She’s also wound up suckered into nude modeling, and, well, her one-night stand blows her off.

Until he doesn’t.

Nathan is trailing me and smiling that cocky grin that guys wear when a woman shoots them down. He mirrors my pose, which makes his arms look lickable. “Exactly what part of Hell has to freeze over before you give me another try? The foyer? The basement?”

I don’t want to laugh, but the idea of Hell having a basement is funny. I get a picture in my head of an old guy burying bodies at the bottom of a staircase, next to a creepy furnace. It amuses me. “Level nine, ya know, the basement.”

He presses his hand to his heart. “That’s a long ways down.”

“Yes, but the fall was fast. I bet you hit your ass on the way down.”

Damaged

Sean’s younger brother Peter has given up the Ferro family fortune and the strings that attach it, and gone and gotten himself a professorship. Sidney has been a grad student and finally agrees to a blind date set up by a friend, only she sees Peter on the way in and thinks that’s her blind date.

Her actual blind date is an amazing jerk, so Sidney dumps him. She heads to the parking lot, and hot guy is out there. His car won’t start.

“He watches me as I try to crank the engine. It doesn’t start. I look at the little gauges and notice the battery. He’s standing next to me now. “So, you’re a mechanic?”

I shake my head, “I just pretend to be. It makes for more interesting evenings.” I grin at him, not sure what’s come over me.

One of the things I like about H. M. Ward’s women: they’re not stereotypical.

Stripped

Black sheep of the Ferro family Jon—who until now has been known for banging his father’s endless series of younger mistresses—discovers that his long-lost love is working in a strip club. The one who got away was Cassie. The story slips between the narrative past, when they met, and the narrative present, when they meet again.

Jonathan trails behind me. “You’re the first chick who’s shot me down.”

“Good, then maybe you’ll learn something.”

Jonathan stops walking for a second and then races after me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were trying to teach me a lesson.” The infuriating smirk on his lips is still there, bright and beautiful. “You see, I was distracted by your perfectly sinful body. My brain actually exploded back there when you said you only use it for good, which isn’t good at all, since that makes you off limits.”

I’m smiling, and trying to suppress the grin, but I can’t help it. I reach into my purse and pull out a Kleenex. I hold it over my shoulder for him. “Here’s a tissue, go clean it up.”

The Wedding Contract

The rare one-volume piece from Ward. It’s a fun read about rival wedding photographers Nick Ferro and Sky, and draws from Ward’s time in the trenches in the wedding industry.

Suggested Reading Order for Ferro Books

Courtesy of the Ferroholics on facebook.

SIMPLIFIED READING ORDER
Scandalous 1 & 2 (not Ferro : mentioned in Stripped)
The Secret Life of Trystan Scott 1 – 5 (Not Ferro: becomes character in Ferro books)
The Arrangement 1 – 6
Damaged 1 & 2
The Arrangement 7 – 11
Stripped
The Proposition 1 – 4
The Arrangement 12 – 14
The Proposition 5
The Arrangement 15 -16
The Wedding Contract
Secrets and Lies 1
Second Chances (Not Ferro: there’s a brief Ferro cameo)

Secrets

Five-book set that’s finished. Anna’s a photographer who plans to deliberately blow a job interview with Cole so she can work at a different studio instead. He’s cleverer than she is and hires her anyway.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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The single pull quote that has stuck with me the most from the Algonkian Conference I went to last November is this one:

A one-star review means that the wrong reader has found your book. —David Cole.

(I think I have the attribution correct.)

If you think about it, it’s quite profound.

With a book, you signal expectations with:

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Any other copy on the front
  4. Blurb on the back if it’s a physical book
  5. The book’s opening or sample

If someone hasn’t figured out what to expect from the book by that point and they get something different than what they expected, they will be disappointed. And, at its heart, a one-star review is a failure to meet expectations. (Save the “I read 50 Shades knowing I’d hate it because everyone else read it” sort of reviewer.)

So, working backwards:

  1. Does the cover correctly lead the reader to grasp the genre and feel of your book?
  2. Does your title signify the wrong genre and prose expectations? Look, if I’m going to pick up Cum for Bigfoot (which I have not read), I’m not going to expect scintillating prose. If I get scintillating prose on top, I’ll give it a better review.
  3. Does any other front/back copy support same?
  4. Does the book’s sample actually lead the reader to expect how the book resolves? Or is it, like Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio was for me, which I would give a one-star review to? As one of my grad school colleagues put it, “It’s like a hard SF novel and a romance novel had a violent accident.” That. So much. Look, I like most of Greg’s books (haven’t read them all) and like him as a person, I just hated that book. It happens. But, hey, it won the Hugo award and the Nebula award. Clearly I’m in the minority. (At the time I read it, no sequel had been announced, and it was my understanding that it was intended to stand alone. I still would have disliked it, but if I’d known it wasn’t the whole intended story, I’d have felt differently.)

Critiques

It must be “ask Deirdre advice” month, as several people have asked me similar questions about getting a critique from a better-known author in their genre. I’ve been to a fuckton of workshops where I’ve gotten that, so I’m going to tell a tale first.

When I was at Clarion, there were a few days when we had two writers (the anchor team) and an editor giving critiques along with the sixteen of us plus the author being critiqued. For this particular story, the writers-in-residence were Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler and the editor was Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor.

So the story being critiqued was, at its heart, a black Conan pastiche. And, well, I hadn’t read Conan because it really isn’t my thing. As a group, we were pretty horrible about the critiques.

Then it got to PNH, who said he liked the idea, pointed out that Tor published (at least some) Conan books, and I remember him particularly admiring the “strenuously operatic dialogue.”

I remember a particular line of Karen Joy Fowler’s about this piece. Or maybe it was about my own attempt to branch out. “An interesting failure is much to be admired.”

I’ve secretly wondered since then if Greg wasn’t smarter than all of us. Sure, the piece wasn’t ready, but he was trying something really different.

Point is: a writer knows how to make their writing their writing, only better (via self-editing). An editor’s job is to know how to make your writing your writing, only better. These are not the same thing.

Does that mean that paying a writer for a critique of your work is a bad idea? No, it does not.

If you’re going to pick someone like that, you want to know that the writer you pick likes the same kinds of things you like. Just because you like their writing doesn’t mean the opposite is true. Don’t expect them to love your book. Don’t expect them to blurb your book when you do sell it, though they might.

So, my advice is: choose wisely.

Overworking Your Piece After Critique

When I read slush, I saw a lot of pieces where the prose had simply had been overworked after critique. That’s particularly true of openings, where critiquers are likely to say things like, “I can’t see this.” So the writer tends to counteract by overexplaining, slowing the opening down.

First, you should read this entire piece by David Mamet even though it’s in all caps. I’ll spare you the caps in the section I’m requoting below.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: What about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”

And I respond “Figure it out” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.

When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to suggest to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, “But, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame”

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

So when you get your critique, remember that it’s an opinion about your work. You get to decide what to do about that opinion. Up to a point, a reader wanting to know more about a character than is on the page is a good thing.

Also remember that you can bend reality good and hard. Nalo Hopkinson was talking about one of her pieces, “Whose Upward Flight I Love,” once. She said, “In this story, trees fly. Deal with it.” She never explained why trees flew. It wasn’t important to the story.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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I rarely review books for various reasons, though I do keep some notes about which ones did and didn’t work for me in various ways. However, these are more the notes of a writer than a reader and are specific to what I’m trying to work on at the time.

So, with that in mind, here’s two samples I’ve read recently, and I’ll try to make this a semi-regular feature after I polish off a few. With each one, I’ll include a quotation.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a book about cancer, as one might guess from the title. I heard Mukherjee speak and decided to check his book out, it just took me a while to get around to it.

Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells—cancer in one of its most explosive, violent, incarnations As one nurse on the wards often liked to remind her patients, with this disease, “even a paper cut is an emergency.”

For an oncologist in training, too, leukemia represents a special incarnation of cancer. Its pace, its acuity, its breathtaking, inexorable arc of growth forces rapid, often drastic decisions; it is terrifying to experience, terrifying to observe, and terrifying to treat.

I’m definitely buying this one.

Kook by Peter Heller is a non-fiction by a man who, coming back from writing a book about Tibet’s deepest gorge, has a crisis of what to do next and so decides to take up surfing.

Most sports, at first entry, balance the initial strangeness and difficulty with immediate rewards. In kayaking, you launch down your first riffling whitewater, take the first little waves over your bow, feel the speed like a revelation as the current tongues into a smooth V between rocks. You may dump and swim but you’ve had that rush. Skiing is the same; the bunny slope gives you that first alien and wonderful sense of slide and acceleration, though you may not know how to stop or turn.

Everything works this way except surfing.

Surfing is one of the only pursuits on earth that can drub you into numb exhaustion and blunt trauma time and time again and give you nothing in return; nothing but sand in your crotch, salt-stung eyes, banged temple, chipped tooth, screaming back, and sunburned ears—gives you all of this and not a single stand-up ride. Time and again. Day after day. Gives you nothing back but tumbles, wipeouts, thumpings, scares. And you return. You are glad to do it. In fact, you can think of nothing you’d rather do.

I’ll also be picking this one up, but this quotation did remind me why I gave up surfing.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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