Now, Voyager

Have you heard of Now, Voyager? It's a classic Bette Davis film from 1942. I learned about it for the first time at a writing seminar, which highlighted the interplay between Bette Davis' personal growth story and her romance. It took almost two years to work its way to the top of my Netflix queue, but now I've seen it I thought it was awful. So, apologies to all who love it. And also: beware spoilers. If you want to see the movie with fresh eyes, look away and come back later.

Our protagonist is Charlotte, an adult woman who lives with her tyrannical mother. The mother constantly criticizes Charlotte, forces her to wear dowdy clothes and forbids beauty treatments that might enhance Charlotte's appearance.

We come to understand that Charlotte's mother is terrified of being alone, and that she keeps Charlotte under her thumb -- unhappy, unmarried -- to keep her close. But Charlotte is miserable, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The breakdown provokes an intervention. Charlotte is shipped off to a sanatarium, but a good sanatarium. A wonderful, caring doctor gives her just what she needs: a safe space, a room of her own, time. Charlotte blossoms. Of course, the movie communicates this via a makeover, when she loses lots of weight and trashes her spectacles in order to emerge from her cocoon a beautiful, Bette Davis butterfly.

When Charlotte's stay at the sanatarium ends, the doctor arranges for her to take a long cruise to South America. That's where she meets Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid), and where the movie starts to go wrong for me.

Jerry is a married man. That doesn't stop him from flirting with Charlotte, who's quite  vulnerable. She feels like a sham, like her transformation is skin deep, and occasionally reverts to the damaged, worthless-feeling 'maiden aunt' she'd believed herself to be for so long. So...that's red flag #1. Married guy who hits on vulnerable woman? Not cool.

But Jerry is pretty sweet. He sticks by Charlotte even after she reveals that she's been at the sanatarium, and tells her about his own troubles. You see, poor Jerry is stuck with an awful shrew of a wife, whom he stands by only to be near his beloved daughter, Tina. That's red flag #2: married guy who blames all his problems on his wife, and doesn't really want to be with her, but he has no choice, see?

Then Jerry shows Charlotte a family photo, and we get our first taste of red flag #3: Tina reminds Charlotte of herself. So, yeah, #3: our hero is hitting on an adult version of his own daughter.

Eventually, alas, the cruise ends and Charlotte has to go home. She leaves total-winner Jerry and reunites with her mother, who disapproves of Charlotte's progress. Mother wants Charlotte to get back into the dowdy clothes, to let her eyebrows grow furry, to live, once again, at her mother's beck and call. Charlotte stands her ground. She settles further into her new identity while continuing to honor and care for her mother. It's wonderful.

Now, you could view Now, Voyager as a movie about Charlotte's personal growth, vis a vis  her relationship with her mother. You could read her romance as secondary, proof that Charlotte is attractive but not needy, capable of forming relationships and choosing to maintain her hard-won independence.

That's probably the best way to see the movie. But not, I think, the most correct way.

We never meet Jerry's wife. But the movie reminds us, again and again, that Jerry's wife and Charlotte's mother are alike. Both are oppressive, tyrannical killjoys. Charlotte's mother stood in the way of romance for Charlotte in the past; Jerry's wife stands between Jerry and Charlotte in the present.

So all of our aggression toward Jerry's absent wife is redirected to Charlotte's mother. She's a double villain, a flesh and blood oppressor but also an effigy. And she reflects back her own qualities onto the wife we never meet: she's an old crone, no longer a sexual being. Our dislike of Charlotte's mother absolves Charlotte & Jerry of guilt.

Just when we expect Jerry's wife to die, to clear the way for a happily ever after, Charlotte's mother dies instead. That frees Charlotte, now a wealthy woman to pursue her own goals. She decides to invest in the sanatarium where she healed. She plans a visit, and soon takes a young girl under her wing -- a girl that reminds her very much of herself.

Tina. You guessed that the girl is Tina, right? Jerry's daughter? Because Jerry was so impressed by Charlotte's transformation that he sent his daughter there. Because he, too, really sees the similarities between them. And wants to enhance them.

Charlotte and Tina grow close. So close that Charlotte invites Tina to call her by a pet name. The very same pet name that Jerry chose for her, back on the cruise. Which is gross.

Somehow, Jerry isn't freaked out when he finds out that his ex-mistress has taken a very active interest in mothering his daughter. And he doesn't sue the sanatarium, which has permitted Charlotte to assume the role of a nurse without doing any of the training.

For a while, Charlotte and Jerry conduct their relationship though Tina. She passes messages between them, adorably unaware that her father & her substitute mother are in love. When Charlotte and Jerry finally reunite, Tina crosses the distance between them, radiant in her own make-over scene. Tina in her new dress, spectacles gone, echoes the scene when we first saw Charlotte fresh from her cocoon on the cruise, on the verge of meeting Jerry.

Charlotte and Jerry fight over whether or not Charlotte gets to keep Tina -- the absent wife doesn't object, allowing Tina to serve as the glue that binds Charlotte and Jerry, making them a family in fact if not in name.

So, really, it's a movie about adultery and incest. The wife/mother is evil. A post-menopausal crone stands in for both, allowing us to guiltlessly root for the adulterous couple. The daughter and the heroine are collapsed; they bloom under the care of the father/lover.

And the father/lover, Jerry, is a total creep! He's a manipulative jerk, and he pulls one douche move after another. First he hits on Charlotte when she's vulnerable. Then he gets her drunk and canoodles with her. He sends her flowers to keep his memory alive after they break up, but when he visits Boston, where she lives, he doesn't make contact for months. When she gets engaged, slipping out of his grasp, Jerry stages a dramatic exit -- making sure to tell her which train station he's calling from, for maximum disruptive potential. Plus, you know, he's married with kids.

Now, Voyager started strong but ended up not working for me at all. I hated Jerry. I found Tina's role creepy. And while I rooted for Charlotte, I wished she'd ended up anywhere else.

On Plotting, and Movies

So I've been plotting out my new novel -- working title The Last Man On Earth. I've had a general idea what it's going to be about for months, and I've finally begun to hammer those general notions into a specific, step-by-step progression of scenes. And I've been watching a few movies. I streamed a couple of Isabelle Huppert movies, because my goal for the new heroine is to craft a character that Isabelle Huppert could play. She might be my favorite actress ever, partly because she plays such complicated, often savage roles -- she's played Medea, the child killer, and Madame Bovary. She played the titular protagonist of The Piano Teacher, whose uptight, cultivated facade hides a core of unhinged savagery, a nymphomaniac nun in Amateur, a matriarch and murderess in Merci pour le chocolat.

So I watched two movies last weekend:

White Material, about a white family driven off of their coffee plantation in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed African state. Huppert runs the plantation with her ex-husband, his father, and their son. The ex-husband has an exit plan; the son is very much the product of his upbringing, which is to say he's a nightmare; the father is too old to change; Huppert's character digs in and refuses to flee. She is unashamed and unafraid, when she ought to be both.

I really liked White Material. I think it's worth a watch. Not a fun movie, but a good one. It's a very tightly focused film, very controlled. While the pacing felt leisurely, in retrospect the movie doesn't contain a single wasted moment. The militia converges on the plantation, the family self-destructs, and it all leads to a final climactic scene.

And then Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, in which Huppert plays a prostitute who hires herself out to a psychoanalyst. The movie parallels their two professions, suggesting a host of similarities. The role is ideal for Huppert, who has the opportunity to dress up in various costumes, to wield a knife, to indulge in hysterics, and to smoke pensively on her balcony.

My verdict? Eh. Whatever. Huppert is always worth watching, but the movie meanders. While it has a point, the story is tissue-thin, the resolution is weak, and the ending abrupt.

I watched those two more or less 'for research' - to help wrap my mind around this new character that I'm creating. But I also watched a couple of movies for fun. Namely:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a young girl, Hushpuppy, growing up in the Louisiana bayou. I guess I'd call it a coming of age story, though Hushpuppy is much too young for it. But she has no choice in the matter -- the arrival of a massive storm in the bayou forces change on her community, while personal devastation leaves Hushpuppy with only one way forward: to rise up on her own two feet.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is part fantasy. Hushpuppy is young enough that she doesn't differentiate entirely between the life of her imagination and the real world. Events are reinterpreted in her mind as fantastical happenings or take on mythic overtones. But the touch of pure fantasy doesn't keep this movie from feeling grounded, authentic, and real.

The last movie I'll mention is Pitch Perfect, about a pair of rival college a capella groups. This sucker is, in contrast to the other three, very tightly plotted and immensely entertaining. There's the rival-groups plot, with a structure familiar to anyone who's watched a season of Glee -- the underdog must clear the hurdles of two successive competitions to reach the final round where they face off against the more polished, more successful rival in the ultimate sing-off. The protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, must overcome a series of personal obstacles before she can successfully helm the group and lead them to victory.

This is the movie that got me thinking. Because although Pitch Perfect's plot is by far the most plausible -- these competitions really exist, and college freshmen often do spend that first year on campus struggling to belong and achieve -- it felt the most artificial.

So I got to thinking: tight plotting reads as artificial.

Artificial does not mean bad. The finale of Pitch Perfect is the most satisfying of the lot, because it resolves so many plot threads at once -- it marks the protagonist's social, romantic, familial and artistic victory. It is both deeply nostalgic and fresh. It ends on a musical number and makes you feel great.

But in order to achieve so much in a short period of time, the scenes are compressed. There's no time for chitchat, no tangents. At least half the characters are familiar types that we can understand without much exposition, tweaked a bit for interest, with the glossy appearance of depth rather than real three-dimensionality.

Both White Material and Beasts of the Southern Wild disguise their artificiality. The scenes are longer and less obviously purposeful. They only appear functional in retrospect, when you sit down to dissect the plot. The viewer isn't constantly cued about how far they've come along a familiar story arc, or reminded what conclusion they should be rooting for. The stories feel, as a result, less directed and more surprising. Less artificial, more lifelike.

The dud of the lot, Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, feels highly artificial and goes nowhere.

Since I am staring down at the bones of my story, unfleshed and undisguised, this struck me as a useful metric. I think part of what readers want from a genre story is, in fact, the artificial feel. The reassurance of being directed, the familiarity of a story arc, the promise of a resolution. Things need to move quickly enough that the reader feels on track.

I think plenty of genre readers appreciate a lean, well-told story that hits its marks and takes its bow. I do, even though that's not not what I write. The take-home point for me is that even if the added elements, the layers, don't feel purposeful, they must be purposeful. There's no room for real excess.

On the other hand, a story that feels real and offers surprises is doing good work, even at the expense of ultra-tight plotting.


There's been a bit of chatter lately in Romancelandia about escapism. I'm thinking especially of Ruthie Knox's Wonkomance post, On Escapism in Historical Romance, where she wonders if escapism is necessary to romance, and Cecilia Grant's guest post on Anna Cowan's blog, And Still, We Will Fall In Love, where she acknowledges - and then points a middle finger at - the notion that escapism is incompatible with literary merit. I also had a Twitter conversation about why readers would want to escape into horrific scenarios of abusive relationships. Sarah Mayberry tweeted that the "rich guy will make me happy" plot troubled her - that she wants her "heroines to be in charge of their own happiness and have their own power, not find it thr[ough] the man."

And I thought - yes, that is a kind of escapism, but it's a different kind of escapism than Ruthie Knox was talking about, and different again from what Cecilia Grant was talking about. It occurred to me that escapism is an umbrella term, a genus with many species, and that if we want to have a productive conversation about escapism, we should probably spend some time thinking about what it is.

So I'm going to start by listing different kinds of escapism. Not a complete list, but the best I can do:

Escape into a Better World: A world where the good guy always wins. Where the romance always ends in a happily ever after. Where the mystery is always solved, the villains get their comeuppance, and order is affirmed and restored.

I think this is the kind of escapism that Ruthie Knox was talking about when she wrote, "I want some anxiety, but not too much. Some tears, but not too many. Some gritty reality in the portrayal of history, but not so much reality that I get all swept up in thinking miserable thoughts about the past."

In this better world of fiction, we expect loss and upheaval and anguish -- but not too much. (Though, of course, various writers and readers define 'too much' very differently).

Escape into a World that Can and Should Be: This is what Sarah Mayberry made me think of. This escapism is like a model home, or an artists rendering of a community development. "This is what we can do," it says. "Here's how I propose to deal with this potential problem, and that one." In romance, I think this means subjecting a couple to potentially relationship-shattering difficulties that occur frequently in real life (incompatible career goals, juggling work and family, difficult family dynamics) and modeling a successful resolution.

This also means things like forward-thinking gender dynamics, strong mutual respect within a couple, fair division of household labor, etc. And the solutions might be good, but they're rarely easy -- compromises are key to a happy resolution.

Escape Into A Better World vs. Escape into a World that Can and Should Be

Escaping into a better world is impossible, because we'll never live in a world where good guys always win and mysteries are always solved. We will never have a reality where we can count on a satisfactory outcome to our greatest difficulties.

Escaping into a world that can and should be is possible, because it only asks individuals (real, fictional) to call upon their best selves and make good choices in a generally screwed-up world. This escapism says, in fun and funny and heartwarming ways: Best practices lead to better outcomes. Some people are good: find them. And hold on when you do.

Escape from Burdens: I think this is the kind of escapism most often used to tar and feather romance, as a genre. This is the billionaire who sweeps an ordinary heroine off her feet. The bodyguard who steps in to battle the heroine's demons. The cowboy who knows just how to save the heroine's failing ranch, the playboy who discovers he wants nothing more than to be a loving, devoted father.

These are books that say: Are you terrified of financial hardship, tormented by envy, psychically drained, exhausted? Here, let yourself be carried away by a story where those burdens that you carry, that make every day painful, vanish.

These are not true stories. They are probably exactly as impossible as they are necessary to their readers.

Escape from burdens might be the most useful kind of escapism, because it has an immediate practical application. This is escapism as respite -- as Cecilia Grant wrote, "a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face." Escapism as a pause, a breather, a break. Time to gear up for the next round. Or, alternatively, an acknowledgement of defeat. A hidey-hole, a walled fortress, a defense mechanism.

Some burdens cannot be escaped. Life is painful, for everyone, pretty often. I have a lot of empathy for the escape from burdens because I think it zeroes in on those grinding, debilitating worries that won't go away, that can only be endured. Grant, typically, said this more elegantly: "I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair."

Escape from Consequences: If escape from burdens is an escape from conditions that often feel beyond one's control, escape from consequences is an escape from personal responsibility. Escape from punishment, escape from rejection, escape from ostracism.

The protagonists of these stories knowingly make unethical decisions but avoid the backlash that they often desperately fear. They cheat and still get a happily ever after. They steal and get to keep the loot. They betray those that they love and are forgiven, without having to do any meaningful penance. These characters may behave irresponsibly and still come out on top, without having to modify their bad habits, or expose themselves to terrible risk but emerge unscathed.

Escape from Consequences vs. Escape from Burdens

If the escape from burdens makes people roll their eyes, the escape from consequences tends to make people angry. I probably don't need to explain why. If these stories were intended as lessons, or parables of self-help, they would fail spectacularly.

I can't say that the escape from consequences is my favorite flavor of escapism, and I think it's problematic from a purely technical standpoint - how do you write good novel without consequences? There's a reason why one of the first pieces of jargon any romance writer adds to her lexicon is 'black moment' - but as a fantasy, I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Most people make a couple really bad choices in a lifetime. And there are few realities more painful or humiliating than facing up to those mistakes and moving on.

Escape Into Pure Fantasy: Sometimes we escape just for fun. To delight the imagination. It's the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter, the rivers of chocolate in Willy Wonka, the migrating bicycles in Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

In romance, it's the magical night out. Dancing at the ball in the perfect dress. Sex that always feels great and orgasms that are never a struggle or a duty.

Oh - and abs. Lots and lots of abs.

Escape into a Heightened Reality: This one ought to be broken down into parts, but there are too many parts. I associate this sort of escape, first and foremost, with science fiction and fantasy. And that means that plenty of real and virtual ink has been spilled on the subject, plumbing depths and offering expertise that I don't have.

A heightened reality can be very much like our own, or it can play by its own rules -- dragons, spaceships, etc. -- allowing characters to do things like interact directly with metaphor (magic as power, for example), or ideas (political beliefs modeled into fantasy empires and pitted against one another). It can be complex (think George R.R. Martin) or very simple (good vs. evil, with clear markers of each and no gray areas).

But for the purposes of romance, I think the relevant sub-category is: escape into a world of extremes. I think it's very easy to mistake extreme emotions for more important emotions, truer emotions, somehow superior emotions. More is better. Drama is interesting. Spectacle is value.

We see novels whose protagonists embody romantic virtues in extreme, unhealthy ways, virtues that metastasize into a disease. Devotion that is obsessive, baseless, stalkerish. Unconditional love that is proven and proven again when protagonists forgive the unforgivable.

Obviously I'm ambivalent about the escape into a world of extremes. Likely I just haven't figured out how to process it.

& Romance?

I think the more that we parse escapism, the better we will understand romance as a genre.

The only escapism that romance must offer us is the escape into a better world -- the guarantee of a satisfactory resolution to the primary romantic plotline. Subsidiary plotlines are exempt from this requirement & I think one of the possibilities of the genre is that it can offer readers a happily ever after while confounding other expectations. Love can disrupt order rather than restore it, for example.

Escapisms can be mixed and matched. They can appear singly or in concert. We already know this. Our protagonists can be flawed. They might make poor choices. They might face awful consequences for those choices. Happiness doesn't have to mean relief from burdensome circumstances.

Precision is power.

I like thinking about why, too. Why write an escape, why indulge in an escape. Is there a difference between an escape from burdens that's unreflective - The handsome duke is marrying me! I will live in a palace and wear fancy dresses and have fantastic sex all the time and never work again! - and an escape from burdens that's crafted explicitly as "a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair"? I suspect the answer is yes.

Every escapism can be raised to that level of worthiness. They shouldn't have to be - but the possibility is exciting.


In Tags ,

Top Ten for 2012

It's year-end list time & I'll contribute with my top ten favorite reads of 2012. Not necessarily published this year, but discovered & loved by me since January 1, 2012. Presented in alphabetical order:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - Kristin Cashore is one of those authors who just works for me. Everything she writes, everything about her writing. She's the preacher, I'm the choir. I loved Graceling so much I didn't think Cashore would be able to top it -- but what makes the Seven Kingdoms books so amazing is that she didn't try to hit the same bull's eye over and over again. She built different targets and took fresh aim; Fire and Bitterblue are so different from Graceling and from one another.

Bitterblue is the most ambitious of the three; it's less perfect than Graceling, which plucked every string of my heart and left me in a swoon, but also bigger. It tackles bigger issues in a more nuanced way; it places the heroine in an impossible situation where escape is failure, and her goal is incremental change rather than success.

As an unpublished author, the story of how Bitterblue was written -- outlined with photographs in this post  -- is pretty inspiring.

The Information by James Gleik - An excellent book that shows the extent to which how we think affects what we think; that the methods of communication available to us (speaking; writing; the telegraph; the internet) mold and shape our view of the world, ourselves, everything.

This is another pet subject of mine -- I love thinking about how the medium affects the message (and the messenger), and discussions of how we offload parts of our brain onto the material world -- and this book is the best treatment of it I've run across since a favorite volume that Gleik cites in his first chapter, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

Riveting, entertaining, thought-provoking. Give the first chapter, about African talking drums, a try. It totally hooked me.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant - Hands down the best historical romance I read this year, the best straight-up genre romance I read this year, and then, of course, just plain one of the best books I read this year. I explain why I loved it so much in my review, so I won't go over all the reasons again.

I read the second in Grant's Blackshear Family series, A Gentleman Undone, and admired it on its own but also as a companion piece to A Lady Awakened - the two books are mirror images of one another, stand-alone romances that are nonetheless more satisfying read in combination than in isolation. A good example for other romance writers who want to create series that are more than the sum of their parts.

Dirty by Megan Hart - Dirty was a revelation to me. It was the first, but not the last, erotic romance I read this year and showed me that erotic romance provides a really different set of narrative possibilities than the mainstream offerings. Dirty contains very explicit sex scenes, it's about the early stages of a relationship, and it closes on a positive note, but Dirty is pretty much never romantic.

It's darker and grittier than most romances, and even at the end the heroine's ability to trust and commit is uncertain. It's also beautifully written.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - The word that comes to mind when I think of Seraphina is sublime. This YA fantasy is set in a sort of...late-medieval/early-Renaisance world and the heroine is a musician. It's a story about the clash of cultures (dragon vs human, in this case) and all the ugliness of war and prejudice are here, in an unstable peace treaty and everyday acts of violence, but what I remember most is the exquisite, gothic-cathedral perfection of Hartman's pantheon of saints, the way Seraphina is transported by music, the joyful strangeness of her garden of grotesqueries. The prose is exquisite, too, and it contains a very lovely romance.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is one of my favorite authors, partly because every one of his books builds on his previous work in such interesting ways. I adored The Possibility of an Island and, perhaps, he couldn't get any more Houellebecquian than he did in that book with its definitive mix of brilliance and guttermouth filth, of pulp and erudition, of critique and fantasy. I call him post-individualist.

In any case, The Map and the Territory went in a different direction - he tackled the myth he's created of himself by making himself a major character & did so with, of all things, a wicked sense of humor. The book is overtly about making art, in isolation and in the spotlight, and about the experience of fame, which he seems to have finally grown comfortable with. It's amazing and thoughtful and way, way less virulently misanthropic than his earlier books (despite the fact that the main characters are still misanthropic loners).

Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon - I love a good mystery/romance series, and I loved Adrien English in particular for the dexterity of Lanyon's writing. I took a photography course back in college, long ago enough that we spent as much time learning to develop pictures in a darkroom as learning to take them. One thing my professor said that's stuck with me is that one indicator of a well-shot black and white picture is that it contains the whole range of shades from pure white to pure black. A lot of writers tend to get stuck on one side of the scale; light and funny or dark and angsty, but Lanyon's books hit every shade on the scale. As a character, the titular hero Adrien is good-natured and witty but also sensitive and frail, and Lanyon's prose can switch gears from invisible to lush at the drop of a hat.

The Adrien English books also pulled m/m (male/male) books out of the ghetto for me, which has led to a whole slew of other wonderful discoveries.

Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat - For example! Captive Prince is not a published book (yet). It is free online fiction and if I had to pick an overall favorite among the books I've read this year, it might win the top slot. It is, hands down, the best enemies-to-lovers romance I have ever read. And enemies-to-lovers is just about my favorite trope.

If you want to know why it's so great, check out this post that the author wrote for Anna Cowan & accept my assurance that the author understands tension because she executes it so perfectly in her books. Or just read Captive Prince. I think the beginning is a little rough but the first two volumes are complete and, by the end, I was book-drunk in a way that doesn't happen all that often anymore.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - Most of these books arrived on my list thanks to a home-team advantage, as it were. I was already a fan of Cashore's prose and world; of Houellebecq; of mystery/romance series; of enemies-to-lovers; of information theory. Wonder is the exception. It hits none of my buttons. I do not seek out middle-grade books. I do not like 'issue books'. And yet I loved Wonder; it made me cry happy tears and it stunned me as an authorial tour de force.

R.J. Palacio's prose is simple. The chapters are short and straightforward. Really, this is a book for kids. And yet it is ultimately so complex, so nuanced, so open-hearted and generous. It's the multiple points-of-view that made the book for me, along with how effortlessly Auggie holds center stage.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - And now we arrive at a book that didn't just push all my buttons - it mashed at them with a sledgehammer. It's an Angela Carter-esque erotic retelling of Cinderella that reimagines Cinderella as a black witch, Charming as a cursed prince, and the evil step-mother and step-sisters as cunning prostitutes. It picks up every element you remember from the Disney movie and either inverts, subverts, or perverts it.

It's perfect.


RWA12 - Saturday, 7.28.12

Saturday was not my best day.  It was the only day I tried driving myself to conference and naturally I managed to get lost, show up late, and miss the first workshop.  I hit up the book signings instead, collecting huge numbers of free books from Ballantine Bantam Dell and Berkley, and that set the tone for the day: a little more self-indulgence, a little less self-improvement than the previous three. I swung by the Spotlight on Samhain, which was pretty fascinating.  They were really transparent about their sales numbers and royalty rates.  The editor who did most of the speaking on this subject, Lindsey Faber, seemed really excited to break down the numbers so I'll repeat them here.

She claimed that their "low-selling" authors, defined as books that sell under 1000 copies, are almost exclusively authors that only publish one book with Samhain, maybe two - authors who don't build and audience and gather the momentum necessary to see good sales month after month.  ("Your frontlist sells your backlist," she explained)

Their "midlist" would include authors that sell between 1,000 and 10,000 copies.

And their "high selling" authors would be anything over 10,000 copies.  Their m/m books tend to top out at around 15,000 sales, their non-erotic novels at 30,000 sales, their erotica in the 45,000 range.  All of this over a period between 24-36 months.

(Since their standard royalty rates are 30% of list for digital, 40% of list for books bought direct from the Samhain website, and 8% of list for print, it's easy to get an accurate range of how much money low, middle, and high selling authors are making).

According to Faber, over 20% of US authors who write for Samhain make $10,000 a year or more, but only 3% make over $100,000.  (Which simultaneously means that 80% of authors make under $10,000 per year).  They have about 600 authors total, but only 400 were counted in the statistics that Faber quoted, and only 150 of those had new releases in 2011.

Content wise, they emphasized that they're not stuck on any particular genre; that as long as "story is everything" they can build new genres, or publish cross-genre books, and survive all trends.

Other interesting tidbits:

They have an author-friendly rights policy.  They only insist on keeping rights to any book for 7 years; after that point, the author can request a reversion for any reason.

Their contracts are fully negotiable.  There's usually a gap of 8 months or so between acquisition and pub date, sometimes more for newbie authors.

They're not interested in wading into the YA market, but New Adult is fair game.

I thought they gave the best answer I heard the whole conference to the "How much social media do I need to do?" question (and I heard that question asked, and answered, a lot).  They said there are three must-dos for any author:

1. Have an easily navigable website

2. With a list of books you've published and the order in which they should be read

3. And clearly indicate what's coming next.

After the Samhain spotlight I...went to lunch.  And then more book signings (Kensington, Sourcebooks, and St. Martins!).  Once I'd gorged myself on free stuff, I took myself off to a couple more workshops.

The Girlfriends' Guide to Being a Debut Author: the Stuff No One Ever Tells You (Kristen Callihan, Miranda Kenneally, Roni Loren, and Sara Megibow)

Ok, so this one was a little aspirational but there's nothing wrong with that, right?

Like most of the panel-style workshops, this one started off with each member of the panel giving a quick speech, making whatever points she thought most pertinent.

Kristen Callihan's advice seemed...dangerous.  Her first tip was to be casual and show personality with your editor, and then she admitted to sending a three-page letter with photo attachments to the art department to help them prepare her cover.  She loves her cover!

Then she said that she collected a lot of her own blurbs.  She said she wrote to a bunch of authors that she really loved, telling them with great honesty and enthusiasm how much she admired their work.  She attached her manuscript to the emails and mentioned, at the end, that she'd appreciate if a blurb - and she got twelve blurbs from authors she really liked, including Diana Gabaldon.

I'm repeating all of this a listener, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop because, man, all of her advice seems like it could backfire so easily.  Lucky her, I guess.

I found Miranda Kenneally mesmerizing.  She was like some sort of lady sheriff in the old west, with this very understated but cool demeanor and a gravelly voice.  Someone would say something like, "Nobody goes on book tours anymore," and then she'd be like, "Well, my publisher sent me on a book tour..." and it was kind of like the book-con equivalent of winning a duel at high noon.

Kenneally made a couple of important points though.  One is that she responds, even if briefly, to every email or tweet she gets - she thinks it's important to acknowledge her fans.  Another is that she's not precious about her own work; when Barnes & Noble asked her publisher to change the title and cover of her debut, she did not protest, because she wanted to keep Barnes & Noble happy a lot more than she wanted to keep her original title.

Roni Loren had some great tips about promo.  She regretted going overboard promoting her first book; she agreed to a 40-stop blog tour and it was exhausting and took time away from writing the next book, so much so that she struggled to meet her next deadline.  Writing the next book is more important than covering the internet in promo.

The lesson from this experience?  Be realistic about what you can commit to.  She also suggested that 5-question interviews are about the right length (not 20!)

Loren talked about the post-publication crash, about a week after her debut, when the buildup is over, the big day is done, reviews have started to come out and inevitably some are bad.  "You get over yourself real fast," she observed.

Loren also talked about making the shift from being a "writer" to a "published author" - she'd been a blogger for years but found that, all of a sudden, she had to be a lot more careful about what she said in public, especially about other authors; she cut back on negative reviews.

Megibow, the agent, chimed into say that it's important to celebrate every victory - there are so many frustrations in publishing, she said, so much waiting and being patient, that it's really important to grab onto a reason to be happy when you can.

Other assorted tips, most of them without attribution...

Editing is a partnership; you don't have to agree to every suggestion.

Build a support network early.

Don't be upset if people don't treat you like gold from the get-go.

Nobody cares as much as you about your career; take charge of it.

Make It Work! Getting Your Novel Down the Runway (Michelle Marcos, Deb Marlowe, Miranda Neville, and Heather Snow)

This was the last workshop of the conference, and my favorite of the Career workshops I went to.

The panelists first warned that advances on debut novels tend to be low ($10,000 and under), but went on to say that even books that make lists earn surprisingly little money.  For romance, the panelists warned, 4 weeks is a long time on the New York Times list; 1-2 is more common.  And books that only spend a couple of weeks on the NYT might earn something on the order of $50,000 (they were citing figures that Lynn Viehl posted on her blog; I googled the actual post and it is here); they further noted that advances have been trending downward, rather than upward, and Michelle Marcos chimed in with "$50k is the new $100k."

Rather than measure success in dollars, the panelists suggested, it's better to look at the overall trajectory of an author's sales, from book to book.  It's better to sell 10,000 of your first book and 20,000 of your second, they warned, than 35,000 of your second if your first sold 70,000.

Just strive to be profitable, earn out your advance.  And work really hard.

They noted that authors can't do much to affect their print sales, but can make a difference in their digital sales.  Most of them regretted expensive promo efforts like sending excerpt booklets and postcards to independent booksellers.

They emphasized the importance of review copies (as did Patrick Brown of Goodreads), and when asked why an author would want to be reviewed they said: good reviews lead to library and indie bookstore sales.  When asked about how to respond to bad reviews, Miranda Neville answered: "Drink heavily and shut up."

Miranda Neville had heard that one should hope to be living on royalties and advances alone after publishing 10-12 books.

Even though getting books into Wal-Mart and Target is a huge goal for most authors, it's important to remember that books only stay on the shelves at big-box stores for a month; huge numbers, yes, but a very brief window.

Michelle Marcos said she struggled with jealousy initially; "there's always someone higher up on the ladder, don't compare yourself." Others noted that it's helpful to your career to draw attention to other authors (the rising tide lifts all boats theory), and someone said, rather eloquently so it's a shame I don't have any attribution: "it's okay to marinate in your current level of success."

Miranda Neville advised befriending other writers a little further on in their careers, said "information is power" and also admitted to feeling the sort of post-publication crash that Roni Loren mentioned in the previous workshop; Neville described it as post-partum depression & lamented that "trumpets didn't play" when she entered the room (Neville has a truly enviable British accent and made this observation about the trumpets very wryly).

My final note, again without attribution, is: Protect the work - the joy of putting words on a page.

A good way to close out the conference.

After that came the Golden Heart & Rita awards ceremony.  A list of this year's winners has been posted here; I'm just going to do a highlights reel.

First off...there were cake popsicles and carafes of hot coffee, along with plates of fruit, at all the tables.  I liked that!

I only knew one of the Golden Heart nominees (Heather Nickodem, for "Cat on a Hot Steel Flight Deck" - we met at a previous conference), and the work isn't published, so I couldn't pick favorites or root for anyone.  I did think the ceremony got off to a good start when the Paranormal Romance winner, Lorenda Christensen, gave her acceptance speech in the form of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air parody rap.

A bunch of winners cried, naturally.  One of them, Elisa Beatty who won in the Historical Romance category with "The Devil May Care" said she'd won in a previous year, thanked Diet Coke, and then developed an allergy to caffeine, so she wasn't thanking anyone or anything this time around; and Talia Quinn Daniels, who won in the Contemporary Single Title category, stayed for the conference and ceremony despite having a child with a health crisis at home.

Elizabeth Bemis won a Golden Heart in the Romantic Suspense category and used her speech to insult an English teacher who told her she'd never amount to anything; later in the ceremony, when Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk (which is awesome - I love everything that woman writes) won a RITA for Best Historical Romance, she thanked all her teachers, and all the teachers in the room.  I don't know if Bourne meant to issue a challenge with her speech, but if I were Bemis I'd have felt about two inches tall.

Thea Harrison won Best Paranormal Romance for Dragon Bound & had one of those impossible stories about getting a call from her agent when she was unemployed, only a couple of weeks before her savings ran out.

Cindy Dees' Soldier's Last Stand won for Contemporary Series Romance: Suspense/Adventure & she used her time at the podium to say "nyah nyah nyah" to her 1 star reviewer on Amazon.

And then Fiona Lowe's Boomerang Bride won for Contemporary Single Title Romance - she listed off her pre-pub stats, 32 agent queries and 12 print pub rejections before she ended up selling her book to Carina Press.  For all the RITA awards, both the author and the editor got a chance to speak - but instead of Lowe's editor, the executive editor of Carina, Angela James, took a turn at the podium & she dedicated the award to all the e-presses, everyone who'd participated in the rise of digital-first publishing, and said "This one's for you!"

There weren't a lot of digital-first books nominated for awards, certainly not in single-title categories, and this was the first year I think it was even possible to nominate the digital first books, so Lowe's win is a real landmark for the genre.

Tessa Dare's A Night to Surrender won for Regency Historical; I, for one, was so, so thrilled to see a chaptermate stand up to accept an award on our home turf in Orange County.  I'd been rooting her like crazy, and her speech was fantastic.  She told an adorable anecdote about her children ("they just called me on my cell phone to ask if they could order room service ice cream sundaes and I told them no, but now I think I'll call them back and say yes...") and then said that she'd "always said romance is about finding someone who accepts you for your worst self and empowers you to be your best self," and that her husband had always done that for her.

Dear reader, I teared up a bit.

Ann Aguirre did an interpretive dance to accept her RITA for Young Adult Romance, and then J.D. Robb won for Romantic Suspense.  La Nora had been invoked so many times at that podium during the conference (it was the same spot, and the same room, as all the luncheon keynotes) that it seemed only natural for her to be the last one to accept an award, the last thing we'd see before the conference ended.  She was wearing a very, very sparkly necklace and chortled, "Nora's going to be so jealous," before leaving the podium.

And that's all.  RWA12 was over, done, no more.