Christmas in July?

Don’t panic. Nobody is suggesting you rush out and buy all your presents.

Quite the contrary. You know how hectic the holiday season is, right? Something’s gotta give.

For me, that usually comes down to reading time. But the holidays are so emotion-packed and rich with anguish, pathos, and joy, no season (except maybe Valentine’s Day) lends itself to such great storytelling potential.

So, when the wonderful Patricia McLinn invited me to join her and several other Rock Star romance authors in a promo called: Christmas In July, I jumped in–with all bells jingling.

Christmas in July-DS

I’m sure recognize most of these authors. I know you’ll enjoy the books they’d included in this promo. I’d love to hear which books you read and what you thought. (Click on the image to be taken to my Facebook page, where if you hover your cursor over each cover, you’ll find buy links to that book.)

My contribution is Judy Does Christmas–the holiday spin-off from Judy Uncensored.

51he-pHxszL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

Here’s a snippet I hope you’ll enjoy:

Judy’s traditional recipe for dealing with stress involved Oreo cookies and ice cream. Her new stress reliever had three parts: stair climber, inclined plank for ab twists and her awesome new headphones to block out everything but JT.

Justin Timberlake–the current king of reinventing oneself–had become her new role model. Despite the fact he was a man–and many years her junior. And he had talent. Still, she appreciated his positive attitude and fearlessness. Those two things, she’d decided, meant the difference between growing old and being old.

She closed her eyes and marched, ignoring the sweat running down the small of her back. Never in a million years could Judy have pictured herself working out in public, much less teaching a workout class.

Her Golden Sneakers group appeared to have gotten along pretty darn well while Judy was on her honeymoon. Judy’s personal trainer and workout mentor, Kelly, had subbed most of the time while training a new helper–Judy’s mother. Judy didn’t quite know what to make of that development. For most of Judy’s life, her mother had been a threat to her self-esteem and peace of mind. Now, Mom was a threat to Judy’s job.

Fortunately, Judy no longer depended on the income from the gym to put groceries on the table. Still, Judy felt slightly irked that Mom appeared to be popular with the class Judy had created.

The music changed and she slowed her pace, as Kelly preached. “Push yourself then plateau before you push again.” Judy lived for plateaus. Nice, even landscape. No hills, no valleys. A steady, even pace so she could check in and take stock.

Heart rate?

Good.

Breathing?

Not bad.

Mind?

F-ed up. Truly f-ed up.

What am I doing at the gym in the middle of the night when my husband’s home alone, reveling in his late wife’s holiday madness?

What disturbed her most about the whole Julie-The-Dead-Queen-of-Christmas scenario was realizing Wiley didn’t see anything wrong in the excess. What if the selective blindness that inured him to his late wife’s foibles was the only thing keeping him from seeing Judy as she truly was? If she pointed out how ridiculous the house looked given the state of the economy and the gravitational pull of so much shit in one place, would he then open his eyes to the fact she had no taste? Or would he accuse her of feeling threatened by a dead woman’s junk?

Worse…what if that was true?

Her heart rate spiked despite the even keel of her pace.

The person on the neighboring machine poked her arm.

Her gaze cut sideways.

“Wiley,” she exclaimed–probably much too loud given her headphones. She ripped them off and hit the red button to stop her machine. “What are you doing here?”

“Watching you walk and mutter to yourself. A hundred bucks says you’re not listening to Christmas carols.”

She held one ear bud up for him to hear. “Rock. Predictable, huh?”

“I heard ‘Grandma Got Run Over’ by a Reindeer twice on the drive over here. I’d forgotten how much I hate that song. It’s going to be a long season.”

He adjusted the speed on his machine and started to run. “Good way to work off my pizza. Glad you thought of it.”

She turned sideways to look at him. “I was running away from…everything. The decorations…the f’n-la-la-la-la was too much for me.”

“I know.”

“I hate your house.”

“I know.”

“I think the pain and the drugs screwed up your late wife’s mind. Nobody’s house should look like that…not even Martha Stewart’s.”

“I know.” His breath remained even, not the slightest bit stressed. This pissed her off more than his pleasant if condescending replies.

“Then why are you here?”

“To tell you you’re right. I was blinded by tradition. Caught up in the moment. When you left, I finally started to see the place through your eyes. Kinda over the top, isn’t it?”

She’d never been comfortable defending her opinions. “Some people probably think it’s nice.”

“Well, you don’t. And you’re the only one who counts. In my opinion.”

Judy couldn’t reply at first. Her throat swelled with emotion. So, she gave him a light punch on the shoulder. “Wanna go home and take a steam shower together?”

He didn’t look at her, but his grin came through loud and clear.


 

:-) That’s my girl. I do love Judy Banger. Hope you will, too.

Deb

DON'T QUIT

I Quit (Anne Stuart)

Every few years I run into enough roadblocks, rejections and stupid mistakes (almost always my own) that I decide to pack it all in.  Really, am I a glutton for punishment?  Barbara Keiler (Judith Arnold) once likened a writer’s relationship to the world of publishing with that of a partner in an abusive relationship.  You keep believing the promises that the abuse will stop, that things have changed, and yet over and over again you get slapped down.  And you keep going back for more.

That’s part of why e-publishing has been embraced with such gleeful malice.  Too many people have been shafted and abandoned by traditional publishing, and finally, after decades of being completely powerless, writers can fight back.  They can simply by-pass what they see as an abusive publisher and sink or swim on their own.

As for the publishers, they’ve done a singularly lousy job of adapting to the changing market.  Part of the problem is that most of them are owned by mega-corporations, and mega-corporations and flexibility are mutually exclusive.  Only the small publishers, like Belle Books, are able to turn on a dime, try different things to see what works.

There’s a lot to be said for walking away from publishing.  Many mega-successful writers have done so — Maeve Binchy, Lavyrle Spencer.  Others have walked away because they were tired of having their hearts broken, time after time.  These books are our babies, the children of our heart, and having them simply disappear into the ether is unbelievably painful.  There are only so many second chances we can believe in.

And belief in your own gifts can only carry you so far, particularly if the world doesn’t seem to agree.  In some cases the writer has delusions of grandeur.   In others, it’s just always being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of us are moving into our third and fourth (and even fifth) decade of being published writers.   We’ve been through dizzying highs and desperate lows and we can start getting a little queasy from it.  Frankly I’m downright nauseous.

I can’t stop writing.  I can’t stop telling stories.  But God knows, I’d give anything to just quit the game, the merry go round, the ferris wheel, the roller coaster.  Whatever instrument of torture we keep riding on.

As for me, I’ve had enough.  I’m going to sit this round out.  I’m going to write my books, live in my stories, protect the work and protect myself.  Hard as it is, I’ve got to shut out those voices or I’ll never survive.

You can embrace pain and disappointment, or you can do what you can to not let it get to you.  Tomorrow I’ll gird my loins and march into battle once more, bloody but unbowed.  But just for today, I quit.

More Excuses (Anne Stuart)

Seems to me I’m always coming here telling you guys why I can’t blog.  Understandable — I’m juggling so damned many things it’s a wonder I’m still standing.  You don’t care about my almost 97 year old mother getting frailer, or my tax troubles, or my darling grandson (well, maybe you do, but I’m not talking about them today).  Today I’ll tell you about work.

I have a book due in 15 days and I’m not quite halfway through it.  Which is insane, but do-able, if I didn’t have all these other book-type things to do.  Like approve the glorious covers Mollie’s come up with, and find blurbs and reviews from back in the day to go with these books.  Like get the two people to finish copy-editing ON THIN ICE so I can clean it up, turn it in and get it available on Kindle, along with 6 choice backlist books.

And the stuff that I’m not talking about (mother, taxes, happy family stuff) keeps stealing time from me that I can’t afford to lose.  I want to beat my head against a wall and weep.

I have a friend who’s having a terrible time writing.  The book isn’t jelling (which is something that happens) and the more she tries to force it the more frustrated she gets.  At least I’m not in that position (been there, done that).  If everything would just happily fade away I could write.  But no matter what I do, something else starts clawing at me, demanding my attention.  I go to bed at night and start panicking about the new book that’s so far behind.  Panic about the book after that, and the one after that.

Panic is no way to live.  I want to get in my bathing suit and go float in my little blow-up swimming pool and not think about anything.  I just want everything to go away so I can write my books.

Sigh.  Life isn’t like that.

But here’s some good news.  I’m betting my books will be out within two weeks.  And in the meantime, Judith Arnold’s delightful CRY UNCLE is available for free (yup, nada, nothing, zippo) at all your major e-tailers  It would be a lovely way to spend an afternoon if you don’t have copy-edits and 50,000 words to write and the tax lady and an ancient mother.

So go enjoy yourself for me.

RWA (Anne Stuart)

First off, sorry I was MIA last week.  I didn’t even remember until midweek.  The week of RWA is always total insanity.

As most of you know, we had the Romance Writers of America national conference in NYC this week, always a crazy time.  Here, forthwith, are the good and the bad.

1.  We were at the overflow hotel, which was relatively peaceful and calm, with none of the ghastly elevator issues.

2.  We got to see editors and agents in the natural habitat

3.  My visit coincided with a gorgeous Broadway celebration of my cousin’s wife, Beverley Randolph, that washed all my makeup off but was worth it, and I’m so grateful for the timing.

4.  I got to drool over some of my favorite writers, many who were singularly unimpressed that it was me drooling <g>.

5.  I love NYC

6.  Sherry Thomas won the RITA.  Mind you, that category was so tight I would have refused to judge if they’d asked me — I’d read most of them and they were all deserving of a win.   However, I just discovered Sherry so I was particularly tickled about that one.

7.  Sherrilyn Kenyon’s speech (the only one I heard) was wonderful.

8.  I got to see some of my favorite people, like Anne Gracie, Judith Keiler, Terry Medeiros, Eloisa James (only long enough to give her a big smack on the cheek).  And I missed far too many others.

9.  Crusie’s workshops were fabulous, even more fabulous than usual.

10.  Pocket Books put RAZIEL in the goody bag, god bless ‘em.

Now for the bad.

1.  It was a looong walk to the hotel, and I was in a lot of pain (probably because NYC is not conducive to scooters).  I do fine for short distances but NYC has deceptively long blocks.  I finally learned to just take the effing cab.

2.  I missed so many people, including my fellow Storybroads, and only saw others as I was leaping into a coveted elevator.

3.  For some reason I was exhausted.  I missed the Harlequin party (no nun this year) and two smaller parties of my dearest friends.  I missed any workshop I thought I might like.  I was drained.  Then again, I wasn’t sleeping well and I’ve been under a lot of stress.  I may have a thyroid problem, though, so doctor when I get home.

4.  One publisher is thoroughly, and at this point probably permanently, on my shit list.   The wonderful thing about e-publishing is that, while I’m a firm believer in traditional publishing, I have other options as well.  More about that later.

5.  I was also too achy and tired to shop.  In NYC!  Oh, the horror!

6.  Everything was too expensive, of course, and Times Square is more of a madhouse than it used to be.

7.  There’s someone I want to smack, really hard.

8.  I’d rather be writing (and I did write in my hotel room)

9.  ….  you know, I am so much a glass half-full person that I’m already tired of complaining.

RWA is a madhouse of frustration and delight.  I tend to like it better when it’s someplace else, since I live close enough to come to NYC and meet with my agents and publishers, but even so it’s always full of stimulation.  When it’s over you come home stoked and ready to write.  (Which used to be tough when I was younger and had kids home from school for the summer).

RWA is the people, and I didn’t get to see enough of them, but I’m still very very glad I coughed up the money and decided to get my ass down there.  In the end, we’re all on this road together, and RWA gives me a chance to seem my fellow travelers.


Valiant Women (Lynn Kerstan)

I’d like to be talking about me. Was a time I was valiant, relatively speaking. Marginally speaking. And today I tried hard, in a pathetic sort of way, to fight my way through a mountain of arduous duties. Fact is, I am a world-class procrastinator, which is how the mountain came to exist. But now the projects waiting to be dealt with are overdue, and somewhat unnaturally, this morning I made up my mind to launch an attack. 

And so I did. Decluttered. Found out what was inside two old suitcases being used for storage. Discovered items of clothing I thought had been donated to Goodwill. Now, seeing them again, I cannot bear to let them go. Still, task after task after task. I accomplished a lot. Really. Well, if “accomplished” doesn’t require that anything be “finished.” Stacks of partly done projects make this place look like an overused landfill. In some cases, I can’t remember what the stacks are meant to be and what I thought I was doing when I put them together.

So I wan’t valiant today, and I couldn’t even find my camera to take a picture of a sword presented to me back in the day for actually being semi-valiant. Fortunately, though, I have a stand-in to illustrate valiance in action. And if you write romance novels or read them or respect them, and have found yourself being disrepected for your “lousy taste,” you’ll be cheering when you read her story. Warrior-Woman, takes on Academe! With her permission, I share her account of what happened when she stood up for all of us. 

From Judith Arnold, author of True Vows debut book Meet Me in Manhattan, now available.

~Not long ago, I spoke on a panel about romance writing with Linda Cardillo and Kristan Higgins at the Write Angles conference at Mt. Holyoke College.  Write Angles is a pretty “lit-rary” symposium, and this was the first time in the conference’s 25-year existence that they included a panel on romance writing, although the conference organizers said they’d been discussing the idea for several years.  (I guess it takes a while for those literary folks to reach a difficult decision like this one.)   Linda, Kristan and I got a pretty small turn-out for our workshop, maybe about 10 people, but they were bowled over by us and all said they expected it would be the most useful workshop they attended at the conference.  Kristan spoke about characters, I spoke about conflict, and Linda discussed settings.  Our talks were craft-oriented, and our audience took voluminous notes.  Afterward, one of them commented on the scene-setting passages Linda had read from several books.  “The writing is so beautiful!  Why don’t romance novels get the same respect as other kinds of novels?”  Um, yeah.

Linda and Kristan both had to leave after lunch, but I stuck around to hear the keynote speaker, Andre Dubus III, author of an Oprah-pick whose best-known novel is House of Sand and Fog.  He was a very entertaining speaker, rambling without notes and offering lots of brilliant insights and “aha!” moments…and then, in passing, he made a comment about “some woman reading a schlocky romance novel while simultaneously watching soap operas and eating,” a line that generated some chuckles. 

I sat in the packed room, seething, as he continued speaking for another twenty minutes, and then he opened the floor to questions.  My hand shot up, and I was the second person he called on.  I introduced myself as one of the speakers from that morning’s romance writing panel, and then, very coolly and calmly, pointed out that there were schlocky mysteries and schlocky thrillers and schlocky Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, and there were wonderful romance novels, and every genre had its good and its bad work, and he really shouldn’t treat any genre or its readers with such contempt.  He admitted that he’d never read a romance novel (I interjected that the people most critical of romance fiction were invariably people who’d never read it) and said, “This is an example of why we should never judge books by their covers.  I see those cheesy covers with Fabio and assume the books are trash.”  He apologized and moved on to other questions.

Afterward, I was swarmed by people (especially those few who had attended our workshop that morning) thanking me for having spoken up, or commending me for having the guts to take him on.  I hope he’ll think about who might be sitting in his audience before he insults romance fiction in another speech.  Romance fiction lovers are everywhere, after all–even at esteemed literary symposiums like Write Angles.~

So next time someone asks when you’re going to write a “real book,” or why you waste your time and money on goopy romance novels, remember the many excellent reasons why romances are beloved by more readers and sell more books than any other popular fiction genre. Our reading tastes are just fine, thank you very much. But remember, when confronted with insults, to be both firm and kind. People who find it necessary to disrespect other people’s interests and tastes in order to assert their own superiority are to be pitied.

Spinning Reality into Truth (Judith Arnold)

Last week I posted here about Meet Me In Manhattan, the launch title I wrote for True Vows, HCI Books’ new series of romance novels based on real-life couples. The StoryBroads gang has generously offered me some more space in their blog so I can tell you a little bit about the “how” of writing what HCI calls Reality-Based Romance™.

          Meet Me In Manhattan recounts the courtship of Ted Skala and Erika Fredell, high-school sweethearts from New Jersey who broke up the summer after graduation and spent the ensuing sixteen years convinced that they were over each other, only to meet in Manhattan and discover they weren’t over each other at all. Theirs was a reunion story, and I love reunion stories. In fact, their story bore a resemblance to one of my most successful novels, Married to the Man, which came out in 1996. Ironically, even the two books’ titles are similar.

          How did I find Ted and Erika?

          When HCI Books first developed the True Vows concept, series developer Olivia Rupprecht invited people to submit their personal falling-in-love stories to the publisher. Olivia also started combing the newspapers in search of inspiring how-we-met stories. HCI signed two other authors (Julie Leto and Alison Kent) and me to write the launch books, and Olivia emailed us every promising story she came across.

          Ted and Erika’s romance had been profiled in the New York Times, and as soon as I read the Times article, I knew I wanted to write about them.  They sounded like delightful people, and as I said, I love reunion stories. I was drawn to them for quirkier reasons, as well: they were from New Jersey, and my husband—who happens to be named Ted—is also from New Jersey. And my sons’ favorite babysitter when they were toddlers was a sweetheart named Erika—spelled with a “k.” Clearly, fate wanted me to write about Ted and Erika. HCI Books drew up a contract with them for the rights to their story, and once all the paperwork was completed, I got to work.

Olivia, Julie, Alison and I created a questionnaire for our couples to fill out. We thought the questions we came up with would provide us with what we needed to write our books. Our couples weren’t writers, though, and the answers they gave us emphasized what they thought was important but not necessarily what we needed to make our books work.

          Complicating my situation was that Ted and Erika were unable to complete the questionnaire. They were expecting their first child. Erika assured me that she’d scheduled her maternity leave from her job to begin two weeks before the baby was due, and she would finish the questionnaire during those two weeks. That plan fell apart when her water broke her final day of work and baby Teddy made the scene a couple of weeks early.

          I told Ted and Erika not to worry about the questionnaire, but I continued to send them emails full of questions throughout the writing of the book. I kept my questions brief; having raised two sons, I knew just how hectic and exhausting life with a newborn could be. Erika sent me a beautiful leather-bound scrapbook containing photos, letters and copies of emails she and Ted had sent each other. I used the emails to piece together what they were going through, and I used the photos to get a sense of who they were. Their voices—the way they answered my questions—told me as much about them as the answers themselves, and I wound up writing several sections as a kind of stream-of-consciousness in Ted’s point of view because his voice came through so strongly in his correspondence with me.

          Some aspects of the story had to be dealt with delicately—for instance, the sex scenes. I write steamy romances, and Ted and Erika were warned about this and didn’t seem to see it as an issue. Yet I kept thinking: Their parents are going to read this book! Before the final version of the book went to press, Ted and Erika read the advance reader copy (ARC). Getting their approval—of the sex scenes and other sensitive scenes—was essential to me.

          I didn’t get to meet Ted and Erika until after they’d read the Advanced Reading Copy. I’d gone to New York City in late May to sign copies of the ARC at the annual Book Expo convention. Ted and Erika live in New York, so we had our own “Meet Me In Manhattan” moment.  (If you visit my web site—http://www.juditharnold.com and click on the “Photo Album” link, you’ll find a picture of me with Ted and Erika.) As soon as we saw each other, we embraced. I have never had the opportunity to meet the hero and heroine of one of my books before, except in my imagination.  But by the time I’d written their story, I knew Ted and Erika as well as I’ve ever known any of my fictional characters.  As a novelist, I’d figured out their motivations, their yearnings, their conflicts. They were amazed at how accurate my depictions of them were.  I’d fudged a bit on the plot sequence and many of the details, but I’d nailed the characters.

          Ted and Erika will always be a part of my life. And I hope that every time they reread Meet Me In Manhattan, they’ll have joyful memories of the woman who turned their love story into a passionate, happily-ever-after romance novel. 

And Now for Something Completely Different (Judith Arnold)

The fabulous writers of StoryBroads have invited me to tell you about Meet Me In Manhattan, my new book—and the first of a brand-new subgenre in romance fiction: reality-based romance.

          Reality TV is popular right now. You’ve probably viewed TV shows featuring real people trying to lose weight, prepare gourmet meals, design high-fashion clothes, build customized motorcycles, sell antique daggers to pawn shop owners and—of course—win the hearts of gorgeous bachelors and bachelorettes. If people love reality TV, might they also love reality romances? Specifically, romance novels about real, live people falling in love?

          That was the question HCI Books asked a little over a year ago.  HCI is best known for publishing memoirs and the phenomenally successful Chicken Soup for the Soul series. When HCI decided to branch into romance publishing, they thought about what kind of romances would best fit their brand of based-on-reality books and came up with True Vows, a new line of what they called Reality Based Romance™. And they asked me to write one of the launch books.

          They were looking for well-established romance writers to carry out this experiment, and with eighty-six published romance novels to my credit, I fit the bill. But those eighty-six novels I’ve written were pure fiction. I made up everything: the characters, the conflict, the black moments and the happy endings. Could I write a book based on living, breathing people pursuing an actual romance?

          I thought it would be easy, and it wasn’t. I thought it would be fun, and it was. I thought it would offer an exciting new reading experience to romance fiction fans, and I believe it does.

In the pages of my book, Meet Me In Manhattan, readers will read about Ted Skala and Erika Fredell, high school sweethearts whose teenage love affair was too much too soon. Ted and Erika broke up, headed off in different directions and convinced themselves their love was truly dead…until they both wound up in Manhattan sixteen years later, met for a drink and discovered that they’d never quite gotten over each other. But a lot had happened to them in those sixteen years—a lot of baggage accumulated, a lot of trust broken, a lot of wounds in need of healing.  Theirs was a classic reunion story, and because I love reunion stories, I was thrilled to turn their love affair into a novel.

          Real life doesn’t always provide the elements readers expect in a romance novel, though. It doesn’t always have a neat dramatic arc, well-paced crises or a black moment.  I recognized that I was going to have to make sure reality didn’t get in the way of a good story. I invented characters, imagined scenes and gave Ted and Erika dialogue much sharper and wittier than any of us can manage in real life.

          The result was a kind of synthesis. I captured the truth of Ted and Erika’s story, even though I played fast and loose with the facts. In a sense, I was like the director of a reality TV show, using editing, pacing and other creative techniques to spin a compelling narrative out of the raw material of people’s lives.

          I felt an enormous responsibility while writing this book: to Ted and Erika, who were trusting me with their lives; to HCI Books, which has invested a great deal in making the True Vows line a success; and of course to readers, whose bottom line is: is this story worth reading? Will it hold my interest? Will the ending make me happy? As I wrote the book, I never lost my awareness of my readers, my publisher, and of course Ted and Erika. Would they like this scene? That moment? Is this something they wouldn’t mind their family and friends knowing about?

          In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the actual process of spinning a real-life romance into romantic fiction. For now, I’ll simply say that if you read Meet Me In Manhattan, you’ll experience the book as a passionate, emotionally gripping romance novel—and then you’ll think, hey, this is based on real people, living a real romance. True love really does happen.

          (For a sneak peek at the first five chapters of Meet Me In Manhattan, visit the True Vows website: http://vows.hcibooks.com/, click on my cover and find links to the chapters on the right side of the page.)