Dear Broke Reader: Your Sense of Entitlement is Killing Me

Alone by Cherie/freeimages.com

Alone by Cherie/freeimages.com

I’m afraid this is going to be a fairly controversial post.

I stayed up FAR too long last night reading the posts and comments generated after someone solicited recommendations for pirate sites on their Facebook page. A few people took her to task for finding ways to steal stories–because yes, that’s what it is–but astonishingly, others came to her defense. The perpetrator herself shut down the censure of others, blocking them, calling them names, and then making fun of the people who dared to call her out for stealing from others. I have no doubt there will also be retaliatory negative reviews on some author’s books because that seems to be the way things work these days.

This resulted in screenshots of her post being shared all over Facebook as a warning to authors. More people came to this woman’s defense and the furor grew, with additional voices weighing in on the subject by sharing the original post. And while I was annoyed and upset that once again, someone feels entitled to a creative work without paying for it, nothing prepared me for the number of people who agreed with her.

Now, I’ve been reading a lot about entitlement lately. Entitlement from fans demanding that showrunners give them certain storylines or fans contacting authors and demanding they receive free stories. Fans putting pressure on creators by bullying them online, by threatening their pets, by wishing dire things would happen to those same people who brought them the thing they love so much. I have some theories about why we are so angry these days. I think in part it’s because we’re all so hungry. We’re emotionally, financially, and in some cases, physically starving. We work our asses off at our jobs to barely make ends meet and at the end of the day, we want our reward, damn it. Be it our favorite television show, or that bottle of wine, or that tub of Rocky Road ice cream, or the latest release from our favorite authors.

I get that. I really do. I live that. Overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated–hey, join the club. It’s part of the reason I write. I tell stories because it helps me put aside the cares and worries of today. I jokingly say it’s cheaper than therapy. I share stories because I want to make someone else’s day a bit brighter.

But I don’t give them away for free. I can’t.

So it was upsetting to see how many people in so many posts defended the pirate-site seeker. There seemed to be three basic arguments:

I’m broke and I can’t afford to pay for my entertainment.

Oh honey. I’m with you there. See, I went to school, worked hard, racked up huge student loans to pay for my extensive education and spent twelve years paying them off. Just when things were starting to turn around for me, the economy went into the dumper, business fell off, and I incurred some major medical expenses. I haven’t had a television in 15 years and only recently could get access to broadband. I had to wait for favorite shows to come out on DVD and then had to save up to buy them. God bless Netflix. I’m now able to catch up on many shows I had to abandon.

But see, the thing is, I recognize that I am still a privileged person. I’m living in tight circumstances, yes, but privileged just the same. I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and can mostly pay my bills. I have access to the internet in my own home, own a laptop, a ten year old iPod, and a smartphone. I choose to have certain things. By choosing to have some things, it means I can’t have others. That’s called life, sweetie.

Besides, there’s this marvelous thing called a public library. You can go there and check out books, movies, and music for free! The best part is the library already paid for these things! And because it’s a loan which you will then return, it’s not stealing. Also, the library paid for these things out of a portion of the taxes you give to your community. So not checking out books from your library is like paying for Netflix and never using it.

But you want to read stories in your favorite genres and the library doesn’t carry them. Ask them to. If there is enough demand, the library will look into getting the stories you want. It can’t hurt to ask.

Oh, but you want your reading on your Kindle–and you don’t want to give it back. Well, there are hundreds of places where you can access free reads. Authors post things to Wattpad, there are countless fanfiction stories on multiple archives, and there are stories in public domain sites, such as Project Gutenberg. Tons of free material for your reading pleasure. Let’s not forget Book Bub, which offers short-term deals on all kinds of stories. You can even tailor the notices to your favorite genres. I get a lot of my own reading material that way–even as I recognize the pitfalls of such practices. In my opinion, such services go a long way to helping devalue the price of books in the mind of the average reader… but it is a way of getting deeply discounted or free stories legally. There’s also Kindle Unlimited. I’m not a fan myself, but I’m told for a flat fee–again like Netflix–you have unlimited access to a wide variety of genres and authors.

Oh. You want stories in your favorite genres by your favorite authors and you want them today, without having to pay for them, regardless of their listed price. Yeah, that’s entitlement. And when you download them illegally from a pirate site or torrent, that’s stealing. Let’s just get the terms right, okay?

Come to think of it, the notion that books should be free might be a big factor in why many publishing houses are dropping their lines of cozy mysteries–they simply aren’t profitable enough, despite the existing fan base. Think about that.

Creative works should be free–the purpose of creativity is to tell stories and share them, and there shouldn’t be a monetary component to the process.

I gotta admit, I was gobsmacked by this one. I see. So the very nobility of my purpose means I shouldn’t get paid for it. I should create for the pure joy of making things and release my creative works like doves into the sky, crying, “Go! Fly! Be Free!” as I let them go.

By this argument, all medical care should be free. Because what higher calling can there be than to be a doctor? I think I’ll try that argument with the bill collection services. I’ve been paying off medical bills for the last ten years now. I’m sure if I point out how noble it is to be a doctor and how much money I’ve already spent, they’ll cheerfully waive my remaining fees.

And seriously, guys like Michael Jordan love the game so much, no one should have to pay athletes ridiculous amounts of money for your television entertainment. Oh sure, you’re not paying the superstars yourselves–but the teams are, and the television channels are, and the advertisers are–all to catch your attention for a few moments in the hopes of selling you something. Guess what? It may seem free to you, but it’s not. Someone paid for it and they’re hoping their investment will pay off. It’s not a direct payment on your part–but when you become convinced you can’t live without an iPhone, you only drink Budweiser, and you feel that you must have a new car this year–you are paying for it.

Besides, if there were no financial incentive for playing basketball, the players would be doing something else. They have to earn a living, too. So you wouldn’t be able to watch them play, unless you lived in their neighborhood and could drop by for a pickup game Saturday afternoon after work.

Forget about the effort it takes to write a story. Let’s ignore the author’s contribution to this endeavor and deny them any right to be paid for their creativity. This ‘art should be free’ argument completely discounts the fact someone has to pay the editors, cover artists, formatters, distributors, book promotions teams, buy a dealer’s table and so on. I guess entitled readers expect that investment to come out of my own pocket with no hope of return. And if authors didn’t pay someone for these services, we’d have to do them ourselves, taking time away from writing to do so. Not to mention a shabby editing job or poorly executed cover is one of the first things readers will complain about.

Writers already make enough money.

Dear Lord, this one made me want to cry. Seriously?? Yes, there are some writers who make a ton of money, just like there are some basketball players or actors who make a ton of money. But the vast majority of basketball players make little to no money at all. And the notion of an actor working at a bar or coffee shop to pay the bills is practically a trope.

I call it the Castle syndrome. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the show in the early seasons. The premise was ridiculous but fun. One of the things that made me roll my eyes the most was the unlimited depths to Castle’s wallet. It made for an entertaining series because there was always the money to do outrageous things. But realistic? It was about as realistic as the notion that everyone in NYC can afford to live in huge apartments or that the NYPD would let a crime writer become permanently attached to the homicide squad.

Yes, there are authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James that have made truckloads of money. Put it this way: you know there are people who win the lottery. It does happen. Chances are you don’t know anyone personally who has won, however, and the odds of it happening to you are slim to none. The stats on author earnings is grim to say the least. In this 2012 article by the Guardian, average earnings were less than ten thousand a year.

Let’s put it into perspective. I couldn’t get the above sentence out of my head last night, so I went to one of the illegal torrents I’ve battled in the past. Yep, four of my stories were there. So, counting only the royalties I would have received, not full price, I calculated how much I lost due to the over 16 K downloads listed. It came to about 13.5 K. That’s thirteen thousand, five hundred dollars and change. From one site. One. I routinely come across dozens of these pirate sites and torrents. I report them to my publisher. I send out DCMA notices. I report them to Google to block their pages in searches. All of this is extremely time-consuming and frustrating. No sooner do I strike down one, four pop up in its place. It’s like battling a Hydra.

Those lost royalties from that one site would have paid outright for the new car I desperately needed and was forced to buy. Or covered the medical bills I’ve been chipping away over time. It would have paid for the new septic system, or here’s a thought, I might actually be able to take more than two to three consecutive days off for  a change. I might not have had to wait five years to save up for extensive dental work that I had to have done, or made do another two years with glasses when my prescription had changed. I’m not looking to be a millionaire, folks. I’d just like to break even. Maybe put a little aside for a future in which I am no longer physically capable of working as hard as I do.

There are people who will argue that these readers, the ones that download my work for free, wouldn’t have bought them anyway. That word of mouth sells more stories than anything else, and if readers love my books, they’ll tell their friends. Yes, but if they acquire them illegally, they will tell their friends how to steal them as well. How exactly does that help me? My response to this argument is I don’t care if they wouldn’t have bought them anyway. Let them read something else.

I give away stories for free. I have a free story permanently listed on Amazon. My publisher routinely holds sales. I sell books at a loss at conventions (I look at it as promotion) because I want people to read and enjoy them–but I sell them to cover the cost of the table, of the travel, of the unpaid leave from work. It’s not free to me. None of it is.

Autumn Path WoodsAnd let me finish here by saying I deeply appreciate every single reader who supports me by purchasing my stories. You guys are the gems that have helped me through some rough times. You’re the people who paid for my dog’s life-saving surgery. You’re the people who’ve made the mortgage payment in lean months and let me take my first real vacation (eight whole days off in a row!) in nearly a decade back in 2012. You’re the reason I keep writing, when it would be smarter for me to put my time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears into something else.

You’re why I don’t do that. You’re why I keep writing.

 

Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot Mess

chemistry“The main characters had no chemistry together.”

One of the most damning sentences that any creative artist can read in a review. I don’t care if you’re an author, or a scriptwriter, or a producer—the words make you cringe, and strike fear deep in your heart. Lack of chemistry between your lead characters can turn a potential blockbuster or bestseller into a mediocre mess. The opposite is true as well—if people like your leads and love the interaction between them, then they will forgive you just about everything. Plot holes the size of Detroit, incorrect grammar, inconsistent POV…none of it will matter to the reader who loves your characters. The majority of those enthralled readers simply will not see these problems in the first place.

I came across these words recently in reference to one of my stories, and I have to admit, I did a classic cartoon double-take when I saw them. Hey, my flaws as a writer are legion, but people usually like my characters!

How could they have no chemistry together? What about that scene in the basement, that fairly crackled with sexual tension? Or when they are pressed up against the wall—and they can hear someone else on the other side engaged in the same activity?

Granted, one person’s idea of smokin’ hot is another person’s idea of tame, so I usually take statements like this for what they are: one person’s opinion. But this time, I got to thinking about how someone could fail to see the unwilling attraction and heat between these two characters—and then it hit me.

They didn’t fight with each other.

They didn’t yell or throw things. They didn’t slam each other into the wall, or punch each other out. They didn’t say terrible, nasty things to each other. No whiskey bottles were shattered, there were no slamming doors, no one peeled out of the driveway with a squeal of burning rubber and a desire to do self-destructive things.

I find the idea that these things are necessary to show ‘chemistry’ a disturbing trend in romantic fiction. Now, mind you, I understand how difficult it is to tell a story without introducing conflict. It’s conflict that makes for drama, which engages the reader and draws them in. One of the hardest things any television show can do is successfully maintain audience interest once the UST been the lead characters has been resolved. I can only think of a handful of shows that did it well. Why? Because happy couples make for nice endings, not interesting story-telling.

But to me, there’s a big difference between bicker and banter. I’ve seen bickering couples in real life; they’re no fun to be around. Banter, on the other hand, sucks me in every time. Take Castle in the early seasons. Okay, pretty much an unbelievable premise. But because the dialog was so clever and because there was clearly chemistry between the characters, I suspended disbelief and fell in line whole-heartedly with the series.

There’s a scene where Castle and Beckett are standing in a hallway, about to knock on the door of a witness. As Beckett knocks, Castle says something about inspiration. Beckett glances at him with a sly smile and says, “I thought I was your inspiration, Castle.”

“You are, you are,” Castle hastens to assure her.

“Well be careful,” she says, still smiling slightly. “You might find that inspiration will strike you sooner than you think.”

It’s witty, and clever, and she is obviously teasing him, even as she is still being dismissive of his presence in her investigation. It was dialog like this that made me a Castle fan.

Banter is teasing. It can be exasperated, but it is seldom irritated. It’s a quick, snappy trade of one-liners that should have the reader following the thread of conversation like a sports fan at a tennis match. It can be slightly mean, but it is never angry or aggressive. It worries me that aggression is so often seen as attraction in fiction or entertainment. I don’t want to live my life like a soap opera, and my characters don’t want to love like that either.

What’s wrong with depicting healthy relationships?

Nothing, except from a writer’s perspective, it’s a heck of a lot harder. To me, it’s a bit of a cheat to make your characters angrily and abusively attracted to one another for the sake of dramatic effect unless you’ve laid out the background for why these people are so damaged in the first place. And then, if you want me to believe in their True Love at the end of your story, you have to show me that they’ve worked through these issues. You also have to show me why they are worth the effort. Telling me that they are so unbelievably hot doesn’t cut it.

south beach sunsetThere was an episode of CSI: Miami in which Joe Flanigan played an abusive boyfriend that was a suspect in a murder investigation. It turned out that his girlfriend was not the murder victim, and he was cleared to go. However, Horatio tried to convince the woman to press assault and battery charges against him. She refuses, looking doe-eyed and helpless as she walks over to Flanigan, where he is seated on a bench, wearing handcuffs.

Joe Flanigan is incredibly hot anyway, but in this role, with his smoldering anger and his three day stubble, he could have carried the part based on his looks alone. His character has beaten this woman, has threatened to kill her, but she won’t leave him. He’s good-looking enough that as an audience, we would have bought it right there. But when she sits down beside him, this man who’d frightened her so badly that she’d run away from him, turns to her and gently presses his lips against her bare shoulder. For the first time ever, I could understand how someone could stay in an abusive relationship. I got it. But only because Flanigan made me believe it.

But it was not a healthy relationship. It was clear from the start that Flanigan’s character was a bad guy, if not THE bad guy. Lest you think I’m not about Bad Boys, let me tell you, some of my favorite characters are Bad Boys. I adore the Tortured Hero. More than anything, I love watching his path to redemption through finding love with the right person.

And I don’t think fists need to fly for sparks to fly.

Bio: Sarah Madison is a writer with several cats, a large dog, an even larger horse, and a very patient boyfriend. She writes M/M erotic romances in her copious spare time and relies heavily on the smoke detector to tell her when dinner is ready.

Coming this fall, book 3 in the Sixth Sense series: Truth and Consequences.  Also, be on the lookout for the re-release of The Boys of Summer!

Let it Go is more than just a Disney song

Spring Kitty_resizedThursdays frequently wind up being frustrating for me. Ostensibly, they are my day off, but I typically have them so carefully orchestrated so that the whole day is spent rushing from one task after the other, for fear of being late and causing the whole house of cards to tumble down.

For the past six months, I’ve been spending a good bit of my Thursdays working off board for my two horses at the ‘retirement’ farm. My Old Man has been there for years now; this past spring, I had to move my no-longer-young mare there for financial reasons. Since caring for a community of horses, many of which are blind, lame, and need medication, is time consuming, I spend about 2 hours in the morning taking care of the herd–only to have to come back in the evening and do it again. My goal has always been to get out there early, hurry through my tasks, and rush home so I can do laundry, get groceries, and try to get some writing done before I have to head back out again. Thursdays are also the only night I can get to my yoga classes, and for the last month I’ve been skipping it. Well, that’s catching up with me, especially since I dropped all the other expensive manage-the-pain therapies I’d been doing for years.

I already had to skip the morning walk with the dog in order to meet a client before doing the first feeding, but today, instead of rushing through the chores, I decided, “Screw it. I’m taking my time.” Why? Well, the biggest problem about Thursdays is not how much I have to do but my attitude toward it. Far better to let go of the expectation of ‘getting something done’ and just be there in the moment doing what I’m actually doing.

BridleSo I took the time to appreciate the choreography of herd interactions–how the horses all know where they are supposed to go, and how doing things out of order upsets them. The last thing you want to do with a herd is let a submissive horse get pinned in a corner by a dominant one, so at feeding time, there is a lot of opening and closing gates so that the right horses end up in the right slots in the right order. It’s kind of beautiful when it all works smoothly. When you make a mistake, however, or one horse slips past you, ears pinned and teeth bared, there is the potential for serious injury (yourself included) if you don’t intervene right away.

I also took the time to appreciate the Old Man. He’s thirty years old now, and he no longer has any front teeth. He’s swaybacked, and despite eating $75 worth of grain every 2 weeks, I can’t keep any weight on him. But he is still happily puttering around the property, gumming grass and eating his mush–as much as I will give him twice a day. He still comes up to me looking for scratches and snuffling my pockets for treats. I’m sure if someone who didn’t know better saw him, they would accuse me of animal neglect, but he’s the equivalent of a 95 year old man and he looks it. I worry about him with the coming winter, but I also know he’s had wonderfully long life. I don’t regret a single moment since the day I bought him as a three year old for 89 cents a pound.

I also came to a decision today about the Mare Who Lived. This weekend, I’m going to bring my tack out to the farm. I’ve received permission to ride the fields out there. There’s no arena–just open fields–and my mare is a bit hot for just a simple trail ride, but I feel like I have to give this a try. If we survive the attempt, I’ll let you know. I’ve just put far too much of my life on hold to let *this* go. I look back at all the things I’ve let slip through my fingers waiting for ‘the right time’ or a better situation and I should have taken them when I could. When I had the chance.

There are other things we need to let go of, however. While I was taking my time at the farm this morning, I got a text from work: could I come in and see a patient that can’t wait until tomorrow? Well, there goes the carefully orchestrated day… but since I had accepted that I wasn’t going to rush around like a chicken with its head cut off, I was able to shrug, pick a time that would fit into the schedule, and say yes.Had the call come in before I’d made the decision not to rush, I probably would have been seething as I hurried through my chores, anxious to get home in order to salvage a little writing time.

All I needed was an attitude adjustment.

I know that attitude is everything, and I wish I could understand how to make that work for you when deep down you don’t believe you have what it is you’re faking. I can’t fake feeling beautiful and sexy when I don’t. I can’t fake confidence in my writing when I don’t have it. But I look at that picture of the cat in the flowers I posted above and recall how this little tomcat could prevent my 95 pound German Shepherd from leaving the house simply by sitting on the porch and staring at him through the door.

My boy would get to the door and back up, saying, “I can’t go out there. Dat bad cat’s out there.” And nothing I could do could persuade my dog it was safe to come out with me. The tom has since tamed down and been neutered and vaccinated. The dog will now walk past him without batting an eye, and occasionally will try to engage in play. The cat runs up to us when we’re outside and shoulders into the dog, taking a swat at his legs as the dog re-enters the house. They’ve reached a level of detente that they are comfortable with. But I am still amazed that a ten pound cat could stare down a dog ten times his size without even hissing.

That’s attitude. Or Catitude, depending on your POV. Because that cat was utterly confident of his ability to take on my dog and win–and my dog knew it. I think I could use a little Catitude. I’m a little too quick to listen to the negative self-talk because it is familiar, something I’ve heard my entire life: from family, from frenemies, but perfected by my self. I’ve been working on it. On dressing up for no particular reason, other than I know it makes me look good. Wearing something I like is empowering to me, be it a favorite necklace or a good pair of boots. That’s why I am so fond of International Walk Like Beckett Day. It’s not about how you look–it’s about how you think you look. And with little feel-good boosters, I can get there sometimes.

Writing is a different story. Or is it? I strongly suspect the only thing holding me back is my own negative self-talk. Chuck Wendig wrote this great blog post the other day about self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, and it’s simply brilliant. This one line jumped out at me: And suddenly your doubt has the hunger and gravity of a collapsing star. Wow. Yes. Been there, done that, own the T-shirt, sing the song almost every day. Go read the rest of his post, it’s awesome.

But as I’m sitting here, just as earlier I contemplated the stupidity and necessity of trying to ride my horse again, it occurs to me that I’m my biggest roadblock. And I don’t have as much time left as I used to. So it’s kind of now or never, you know? I got an email last night from one of my friends who is an author–a ‘real’ author, someone who got published back when you had to have an agent and legacy publishing was the only way to go, and the walls were steep and topped with guards ready to pour boiling oil down upon your head for daring to approach the gate. I know, I’m a real author with a real press behind me, but there’s that doubt, you know? The one that says if not for the digital revolution, you’d be papering your walls with rejection slips. Anyway, in response to my saying I’m not good enough to write x-y-z, she tells me that I’m capable of writing anything I put my mind to, that is it the voices of little-minded people running down my confidence that’s holding me back. So… what if she’s right? What’s the worst that can happen if I assume she is? I’ve got nothing to lose by trying.

I’ve got two hours before I have to be at the next task on my list of things to do today. I can get a lot done in two hours.

Tennant You Should Be Writing

Fabulous Five Blog Post: What’s Your Writing Style?

I was invited by Anne Barwell to take place in the Fabulous Five Author Blog Hop. The idea is that we answer a specific set of questions and tag five more authors to do the same. The hardest part of the challenge has been finding someone who isn’t already doing this! The best part, however, has been reading what everyone is working on and what their writing process is like. So here I go!

UnspeakableWordscover1. What am I working on?

Hah, this might as well read ‘what should you be working on?’ I’ve just finished the sequel to my FBI/paranormal story Unspeakable Words. Walk a Mile will be coming out with Dreamspinner Press in early October. I’ve started the sequel to that story as well, tentatively titled Truth and Consequences, because I left things on a bit of a cliff-hanger and I didn’t want my audience to suffer too long! I had a good session with my critique group today, and realized that I’m going to have to separate my plot lines and go for a fourth story in the series—there’s just too much going on to wrap it up in three books! I’ve just finished the galley proofs on Walk a Mile, and am anxiously anticipating the cover reveal. You know how it is with covers: it’s like finding out the sex of your unborn baby. You’ll love your child no matter what, but you want to know, right? I’ll be sharing the cover just as soon as I get it, believe me!

I recently had a short story published as part of The Not Quite Shakespeare Anthology, also from Dreamspinner. I also have several WIPs that need some serious attention—the kind where you evaluate the story and decide if it is dead in the water or simply needs more time to simmer. 🙂 I have a contemporary story that deals with the difficult topic of job burnout and depression, and another that’s a Regency romp. I want to get back to writing some science fiction as well.

I am seriously considering stepping a toe in to the traditional romance market, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading as a result. To be honest, I’m not sure I can write a heroine for a traditional romance story. I suspect when I launch the Madison Dean line of stories, I’ll be writing the same kind of quirky, non-traditional main characters, mixing a little humor, a little drama, some hot, sexy times, and a touch of paranormal activity together into story that’s a little bit out there. I have plans for a new series of stories set in the 1950s, in which my main characters are undercover agents investigating paranormal events in a small Southern town. Think of it as Ward and June Cleaver meets Area 51. 🙂 I’m excited about the idea of centering a heroine in the post-WW2 era. She’s come back from the war in which she’s done exciting, dangerous things, and is expected just to re-assimilate her life as a 50’s homemaker. Her partner, paired with her because he is the science to her soldier, has secrets of his own, one of which is that he took a pilot as a lover during the war. Writing M/F romance is a big departure for me, as Sarah Madison writes almost exclusively in the M/M romance genre. This is important to me, however. These are stories I want to tell.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The Boys of Summer400x600I frequently describe my stories as being ‘romances with a twist’. I find odd things interesting. I spend most of my time running around thinking, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ What that means is that you’ll seldom find a straightforward romance among my stories. As you can see from above, I describe Unspeakable Words as a ‘FBI/paranormal story’. The Boys of Summer is a contemporary story, but it has a long historical sequence within it. Crying for the Moon is about a vampire who wants to live a ‘normal’ life. The fun of writing for me is to create a set of characters and put them in a crucible of sorts–to put them in hot water and see how strong they are. It may be an odd confession for a romance writer, but romance in and of itself is not the driving force behind my stories. I’m interested in the characters and how they interact. Falling in love is icing on the cake. I wouldn’t want to eat just the frosting, though, would you? There has to be some tart to balance all the sweet.

3. Why do I write what I do?

108267663_8Whew-boy. That’s a tough one. I wish I knew. I write stories that appeal to me. I’m aware they don’t work for everyone. Sometimes I wish my own thought processes were a little more mainstream.:-) I’m aware that I’m your basic mid-list author and that I will never rise to NYT bestseller status. The idea of writing outside the M/M genre is stemming from a desire to try my hand at something new, but also because I like the idea of challenging myself to create a heroine I can admire. One that goes against some of the common tropes. One of the reasons I enjoying writing M/M romance is because there is something incredibly liberating about writing from a male point of view. I love the fact that when two male characters come together in a romance, they meet on equal terms. No one is dominant or submissive to the needs of the other (unless that is part of the story). They each bring different things to the table. They each take turns rescuing or being the one needing to be rescued. The best part? While I may be called upon to defend my right as a straight woman to write M/M romance, I’ve never been taken to task for the portrayal of the characters themselves.

I *adore* strong female characters. Give me the Zoe from Firefly, or Peggy Carter from Captain America, or Kate Beckett from Castle. Creating a heroine of my own that I like and respect will be tricky, though. Heroines seem to come in for a lot more criticism than heroes. If she stands up for herself, she’s a bitch. If she is vulnerable, she’s weak. If she sleeps with the hero without a major show of reluctance and some resistance that needs to be broken down, she’s a slut. If she doesn’t sleep with the hero at all, she’s a tease. I think it is very difficult to write a three dimensional female character without inviting the world to heap coals of fire on her head for failing to meet the mythical standard of womanly perfection. You know that cell they had you study in biology class? With the nucleolus and the ribosomes and the Golgi bodies? Do you remember that in the fine print, the textbook said that no cell contained all the parts we were studying? They just put them all in this one imaginary cell so that you could learn all the different parts possible in a cell.

That’s how it is with heroines. It is ridiculous to assume they will contain ALL the possible characteristics that go into making the perfect heroine. No matter how you create her, someone’s going to hate what you’ve done. That’s okay. As long as I love her, I won’t mind.

So yeah. There are days when I dream of writing a ridiculously runaway bestseller like 50 Shades of Gray. Sadly, that kind of story doesn’t interest me as a reader or a writer. I’d die happy if I created a series heroine I adored, though.

Black ShoesAnd I love shoes. 🙂 So, creating my own kick-ass heroine makes sense, right? I can give her the impeccable style I don’t have.

4. How does my writing process work?

Well, it usually starts with a ‘what if’ idea. What if rooftop gargoyles came to life every night? What if they were fascinated by humans, read their books, observed their activities? Or what if a vampire decided to shun his old existence and attempt to live life as a moral? What if a hard-ass FBI agent accidentally touched an artifact and developed paranormal powers? I LOVE ‘what if’ questions. They take my mind on a wild journey where improbable dangers and cheesily romantic things happen. I play around with these ideas for a while, daydreaming over chores or before I drift off to sleep at night. Eventually the characters take form and I tone down the more ludicrous aspects of my fantasy. And lo, a story is born. 🙂

So there you have it! Now I’m going to some fabulous authors to answer the same questions next week on their own blogs and tag more authors themselves. And so on, and so on. Sometime during the first week of September, check out the blogs of Raine O’Tierney, Whitley Gray, Elizabeth Noble, and Eden Winters–and find out who they are tagging, too!

Did Remington Steele do us a disservice? The bias against women

Smith CoronaI was a huge Remington Steele fan back in the day. It was the one show I had to watch each week.

I loved the premise: a woman trying to make it as a private detective figures out that she’ll be more successful if she creates an imaginary boss–a decidedly masculine boss. She cobbles the name together out of things in her office and Remington Steele is born. In many ways, it’s a sheer stroke of genius. Young, pretty, and female, Laura Holt probably didn’t inspire confidence in the sort of people who needed an private investigator. By creating an imaginary boss, she could present herself as his representative, could defer unpleasant decisions until she could speak with the boss; she could even make the boss the bad guy if the situation warranted it. It was a great plan, right until the time a con artist walks into her life and takes Steele’s identity. Laura is in the uncomfortable situation of not being able to out him without outing herself as well–and the con man needs a place to cool his heels. As premises for romantic dramedies go, this one was more clever than most.

I wanted to be Laura Holt. I admired her gumption, her classic sense of style. I wanted her shoes. I had a crush on Remington Steele. I loved Brosnan’s accent, I loved the banter between the characters. In fact, I think it was this show that made me fall in love with banter. It was like watching Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies, which was appropriate, given Steele’s ability to find similarities in each case to old movies that he loved to watch.

I enjoyed the show so much that I was delighted to run across it recently on DVD. But watching it again proved to be a big mistake. With hindsight, I remembered that Brosnan wanted out of his contract to play Bond (though really, he was far too young at the time–his is the attractiveness that gets better with age) and was upset when they wouldn’t let him go. Despite being good actors, this situation strained the working relationship between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, and it clearly shows in their romantic scenes together, at least to my more mature eyes. The banter feels more like bicker, and the plots, meant to reflect some of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, seem dated and cheesy now.

And then there’s the premise itself. Laura Holt can’t be taken seriously in a man’s profession without pretending to have a male boss. Despite having trained and apprenticed for her career (as she said in the opening narrative each week), it was usually Steele who solved the case, by recalling an old movie with a similar set up. So not only does Steele move in lock, stock and barrel into the identity she created, he’s better at solving crimes than she is, too.

handwriting_flickrI’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately. Recently I came across a NYT post by Fay Weldon, titled “Writer of a Certain Age.” She spoke of her long experience in television and the theater, as well as that of a writer. It was an extremely well-written and eye-opening essay.

It was also bloody depressing. In it, Weldon spoke of truisms in the various entertainment industries in which she’s worked–and in nearly all cases, the only time a women was considered important and worth listening to–be it in television, theater, or novels–is when she is young, pretty, and the love interest for a male lead.

Worse, Weldon seems to imply in her post that if you are so unfortunate as to be ‘a writer of a certain age’ and female, that you should really take advantage of the internet to lie to your fans and create a false persona like Remington Steele. Take a gender neutral pen name. Or if you acknowledge that you are, in fact, a woman, take this opportunity to pretend to be younger, thinner, prettier than you really are. Ouch.

ink pen_wikipedia_orgDiscussion of this post among my friends lead to whether or not bias still existed against women writers in this day and age. I found a blog post titled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants, which seemed to parallel Laura Holt’s dilemma: she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman. It wasn’t until she took the pen name James Chartrand that her freelance writing business took off–and she was able to pay off her mortgage. The discussion among my friends turned inevitably to gender neutral pen names. In the thriller/mystery genre, a gender neutral pen name is almost mandatory–just look at J.D. Robb versus Nora Roberts. I argued that this was more about branding, about allowing your audience to know by your pen name what kind of story to expect. However, J. K. Rowling was born because her publisher thought a female name wouldn’t appeal to the primary audience for the Harry Potter series: adolescent boys.

The Boys of Summer400x600Then there is my own genre. I write primarily M/M romances. At the time I sold my first story and was selecting a pen name, there was a big brouhaha about an author who’d been discovered to be female instead of male. The anger readers felt, presumably for being deceived, was so great that I deliberately chose a feminine pen name because I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about my gender.

Frequently, the question of whether or not women should even be writing books about gay men and their sexual adventures is raised within the genre. Time and again, the same arguments come back: Tolkien never met a hobbit. Mystery writers usually aren’t murders themselves. Rowling never went to Hogwarts (I KNOW. Say it isn’t so!!) and to my knowledge, all science fiction is just that. Fiction. And yet I never seem to hear a single person take a male author to task for creating a female protagonist. This particular complaint about women writers seems to get raised every few months among my various lists and groups, too.

You will hear people say as long as the story is written well, they don’t give a hoot about the gender of the author, and since I feel that way myself, I believe people when they say this. But I have to wonder, especially in light of Weldon’s post. Of her encouragement to be anything other than what I actually am. Believe me, that post made me wonder if I’d made a serious mistake by going with a feminine pen name, and whether I should delete all my previous posts on aging and sexuality. Whether I should be someone other than who I really am. Because writing isn’t just a little hobby for me. I need it to help pay the bills.

I pretty much thought these arguments were limited to my genre (with the possible exception of the mystery genre as well). Lord knows, romance writers in general are considered the lowest of the low when it comes to ‘real’ writing. Turns out sci-fi and mystery writers also come pretty low on the ‘respect’ list, compared to the literary giants of the fiction world, which is sad because on any given day I’ll take a good mystery or sci-fi story over any self-indulgent, introspective Grand Literature novel. But I digress.

One of my friends pointed out this article to me on Literary Sexism: Still Pervasive and Real. It bears reading. While the beginning is about a critical review and the author’s response to it (which may not make a ton of sense if you aren’t familiar with Mary Gaitskill‘s essays and fiction), read it all the way through. There are some links to some searing examples of ongoing bias toward women. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the pie chart graphs of the number of books reviewed by male versus female authors.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image11166602I can’t change who Sarah Madison is now unless I want to start all over again building a platform and readership from scratch, but I can certainly give more thought to creating my new persona for my projected traditional romances. Ironically, Sarah Madison would be a good fit for that genre, better perhaps, that for writing about hot men in hot water. The jury is still out as to whether or not I will actually take another pen name to write traditional M/F romances. The polling has run about 50/50 either way. I myself think, like Nora Roberts, it will be easier for those readers who don’t care for gay romances to find what they like to read if I keep the names separate.

This is certainly not meant to be a ‘wah-wah, woe is me, I’m a woman and the world is out to get me’ post either. It’s just that it seems to me that we should have come farther than Remington Steele by now. I’d like to point to one of my favorite television heroines, Kate Beckett from Castle and say we have come a long way, baby. But then I recall how much Stana Katic’s appearance has changed over the six seasons of Castle and how little she resembles a NYPD homicide detective anymore and how much she looks like a fashion model instead. And Castle usually solves the crime, too.

So it is tempting here to say that Remington Steele was a bad, wrong message to send to impressionable young women. But that would be wrong. I recall not all that long ago getting very angry over some young person’s lambasting of Star Trek: The Original Series on Twitter–commenting on how sexist, nationalist, racist, etc the show was. I tried to point out that for its time, it was groundbreaking stuff. That yes, the women wore mini-skirts and go-go boots, but it was the first show that depicted a black woman in a role other than that of a maid or a cook. That it tackled big issues. That it envisioned a future in which we’d solved so many of our problems by working together instead of trying to kill each other. The Twitter Hater wouldn’t listen and I had to drop her from my feed. She couldn’t understand that it took those very baby steps taken in Star Trek to bring us forward to the kinds of diversity and equality we see in roles for characters today.

I have to give that same kind of credit to Remington Steele. It was groundbreaking in its way as well, giving us a strong unmarried female heroine who had an interesting career and did exciting things. Laura Holt was smart and independent and I wanted to be her. She was one of the first characters I can recall to influence me that way. That’s exactly the sort of baby step that was needed back then. Today we have Kate Beckett, and Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), and Rizzoli and Isles, and Captain Sharon Raydor (Major Crimes), and Peggy Carter (Captain America) and I could go on. It’s getting better. We’re seeing better roles for women, more older women in good roles. But the numbers are still pretty small compared to the good parts for men.

The fact that men got all the best parts and best lines was one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to male characters my entire life. I very much want to try my hand at writing a female character I can like and respect. The thought terrifies me, to be honest, which is why I haven’t seriously attempted it so far. But I will. Some day I will. And I have Laura Holt to thank for it.

 

 

Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?

 

78812398_8I’ve been contemplating having an affair for a while now. No, not that kind of affair–in fact, my boyfriend is the one who put this idea in my head. For several years now, he’s been suggesting that I consider branching out into the M/F romance genre.

Interestingly enough, not because he is ashamed of my work. We met online, and because he is a geek extraordinaire, he actually discovered (and read) some of my slash fanfiction before we ever went out–and he still wanted to go out with me. But from the beginning, every now and then, he’s suggested that I should go for a bigger brass ring. It’s his feeling that I’m limiting myself by staying with M/M romance, despite the fact that it is currently one of the fastest growing genres in the romance industry today.

I’ve resisted the idea for many reasons. Not the least of which is, ironically, there were so few good strong female role models on television when I was growing up. I know, that sounds kind of backward, but back then, the men got all the cool parts on television. They were the ones in the thick of things–solving crimes and kicking ass, taking names and making us grin with their snappy comebacks and devil-may-care attitudes.  I was a tomboy as a kid. Well, to be honest, I still am. I entered a profession that was so male-dominated that when I first applied to school, only 15 applicants from my area would be considered–and 14 of them were men.

For me it was muddy boots instead of killer heels, a bulky-but-warm down parka instead of gorgeous wool coats in bright colors with silk scarves. Serviceable, practical haircuts instead of magnificent bedhead hair, and so on. Because it was worth it to me to be in on the action: to get the meaty roles. To have the best lines.

But hot boots are very cool...

But hot boots are very cool…

I detested the shows in which the the hero was presented each week with a temporary heroine that was Too Stupid To Live. She was pretty, feisty, and supposedly smart, and yet each episode we were given an example of how this apparently brainy woman-of-the-week would make stupid choices in the name of being independent, in order for the hero to conveniently swoop in and save her. Oh, yeah, and he wouldn’t stick around for the following week because he was off to save someone else. With his best bud/sidekick. Nice object lesson here, Hollywood. Smart, independent women have bad things happen to them and need rescuing. And wind up alone.

You know what one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is? It’s in the Drew Barrymore Cinderella Story, Ever After. She and the Incognito Prince have been taken captive by gypsies. They have been stripped of all their belongings, and a plea is made for her release. The gypsy ringleader tells her that she can leave, taking with her only what she can carry. She gets this gleam in her eye, walks over to the Prince, and hoists him up across her shoulders. She’s buckling with the weight of carrying him, but she faces the gypsy leader down with a gimlet eye as she staggers away under her burden.

The leader bursts out laughing and begs her to come back–and in the next scene, everyone is carousing around the campfire. I love it. Even at the end of the movie, when the Prince is rushing to save her from the nefarious (and ubiquitous) bad guy, he runs into her coming out of the palace where she has just rescued herself. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. And not something we see very often in today’s storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong. It is getting better for woman in movie and television roles. I loved this scene from the Avengers when Black Widow gets a phone call from Agent Coulson. She’s being held captive, things look bad for her, but from the moment she answers the phone, you can tell she’s in control of everything happening in that room. And when Coulson tells her that someone she cares about is in trouble, she busts her way out of the situation that only moments before looked incredibly dire for her.

But what happened when the cast was interviewed about their various roles in the movie? Scarlett Johansson ends up saying at one point to Robert Downey, Jr. “How come you get asked the really interesting existential question and I get like the ‘rabbit food’ question?” How come, indeed.

Why is it that Kate Beckett has gradually over the five seasons of Castle, morphed from someone who (to me) was visually believable as a sexy, street-savvy NYPD homicide detective into another fashion model? Don’t get me wrong, I think Stana Katic is gorgeous, and I myself go through frequent hair incarnations (having learned the hard way I really don’t look good with short hair), but on some level, I miss the edgy look she had in season one. And I can’t help but think she was forced to give into the pressure that Hollywood places on actresses to look a certain way. Don’t get me started, but it is rare to see an actress in my age bracket who doesn’t have long hair. Mind you, I prefer long hair myself–but I don’t have a colorist and a stylist following me around every day. I WISH.

So, you’d think that I would be delighted to tell more stories with strong, smart, savvy heroines like these, right? Well, to be honest, most traditional romance stories bore the heck out of me. I find myself yawning and unable to finish reading a story if it consists largely of two people meeting, falling gaga in love with each other, being completely incapable of sitting down and holding a ten minute conversation that would solve their communication issues, and then resolving said problems with a snap of the fingers (and some sort of rescue) to live happily ever after.  Where’s the car chase scene? The shoot out with aliens? The threat to civilization as we know it?

I know, write it, huh? If you want it, you must write it.

The problem is, every time I’ve thought about writing a traditional heroine as a main character, my brain automatically short-circuits into the ruts of characterization I’ve been force fed all my life. One of the reasons I think I wrote slash fanfic almost exclusively iwas because there was so much scope for story-telling between the two main male characters in most action/adventure shows. I fell in love with a set of characters and wanted to tell more stories about them. Why don’t I write Castle or The Closer fanfic? Because I think those shows are already doing a better job than I can with the characters I love.

The shows that are a little flawed, that present you with wonderful, compelling characters but also with great gaping plotholes and waffling storylines, or have no possibility of showing you the story you’d like to see–these are the shows that capture the fan writer’s imagination.

When I first discovered slash fanfiction (and from there, on to writing M/M romance) I felt like I’d finally discovered adult fiction for the first time. Here were the stories about characters in love with equal dynamics in their relationships. Here were the stories that were explicit and hot, not shying away into euphemisms or fade-to-black sex scenes. I spent a year absorbing the fanfic of my chosen fandom, and the next five years writing it myself. Somewhere along the way, I got the courage to submit a M/M romance story for publication, and the rest is history.

Saying I can’t do the same with a set of M/F characters is a bit of a cop-out, I know. Blaming it on the lack of good role models is a cop-out as well. The truth is, I’m scared. I have worked hard at creating the Sarah Madison platform. I’ve written a fair number of stories. I’ve won some awards and commendations. I’ve built up a social network. I have the sneaking suspicion that my stories got published in part because the genre I write in is much smaller than romance as a whole, and there was room for one more little fish in it. (I keep waiting for the Authorial Police to show up at my doorstep and demand that I stop calling myself a writer) It’s all I can do to keep the Sarah Madison Fiction plates spinning on their little poles now–do I really want to jump ships?

Up until very recently, I would have said no. Not interested. Not ready. Then, when brainstorming for a story the other night, it occurred to me that there were some very good reasons for making one of the main characters female instead of male. The character as I envisioned him/her is already pretty well-defined in my mind–a brilliant, arrogant genius with not very good social skills, yet with a vulnerable side that is aware of not being the popular kid on the block and deciding that being smart and right trumps being well-liked.

I find it interesting that character traits we tolerate and find endearing in men (think Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark) we’d very likely bash and malign in a woman. She’s a bitch, she’s mean, she’s rude, and the worst: “She’s stuck on herself.”

And yet, I’m tempted, so very tempted. Because I think in many ways, this character would be awesome.

But it would be a big departure for me...

But it would be a big departure for me…

 

You’re probably asking yourself, what the heck is there for me to be scared about? This should be easier, right? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I bet there are some of you reading right now who wouldn’t think twice about adopting another persona and cranking out another set of stories in a totally different field. Maybe you already write erotica and YA fiction. Maybe you write non-fiction and romance stories. You have three pen names, complete with websites, Facebook accounts, and tweet like mad.You’ve got different personas for each, and you can effortless keep them straight in your mind.

Writing a heroine that I can admire isn’t the biggest part of my concern though–it is starting from scratch as a ‘new’ author in a genre where I have no contacts and in a field that is already enormous. Am I diluting my readership by expanding ships or increasing it by widening the playing field? I see that Nora Roberts maintains a link for her J.D. Robb books on her website. Interestingly enough, the J.D. Robb website does not obviously link back to Nora Roberts. So with that in mind, you know what this means: a poll! Or even more than one!

Can a romance writer successfully write in multiple genres?

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If I write in a different genre, do I need a different pen name and persona?

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Will readers of one genre be seriously weirded out by the other?

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If I decide to go M/F, what route should I take?

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I am very much interested in input from both readers and writers here. If you’d rather email me privately, you can contact me at akasarahmadison at gmail dot com. I’m interested in your experiences. Are you a reader that will read any romance, or do you prefer a specific genre? If you’re a writer, what kinds of experiences have you had, good or bad, by writing in divergent fields? Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2nd Annual International Walk Like Beckett Day!

Fandom is a funny place. I had to share this with you because, though I am a fan of ABC’s Castle, I’m not *in* the Castle fandom, as in, I don’t hang out in the fandom communities, or write fanfic for the show. I have nothing against either activity–I write fanfic myself for some other shows, but Castle isn’t one of them. Probably because I don’t think I could do justice to the complexities of the cases, or the banter between the leads.

Tonight is the season premiere of Castle, which I am looking forward to. Mondays are usually tough days at work–you get all the emergencies and critical cases that have been ill all weekend and now are truly a problem.  Mondays are usually little snapshots of heartbreak all day long.

I look forward to Castle because I enjoy the chemistry between the two stars, Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. I love the witty, snappy dialog, I enjoy the crime solving. It’s become a Monday night ritual with my BF– I look forward to it all day, especially when work is wearing me down.

That’s the beauty of fandom–the reason why I value it so much. Fandom provides such pleasure over such little things. There’s the community of like-minded fans, the excited anticipation of new episodes, the fun of finding a great picture or gif to share, the creativity of the fanfic writers, the vidders, the artists.

One of the fun things I ran across is International Walk Like Beckett Day. The idea is simple: on IWLBD, you pull out your power shoes, that little leather jacket, the colorful scarf–whatever it is that makes you feel like Kate Beckett when you put it on. You walk with confidence. You expect respect and you receive it. Watch as doors open for you, as people smile at you.

Note: this is not LOOK like Beckett day. Most of us haven’t a hope of looking as gorgeous as Stana Katic, but we can ‘act as if’. And I have to tell you, the results have been astonishing every time I do.

The first time I “Walked Like Beckett”, I stopped by my bank on a whim and successfully refinanced my house.  I went in with confidence and assurance, and things were going so well, I also asked for the equity loan I was sure I wouldn’t receive.

I got it.

The second time I “Walked like Beckett”, I impulsively made a suggestion to a business that we combine our services–and things have ended up working out better than my wildest expectations. If I hadn’t been playing WLB in my head, I doubt I would have had the nerve to make the suggestion in the first place.

I also love The Closer. I love well-written shows with strong female leads–you have to admit, they are few and far between. And while I wouldn’t want to run my personal life the way Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson does, I admire competence in the work place. Whenever I need some gumption, one of my friends tells me to get my Brenda Leigh on.

It makes me laugh every time, but it also makes me square my shoulders, raise my eyebrow, and refuse to back down from what I need or want (even as I toss in lots of ‘thank yews,’ along the way).

I know people who get inspiration from favorite characters to improve their fitness, to deal with a tough home life, to stand up to a not very nice boss. I look to my favorite characters for all of these things and more–including swallowing my anger at times and acting with grace when I’d rather blow a gasket (Thank you, Captain Steve Rogers!). This past weekend, it allowed me to calmly relocate a copperhead out of the campground where we were staying when everyone else was on the edge of panic. I should point out that the relocation process included trapping the snake in a trash can and toting it across an icy river (that proved to be deeper than expected!) to release it on the other side—so yeah, pretty kick-ass when I think about it!  It had to be done though–the snake was right in the middle of the campground, and less than 20 feet away from where the dogs were staying.

So, who are your heroes? Your favorite characters? Does putting on a certain outfit empower you with the class and nerve of Peggy Carter (Captain America)? Do you work out thinking about that boxing scene in The Avengers?  Prepare for a presentation like Tony Stark? Walk in the door like you know what you’re doing and you’re the best one to do it? With calm, cool logic like Spock?

Who do you walk like?  What do you do to give you that little boost to emulate your hero? Share your stories–I really want to know!