An incompetent blog

According to Janet Reid, renowned NYC literary agent/blogger, a.k.a. The Query Shark, I don’t need to write a blog! (And no, she is NOT afraid of the competition.)

I am an unpublished novelist. No one is scanning the web for me. No one is interested in what I might say. Does this fact hurt my feelings? Of course not. This was the case before I started blogging and it remains the case now that I blog.

So why did I ever start a blog?

It was the panelists at a series of James River Writers Shows. They persuaded me. They kept pounding away about “building a platform” via Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler (whatever that is), Snapchat, etc. — but especially — The Blog. This all seemed to me like putting the cart before the horse. You might be curious about your favorite author and follow his/her blog but you are not going to be curious about me, not your favorite author and not published.

Having a Platform, the advice went, will help a writer get a literary agent for a manuscript. The bigger your platform, the more prospective buyers there are for your book. As a blogger, the greater the number of your followers, the greater the interest in any book you might write. Hordes of followers look good to agents, right?

It seems to me it might be easier to Built a Platform for a non-fiction writer with a narrow field of  focus. Writing on a specific topic attracts readers interested in that topic. Spiders or the history of asphalt or the genealogy of prize swine. Or maybe you start out as a blog —  and because you are a clever person with a clever idea — say Noah Scalin — you generate so much interest you turn your blog into a book.

I am not that clever, or that focussed, and my doubt about my ability to Build a Platform ahead of possible publication was well founded. There is no public interest in me or my opinions or expertise (if I have any expertise besides knitting socks). Most reasonable people who aren’t public figures — and there are SO many of us — would share this doubt about being up to adding anything substantial to public discourse, let alone to inspiring hordes of loyal followers.

Janet Reid, NYC literary agent, probably does have hordes of loyal followers. But unlike me, Janet Reid can bestow the wit and wisdom of experience and expertise gained from years of focused hard work. She Entertains — Educates —  Engages — Inspires. (Those are bullet points from various instructions on how to write a successful blog.) Earlier this week, Janet Reid magnanimously invited  her readers to submit 15 word elevator pitches for their unpublished manuscripts. She lured her followers in with the promise that she herself, and her other followers, would ruthlessly critique the offerings.

What a hook! As one of the legions of unpublished authors, I wanted to bite, but honestly, FIFTEEN words!? I’m still refining a query letter of 280 words.

Reading the submissions and critiques is truly educational. Also, a bit crushing, as in: OMG! I will NEVER be able to do this! Luckily, I am not standing in an elevator next to the literary agent of my dreams and only have this one chance to pitch my book with the perfect fifteen words. Nor do I anticipate this ever happening.

Janet Reid’s blog may well be an example of The Perfect Blog. She offers something many  people are looking for. Her readers become followers because she delivers expertise. Those among that group wise enough to apply her advice will be better for it.

My blog rambles about all over the place. It tends to bump into different readers as it wanders about, and then, most often, waves good-bye to them as it trudges up the next grassy slope.

So there you have it. An example of an effective blog — Janet Reid’s — and an example of an ineffective blog.  Will my blog become more like Janet Reid’s if my manuscript for Thrift Store Daze ever materializes as a book on the shelves of Barnes & Noble?

Don’t bet on it.

In the meantime, is anyone interested in my thoughts on knitting socks? I can recommend a good blog.

A rude reader

There are times when words swim away from each other as I read them, refusing to hold formation and carry the author’s intent. I have to set aside serious reading and pick up light fiction. This malfunctioning of my mind can plague me for long, tedious stretches, and is accompanied by physical lassitude. All I do, for hours and hours, is lay on my back and read.

(Once, an ignorant person said to  me, “I wish I had as much time to read as you do.” God bless them. May they never have first hand knowledge of this disorder or watch it overtake someone they love. )

When I feel that lethargy creeping up on me, I load up on fiction, usually historical romances. I don’t even have to expend the energy to get dressed and drive to the library. I can log onto my local e-library from home and download books to my Kindle. Or I can buy the latest volume from a favorite author through Amazon and be reading it within minutes. Instant gratification! (Not perhaps, my first choice, but I can’t have world peace or better health so I’ll just  be happy with what I get.) Unlimited, entertaining, easy-to-follow fiction is just a few clicks away. All praise to the writers toiling away in attics who make my existence tolerable.

I want only to pass my unproductive hours carried along by a pleasant story. (My husband asks me how I am. “Worthless,” I say, as I look up from the text of yet another bodice buster.) I don’t want to ever read a paragraph twice trying to understand it, or be sidetracked by poorly placed flashbacks. Humor is welcome, but please — no serious threats to the main character. It helps if the heroine is insulated from sordid toil and care by obscene wealth, but the author must never trip up and somehow remind me that obscene wealth is usually accumulated by someone else’s toil and suffering. Please, authors, don’t pop the bubble of my belief prematurely. It will disintegrate all on its own  after I finish the book.

When my primary “activity” is reading, my conversation suffers. My poor husband listens patiently while I outline plots of books he would never crack open in a million years. I don’t have much to say about the books I like. But when a book fails me, I can go on for awhile. Here are a couple that failed me.

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Winner of BEST HORROR NOVEL (August Derleth Award) at British Fantasy Awards 2016

The Girl from Rawblood

This novel was not for me. It’s not even a genre I usually enjoy. I downloaded it anyway because the blurb was intriguing and the action is rooted in the love of a house. I can identify with attachment to a family home and a particular place. Amazon rates the book 3.5 stars and the first reviewers are convincing in their praise. Maybe a well person would not have struggled, as I did, over the frequent time shifts. Maybe regular readers of the genre would not have been flummoxed by the circular plot, a chicken-and-egg quandary. Or how the terrible curse passed down through countless generations culminates (sort of) in one who is not actually a blood relation. Exactly how does that work?

Though there were some boring sections and at least one dry-as-dust character, over all the writing was masterful. There were descriptions of Italian and English countryside that almost had me smelling the seasons; intimate, historically accurate renderings of settings for three generations of the haunted family; and subtle moral parallels between vivisection and lobotomies. But I did not like this book. I only finished it to see if the author pulled the material together. I don’t think she did.

This book was not for me. Maybe it is for you.

The Indigo Girl

Amazon rates this book 4.5 stars. This book promised to be the story of a 16 year old girl

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A deeply-researched work of historical fiction, based on the untold story of Eliza Lucas, an extraordinary sixteen-year-old girl in Colonial-era South Carolina, whose actions were before their time.

left in charge of a small plantation when he father leaves. She never sees him again.

I only got a few pages into the novel before I deleted the book from my Kindle. I took irrational exception to the first person narrator repeatedly referring to her enslaved persons as “Negroes” and “Negro ladies” or “field hands” or “the driver,” all in tones of respect. Yet, in that first chapter, without a hint of irony, Eliza Lucas tells us that “A fantasy of mine . . .  (is). . . To be not owned as chattel by a father or one day a husband.”

In these times of bans on Mark Twain for using the N-word, how does an author stay true to a historical setting without making a reader cringe? How does an author present a slave owner as a sympathetic character?

It might be that Natasha Boyd worked both those tricks and I just didn’t stick with her long enough to find out. It looks like a good book. You read it and let me know.

 

The Revelation of Beatrice Darby

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How much courage does it take to be yourself? In a decade when good girls conform to strict expectations, Beatrice Darby is about to find out.

Now here’s a third, perfectly good book that I didn’t like. Like the other two, the cover appeals to me. This one promised to be an coming-of-age story. I thought the writing was clunky. I didn’t make it through thirty pages.

It has 5 stars on Amazon (but only 15 reviews).

Give it a try! You might like it.

 

Someone — a whole group of someones — worked hard to write, edit, and publish these books. I feel guilty when I don’t like a book. It is a rejection of someone’s hard work and therefore unkind. I don’t want to be unkind. So please — read these books and make up for my rudeness in rejecting them.

 

DIY Romance Novel

Have you ever consumed romance novels like potato chips? One right after another until you are licking your fingers to pick up the crumbs at the bottom of the bag?

I just read ten or twelve historical romance novels in less than a week. My other “activity” was sleeping. My excuse is my usual illness — chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia — with the added thrill of a novovirus. (I am recovered from that nasty bug, thank you.)

Over the years, I’ve read uncounted hundreds of romance novels set in England between the loss of the American colonies and Waterloo. But I can’t write them. The books are total fantasies to me. I have an inability to suspend disbelief and that is fatal to composition.

But maybe you can!

First, choose a heroine from the selection below. These are all main characters I’ve met in one or more books and if I haven’t met them yet I probably will in the next book I read. These women are English, of course, and with rare exceptions, they are seventeen to twenty five years old.

  • The Governess. This heroine is a classic. She’s a gently-bred young woman from on old* family,  though recently impoverished. The governess forged her own references and lives in fear she will be discovered. She disguises her beauty by hiding her glorious tresses under  a matronly cap, wearing ill-fitting clothes and ugly spectacles and sometimes even hunching her back or feigning a limp. She may be fleeing from an arranged marriage. The children are recent orphans and love her and she’s a gifted teacher. Or maybe they are awful and she’s about to be sacked.
  • The Young Widow. Her late husband was a bully or a pervert or a wastral or a gambler or a drunk or (if she’s still a virgin) a homosexual. She may believe herself repulsive because her late husband couldn’t consummate their marriage. She is  left penniless and must marry again — and soon — if she doesn’t want to starve. If she has children, she is a devoted mother, and will marry anyone to provide them with all the advantages of their rightful station. Society believes the widow is heartbroken and will never recover from her grief.
  • The Bluestocking. This foolish woman is so over-educated she’s ruined all chances of womanly happiness. She pretends she doesn’t care and studies astronomy or botany or hieroglyphics. She can read Latin and Greek! She doesn’t need a man. She doesn’t even want a man.
  • The Diamond of the First Water: This beautiful young thing is the toast of the town. Exquisitely gowned and coifed and suitably demure, eligible men swoon at the sight of her, but she longs to be loved for her true self, not her looks.
  • The Kid Sister. After her mother died in childbirth, her indulgent father and brothers let her run wild. She can ride, shot, swear, and puff on a cheroot with the best of them but now her ferocious great-aunt takes charge to mold her into a fashionable, compliant miss. Our tomboy is laced into corsets and carted off the London to snare a rich, titled husband. But her less than lady-like ways offend society. She’s a disgrace! Oh — and she’s secretly in love with her brother’s best friend.
  • The Wallflower. This mousy, plump, firmly on the shelf spinster is barely tolerated in her brother’s house where her sister-in-law resents her every bite of food. No man has every looked at her twice and no man ever will. At twenty-five, she is resigned to being the poor relation for the rest of her life, always an aunt and never a mother.
  • The Madcap. This is a girl who rescues abused dogs from street urchins and brings them home, fleas and all. Or she might adopt one of the street urchins. Or an elderly cart horse. Impulsive and adorable, her heart leads her into compromising situations verging on scandal. She lacks decorum. Respectable gentlemen avoid her like the plague.
  • The Girl Next Door. The girl from the bordering estate has always been in love with her handsome neighbor but all her sees is his former playmate. How will she convince him she’s all grown up?
  • The Soiled Dove. Circumstances beyond her control forced her onto the stage/into the demimonde. She has a loving heart, but love and marriage is not for the likes of her.
  • The Virgin. This beautiful and pure-minded soul was inexplicably born into a disreputable family. She makes excuses for her father or older brother as long as she can but when they die and leave her with nothing but bills, she must bargain whatever she has to marry money, even as she shudders at her own base motives.

I could go on — but you get the idea. Any likeable young woman in a desperate situation will do for your heroine. If she’s not plucky and brave on the opening page, she will be by the last page. So pick one of these heroines or invent one of your own.

The heroes are always English, usually thirty to thirty five, invariably “one of the wealthiest men in England.”  These gentlemen, are magnificent, dangerous specimens —  superb horsemen and fencers and boxers. Under their immaculately fitted jackets and trousers, they hide the physiques of Greek gods (judging from the Elgin marbles). Lesser mortals can’t meet the commanding gaze of their piercing amber eyes (or stormy grey eyes, or unearthly blue, or even pale green). They move with leonine grace. If one of these men enters a ballroom unexpectedly, the awe-struck assembly falls silent. They are skilled at eluding the snares set by manipulating mothers with marriageable daughters.

  • The Arrogant Duke. The Duke is as rich as Croesus and he is in the market for a bride worthy of himself. He requires impeccable lineage, a generous dowry, stately bearing, and good taste. Love is beside the point.
  • The Rake.  He is a gambler who never risks more than he can afford to lose, a drinker who is never loses his head, a lover who never loses his heart. He beds only widows and other men’s wives. He hides behind his reputation as a shallow man, but he’s really a spy.
  • The Soldier. After he unexpectantly inherits the family title, he resigns his commission . He must marry and get a heir, but he feels guilty for surviving when better men fell. Love is the last thing on his mind.
  • The Dark Earl. After several years exile on the continent, he’s returned to London. Maybe he killed his best friend in a duel. Maybe he abandoned his betrothed at the alter. Now he needs a wife. Any wife.
  • The Noble Bastard. He was born on the wrong side of the blanket, educated as a gentleman. He makes his own way — as a pirate, a financier, an industrialist or a gambler. Maybe his swarthy good looks come from a mother with Moorish blood or a maharaja’s daughter. He might be a companion to the sons of a good house, but he can never marry one of the daughters.
  • The Widower. His adulterous wife died in childbirth. He is bitter and vows to never love again but, for the sake of his small children, me must marry again.

In todays’ politically correct historical romances, feel free to create a hero who secretly funds a home for orphans or a school for reformed street walkers or a haven for retired race horses.  Today’s enlightened hero usually knows the names of his servants, pays them generous wages, favors progressive reforms, is a responsible landlord and good steward of the land and treats his lessors well. Sometimes he is emotionally scarred from a bad childhood or a bad love affair. Sometimes he is too proud to enjoy life.

edeb64001da99f2869d18c9408acb3b3(And it’s anachronisms like these that throw me right out of the book and makes me laugh. Like English lords during the Napoleonic Wars were SO concerned about the well-being of the servants. And their stupendous wealth never came from children mining coal or slave labor on a sugar plantation. Some contemporary authors feel compelled to make these men out to be paragons of virtue even by today’s standards.)

To me, no matter how writhing with hidden hurts, or how motivated by high morals, the heroes are not particularly interesting. Their only excuse for existing is as a vehicle for the heroine’s happiness. I read to see the woman saved from starvation/despoiling/a life of thankless toil and delivered into a life not just of new gowns and jewels and pin money, but of perfect happiness. At the end she must be respected, deeply cherished, and sexually sated. (But I really don’t need the details though the current fashion is for pages and pages of details! Oh, Jane Austen and Georgette Hayer and Marion Chesney, you set such a good example! Biting wit! Clever conversation! Chaste sex. Why must time march on?)

So — you have chosen your fair lady and her hero and you are about to have them meet each other, however unlikely. The more unusual the situation, the better. Have the girl fall out of a tree into a pond where your hero bathes unclothed. (Maybe someone else already did that.)  Have them, two strangers, be discovered in a dark room alone and be obliged to marry. Have one crawl into the other’s bed by mistake during a thunderstorm at a house party.

Make sure they hate each other on sight, or, conversely, fall in love on sight and fight the mutual attraction through 75% of the book. It’s typical to have them consumate the relationship halfway through the book but — you are the author! — you can have them, somehow, engaged in sexual intercourse on the first page if it leads only to confusion and keeps them apart for another two hundred pages. Because that’s the whole plot: one thing after another keeps them out of each other’s arms. Choose from below:

  • They love each other but won’t admit it.
  • She gets kidnapped.
  • He gets bonked on the head and gets amnesia.
  • They are about to confess/make love/blurt out the truth but are interrupted by one crises after another.
  • They endlessly misunderstand each other.
  • One of them is convinced the other is in love with someone else.

Me? I’m really tired of kidnappings, so please skip that plot device when you write your romance.

For additional interest throw in a haughty mother-in-law, a younger brother begging for money from the new bride,  a jealous ex-mistress, murder attempts by the next-in-line for the dukedom, a ghost, or a mysterious bequest. Just find some way to keep the lovers apart for almost all of the book while simultaneously maintaining enough tension to keep the reader interested. It should be easy. After all, I’ve given you all these prompts and told you what’s essential.

Even if I can’t write one of these, it’s only a romance novel.

It’ll be a piece of cake.

Let me know when you’re done. I’ve got my fork and I’m ready for another book.

 

 

 

..

*And aren’t all families equally old? But we all know what this means, so I won’t belabor the point further.