Friday, May 30, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-05-10 through 2014-05-23

We've got two weeks of reading in this post, since I didn't get a chance to finish writing the reviews up last week. And it's still only four books! Things have been crazy busy around here (my youngest is turning two this weekend and there has been much party prep to get through), so there hasn't been all that much time for reading either.

The Last Good Knight, Parts 1-5, by Tiffany Reisz

It's lust at first sight when Mistress Nora encounters a sexy newcomer to The 8th Circle. She's happy for the distraction, since she left her lover, Søren, but her session with Lance is cut short when her boss, Kingsley Edge, reveals they're all in danger. . .


With a potential stalker on the loose, Kingsley hires Lance as Nora's bodyguard, but stipulates no sex while he's on duty. Frustrated by the ex-SEAL's noble chivalry, Nora is driven to seek release with the one man she's trying to forget. . .


Shocked to see Nora's bruises, Lance is furious that she put herself in danger and demands to know where she got them. As Nora confesses her true nature, she's equally shocked to learn that Lance has some secrets of his own, drawing them together despite Kingsley's orders. . .


With her feelings for Lance warring with her recent encounter with Søren, Nora returns to Lance's bed and finds herself toying with the idea of. . . toying with him on a permanent basis. But after she gets a glimpse into his personal angst, Nora realizes she has the power to rescue this white knight. . .


Now that the perpetrator has been apprehended, Nora sadly acknowledges she doesn't need a bodyguard anymore. She adores Lance and wants to keep him but is faced with a dilemma--if she uses her connections to help Lance, she'll have to give him up forever. . . 

This released as a five-part serial, with each new installment showing up in my Kindle app every day. Alas, I didn't read it that way, so I can't really comment on the effectiveness of the serial format. By the time I had any time to read, I had all five parts already, so I just read it all as one story.

Which is just as well anyway, because serials drive me crazy. I see the value of reading slowly, I just don't particularly like doing it.

As a full story, The Last Good Knight was really good. I, like it seems pretty much everyone else who has read this, loved Lance. He was such a great character and I really enjoyed watching his relationship with Nora develop. Because they're both presented as perfect "alternatives" to Søren, I couldn't help but compare him to Daniel from The Gift. I really didn't think anyone was going to ever be able to come close to Daniel in my mind, but now I can't decide which of them I like better.

Maybe Nora should have them both. . . Yes. I like that plan. I wonder if Reisz has a suggestion box of some kind?

Moving on, I suppose I should say that while I very much enjoyed this story, I'm not sure how well it would work for a reader who is new to the series or someone trying to read in chronological order. That's the odd thing about prequel stories like this. Having read the four books in the Red Years Quartet, I went into this knowing which of these characters was going to show up again and which ones were going to be gone from Nora's life, presumably by the end of this novella.

It builds a different kind of tension into the relationship, watching a character work themselves into the story and wondering all the while how they're going to leave it. The same goes for characters who I already know will continue on. It makes me wonder how much weight I would have given to their appearances here if I didn't know where they end up later.

Overall though, I thought this was a great story. If you're a fan of the Original Sinners series, this is definitely worth a read.

The Arrangement, by Mary Balogh
The Arrangement is Book 2 of the seven-part Survivors' Club series, following after The Proposal. Six men and one woman, all variously wounded in or by the Napoleonic Wars, spent a number of years healing and recovering together at Penderris Hall in Cornwall, home of the Duke of Stanbrook. Now they spend a few weeks there each year, renewing their friendship and supporting one another in their efforts to live normal, productive lives. This is Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh's story.

Although Vincent is only twenty-three years old, his female relatives are pressing him to marry. He is blind and he has recently inherited his title and vast estate. When they produce a suitable bride for him, he feels trapped and flees with his batman-turned-valet. He ends up six weeks later at his old home and almost gets trapped into another marriage he does not want. A young woman rescues him--and then faces destitution for her pains. When Vincent finds out about it, he has to decide what to do. But really, there is only one honorable course of action.

Sophia Fry grew up with a rakish adventurer for a father. Her mother abandoned them when Sophia was still very young, and her father was killed in a duel when she was fifteen. She was passed from one aunt to another, neither of whom wanted her or gave her anything but the most basic of care. By the time she steps in to rescue Viscount Darleigh from the matrimonial schemes of one of those aunts and her uncle and cousin, she looks like an unkempt scarecrow and can easily be mistaken for a boy. Her relatives turn her out of the house in the middle of the night with nothing but a small bag of belongings and the exact fare for the stagecoach ride to London. And then, after she has been offered temporary refuge in the vicarage near her former home, Viscount Darleigh himself comes calling. . . 

As I mentioned in my day two post about Spring Fling, I got a copy of this for free at the conference and I was a little bit afraid to read it. Mary Balogh was wonderful and charming and I was concerned that I was going to like the book and then feel compelled to read all her other books. In case you're unfamiliar, there are only about 75 of those.

But eventually my curiosity got the better of my good sense and I read this one. And now I'm going to have to clear some time on my reading calendar, because my TBR list just got 75 books longer.

Vincent and Sophia were lovely characters and I thought their romance was very sweet. I particularly enjoyed how their relationship seemed to be all about how they could build each other and what they could give to one another. They both needed to feel in control of their lives again and each worked tirelessly to find ways of giving that to the other. It was nice to see a relationship built so completely on two people supporting one another.

I will say that the ending seemed a bit. . . rushed to me. It's not as if all their problems got solved in one fell swoop or anything, but it did seem like a lot of issues resolved themselves in just a couple of brief conversations toward the end there. I don't know. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the way Balogh wrote it, but it just felt. . . off.

Still, even with that, I found this to be a very enjoyable read and it was a nice way to kill off a Sunday afternoon. I'm very curious about the other members of the Survivors' Club and can't wait to read their stories and learn more.

Whisper to Me, by Christina Lee
A hot and consuming New Adult romance about a wayward musician and the one girl who keeps him grounded. . . 

At college, Rachel has a reputation for being a sarcastic flirt with a thing for star athletes. No one at school knows that she'd had her heart ripped to shreds by her high school sweetheart, who'd driven them both off the side of the road on a borrowed motorcycle, and then abandoned her. No one knows the real Rachel Mattson--except one person. . .

Ever since he helped nurse his sister's feisty best friend back to health, pierced bass player Kai Nakos has been head over heels in love. But the supposed bad boy can't risk letting Rachel know the truth--especially now that the two of them are back in their hometown for the summer, together for the first time since the months following that fateful night. Never mind that Rachel's ex is back, groveling for her forgiveness.

Shaken by her ex's return, Rachel finds herself turning to the one guy she knows she can trust. Kai is willing to hide his feelings for her, just to have Rachel touch him again. After all, this is only a temporary fling. Until it becomes something more. But maybe it had been more all along.

I confess that I don't like a lot of New Adult. Much of it strikes me as. . . gratuitous angst with a bunch of sex dumped all over it. But Christina Lee's Between Breaths novels are very much not that. There is certainly angst and sex, but Lee puts it together in a story that works.

Having read the previous two books in this series, I didn't really expect to like Rachel's story very much. Her character didn't seem very interesting in the other two stories. And then when I got to reading this one, I was a little confused. Was this the same Rachel? She seemed like a completely different person. . .

Which it turned out Lee had actually done on purpose. We find out very quickly that Rachel has been living something of a false life while away at college, having reinvented herself when she left home. Now that she's back in her old hometown for a summer, she's struggling with reconciling the girl she's been for the last few years with the girl she used to be. I really enjoyed the way Lee wrote Rachel's journey there.

And Kai. Oh dear. I completely and totally adored him. He was living in that very familiar place of knowing what he wanted out of life but not quite knowing how to get it and feeling pressured from all sides to come up with something. And he's such a great match for Rachel. I loved that he knew all her secrets and supported and respected her though everything. I loved watching him find his way and I so very badly wanted him to get everything he ever wanted, including the girl.

This was a great story, with a super hot romance and two characters I really just fell in love with. I can't wait for the next book in the series!

The Mistress Files, by Tiffany Reisz
When your boss is Kingsley Edge and he gives you an order, you do it. So when Kingsley decided that his other professional Dominants needed more training in the fine arts of Dominance, he went to his top Domme for help. He told her to write out some instructions for the other Dominants. His top Domme decided instead to write out erotic stories about her clients and her sessions with them.

A female submissive who can't orgasm.

A male Dominant too scared to do kink with his blind wife.

A rock star with a secret.

A vanilla gay woman with an embarrassing little problem.

A male switch with an itch for more than just pain.

These are their stories.

I had somehow missed this one, but then Reisz mentioned it when she was talking about her upcoming release, The Saint, so I headed over to the Kindle store and picked it up. Because I'm addicted to this series.

I was going to write down some thoughts about each individual story, but they're very short and I didn't want to spoil them. Enough to say, these five little stories were all fantastic. Smart and sexy, as I've come to expect from Reisz's work. And I get such a kick out of Nora and her humor. As these stories are all Nora telling stories about her adventures, so there's an extra level of that humor woven through them. Such a treat!

So those are my latest reading reviews. There hasn't been a lot of time for reading, but I've been lucky to have liked everything I did have time for. What about you? Have you read any of these? What did you think? What else have you been reading lately?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Making Connections

As I mentioned in my first post about Spring Fling, I really enjoyed the keynote address Lauren Dane gave during the kickoff event. She focused a lot on the connections she's made as a writer, and how important it is for us all to do that.

It's hard, sometimes, for us writers to come out of our little caves and be sociable. A lot of us are introverted and would rather spend time in our own heads than anywhere else. Even the extroverts among us can get caught up in those imaginary worlds at times and forget to interact with reality. But, as Ms. Dane pointed out, sometimes we have to do the unthinkable: put on pants with zippers and get out there and make some connections.

She wasn't talking about connections in the typical semi-icky business sense of the word, like formal networking and getting an unfair advantage because someone is calling in favors and pulling strings for someone else or that kind of thing. Kevin Spacey's character Francis Underwood on House of Cards has connections, sure, and I don't think I'd want him anywhere near my career.

Or anywhere near me at all actually. I'm. . . well. . . let's just say I'm not that interested in trains and leave it at that. (Spoilers, you know.)

Anyway, no, Ms. Dane was talking about the more human kinds of connections, about just meeting people and forming relationships with them. Making friends, sharing stories and laughing together. Forming partnerships and working alongside others. Going to things like conferences and mingling with other writers so we can see how much we have in common and how much we can learn from each other.

Do those sorts of connections eventually turn into the other kind, the useful-in-business, networky kind? They certainly can. You hear stories all the time about how this person was talking to that person at a conference, and then ended up coming to lunch with the editor, who ended up buying their first book or whatever. But those things work best when they happen organically, when you start by talking to that other person and forming that first connection without the end game in mind.

I remember a few years back, when I was starting to seriously consider maybe someday writing for more than just my own amusement, and I was also gearing up for another round of NaNoWriMo. I'd just moved to a new city and I was located between a couple of different regions, so I was sifting through their forums and such, trying to decide which one to join.

(If you're not familiar with NaNoWriMo, don't worry. The jargon and such isn't really the point of the story.)

While I was digging around, I noticed that one of the Municipal Liaisons (basically the NaNoWriMo version of a camp counselor) for the region to the west of my new town had a publishing credit in her signature line. Her first novel was being released next month.

Oh my God! I have to join that region!

I had it all planned out in seconds. I would join that region and be hyper-involved and make such a fantastic impression on this ML that we'd have to become friends. Or at least sort of work-friends. And then, of course, she would read my novel and love it (because how could she not?) and recommend me to her agent and I'd sign with them and sell my novel and live happily ever after. This was it. This was how I was going to break into publishing.

Funny thing about plans like that...

You may have noticed that I'm still sitting here many moons later having not broken into publishing.

I did become friends with that ML and several other people that year, some of whom would become my closest friends in the world. And I'd have to say that my career now, lack of publishing credits aside, is light-years ahead of where it was back then, when all I had to my name was an ill-informed dream and half of a really bad rough draft of book one in the Epic Fantasy Trilogy of Doom.

But none of that mattered in terms of my big break into publishing. It turns out that publishing doesn't really work the way it does on television and my knowing one published author wasn't going to be my winning lottery ticket to fabulous wealth and success. I know a couple of them now, in fact, and, strangely enough, not one of them has been able to wave a magic wand and make all my dreams come true over lunch.

So where does that leave me in terms of making connections. Should I just throw the whole thing over? These people cannot help me professionally, so what is the point of getting to know them at all?

God, I hope I never become a person who would seriously think something like that.

I'm an introvert. I have to choose my social interactions very carefully because they take a lot out of me and energy is a finite resource in my life. But that doesn't mean I would be better off with no social interactions at all.

I'm still human. We're wired deep down in the back of our brains to form communities and build relationships. And to do that, we seek out from the vast and varied sea of humanity surrounding us those rare other human beings in whom we see ourselves.

Which is a fantastically overwritten way of saying we like people we have stuff in common with.

I'm a writer. I spend all my time surrounded by an army of invisible people, characters whose lives I build and shape and ruin all in one afternoon. Even when I'm not actively sitting at my computer and working, that part of my mind is always running, turning things over and trying to find new ways to fit all the pieces together so I can break them all apart again tomorrow.

And that's not something that a lot of other people can really understand. I can explain it to them, yes. I'd like to think I'm articulate enough for that. (If I'm not, I'm probably in the wrong business altogether.) But if they've never experienced it for themselves, they'll never truly get it, or get me.

So I need to find those others out there like me, the other writers who see things the way I see them and think the way I think. I need to be able to talk to them and laugh with them and point to them whenever the monster in the back of my mind rears up and tries to tell me that I'm all alone in this universe.

I'm not alone. There are others. Look, here, at just these few I've managed to find and image all the rest who I haven't met yet.

And as Ms. Dane said in her speech, I cannot let a fear of pants with zippers (Is there a proper word for such a phobia? We're writers; we should make one up if there's not.) stop me from making those connections. Because those are the connections I need. The rest will take care of itself.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Out of Control

Wisdom of the Inner Editor
Last week the Muse came by and entertained you all with some floating, empowering nonsense about owning the words and focusing on what we can control within the context of Renee's writing control. Apparently she believes we have no control over anything other than what words Renee chooses to put on the page.


I am an Inner Editor. I have immense control over many, many things.

For example, I control. . .

The words Renee chooses to leave on the page. And. . . Well, um. . .

Fine. Perhaps the Muse had a point.

The problem with her point is that, for the pessimistic pragmatic amongst us, that leaves quite a few things which are out of our control. There are the grand things, of course, like world peace and Renee's general health and the weather and such. I can accept that I, as a mere abstract, cannot control those things. Renee can't control them either.

And neither can the Muse or the Idea Salesman, which is at least some comfort.

But then there are other things which we feel like we should be able to control and which I find that we just cannot. And it is that lack of control that gets so frustrating.

For example, we have been tracking Renee's word counts and timing for the last six months or so and, in looking at the spreadsheet, it quickly becomes apparent that Renee is most productive between 10AM and 2PM. That is, by a rather significant margin, the best window for writing.

And Renee's children are scheduled for naptime from 1PM to 3PM, so a few months back we reorganized Renee's schedule so she could take advantage of that one hour of overlap to get some really good productivity injected into her day. For a little while it worked out quite well. Renee was writing faster and better than ever and all was well in the world.

But while you can lead a toddler to their bedroom, you cannot make her sleep. And, of course, just as soon as we settled into this new routine and started to count on having that time in the afternoon to work, the children decided to stop taking the nap.

Grrrrrrrr. Why?!? We need that time to work and they need that time to sleep. Why on earth won't they just lie down and close their eyes and get the rest they so very obviously need??? Renee (and I, for that matter) would kill for the luxury of being able to rest for two hours in the middle of the day, and these children insist on squandering that opportunity every day! It's just. . . I can't even. . . Aaarggggghhhh!

You can see what I mean about the frustration.

But we cannot just give up completely. Oh sure, you'd never know it to listen to Renee on most days. It's not uncommon to hear her stomping up the stairs for the four hundredth time, mumbling under her breath (and sometimes not so under her breath) about how she might as well just chuck the computer out the window and give up the whole damn game for all that she ever seems to achieve. But once logic kicks back in, she knows better.

In order to control those words on the page, we must find some time somewhere to write them down in the first place. And so Renee has grudgingly put her schedule back to where it was before, and is once again writing in the too-early mornings, mainlining caffeine and doing her best to race against the sunrise.

It's not as good as it could be. We could probably be netting upwards of 10,000 words a week if we could write later in the day. But we just weren't getting that time most days. Fighting with the children over naptime meant some weeks we would only get one day to write. Some weeks we got none at all.

And so it's back to the pre-dawn schedule. It's not as productive, but if we can manage 5,000 words a week this way, we'll have a completed zero draft of Guardian by the end of the summer.

Friday, May 23, 2014

How Should I Buy My Books

I put off my scheduled review post for today in order to ask a question about buying books. This has been knocking around in my brain for a while now, but never strongly enough to get me to change my ways. But with the recent Amazon-Hachette craziness, it's gotten to the point where I feel like I have to do something.

I've mentioned before here on the blog and elsewhere that I read ebooks on my phone almost exclusively. I have various reasons for doing this. It's convenient. I like always having a book in my pocket no matter where I am. It's easier to keep my curious toddlers from destroying one object than a billion. Paper books take up space we don't have in our house. I enjoy being able to read about a book on a blog or tweet or whatever and have it instantly, no matter what time or day it happens to be. I like being able to get new books without having to go anywhere, since getting to the bookstore is tough when you have two toddlers and don't have regular access to a car. And unlike television, I can read whatever I want while my kids play without having to worry about warping their developing little minds or something.

One of the things I haven't regularly mentioned though, is that all those ebooks I read come, either through direct purchase or by checking them out from my library, from Amazon. I used to shop around for ebooks, buying from Amazon, B&N, Fictionwise, etc. But I hated that.

I don't particularly enjoy price shopping. And I really didn't like having my books all over the place. Some I could read in the Kindle app, some only in Overdrive. Some books were stored on the cloud, but others had to be downloaded to my computer and then transferred to my phone. And I absolutely hated that I couldn't have one unified bookshelf where all my books were together when I was looking for something.

It just didn't work for me. So I looked at it and, since I was buying most of my books from Amazon (price was my only deciding factor at that point and Amazon usually had the lowest price), and since my library had just introduced the format for checking out their books, I decided to just go with Amazon for all my reading.

For the most part, I love it. I read so much more now than I ever did before. Yay ebooks! Kindle is my bestest friend!

But there have been things that have concerned me. There was the thing with the pricing models and loss leaders. Removing the buy buttons from Macmillan books a few years back brought to mind that old rumor Amazon might someday just take away all the books I'd already bought. I don't really like the fact that no one seems to know how they come up with their recommendations or rankings. And vertical integration worries me, so the fact that Amazon controls a huge chunk of the bookselling market and is now also acting as a publisher leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This latest thing with Hachette isn't new. Amazon has been the 8,000lb gorilla for a while and they obviously love every minute of it. This is just the latest extension of that. But it's maybe going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back for me. I think I'd like to stop buying my books there.

So here's what I want to know: what's the better option?

Wait. Before you answer, let me say this. Don't tell me to start buying all hardcovers from an indie bookstore or something, because I'm not going to do it. This isn't the right space to open up a debate about digital versus print. That's not the question I'm asking.

I want to keep reading ebooks. I want to read them on my phone, which is an Android device, so I don't have to cart around and keep my kids away from yet another gizmo. I don't want to have to shop around at ten different stores to find the ones I want. I don't want to have to pay twice as much for them either. I don't want to have to download them one place, store them another, and read them in a third. And I'd rather not make this switch to another retailer only to find out in six months that I'm in the same boat again, either because now they're the ones trying to beat the business into submission, or because they've given up and decided to just exit the ebook business.

In short, I'm lazy and selfish, and I want to have my cake and eat it too. So where can I get all, or at least most, of the things I'm currently getting by buying my books from Amazon, without feeding them any more of my money?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

RWA Chicago-North Spring Fling 2014 Conference, Day Two

Welcome to part two of my review of Spring Fling 2014! (For part one, click here.) Last week I talked about my reasons for going to the conference and all the things I learned and saw and loved about day one. Now it's time to break down day two.

I will confess that I very seriously considered not going to the first workshop of the day on Saturday morning. It started at 8:15, which meant I had to get up early after having stayed up late the night before. Learning about the publication process sounded way less interesting when my alarm went off before sunrise than it had when I originally went through the schedule book.

But I hauled myself out of bed and drank a very large cup of coffee and managed to muddle my way back over to the conference hotel just in time. And I'm really glad I did. The session I attended that morning was "From Query to Shelf: A Publisher’s Perspective", presented by Liz Pelletier, and it was really interesting.

I've learned quite a bit about what happens to a book after a successful query from the perspective of writers and editors, but this was really the first time I'd heard someone spend a good deal of time explaining the process of acquiring and placing a book from the publisher's side of things. I think most of the time folks assume that writers don't need to worry their fragile little creative minds about the business stuff. But the world is changing and I don't think the old model of "you just commune with your Muse, dearie, and let me take care of the business" holds up anymore.

Anyway, Ms. Pelletier took us through the whole process, from what happens when the editor brings it to the acquisition meeting to meeting with the national buyers and all the way to the book showing up on the shelf at B&N or Target or wherever. She talked about the importance of the high concept, and why it's so important, how decisions like which books are key titles and which books will get co-ops and such are made, and who really has the final say regarding covers. It was very illuminating.

After that session it was time for the big book signing. I wasn't sure I was really going to spend any time there. I mean, I don't buy print books anymore and I read all my ebooks on my phone. It's not like I had anything for anyone to sign or any plans to pick up copies of anything. Plus, to be totally honest, I hadn't heard of most of the authors present. I guess I'm not as widely read in the romance genre as I thought I was.

But there were a few folks there who I was interested in meeting, so I dug out an old sketchbook and turned it into an autograph notebook. (After carefully removing all my badly drawn maps of the various lands from the Epic Fantasy Trilogy of Doom. Because of course I had maps.) I worked myself up into a good frenzy beforehand, putting all kinds of pressure on myself to be witty and articulate when I got the chance to talk to these people. And then I think I gushed about sixteen disconnected sentences in one breath at Courtney Milan and Sarah Wendell before my brain short circuited and I had to find a corner to hide in and slow my thoughts down a bit.

Next up was "Unraveling Romantic Suspense" presented by Mary Burton. I don't actually write romantic suspense, but my urban fantasy sometimes runs toward that direction. And she focused a lot on crafting the suspense part of the story, (I suppose at an RWA conference, your audience likely already knows how to, or has at least already attended a couple of sessions focused on, working in the romance bits) which was perfect for me. Plus she gave out these really great bookmarks about her drafting process with tips for revisions and stuff. Yay for visual aids and swag!

Then it was time for lunch, and Mary Balogh gave her keynote address. She was positively charming. Smart and down-to-earth and funny. She talked a lot about the importance of what we do and the bravery it takes to put yourself out there as a storyteller. There was some good stuff too about choosing love and hope and life for our focal points as romance writers. I got one of her books, of course, but I'm kind of afraid to read it. She's written something like 75 or 1,000,000 novels and if I enjoy this one half as much as I did listening to her talk, I'm just know I'm going to have to read them all.

I next went to a workshop called "I Like It, Don’t Love It: Or, What to Do When Good Isn’t Good Enough", presented by Jennifer Greene, Lindsay Longford, and Margaret Watson. I sort of thought this was going to be a craft-oriented session about how to improve a manuscript that's close but not quite there. Instead it was more about the mindset of the writer in those situations. The three authors presenting gave examples of times in their careers when they were getting passed over and what they learned from those experiences. Their advice was practical and supportive and I really enjoyed hearing them speak.

After that, I attended "Building A Sticky Readership", presented by Courtney Milan. If you ever see this workshop listed in a program guide for a conference you're at, go there. I don't care what else is programmed against it. Courtney Milan is freaking brilliant. When she talks about how to succeed in this business, listen. As I said in last week's post, I'm not anywhere near this aspect of my career yet and things will likely have changed in the industry by the time I do get there. I still took several pages of good notes during her presentation and downloaded the PowerPoint when I got home.

Let's talk about sex! The next session was "Using It All: Writing Sex That Not Only Steams Up the Pages, But Uses the Emotional Magnitude of Intimacy To Drive the Heart of Your Novel", presented by Lauren Dane (with a surprise guest appearance by Megan Hart). This session was a pretty relaxed Q&A session rather than a formal presentation and I thought it was great. The conversation flowed in a couple of directions I wouldn't necessarily have expected. They talked about the potential sex has in terms of character development and plot, the importance of being comfortable with what you're writing, and ways to use sexual tension to great effect--sometimes to greater effect than sex itself.

The last workshop I went to was "Write Tight", presented by Ashlyn Macnamara. She had some great tips for us about how to trim the fat from a manuscript. She also had what I felt was a very good grasp of when to trim the fat. One of the issues I have with most writing advice on this topic is that people seem to have an all-or-nothing mentality with it. Let's not use any dialogue tags, strip out the passive voice, and eliminate ALL THE ADVERBS! Ms. Macnamara had no such notions. The usual junk words can be useful to give a story voice, to bring realism to the dialogue, or to smooth out the rhythm of the read. The trick is to only use them when you need them.

Also, my netbook totally saved the day during that session. So I can now I can say I helped present at a writing conference, right? Or at least that I've done some voluntary technical support or something?

No, probably not. But at least I have proof now that carrying absolutely everything around in my giant purse can come in handy.

Last up was the big semi-formal dinner and awards ceremony. Adam Grabowski performed during dinner, which I thought was a little. . . odd. I mean, he was funny and there we all were with our mouths full, wanting to laugh but at the same time trying not to laugh, on account of the full mouths and all. Or maybe that was just my particular brand of overthinking it. I've never really gotten the lure of dinner theater either. Anyway, he was really funny and when my kids wanted to watch The Little Mermaid the next day (because of course they did) I just about died laughing.

If you're ever looking for a gift for me, I wouldn't say no to one of those "I've got whosits and whatsits galore!" t-shirts. Just throwing that out there. . .

One of the women sitting at my dinner table won his "best euphemism" contest and he closed off his act by posing for a proper romance novel cover photo with her. Vest with no shirt, flowers in the teeth, giant sword, wig artfully blowing back thanks to a strategically placed fan. It was perfect.

Kristan Higgins was the keynote speaker after dinner and she was fantastic. She spoke about ups and downs in her writing career and told a couple of cute and funny stories. She also talked about how writing had gotten her through some really awful times and she read some letters she's gotten from fans telling her about how her books have gotten them through their own hard times. It is possible I looked at some points as though I might be crying. But I was wearing eyeliner and mascara and stuff, and so of course I would never indulge in such foolishness.

There was music and dancing afterward, but I was totally drained by that point and in danger of putting my head down on the table and falling asleep. So I called it a night and headed home early.

That sums up my latest conference adventure. I had a great time and I learned a bunch and I'm so glad I decided to go. Spring Fling is a biennial conference, so I won't be going back next year, obviously. I'm introverted, but I'm not so far gone that I want to sit in the hotel all by myself pretending to attend workshops and talk to people and stuff. But I am looking forward to attending in 2016.

Will I be pitching by then? Under contract? Self-published?

Who knows? But I know I'll have a great time. :-)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Taking Control

Writings of the Muse
This has kinda been a roller coaster of a spring, huh? Things are looking up one minute. Then all the sudden we get smacked back down. Ice and snow, and then rain and humidity, and then another blast of ice and snow, just for kicks. And maybe a little flash flood warning here and there, just to keep us all on our toes.

In general, it's been chaos out there.

I never thought Renee was one of those kooky writers who wrote according to the weather, but if you've been following this blog for a while, you might have noticed that it sure looks that way lately. She's been up. Then she's been down. We've had slow hard slogs and then bursts of inspiration. Running around like chickens with our heads cut off and then suddenly flopping over with nothing left.

In general, it's been chaos in here.

So let's all just take a minute and be still. Take a nice big calming breath and get our center back.

Ahhhhhh. That's it. Let's take another one, just to really focus back in.

Isn't that so much better?

I thought we could all use a little break. Seasons of transition can be so rough sometimes. Renee has been going a little bit out of her mind lately, which isn't much fun for the imaginary folks who live up here. But we're through it now and we're ready for some calm breezy summer days. I'm sure it'll start snowing again the minute I hit "Publish" on this post--that's the kind of spring we've been having, after all--but June is just around the corner. Summer really won't wait too much longer to put in an appearance.

Renee and I were recently reminded that while this business is one big crazy game, not everything about it has to be anarchy. The one thing we always have control of is the words we put on the page. The ideas might break loose and start sprinting hither, tither, and yon sometimes, but we don't have to drive ourselves mad trying to catch them.

No more rushing and racing for us. We will show up on our writing days, and we will write a little bit at a time. And if we do that, the ideas will stop running away from us and start running toward us instead. It's not the writer's job to come up with ideas. Ideas come up with themselves. It's the writer's job to be present when those ideas arrive, to be aware enough to see them for what they are. For what they could become.

It's time to embrace this one small shard of control we have in the big wild writerly world. The words are ours. They belong to us, not the other way around.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-05-03 through 2014-05-09

Happy Friday everyone! I hope your week went well. Mine was good. And I read some pretty interesting books last week. Wanna hear about them?

Heaven's Queen, by Rachel Bach
From the moment she took a job on Captain Caldswell's doomed ship, Devi Morris' life has been one disaster after another: government conspiracies, two alien races out for her blood, an incurable virus that's eating her alive.

Now, with the captain missing and everyone--even her own government--determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi's never been one to shy from a fight, and she's getting mighty sick of running.

It's time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.

Wow. I just loved this trilogy. Snark, romance, violence, and a few questions about morality and the fate of the universe thrown in to add a little more spice. Why, Ms. Bach! All my favorite things! You shouldn't have.

Oh, who am I kidding? You totally should have. Thank you!

I've fallen out of the habit of reading science fiction, and rectifying that was one of my big reading goals for 2014. But it sort of felt like a chore. All the controversy running amok about sexism and science fiction lately has left something of a bad taste in my mouth, which made part of my brain just want to (unfairly) avoid the whole genre.

And then Rachel Bach started writing this action/adventurey space opera trilogy with a kickass heroine. I really liked the Eli Monpress series and I enjoy her blog, so I decided to give these books a go.

And I remembered why I like science fiction. Fortune's Pawn was so fantastic I immediately preordered Honor's Knight and Heaven's Queen. I could not wait for release day on those books. In fact, I liked it so much that I recommended it to Long-Suffering Husband. (I try to avoid doing that because we have very different tastes and it usually ends badly, so it has to be a really good book to merit my insisting and nagging and badgering until he reads and claims to love recommending it to him.)

As I'd hoped, Honor's Knight was fantastic and I could not wait for Heaven's Queen. Finally, release day arrived! Huzzah! Exciting conclusion to a great trilogy! Woohoo!

But excited as I was, I was also a little nervous going into this last book. Knowing this was the finale, I was concerned that it couldn't possibly live up to the potential I had built up in my head. I've had a couple of bad experiences lately with finales leaving me let down. Was this going to be another one?

Not it was not. Heaven's Queen totally lived up to the anticipation and was wonderful. Devi just does not quit. I don't mean that in terms of her actions as a character, though that's certainly true too. I mean, she's just continually awesome to read.

This book had all the great humor and action of the others, dialed up even higher as the stakes rose. The romance element felt really authentic as well. I like how Bach showed how conflicted Devi was over that without dwelling on it, and how the balance of her relationship with Rupert progressed. And I especially loved how strong Devi was in her convictions.

I'm going to try to do this next bit without spoilers. Apologies in advance if it gets a bit tedious. What she does at the end of the book is a pretty big leap of faith. She doesn't know it's the right thing to do. She feels it. She's pretty damn sure about it. But she doesn't know it'll work out like she wants. And I loved how she acknowledged that, thought it through, and then stuck to her decision. There's a moment where she's fighting with Caldwell and she basically says, "Look, I know if I was you I would think what I'm doing was crazy too." She wasn't a blind zealot, but she wasn't just bumbling through the action only trying to survive either. She had such great agency as a character and I loved that.

Devi is such a strong character and I was really struck by what a great job Bach did in writing that without resorting to the usual clichés. Plus, the story was just fun. The world was rich and entertaining. The science made sense, even the parts I didn't come close to really understanding. I loved this book. It was an awesome book on its own and also a really great conclusion to the trilogy.

When We Met, by Susan Mallery
Angel Whittaker earned his scars the hard way, but the scars that can't be seen are the ones that haunt him the most. Since he moved to Fool's Gold, California he's cobbled together a life for himself as a bodyguard trainer. If he's not exactly happy, at least his heart is safe.

Working with pro-football superstars taught tough-talking PR woman Taryn Crawford one thing--she can go toe-to-toe with any man. But then dark, dangerous former Special Ops soldier Angel targets her for seduction. . . and challenges her to resist his tempting kisses.

Even in 4-inch heels, Taryn never backs down. Unless, somehow, Angel can convince her that surrender might feel even better than victory.

I really enjoyed this book. Taryn and Angel's story was fantastic. I loved both their characters and their romance was wonderful to read.

Angel is so tortured. I love a good tortured hero. Mallery did a great job writing him. I thought the direction she chose to go with his trauma was interesting. He's a former assassin, there could have been a lot of emotional baggage there. But we've seen quite a bit of that already in this series with the other men Angel works with. There are hints of it in the way he compartmentalizes everything, but Mallery didn't get bogged down in it. Instead she focused on his grief over his wife and son, and I think she did a fantastic job of exploring that. It was far more personal and I was completely drawn into his character because of it.

Taryn was also an interesting character, though I do think Mallery could have done a better job showing the fallout from her traumatic background. Though she's not completely perfect, aside from a couple of random moments, Taryn seemed very well-adjusted for having gone through all that abuse and poverty. Everyone copes differently and all, but I was surprised there was really no exploring of how she got to the relatively healthy place she's at. Still, she's smart and sassy and I really liked watching her struggle to find her place in Fool's Gold and with Angel.

Another thing I am really enjoyed is how Mallery has kept this series going without overwhelming the reader with references to past books. I've read a couple of small-town series like this where eventually each new book just becomes a contrived series of check-ins with the previous couples and the "primary" romance ends up falling by the wayside.

Thirteen books in, I was worried things would be getting a bit stale in Fool's Gold. But while we did see a couple of the previous characters, they were, as they should be, only there to ground the setting and support the plot. They didn't overwhelm to story.

Along with that, I think Mallery did a very good job of only bringing in characters relevant to Taryn and Angel. Despite the cliché, in a small town everyone doesn't actually know everyone. It wouldn't have made sense for some of the previous couples to put in an appearance here, and Mallery didn't try to wedge them in there anyway. The focus here was definitely on Angel and Taryn and as a reader I really appreciated that.

Overall, this was great read. A fun romance to curl up with on a rainy afternoon.

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered--fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she's known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris's new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature--and of herself--while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

Told from a riveting dual perspective, Allegiant, by #1 New York Times best-selling author Veronica Roth, brings the Divergent series to a powerful conclusion while revealing the secrets of the dystopian world that has captivated millions of readers in Divergent and Insurgent.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. When it came out last year and there was the giant kerfuffle of angry fans, I got all indignant on the author's behalf. Authors are in charge of the story. They get to write it however they want. And if the main character doesn't end up exactly where you wanted her too, tough.

I do believe that. I believe that very strongly. Maybe I'm biased there, because I'm also a writer, but whatever. This is Roth's story and she has the right, as the author, to write it however she wants to. And I sure as hell don't support anyone threatening or abusing an author the way I heard about Roth getting abused. It's a book, people. No matter how disappointed you feel, there's no reason to threaten the author. Get a grip on reality.

But I understand why people were upset. Because I didn't like the book either.

First off, I really didn't enjoy the dual POV. As I've mentioned in my reviews of the previous books, I don't like the 1st person present POV. It's hard for me to read. And crafting two distinct voices in 1st person can be tough. I don't feel Roth pulled that off. Four/Tobias and Tris didn't feel that different to me. There were several places in the book where I'd be in the middle of a scene and lose track of which one of them was doing the storytelling.

I also found the story itself somewhat lacking. The characters seemed very disconnected from one another, which struck me as odd considering how much they've been through. They're strangers in a strange land, essentially, and regardless of how capable they've proven themselves, they're still teenagers fighting in an adult world. And rather than cling to one another for familiarity and sources of strength, they just sort of drift off in different directions.

The forward momentum of the plot ended up alternating between stalled out and confused. Everyone's motivation got muddled. Everything the previous two books had been about didn't seem to matter at all anymore, until all of the sudden it did again, but not in a way I really bought. And ultimately, nothing anyone did made a whole heck of a lot of sense. They were all just running around reacting, instead of truly taking control. Three books into a series, I want to see the characters asserting themselves a little more, instead of just being pushed around by fate. This story lost all of the urgency that the previous books had built up so well.

Also, as I've been reading these books, I've become less and less enchanted with the world-building. The more I learn about the society Roth has created here, the less believable it seems. I'm by no means an expert in genetic engineering, economics, or sociology, but I had a hard time buying pretty much everything about this world. It's too inconsistent with reality as I currently understand it and, though there's no clear indication of exactly how much time has passed, the society is too close to ours in other respects to allow for those inconsistencies, in my opinion. I was left with too many questions about how humanity ended up at that place. While I don't expect an author to tie up every loose end, I also don't like being left squinting at the book sideways trying to make it make sense.

And now for the big one. The ending. I've thought about the ending of this book a lot, in large part because the controversy over it is part of what drew me to the series in the first place. You'd think I'd be able to just write it off as a book I didn't like and move on, but I couldn't. Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but when people start losing their shit over a book, I want to understand why and really think through my own opinion on the matter. So I'm going to set aside for the moment my problems with the story and the series as a whole and just focus on this one particular point for a little while.

Um. . .  Spoiler alert. I tried writing this part of the review without spoilers, but it started to get really confusing and strange. So consider yourself warned. There are spoilers ahead. If you don't want to read spoilers, stop reading right now.

No, seriously. The first sentence of the very next paragraph is a huge spoiler. I'm even going to put a big annoying gap of space here, just in case the fancy coding I found to hide it doesn't work in your review reading method of choice. (I'm told sometimes spoiler code doesn't work in certain browsers or RSS readers, but I don't know enough about coding to fix that, so I'm going old school and abusing the Enter key.)

So, that was a really long post there. And for only three books. Whew. If you managed to make it all the way to the end, dare I ask: have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

RWA Chicago-North Spring Fling 2014 Conference, Day One

Long ago and far away (by which I mean here in my living room back in January), Long-Suffering Husband and I were talking about the progress of my writing career. He's a project manager out in the real world and, since I don't have a project manager of my own, sometimes I pick his brain about such things. One of the things I mentioned that I'd like to start taking on is focusing more on the professional development side of things.

The most important thing a writer can do to forward their career, of course, is to write. Write more. Write again. Rewrite. Finish what you start, then start something new. Practice makes perfect, and all that jazz.

But I was interested in what I could do in addition to that. There's only so much I can learn from hanging out inside my own head, after all. I wanted to take a class or do a workshop or go to a conference or something. But I didn't want to just sign up for anything. The options are somewhat limited for me, both financially and schedule-wise.

Long-Suffering Husband agreed with me and we decided that if I could find something worthwhile that was relatively close and wouldn't cost us an arm and a leg, we could use a little of our tax refund for it. A bit of research later, I settled on the RWA Chicago-North's Spring Fling Conference.

It might seem like an odd choice. I mean, I'm not working on anything romantic right now. My current WIP doesn't even have a romantic subplot. I don't belong to RWA and probably won't be joining this year. And I didn't have anything ready to pitch to any of the agents or editors who would be at the conference.*

But I looked at the slate of potential workshops and the speakers they had lined up and it looked like a good deal. A romance focus, sure, but plenty of general industry and craft information to be had as well. It was also only two days, which struck me as more than long enough for someone just getting back into the game. Plus, the price was within my budget and hotel was about ten minutes from our house. It just doesn't get more convenient than that.

So I signed up and prepared to put on my professional face and mix and mingle with my fellow writerly types for a couple of days. And then I spent a few months wavering back and forth between excited and terrified. Mostly excited.

Okay, fine, mostly terrified.

What if it was weirdly cliquey and I spent the whole weekend feeling awkward and uncomfortable? What if I had an anxiety attack in front of everyone and had to run away and hide for the rest of the weekend? (Or possibly the rest of my life, depending on the number of witnesses?) What if I was bored? What if my brain shut off while my mouth was still running and I ended up shoving my foot down my throat? What if I met my dream agent at lunch one day and we had a great conversation and then I had to confess by telling him/her that I had absolutely nothing to show them? What if I did something ridiculous like walk out of the bathroom with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose?

Happily, none of those things happened. I had so much fun! I chatted (probably too much if I'm being honest) with total strangers about too many different things for me to list. I got to meet a few of my favorite authors and found a few new ones who I'm sure will become favorites soon enough. And I went to interesting panels and workshops and took pages and pages of notes.

Which, let's face it, is what I was there for. And, more to the point, what I started writing this post to share with all of you. Wanna hear all about every single thing that every single person said?

No? Good. I didn't write all of it down and none of us has that kind of time. How about some highlights?

The first session I attended was "Honing a Voice that Sells", presented by agent Nicole Resciniti and authors Julie Ann Walker and Kate Meader. This was one that I could have submitted pages for discussion beforehand, but I didn't want to be distracted. I know me. If my words were potentially up for discussion, I would have been a bundle of jangling nerves, ragged breathing, and a racing heartbeat, and that's all I would have been able to hear.

There was some great information in this workshop about making your voice work for you. My main takeaway was that voice isn't really about the dialogue or the sentence structure. That stuff has to be able to adapt across genres and characters and time periods. Voice is really more about the types of details you choose to include (or not) and the emotions you evoke. They went through quite a few examples and broke it down really well.

There may be a blog post on this topic in the future. I'm still mulling it over.

The second session was "Romance Reviews: How to Get Reviewed, and How to Put a Review in Your Rearview Mirror", presented by Sarah Wendell. This is one that I went to more as a fan than as a writer, since I probably won't be dealing with reviews for a long time and by the time I am, things will be different. But Sarah Wendell is so freaking hilarious online that I couldn't pass up the chance to hear her talk in person. I started taking notes of all the funny things she said, but then that quickly turned into dictation and got distracting. Bottom line: that woman is funny and smart and I kinda want to be her when I grow up.

I say that a lot, don't I? I want to be quite a few people when I grow up apparently. So what? I can totally be all of them.

And no, now is not the time to point out the fact that I'm already a grown up.

Lauren Dane was the keynote speaker for the official kickoff event. She was fabulous and adorable and I already have a whole blog post in the works about some of the things she said. She focused a lot on the connections we make as writers and the importance of not isolating yourself. It was good stuff. After she spoke, there was a nice Q&A panel with Ms. Dane and the other two spotlighted authors, Mary Balogh and Kristan Higgins.

There was a little bit of a gap in the schedule at that point and I got a good bit or writing done on my netbook in the hotel lobby. This was one of those times when super-introverted me would have liked to have been staying in the hotel so I could have had some quiet time in my room. I suspect extroverted people used the time to mix and mingle, maybe catch up with friends and such. I didn't know anyone attending the conference and I didn't have it in me to go around introducing myself to people. So I sat next to the fountain, typing away like mad and trying to use the water sounds and keyboard clacking to convince myself I was alone.

Because I am a social butterfly. Oh yes.

The next event on the schedule was dinner.** I confess I felt a little bit like the first day at a new school when I first walked into the ballroom. Here were all these tables set for ten or so, and about 300 people I'd never met. I walked around for a while before I finally realized the ground was not going to open up and swallow me whole, and I wasn't going to find the one random table-for-one hiding in plain sight either. You wouldn't think the phrase "is anyone sitting here?" would be so hard, but apparently it's right up there with "I was wrong." I did manage to get over myself eventually and I probably spent too much of the meal yapping once I convinced myself doing so wasn't going to hurt me.

The next two events were Q&A panels with the agents and then editors in attendance. If I had been smarter, I probably should have skipped these and found a quiet corner or an empty room to decrompress in. It's not that they weren't interesting panels, but since I'm not anywhere near ready to be talking to agents and editors yet, they weren't as useful for me. By the time I'm ready to pitch in a year or two, everything about the industry will likely have changed again. That said, the agents and editors were all fun and interesting and I liked hearing their take on things.

The last thing on Friday night was the Hot Night Critiques breakout sessions. People were encouraged to bring up to three pages of a love scene for review. We broke out into groups, based on heat level, to read and offer feedback. I don't have anything with a love scene in it at the moment***, so I just attended as a voyeur.

(I thought I was so damn clever the first time I described it that way, but everyone was using that phrase to describe the folks who didn't bring pages to read, so apparently I'm not as clever as I thought. Or at least I'm only equally as clever as everyone else.)

I had a blast. I haven't been part of a critique group in a few years and I'd forgotten how much I really enjoy picking out things that don't work and trying to figure out why and highlighting all the little bits that really do work. I'm pretty sure I had something to offer on every single piece that was read. The Inner Editor must have thought it was Christmas, Hanukkah, and her birthday all at the same time.

And then I went home, exhausted and happy and eager to see what the next day would bring.

I was going to wrap up the whole weekend in one post, but this has already gotten really long. So I'll spare you all for now and break down day two next week. But even if this was it, wouldn't that have been wonderful? Look at all the fun I had and all the things I learned! So worth it.

*I suppose I could have bluffed my way through it and pitched anyway. Plenty of people do that. But I went down that road once back in the day. Trust me; it's no good when your worst case scenario is "what if the agent likes it and wants to see more?" The agent asking for pages is the goal, so that should be the best case scenario, after all.

**Dinner was yummy, by the way. Just, you know, in case you were curious.

***I didn't realize until I got the email about signing up for this event that Guardian has no sex. I think it's the first book I've written, except for that one I wrote back when I was twelve, that hasn't had any sex scenes at all. I'm pretty sure there isn't even going to be flirting, which is something even that pre-teen attempt fumbled its way through. It's. . .  weird.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Writer Is Ded. Pls Send Coffee. And Chocolate.

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
As you've all gathered by now, a few weeks ago Renee and I and the rest of the gang dumped Renee's kids off on Long-Suffering Husband for two days and headed out to a writing conference. And I'm pleased to report that a good time was had by all.

Even the Critic, who got to spend the weekend at Critic Day Care with all the other Critics, where I assume they had a glorious time rattling the bars of their cages not in harmony and snarking back and forth at one another about whose writer sucks more.

(Pay no attention to rumors of a small fire breaking out in that particular meeting room. If we all just look the other way and whistle, I'm sure no one will ever know. Imaginary friends are notoriously difficult to charge with arson anyway.)

I'm not going to talk much about the conference itself here. IE already took care of the broad strokes last week and Renee is working up a post that'll probably be ready in a couple of days that gets into the nitty gritty details. But let me just say this: the Idea Salesmen in charge of that conference really know their stuff. That whole event ran smooth as silk from start to finish. Excellent work, abstract ladies and gentlemen. Excellent work.

No, what I need to spend my time talking about today is the aftermath, and the fact that my writer turned up pretty much useless for a week.

You see, Renee's an introvert. A big one. She once took one of those Myers-Briggs tests and the proctor said she checked the scoring three times just to be sure because she'd never had someone score 100% Introverted before.

And the conference, while fun and educational and entertaining and something Renee would sign up for again in a heartbeat, was also really draining.

Some of that is my fault. Maybe she could have spent her time in the panels just quietly taking notes in the back of the room, but I kept pushing her to sit near the front, and make small talk with her neighbors before and after, and ask questions whenever she thought up a decent one. She also maybe didn't need to go to every single workshop, panel, and critique session that it was physically possible to attend. Yeah, a break here and there would probably have been a good idea.

I was just so excited. We haven't been to a writing conference in five years. Five years! That's a really long time for an Idea Salesman to go without networking. And it took everything I had to convince Renee that, even though she didn't have anything ready to pitch yet, and even though money is pretty tight right now, this was still a good investment. I didn't want her to waste a minute.

But the downside to sending an introvert into a situation like that and giving her no time off in the middle is that she spent the whole next week writing no words. Because while she was all kinds of inspired and energized while out there in the thick of things, as soon as she got home and had a few minutes of quiet, the strain of being "on" for so long hit her like a landslide. And then her brain pretty much turned to mush and leaked out her ears.

As someone who lives inside her brain, let me assure you that was not a pleasant process. It sucked. It sucked a lot.

We've sort of got things back together now and the writing engines are revving back up, but man, that was rough. So we're probably not going to do things that way again.

Breaks during an event like that are going to be a must, as is staying at the conference hotel or at least finding an unused room somewhere that she can hide in during those breaks for some peace and quiet.

And maybe we'll schedule conferences at the beginning of vacation weeks from now on, rather than at the end. And if there's not a vacation week available, we'll at least back off on the word count goal for the next couple of days.

But we're also not going to let Renee just melt into a puddle of mush when she gets home either. Even though it was rough on her mentally, taking a whole week off afterward to clean and bake and read is no good either. Balance is the key and all that.

Live and learn, right. We lived and now we've learned. Hopefully I'll be able to put these lessons into action sooner rather than later. I don't want to let Renee push me off for another five years.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-04-26 through 2014-05-02

Well, after several weeks of not reading anything, it was about time I got back to it, don't you think? I certainly do. And guess what? They give you free books at writing conferences! Good, good, just the thing to get me started.

The Best Man, by Kristan Higgins
Sometimes the best man is the one you least expect. . .

Faith Holland left her hometown after being jilted at the altar. Now a little older and wiser, she's ready to return to the Blue Heron Winery, her family's vineyard, to confront the ghosts of her past, and maybe enjoy a glass of red. After all, there's some great scenery there. . .

Like Levi Cooper, the local police chief--and best friend of her former fiancé. There's a lot about Levi that Faith never noticed, and it's not just those deep green eyes. The only catch is she's having a hard time forgetting that he helped ruin her wedding all those years ago. If she can find a minute amidst all her family drama to stop and smell the rosé, she just might find a reason to stay at Blue Heron, and finish that walk down the aisle.

This is the first one I picked up from the stack of paperbacks I brought home from the conference. It's tough for me to read printed books around my kids. They want to see what new toy mommy is playing with. They grab them with their sticky, slobbery fingers. They picks them up and chew on the corners if I set them down to go to the bathroom or check on dinner or something. And did you know paper makes the coolest sound ever when you're ripping it apart?

In short, if a paperback comes into my house, it either gets read quickly or hidden away for safekeeping and then forgotten. So I picked this one up the day after the conference and plowed through it.

And it was good. I've never read anything by Kristan Higgins before, but she made me laugh and tear up during her keynote address, so I don't know why I didn't expect to do the same when reading her book. This story was delightfully entertaining and also quite heartbreaking in places. I found myself laughing right from the first page and there was a scene in the middle there that had me sniffling on the couch right before dinner and I had to take a minute before I could come to the table, lest the kids get confused.

Faith and Levi were wonderful characters and I loved how Higgins wrote them. Watching them fight and flirt and fall was so much fun. I really enjoyed the dynamic between them. The side characters were also interesting and fun. Faith's family is insane in the best possible way and I can't wait to see what happens when brother and sister get their own books.

The only thing I didn't like about the book was all the flashback. I understand that these characters have a past and that impacts their lives and all, but it just felt like too much to me. Some of the flashback scenes were great scenes, but they slowed down the story for me and I found myself skimming ahead.

All in all, a great read that left me curious to know more. I immediately checked out the second book from the library and put the third one on hold.

The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig
I just reviewed this book on Wednesday as part of my Reading About Writing series. Since I just posted about it there, I'm not going to add more here. I just wanted to note it down as something I finished reading last week, because, you know, compulsions and all. And because non-fiction books take me a really long time to read and I want to make sure I get credit when I finally finish one!

(Yes, in my twisted neurotic brain there's the possibilty that someone is out there noting down how many books I've read and judging me for it. Paranoid? Who? Me? Never. Why do you say that?

No, really, why? What do you know? Have you been spying on me?

*ahem* Moving on.)

Unlocked, by Courtney Milan
A perpetual wallflower destined for spinsterhood, Lady Elaine Warren is resigned to her position in society. So when Evan Carlton, the powerful, popular Earl of Westfeld, singles her out upon his return to England, she knows what it means. Her former tormenter is up to his old tricks, and she's his intended victim. This time, though, the earl is going to discover that wallflowers can fight back.

Evan has come to regret his cruel, callow past. At first, he only wants to make up for past wrongs. But when Elaine throws his initial apology in his face, he finds himself wanting more. And this time, what torments him might be love. . .

I read this novella when it first came out back in 2011 and I loved it. I was talking to someone about Courtney Milan's books at the conference (okay, fine, I was fangirling like a damn lunatic to anyone who would sit still long enough) and it made me nostalgic. So I downloaded it back onto my phone and read it again.

And I loved it again. This story spoke to me. I know what it's like to be that girl, the one who everyone laughs at, who has to prepare and strategize and be constantly aware of the exit routes just to get through a social function. And I know what it's like to be on the other side of it too. I've also found myself in the position of having hurt someone and not known how it would ever be possible to begin to apologize for it. Milan does a great job of showing both sides.

I loved how Evan owned his mistakes and really works for redemption. And boy Elaine make him work for it. She really has a huge epiphany moment in the middle of the story and takes control of her life in such a fantastic way. The love story was sweet and sexy. I could have done without the cameos by some of the other characters from the story, as they seemed a little random to me. (I know that's expected in a series, but I'd personally rather they just not be there than be there for no reason.) Still, even with those little moments of oddness, I really enjoyed this story and it made me grin.

Selene, by Lilith Saintcrow
Life isn't easy for a sexwitch. Even your own body betrays you. It's bad enough that Selene is part slave to Nikolai, the Prime Power of Saint City, but she's got her brother Danny and she's got her job at the college. In the postwar wreckage of an uncertain world, it's pretty much all she's ever allowed herself to want.

Then Danny ends up murdered, and Selene finds herself a pawn in a dangerous game. Indentured to a bloodsucking Nichtvren and helpless, told to stop trying to uncover the identity of her brother's killer, Selene has nowhere to turn. If she's a good girl, Nikolai will leave her a little bit of freedom. He'll take care of her, and she'll be safe--if she obeys.

But Selene hasn't survived this long by being obedient to her cursed powers, or to the men who buy her time. Her brother was all she had, and now she's ready to borrow, beg, lie, steal or kill--whatever it takes to avenge him.

And if Nikolai gets in the way, Selene will use every tool in her arsenal to make him regret it. . .

The re-release of the serial went so well, Selene--and both the prequel and sequel short stories--are now available collected in one volume.

From what I can gather, Saintcrow released this story a while ago, but I hadn't discovered the wonder that is her writing at that point, so I missed it. I did catch it when she rereleased it as an online serial and I loved it. Reading in installments over a period of months is not my usual style. I tend to devour books whole in less than 12 hours. Waiting a week for the next chapter nearly killed me every time. We will not discuss how I felt when I found out she was taking a break in the middle.

I reread the entire Dante Valentine series to pass the time. So that killed, you know, a week.

When she decided to release the whole things as a novel, combined with two short stories I'd also missed, I was ecstatic. I downloaded it and jumped right to the short stories, because hey, new fiction! Then I went back and reread the novel in the middle, because hey, awesome novel!

Selene is a fabulous character and I really loved seeing her origin story, as it were. The glimpse of her relationship with Nikolai that I got in the Dante Valentine books struck me as one that really had a wealth of intrigue just waiting to be explored. You just know there's more there.

Selene did not disappoint, either on the original reading or the reread. There's so much tension and fire and passion and trauma burning out of the pages whenever Selene and Nikolai are in a room together. Half the time, I didn't know if I wanted them to rip each other's clothes or heads off. Either would be a totally believable outcome.

Selene is such a badass character. Being a sexwitch, there was the potential for her to be softer, but Saintcrow doesn't write like that. She hates her curse, she hates the life she's forced to live because of it, and she's not proud of a number of the choices she's made, though she wasn't exactly presented with a whole host of better options. Still, she takes all that frustration and rage and pain and channels it into power. She's strong and determined and she doesn't take anything from anyone. Unless she wants to.

Nikolai is also a badass character, though I wasn't as interested in him as I probably should have been. I usually get a lot more out of a good bad guy/antagonist/whatever. He's hot and strong and powerful, but he's also an asshole and a very intelligent and cunning idiot. I kinda want to punch him in the head, and I grinned with savage pride whenever Selene took him down a peg.

As a warning, you should know that this isn't a romance. I mean, it is a gritty sort of love story, but not in the traditional genre sense of the word. If you've read the Dante Valentine series, you know where Selene and Nikolai end up (if one can really they've ended up at that point), but this is not some grand sweeping romantic story with feels and flowers at the end.

The Perfect Match, by Kristan Higgins
What if the perfect match is a perfect surprise?

Honor Holland has just been unceremoniously rejected by
her lifelong crush. And now--a mere three weeks later--Mr. Perfect is engaged to her best friend. But resilient, reliable Honor is going to pick herself up, dust herself off and get back out there. . . or she would if dating in Manningsport, NY, population 715, wasn't easier said than done.

Charming, handsome British professor Tom Barlow just wants to do right by his unofficial stepson, Charlie, but his visa
is about to expire. Now Tom must either get a green card or leave the States--and leave Charlie behind.

In a moment of impulsiveness, Honor agrees to help Tom with a marriage of convenience--and make her ex jealous in the process. But juggling a fiancé, hiding out from her former best friend and managing her job at the family vineyard isn't easy. And as sparks start to fly between Honor and Tom, they might discover that their pretend relationship is far too perfect to be anything but true love. . . 

After finishing the first book in the series and liking it so much, I did what I always do and rushed forward into the next book just as fast as I could. And I'm so glad I did. I loved this book. Honor and Tom were both so great to read about and I completely fell in love with watching them fall in love.

Honor came off as a bit abrupt and cold in The Best Man, so I was expecting something of a thaw-the-ice-queen kind of story. This wasn't that. Honor isn't cold at all. She's more a big bundle of insecurity hiding behind a workaholic shell. Watching her learn to enjoy more about life and take charge of her happiness was better than any thawing ice queen would have been.

Tom. Oh. My. God. He is so hot. All that vulnerability and caring for Charlie. And sexy and smart and that accent. Mmmmm. I don't usually enjoy written accents, particularly in major characters, but every time he walked onto the page and said "Hallo darling" I heard it in Mark Sheppard's voice and I pretty much just wanted to melt into the floor.

(Disclaimer: Despite watching every available episode of Doctor Who and Coupling on BBCA, I'm not at all familiar with the differences in British accents, so it's entirely possible--probably likely--that a mechanical engineer from Manchester would sound absolutely nothing like Mark Sheppard, but I don't care because that's what I heard in my head and I loved it.)

I was unhappy to see more flashbacks. I understood it in The Best Man, because the circumstances of Faith and Levi's relationship depended rather heavily on what had happened with Jeremy, but Tom and Honor have no history together. While knowing things like how Tom's relationship with Charlie's mother fell apart is certainly interesting, I don't think the story really needed it. Maybe it's just a particular pet peeve of mine that no one else cares about, but flashbacks like that yank me right out of the story.

That said, the romance was good and pretty damn sexy for a book that doesn't have any open-door sexytimes. More humor than the first book and less crying, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. All in all, a good read. So good, in fact, that I couldn't wait for my turn in the hold queue on the third book to come up and I just bought it.

Waiting on You, by Kristan Higgins
Is your first love worth a second chance?

Colleen O'Rourke is in love with love. . . just not when it comes to herself. Most nights, she can be found behind the bar at the Manningsport, New York, tavern she owns with her twin brother, doling out romantic advice to the lovelorn, mixing martinis, and staying more or less happily single. See, ten years ago, Lucas Campbell broke her heart. . . an experience Colleen doesn't want to have again, thanks. Since then, she's been happy with a fling here and there, some professional-level flirting and playing matchmaker to her friends.

But a family emergency has brought Lucas back to town, handsome as ever and still the only man who's ever been able to crack her defenses. Seems like maybe they've got some unfinished business waiting for them--but to find out, Colleen has to let her guard down, or risk losing a second chance with the only man she's ever loved.

I was. . . underwhelmed by this book. Don't get me wrong. It was lovely in its way and romantic enough. It's not like I hated it or anything. But the characters just didn't grab me the way I wanted them to. I don't really feel a whole heck of lot of sympathy for characters who have one bad experience and then decide to toss the whole concept of finding love over. And I don't trip and fall all over characters who "suffer for their honor" either. And neither the main characters seemed to do much to transcend those tropes either.

I found myself more interested in the subplots (the evolving relationship with Colleen and her step-mother ended up showing a lot of potential) and wondering about the supporting characters (Tell me more about Connor! I want to know his story!) than in the main love story, which is never a good sign.

And again with the flashbacks. I honestly think a third or possibly even half the story was flashback. Colleen and Lucas have a past. It didn't go well. I get it. Reliving it for chapter upon chapter just distracted from what was actually going on.The scenes are nice and all, but they're almost completely unnecessary, in my opinion.

This is the third book I've read by Kristan Higgins and all three of them have had these huge chapter-length chunks of backstory jammed in throughout the narrative. Nice scenes. Interesting scenes. Sometimes damn funny and/or sexy scenes. But very distracting. Is this standard for her writing style?

I'll probably give the next book a go, mainly because I liked the first and second in this series. But for me, this one was just sort of meh. No bad, but not great either.

What have you been reading lately? Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?