Ocean’s Lure Update

I’m still on track for releasing Ocean’s Lure this spring. The book is currently with an editor. Although there were several beta readers (thank you!), I decided to invest in a professional edit. Apart from wanting to make sure the text is as error-free as possible, as an editor myself I feel it would be hypocritical if I did not hire an editor.

Meanwhile, I am assembling the cover, drafting the acknowledgements, obtaining ISBNs, and otherwise preparing for publication. It should all come together in March (depending on what I get from the editor).

Paying for the edit is a reminder that it’s not enough to write the book – I also need to sell it. However, my marketing plan, to the extent I have one, is to wait until at least the third novel before investing in advertising. Before that comes the second novel. The first draft of that is complete. It’s also set around 2015, this time in Halifax, and features older and more complex protagonists. The working title is Picture This. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be working on it this summer. Do I expect things to go to plan? They rarely do, but that’s no reason to not have a plan.

Enjoy a Free Lunch

Don’t read the comments, I tell myself, and yet, because I am terrible at following my own wise advice, I read the comments. The article will be about a government project, or a politician’s promise that a benefit is coming for many, or the disadvantaged. Being generally on the political left, I think this is a good thing. The comment will claim this is a bad thing, sagely stating the proverb “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

In the late 1980s I purchased a copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. It’s one of my most-used literary reference books, and while most of the information can now be found online, the book remains easy to use, ad-free, and authoritative, which is more than can be said for many online sources.

Cover of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Shows title text and a colour drawing: a bird in a person's hand in the foreground, and in the distance two hazy birds and a bush.
I’ve no recollection of the purchase, but apparently Eaton’s sold books.

The Introduction explains that proverbs once carried much weight, and that “as late as the seventeenth century, proverbs often had the status of universal truths.” After that, proverbs dropped in status, sometimes being ridiculed, and while they are still popular (and still being created), they serve largely “to provide the sauce to relish the meat of ordinary conversation.”

In other words, announcing there is no such thing as a free lunch is not the mic drop moment its users seem to think it is. (By the way, speaking as a former semi-pro audio technician, please do not drop, hit, or tap microphones. “A comedian might think it’s cool to drop the mic after a successful set, but in reality it is damaging a wireless Shure Vox mic that costs a few hundred bucks. And that makes you a douche.”)

“There is no such thing as a free lunch” is noted in the Introduction as an example of a new proverb. It comes from the field of economics, a good reason to be suspicious of its significance, with first recorded usages in the 1930s and 1940s. The proverb was popularized by use and discussion in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Given Heinlein’s politically right perspective, that’s another reason to be suspicious of the proverb. (In my long ago Science Fiction reading days, I recall Have Space Suit, Will Travel as being not particularly good, and while I enjoyed The Door into Summer as a teen, when I read it a few years later I was repulsed by the use of time travel to legitimize an adult-child relationship, and noted the pervasive sexism and the attack on planned economies.)

Proverbs don’t carry much weight, this one is less than a hundred years old, so hardly the wisdom of the ages, and comes out of economics and the political right. Grounds to ignore it completely — but wait, there’s more!

Free lunches were a product of the industrial era. Numerous sources note the tradition grew out of American saloons offering a “free lunch” with beverage purchase, as an advertising gimmick or to skirt alcohol serving laws. It was no secret that the cost of the often cheap and salty lunch was built into the cost of the drink (or drinks) the patrons would purchase. Thus it is patronizing for economists (and online commenters) to make the obvious statement that nothing is free. We know. (Just as we know that free delivery is not actually free, as we add a $15 item to the cart in order to get “free delivery”).

Many proverbs do state the obvious, but manage to be less patronizing. For example, a favourite of mine manages to be both obvious and witty: “Love and a cough cannot be hid.” (Originally Latin, amor tussisque non celantur, first recorded in English in 1325. How did we lose the lovely onomatopoeia of tussisque?)

Though free lunches were not free, they did have a social benefit: “A free lunch-counter is a great leveler of classes.” Next time you hear a social program put down by a comment like “sounds good, but’s there no such thing as a free lunch,” remind yourself it’s a weak and biased argument that states the obvious, “free lunches” existed, and they were a good thing.

Package for You

I’ve had a lot of odd jobs, and some of them were odder than others. I went through high school with no career ambition beyond writing, no desire to attend university (an act of rebellion against my parents, then university students, enroute to earning their PhDs and distinguished academic careers), and no concerns about job skills. After all, in my last two years of high school I worked two part-time jobs, about 30 hours a week, and made more money than I knew what to do with. Which is to say I bought the best music system I ever owned.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed some job skills, so I signed up for a typing course, reasoning that skill could also help with writing. I pawned the music system to pay the rent and buy groceries, and started attending university part-time for job skills and help with writing. Meanwhile, I worked whatever jobs I could get, temping for both office and blue-collar agencies when I could not find permanent jobs.

Given that I pursued a degree in English literature, it’s fair to say the degree helped more with writing than job skills. Supposedly any degree helps with employment, and after five years with one employer they were happy to give me four months unpaid leave to finish my degree. They told me they supported life-long learning. When I returned to the office, newly credentialed, I was demoted two job levels, with the equivalent salary reduction. It turned out my employer was only willing to hold a job, not the job I had before, let alone consider a promotion.

Between no credentials and credentials not recognized, work has sometimes been a challenge. In December of 1988, I was driving passenger vans for a transportation company, taking children to and from schools in situations where the school bus was not appropriate, such as ferrying children from women’s shelters to their schools. The pay was low, the hours limited, the children difficult (understandably so), and there was no work over the Christmas school vacation, so I jumped at the chance to supplement my income by delivering packages for the post office.

Box wrapped with paper and string.

Most jobs where I’ve dealt with the public have involved people who have purchased something – their food, their rollercoaster ride, their delivery to the airport – and they often believed their status as a paying customer, and mine as a low paid employee, entitled them to be demanding about the ingredients, the preferred seat, the speed of my driving. Delivering Christmas parcels was delightfully different. People were glad to see me, and grateful for the service. Sometimes the package was a complete, and happy, surprise. Other times it was expected, even late, but they were still happy it arrived. And I was gone before there was any disappointment over the contents.

It’s tempting to draw some sappy conclusion about the joy of the holidays being found by delivering packages, or receiving them, or perhaps about how everyone is more cheerful at Christmas, but I know from other jobs that everyone is not more cheerful at Christmas. It’s just nice to deliver and receive packages any time – or at least delivery was years ago, when the job involved a company vehicle and an hourly rate, even if it was minimum wage. I’m aware that many folks delivering packages these days do so under less fortunate conditions.

As with every job I’ve had, odd or otherwise, from Christmas package delivery I learned tidbits of information that I find interesting and are fodder for inclusion in stories. In addition to seeing the happiness of the recipients, I learned that a surprising number of people answer the door wearing very little. Risking the sin of vanity, I was younger and fitter then. And to put that in perspective, the surprising number was something like two men and three women out of several hundred people. Also, the promised plain brown wrapper on sex toys doesn’t fool anyone. Incidentally, there was no correlation between state of dress and package, and as a package delivery person my approach to both the packages and the customers was strictly professional.

The following Christmas I was working at a better, full-time job, and I was lucky in my employment for several years after that. I wasn’t odd-jobbing over the Christmas holidays again until about five years ago. I was serving food and distributing party favours at a large New Year’s Eve bash. I’ve never seen so many people so desperately trying to convince themselves they are having fun. It was grim. At least this year they’ll have to stay home. If they’re lucky, someone will deliver a package to them.

I’ll Get There Eventually

It’s the first of December, which means about three weeks to the end of fall, the solstice, and the deadline for sending cards and otherwise preparing to share a little seasonal joy. Which means the chances of me publishing Ocean’s Lure this fall, as I have previously announced here and there, is somewhere near nil.

Picture of wide gravel path through a marsh, to trees several kilometers away.
Salt Marsh Trail, Dartmouth NS. It’s a long walk across the marsh, but you get there eventually.

The good news is that this acknowledgement will not send legions of fans into a frenzy or require stopping of any presses. My failure to meet my self-imposed publishing deadline bothers no-one but me, and me not that much. I rationalize this lack of concern as being good to myself and forgiving of my faults (which is sort of connected with the seasonal celebrations). And it’s not so much laziness as experience resetting goals.

For example, a few years after graduating high school, I decided to obtain an English degree. I thought it might help me write (spoiler alert – it did that, and much more). I started a part-time university program, then dropped out after four courses, out of money. I started again a few years later at a different school, took one course, and failed it twice. (In hindsight, picking a university for its recruitment poster may not have been the wisest decision. I cannot reproduce it here, but you can view Heather Cooper’s stunning University of Guelph recruitment poster at Library and Archives Canada.) Five years after my first attempt, I finally enrolled in a program and stayed in it. It took a total of twelve years for me to earn a three year degree.

So if it takes a little longer to get my first book out, that’s okay. I know I’ll get there. This year is hard for everyone, and we all need to be good to ourselves (and limit travel, social distance, and wear masks). And I haven’t spent all my free time surfing in hopes of finding nuggets of good news and reassurance friends are okay. Among other things, I started a website and twitter account for Somewhat Grumpy Press, the small press that will eventually publish Ocean’s Lure (and has already published Recycled Virgin). It’s also been a good year for editing projects. At this rate, I’ll be able to quit my day job, write and edit novels part-time, and enjoy the royalties from the books I write and sell in…fifteen to thirty years?

Meanwhile, watch for Ocean’s Lure, coming spring 2021. Probably.

Fall Thoughts

September, and the last few weeks of summer, have flown by. At the beginning of the month, I took a long delayed road trip, and that was followed by two weeks of self-isolation. Did I write while traveling? No. Did I write during self-isolation? Also no.

Not writing doesn’t mean I was not productive – I have three editing projects at different stages, and worked on those. I updated the website for Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, and did some planning for the publishing of Ocean’s Lure. And I did some exploring while travelling, to the extent it can be done while observing COVID-19 restrictions.

Fall in Cape Breton. From a previous road trip, but appropriate for discussing Ocean’s Lure, which takes place in Cape Breton during the fall.

Lately I’ve been telling people Ocean’s Lure will be coming this fall. In August, that seemed a long way off. Now it is fall, and the clock is ticking. However, it’s a self-imposed deadline, which means it is less important than the deadlines for my editing projects. I’m not going to be too hard on myself. I consider that self-care, not laziness.

Beach in Cape Breton.

This is the first year since 2012 that I have not participated in the 3 Day Novel Contest. In recent years, the contest has been poorly run, and the new management that appeared less than two months before the 2020 contest weekend did not inspire confidence. By then, I had decided to support a new contest on that weekend, the 3 Day Novella Contest. I am now one of the judges (and thus also have a story-reading deadline). Thanks to previous years’ entries, I have several romance novel first drafts, and I’d rather finish them than write another draft. And that’s another reason for getting Ocean’s Lure out. Much as I love the story, and working on it, there are other stories I want to tell.

My drafts pile is starting to resemble my to-be-read pile, but that’s okay. I’ve no fear of running out of things to read, or things to write. Life is good.

What’s in a Name?

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Romeo and Juliet 2.2 .887-891

When I started writing romance novels, I created a female pseudonym. Among other reasons, I write academically, and, at the time, I thought it a good branding strategy to keep my academic writing and my romance writing separate.

Several years passed as I drafted and revised my novels, and with Ocean’s Lure approaching publication, I stopped using the female pseudonym. Most romance writers I met, especially through the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, accepted a male romance author. Having made progress on various writing fronts, the notion of establishing my romance writing brand as something separate from my other writing seems unimportant. Maybe this is because I’ve grown weary of the concept of personal branding. I’m just me, with many interests, including writing, of many kinds. And I wanted to spend more time writing, and less time promoting myself thorough multiple social media accounts.

When I made the decision to stop using the pseudonym, several well-meaning people recommended I publish romance using my first initial rather than my full name, to keep my gender quiet. It was suggested that some romance readers would not consider anything by a male author. I decided against this, but last week ran a Twitter poll to check that advice:

Twitter Poll. If you read contemporary romance, would you read one by a male author? Never, 0%; Sure, why not, 87.5%; Depends on blurb/reviews, 12.5%; Depends on author bio, 0%.

First, the good news. The vast majority of respondents answered “Sure, why not?” That’s reassuring. However, the bad news is that there were only 8 votes (that’s out of 198 people that saw the tweet, over four days).

I’m not sure this is a meaningful result, as least with regard to whether or not romance readers would read one by a male author. What I do learn from this poll is that I don’t need to worry about losing sales by using my full name. I need to worry about reaching potential readers.

My marketing strategy, such as it is, is to wait until I have three books out, rather than invest a lot of time, effort, and money marketing one book. But I’ll still let people know when the first one is available. If sales are slow (and, being realistic here, they will be), I know not to blame my male name.

The Palm Tree Solution

My forthcoming novel Ocean’s Lure has been read by half-a-dozen beta readers (thanks!), and I am reviewing the comments and making edits. On the whole, the comments were positive. It stood out that regular romance readers were generally more positive than non-regular romance readers, which I found reassuring, and no one suggested I was doing any of the terrible things men do when writing female characters.

He says he loves her, he says he loves her not.

One comment was that my hero makes a verbal declaration of love too soon. It’s a fair point, and I struggled with whether to include it when I wrote the draft. Verbal declarations of love are a delicate subject, and I am much influenced by a 1986 Vicki Hearne essay in the New Yorker, in which she wrote, among other things, “Cats do not declare love much, they enact it” (August 25, 1986). At the same time, I felt a verbal declaration was something my character would do. I should confess that I also felt readers might expect this – much as I do not want to ‘write to market,’ I also know such declarations are common in the genre, and perhaps expected by readers.

Fortunately, I can have my cake and eat it too, by making the question of whether a declaration of love is appropriate the character’s problem, not mine. Making a plot or character problem the character’s problem works for a variety of scenarios. Not sure how to get a character from A to B? That becomes something the character needs to solve. Not sure if a nickname makes sense? Let the character explain it. Timeline confusing? Someone can explain it to another character. Is this just a way to sneak in exposition and cover or acknowledge awkward plot or character points? Yes, but it can be effective. I call this the Palm Tree Solution.

Armandoartist / CC BY-SA

Film director Richard Rush wanted a particular location for his 1980 film The Stunt Man (view trailer). The story concerns the making of a period film, set in northern Europe during World War I. However, the location Rush wanted had palm trees everywhere. As Rush explains in this interview (12:44 to 14:40), he solved his directing problem of the palm trees in his desired location by making it a problem for the director character in the film. Here’s how the scene he mentions appeared in the film (30 seconds at start of clip).

A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but my character will make his declaration of love, he’ll be unsure if that’s the right thing to do, and the heroine will suggest it’s too soon. This is in character for both, and he has the point of view at the time, so his hesitation is easy to add. My hesitation to include the declaration is addressed, those who’d like the hero to make such a declaration are satisfied, those who object are satisfied, and the story is improved. Thank you, beta readers.

Studying Romance Novels

During three decades of part-time university studies, I developed an interest in the social, industrial, and technical forces that shape the content and understanding of films. Various aspects of the subject continue to fascinate me, which explains why I still research and write about film classification systems, why I recently bought a Laserdisc player, and other eccentricities. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Although reading and writing romance novels is a pleasure, I can’t help but consider the academic film theory I learned and how it might apply. Since much of the theory in film studies originates in literature studies, this is not a stretch, but rather than re-inventing the wheel, I should look at what has already been done. Step one completed: I ordered Janice Radway’s classic work, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature.

Meanwhile, I’ve just acquired a copy of Genre: The Musical. I obtained this for an essay by Richard Dyer: “Entertainment and Utopia.” To give credit where credit is due, this essay was brought to my attention when Linda Williams used Dyer’s theoretical approaches to musicals in her work studying narrative pornographic films.

Dyer notes that entertainment pleases us by showing utopia – a simple world where people have agency and intense feelings, and there is abundance, honesty, and community.

Richard Dyer’s categories and definitions of utopian aspects in entertainment. “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Genre: The Musical, edited by Rick Altman. Routledge, London, 1981, 175-189. Originally printed in Movie #24, Spring 1977, 2-13.

Sounds good, though he also notes that entertainment typically disregards issues related to race, class, and sexuality. We’ve made little progress, except perhaps on sexuality, since he wrote that in 1977. He adds that since our entertainments take place in a capitalist society, they promote consumption and the notion that capitalism can lead us to utopia.

For people to accept utopia in a story, there needs to be a connection to the present reality – without drawing too much attention to how the present is not utopia. That might make us question capitalism. Dyer proposes three approaches for how musical films attempt to connect reality and utopia without dwelling on the gap:

  • Separated, where the musical numbers present the utopia, and the story takes place in the present. This is typically a “backstage musical,” such as 42nd Street. The musical numbers eventually take over the film. It occurs to me that this is similar to romance stories where an ordinary person meets a billionaire (typically successful in business). Their world is the utopia, seen in isolated scenes before the ordinary person crosses over to it.
  • Integrated, where the musical numbers introduce the problem or the solution to the problem, in an effort to distract, and make both the problem and the solution literally upbeat. Mamma Mia, for example, resolves finding your father through a series of ABBA songs. This is like contemporary romance and especially romantic comedy, where meet cutes and misunderstandings are key parts of the plot. Suspense, faith, or erotica are other distractions, and there’s often a subplot of achieving business success. Like musicals, the lead couple may have several ‘solos,’ the supporting cast may have some numbers, and we end with the lovers duet.
  • Dyer describes the third form as the least common: Dissolved, where the film is somehow distanced from the present day. This is often done by setting the film in a past, which, no matter how grim it seems at first, works with our sense of nostalgia to evoke a glorious utopian era. Oliver! comes to mind as a musical film example. The distance is also a distraction. This category would apply to historical romances, as well as stories involving modern royalty, the paranormal, and even Amish stories, and may be the most popular form of romance novel. Utopia, or a happy ending, is easier to achieve in a more refined, magical, or simpler time.

These categories are not necessarily exclusive. An historical romance with a wealthy duke and comic misunderstandings gives us utopia that is primarily dissolved from our present realities, with elements of separation and integration. It could be argued that not all films, or even all musicals, present utopia. However, romance novels, with happy endings by definition, do give us utopia.

I find it useful, when reading and writing romance, to be aware of the tensions between presenting relatable characters and situations and presenting a happy ending, and ways to address those tensions. I also find it useful to recognize how entertainment utopias may ignore social issues. Modern romance novels are often good at addressing issues of sexuality, but race and class are less frequently addressed. Agency (including sexual), intense feelings, abundance, honesty, and community are common to most happy ever after endings, but there’s room to add more utopian aspects. That would be good for everyone – and might help sales too!

There Must be a Better World Somewhere

A couple of months ago, I justified spending time writing on the grounds that the world needs positive stories (Pondering the Pandemic). Since then, things have gotten worse. We appear to be recovering from the pandemic, but there is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19. There’s no vaccine and treatments remain uncertain. Meanwhile, I’ve learned I have a cancer that probably won’t kill me, but does compromise my immune system. I’m more likely to be a carrier, and more likely have complications if I develop COVID-19.

But the pandemic has become old news, replaced by stories of racist murders, the protests those killings have sparked, the riots that follow some protests, the trampling of protest and press rights, and the escalating authoritarian madness coming from the American president.

With all this going on, I still believe we need positive stories, though in the last few months I have done nothing to contribute to that pool. My first romance, Ocean’s Lure (new title!), was with beta readers (the comments were mostly supportive). I could have been working on another story, but I started a new day job, and my editing sideline saw three projects originally to be done in sequence all come due at the same time. Another few weeks, and Ocean’s Lure will get its last revision before publication, coming late summer or fall.

Happy Reader Mascaron & a Sprinkler Alarm (New York, NY)
Some rights reserved by takomabib No changes made.

When I talk about writing positive stories, since I am writing romance, the key aspect is they demonstrate people finding supportive and healthy relationships. Within the genre, that’s the HEA – happy ever after. That does not necessarily mean the relationships are always a straight white man marrying a straight white woman. And even if that is the primary relationship in the story, I may sneak a less conventional relationship into backstory or subplot, and frame it in a positive manner.

However, there are other things I like to promote in my work. I believe every story is a political statement – it expresses what is good and bad about various power relations, group decisions, use of resources, and so on. So I try and show my characters, or at least my good characters, as respecting the environment, being concerned about poverty, achieving satisfying work, enjoying creative expression, appreciating (and representing) sexual and racial diversity, and so on.

It is easy to say that none of this is realistic. People end up in lousy relationships, with lousy jobs, and racism and sexism persist. Yes, that may be the reality, but stories can tell us what is possible. Writing and reading stories that portray optimistic solutions to social problems is itself an act of optimism, and a first step to resistance and change, leading to a better world.