Jilly: Books That Put The World To Rights

When you’re feeling down, do you use fiction to restore your emotional equilibrium? I know I do.

Many of my friends, on both sides of the pond and on differing sides of the political divide, are feeling angry and/or depressed at the state of our world right now. They’re responding in a variety of ways, but the one thing they have in common is that almost all of them are finding their balance by losing themselves for an hour or two in a well-chosen and usually much-loved book.

Some people find catharsis in a story where the good guys smite the baddies and justice prevails. Sometimes I want smiting. Usually I prefer something gentler, upbeat, a fun story in a world where smarts, humor, kindness and generosity triumph.

Austen, Heyer, Pratchett and Crusie are bankers for me, but we’ve talked about them at length here, so chances are you already know whether they do it for you.

With that in mind, I’d like to share three recently-discovered favorites, in the hope that you might find them as restorative as I do.

The Kingpin of Camelot—Cassandra Gannon
A light, twisted and entertaining mash-up of well-known fairytale characters in an alternative Camelot where people are born Good or Bad. Good Folk (who are not all good) are privileged, while Bad Folk (who are not all bad) form the underclass. Following the untimely death of King Arthur, his evil regent The Scarecrow seeks to marry Queen Guinevere and claim the throne for himself. Gwen, who is Good, needs to protect her daughter, which she does by marrying Midas, the biggest, smartest, Baddest gangster in Camelot. This story has contracts, magic, humor, snark, battles, a child who is the antithesis of a plot moppet, a heroine with sweaty stable boy fantasies, a world put to rights and a fabulous Happy Ever After.

Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox—Forthright
Tsumiko, a teacher at St Midori’s School of the Heavenly Lights, unexpectedly inherits a fabulous estate, a huge fortune, and a butler. Argent is a fox in human form, a powerful trickster who is magically bound to obey Tsumiko. Argent needs Tsumiko for his own survival, but he resents and possibly hates her for it (he’s tricky, so you can’t be sure exactly what he hates). Tsumiko is the first of Argent’s owners to reject the idea that one person should be able to own another. With implacable determination she sets out to free him, uses her new-found wealth and power to build a caring and diverse community, finds a purpose in life and earns lasting love. This book is as delicious as a cup of top notch hot chocolate on a cold day. It hits all my pleasure buttons and I’m eagerly anticipating the second book in the Amaranthine Saga, Kimiko and the Accidental Proposal, which goes on sale in a week or so. Continue reading

Jilly: Girl With Sword

Michaeline and I both found ourselves captivated by the same snippet of news this weekend: the story of Saga, an eight year-old Swedish girl who found an authentic 1,500 year-old sword while playing by a lake.

Click here to read Michaeline’s post, which includes links to news articles as well as one of the best Monty Python sketches ever. Micki also points out that last summer a seven year-old girl found a sword in an English lake associated with Excalibur, King Arthur’s legendary blade. Are you seeing a pattern yet? Micki is, and she’s developed a Theory. Check out her post to find out more 🙂 .

My response is simpler than Michaeline’s. I just love, love, love the Girl With Sword trope (must add it to my Id List), and judging by the number of GWS Fantasy and Urban Fantasy book covers currently gracing the Zon, I am not alone. I added a few examples to this post, so those of you who don’t read fantasy can see what I mean.

I hadn’t really thought about it until this weekend, but swords are special, right?

These images are about more than seeing a strong, powerful heroine defend her community or embrace her destiny. I don’t think I’d respond the same way to Girl With Crossbow or Tomahawk, and I’m really not keen on Girl With Gun.

I think there are three main reasons I’m all over Girl With Sword:

1. Swords have the weight of history behind them. According to Wikipedia, renowned swords appear in the folklore of every nation that used swords. The Vikings, Maori, Samurai; Parsifal, Charlemagne, Beowulf, Arthur… Give your heroine a sword, especially one with a name, and you’re placing her in the pantheon of legends. Continue reading

Jilly: What’s on Your Id List?

What things in fiction, big or small, really do it for you? Tropes, characters, premises or details that you enjoy so much you’d auto-buy a book or stick with a really bad movie because of them?

A couple of weeks ago I listened to Writing For Your Id, a workshop presented at this year’s RWA National conference by Dr. Jennifer Barnes, a psychologist, cognitive scientist, and YA romance author. I’m super-grateful to 8 Lady Jeanne for recommending it.

The first part of the presentation, which would have been worth the price of admission, was that certain universal pleasures have become hard-wired into our brains, and encountering those treats when we read gives us a deep-seated hit of happy. Stories or scenes depicting sex, touch, beauty, wealth, power, competition and danger push our pleasure buttons. Different genres are associated with different pleasures, and the workshop offered suggestions about different ways to create pleasure-centric stories and to work with and against the typical pleasure buttons.

Lots of food for thought there, but what really resonated with me was the second part of the presentation: that you make your stories distinctive and memorable by adding in to them stuff that you, the writer, personally really, really like.

The idea is to develop a list of all the things that do it for you and use those things to bring excitement to your writing.

Work out which pleasures recur. Which ones you’re strong on and vice versa. And if you’re not looking forward to writing, get yourself in the mood by adding in something from your Id List.

Dr. Barnes said she has a list of more than a thousand items. I just made a start on mine, but here are a few things I came up with.

Sensible, smart, plain heroines who get the hot guy
Especially the overlooked bluestocking sister with a drop-dead gorgeous sibling.
I’d put Lizzy Bennet top of this list—Jane is beautiful, but Lizzy’s smart and interesting. Or quiet, competent Mary Challoner from Heyer’s Devil’s Cub.

Heroines who shoot the hero
That would be Mary Challoner again. And Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels. And Sophy from The Grand Sophy (well, she shoots a friend to prevent the hero from challenging him to a duel, but I think it counts). Continue reading

Jilly: Into Autumn

It’s September already. How did that happen?

Technically it’s another couple of weeks to the Autumnal Equinox, but the last public holiday has been celebrated, the kids are back at school, and it’s time to knuckle down. These days most of us don’t have to take in the harvest or stockpile supplies to keep our families alive over the winter months, but we still have that legacy of applying ourselves, of needing to put things to bed before the sun sets on the year.

When I had a desk job I used to dread this time of year. It was always a perfect storm of updating the current year’s budgets; preparing for the financial year end; writing, presenting and updating the business plan for the upcoming year and five years; carrying out staff appraisals; working through bonuses and incentive plans; and trying desperately to squeeze in a little ‘me’ time for my birthday. Three and a half months would pass in a blur and I’d red-line it so much that when Christmas finally arrived I’d hit the wall and get sick.

For the last six years I’ve been (mostly) in control of my own schedule. This autumn is somewhat bittersweet since for the first time in years I don’t have to worry about my mum’s health, and we have a choice over where to spend the holidays. It makes me even more determined to use my privilege wisely and well.

Continue reading

Jilly: The Appeal of Foreign Stories

Do you read contemporary stories set in countries other than the USA? What kind of stories are they? What do you especially like about them?

I have a reason for asking.

I’m just back from a most excellent vacation in the States, including an action-packed weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin with fellow 8 Lady Kay, followed by a few days in picturesque Door County (click here to read Kay’s description of our excursions to the Northern Sky Theater Company).

Before I met up with Kay, I spent an afternoon in Chicago talking all things writing with a developmental editor. Mostly we focused on Alexis, but we also talked about my English/Scottish contemporary romance, which I decided to dust off in time for the next (and final) RWA Golden Heart contest.

The editor gave me the same feedback I heard from a very respected agent a couple of years ago when I tried to shop this book: the writing is strong, but a contemporary British setting, with all British characters, is hard to sell outside the UK. She said that the story offered a kind of insider perspective on life in London and Scotland, which is not what the mainstream American romance reader is conditioned to expect.

In her view, when US readers pick up a foreign-set story, they expect the setting to be either

  1. exotic;
  2. glamorously urban; or
  3. small, close-knit communities where the culture is a large part of the appeal.

Continue reading

Jilly: Vicarious Thrills

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware that our Jeanne’s debut novel, The Demon Always Wins, is now available for preorder on Amazon and will be released for sale on 1 September. Squee!

Some of the 8 Ladies have been published before, so it’s not technically our first book, but it’s the one Jeanne was working on when we all first met (virtually) in class at McDaniel College. When she said it was a re-telling of the story of Job as a paranormal romantic comedy I remember thinking, “that’s interesting, and different.”

Because we spent a whole year in class talking about our stories and critiquing each other’s scenes, I think we all feel a certain sense of ownership of this book. We got to know Jeanne’s dark, snarky, funny voice. We saw her delete a fantastic opening scene only to replace it with one even better. We watched her polish her manuscript until it became a Golden Heart winner, and then take it up another level with the help of rigorous professional editing. Continue reading

Jilly: Alpha Males Revisited

Is anyone up for more discussion on the evergreen topic of Alpha Male heroes in romance fiction?

Mr. Alpha has been on my mind recently, thanks to a combination of circumstances. I lost a chunk of writing time earlier this year following the death of my mum. Dealing with her estate has been a time suck, so the books I had hoped to self-publish this year are now rescheduled for 2019. Which means that I will still be unpublished at the end of 2018. That’s frustrating, but the upside is that the RWA has decided to run the Golden Heart contest for one more year, and now I will be eligible to enter. I would love, love, love to final in the Golden Heart, to join the supportive and welcoming sisterhood that Jeanne described in her recent post, The True Heart of the Golden Heart.

In planning my final assault on the contest, I decided that in addition to entering my Alexis paranormal stories, I’d dust off the English/Scottish contemporary romance I worked on at McDaniel and which I haven’t read in the last three years or so.

I got fairly close to snagging an agent with that manuscript, and it finaled in a number of local RWA contests, so I thought it should be relatively easy to tweak.

O.M.G. I am sooo glad I never sold that book. It didn’t need a quick edit so much as a comprehensive rewrite. I think the general premise, the characters, the community and most of the plot points are solid, but among other things, the hero (who is, obvs, a very good guy) made me cringe. He was guilty of arrogant asshattishness rather than the kind of consent offences Jeanne discussed in her excellent post The Thin Line Between Alpha and Predatory, but still. Even if his BDE showboating was a persona rather than his true self, the patronizing way he interacted with the heroine was simply not okay. I had to give him a thorough makeover.

The thing I found curious is Continue reading