Thursday, September 21, 2006

Attack of the Chicken Taco

It's been two weeks since my last post, and I'm down a total of 31 pounds. You'll notice my weight loss has slowed a bit. That's because I went three days without losing anything. I had a minor infection of one of my incisions, and my body took its revenge by lowering my metabolism. I had kind of a reverse fever, with a body temp running around 95.3 at one point. Uck. Three days ago, that finally lifted, and I'm losing a pound a day.

My doctor tells me my energy level will continue to "drift" for another week or more as my body fights the weight loss. This means that I often feel like I've been run over by a tank.

The only way to avoid feeling like hell is protein, which has become my drug of choice. The post-op pain is basically gone, and I'm off all the interesting pain meds. Yay!

Trouble is, protein is a challenge, as I indicated last time. There's shakes, but I hate those suckers. Then Tuesday night, I decided to take a go at the baked chicken at the local grocery store. It was WONDERFUL. So I ate as much as I dared, knowing that I need the protein desperately.

The next day my strength level felt almost back to normal. I went to the doctor and got a couple of stitches out that were causing the incision problem, then decided to go to lunch with my husband. My nurse had suggested I might try Mexican food -- refried beans and a tiny amount of chicken. I know, sounds nuts, but hey, I was feeling cocky. I got a chicken taco and carefully picked little tiny bits of chicken out of it. No lettuce or sauce; I knew that would get me. And a couple of bites of refried beans.

Big mistake. Biiiiiiig mistake. I think that damned restaurant slipped me some sugar. I hadn't even finished eating before my chest started hurting. I expected the pain to decrease, but it only got worse.

I got home, and decided to go see my mother, taking her a copy of my new book. I ended up pacing the floor, fighting waves of chest pain. Before I knew what hit me, I was bent over her sink getting rid of the chicken. Disgusting as that was, it ended the pain.

Staggered home and passed out for four hours. During which, obviously, I didn't eat.

So as a result, I'm in a protein deficit. I've got to get my hands on some protein, but the thought of one of those shakes makes me feel faintly green. And obviously, not big on chicken right now.

This will get better. I know that. I have only another couple of weeks, maybe two months on the outside, to endure. Then my pouch will be healed and I'll start on the road to a better version of me, thinner and more healthy.

I just have to get through the next couple of months.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Building Knight 2.0

Aug. 29, 2006

I lay on the hospital gurney listening to the click click of the wheels as the young woman wheeled me down the corridor. A pair of double doors appeared ahead of me. A big white sign on them said OR. My heart started pounding as the doors swung wide and the gurney sailed through.

For a moment, I had the sensation of riding a roller coaster -- that instant when you reach the top of the first great hill and see the endless swoop ahead of you, and your every instinct screams "I WANT TO GET OFF!" But of course, you can't.

I had been working for this moment for months. I could have bought a mini-van for what I spent on this particular E-ticket. I'd swung from panic to exhilaration, and I'd had to reschedule the deadline for a book. I'd read countless books on the subject, and I was convinced I was doing the only thing I possibly could -- the right thing for me.

Gastric bypass surgery.

Unlike many MO -- morbidly obese -- people, I had not been hugely fat from childhood. In fact, I exercised and watched my weight until I got pregnant with my son. Unfortunately, I took my pregnancy as a licence to eat.

By the time Anthony was born 21 years ago, I was 40 pounds overweight. I then hit the yo-yo diet syndrome with a vengeance, dieting, exercising, trying everything I could to lose weight. Then sabotaging myself between diets by yielding to every tempting sweet that came my way. Not surprisingly, I only got heavier and heavier. The last five or six years, I'd given up on dieting completely and begun a free fall into weight gain.

Finally my mother told me she thought I should have the surgery, because otherwise I was going to die. I was stunned. Mom had always been violently opposed to bariatric surgery, viewing it as dangerous and ineffective. For her to suggest I had come to the point of needing something that radical suggested I was indeed headed for self-destruction if I didn't do something.

So I started doing research, deeply interested in anything that would help me out of the hole I'd dug for myself.

I had somehow come up with the idea that gastric bypass surgery was the "easy" way out, and that I would never have to diet again. I quickly found out there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, gastric bypass comes with a wonderful honeymoon period in which people lose huge amounts of weight in very short periods of time. And yes, it can be very effective, allowing people to lose hundreds of pounds, going from obese to slim and healthy in a couple of years.

This miracle takes a good deal of surgical engineering.

The surgeon creates a small pouch at the top of the stomach and then re-routes part of the small intestine to it, where the two are surgically fused. Though a normal stomach is about the size of a human head, the new pouch is only the size of an egg. And immediately post-op, it's actually smaller than that, holding only about an ounce of food.

Yet the patient experiences no real hunger for months. The tiny pouch is so quickly filled, hunger is short-circuited. The pouch will come to hold more as it heals, but not as much as it did before. Hunger eventually returns, but I'm told it's never as savage as it is pre-op. It can be managed by concentrating on proteins and keeping fat and sugar to a minimum.

(Actually, many patients can't eat anything with fat or sugar for years afterward without experiencing dumping syndrome, a condition peculiar to gastric patients. Rich food hits the small intestine and the liver dumps insulin into the blood, which causes increased heartbeat, chest pains, dizziness, nausea and vomiting for one really miserable hour. It's the ultimate in negative conditioning; many people lose all taste for the cakes and candies that they were once addicted to.)

Unfortunately, some people learn to "eat around the pouch," by grazing on small amounts of food all day long, or by breaking the rules and drinking alcohol or eating high-fat food. That's when they put back on the weight they lost.

But for 80 percent of gastric bypass patients, the surgery is successful, allowing them to keep off the majority of their weight permanently. Studies show the surgery can lengthen the life expectancy of a MO person by fifteen years or more. Many serious problems, like diabetes, sleep apnea, joint problems, and even heart disease are all but cured.

Unfortunately, because it's major surgery, there is a small risk of death. Any time a MO person goes under the knife, there's a higher risk of death from a variety of causes, including blood clots, pneumonia, and unforseen complications. My surgeon, Dr. Paul Ross, had done over 300 surgeries with two fatalities, which is pretty good. Ross is a compassionate, caring man, who is dedicated to helping morbidly obese people reclaim their lives. I really liked him, so I felt very comfortable putting my life in his hands.

Well, as comfortable as you can feel putting your life in anybody's hands. Which is why I was having an anxiety attack as they wheeled me into pre-op to get my IVs inserted.

That was a major challenge in itself. I was dehydrated from the bowel prep the day before -- I'll spare you the details of THAT little adventure-- and I was scared out of my furry little mind, so my veins had shrunk down in my arms. The nurses stuck me repeatedly but couldn't get the IV to thread. They eventually had to wrap my arms in hot towels and wait 30 minutes while I went slowly out of my mind. I wanted it over so bad.

Finally they succeeded, and off I went to surgery. I was surrounded by briskly moving figures in green, with huge white lights hovering over my head. Then the doctor put me to sleep, and that was that.

There's something in the drugs that keep you from remembering the immediate aftermath of the procedure. I don't remember the recovery room at all. The first thing I do remember is the agonizing process of getting to my feet with the help of my husband and a physical therapist soon after coming back from surgery.

Yes, I had just been gutted like a carp, but if they didn't get me up and moving, my chances of a blood clot or pneumonia were really high. So I took three steps one way and three steps the other before I was allowed to collapse back into bed.

The pain was not good, but I had a happy little morphine pump that helped a lot. My dreams are normally vivid, but that morphine gave them a real kick.

What maddened me the most was thirst. I wasn't allowed anything by mouth until the day after surgery, because they had to make sure my new digestive system wasn't leaking. Hours of thirst resulted, with me sucking on little sponges on sticks to try to keep my mouth wet. I wasn't actually dehydrated, because of my IV, but my mouth didn't know that. By the time I went down for the x-rays, my tongue felt the size and texture of an old athletic sock, and tasted about that good.

Luckily, everything was fine, and I went back to my room for a glorious sugar-free popsicle and water.

Over the days that followed, my husband removed any doubts I ever may have had about how much he loves me. He left the hospital only to change clothes and shower, staying with me all the rest of the time and gently badgering me to drink. Solid food wasn't on the menu, but I could have jell-O and protein drinks. I finally went home last Friday, four days after the surgery.

In the week since then, I have lost --according to my home scales -- 21 pounds. From 316, I'm down to 295. That's a staggering amount in such a short time.

They weren't kidding about not being hungry either. I can only eat about half a scrambled egg before I feel stuffed. Yet though my stomach isn't hungry, I found food commercials maddening at first. Now they don't bother me as much.

I am still struggling with weakness -- not surprising, considering I'm only getting about 300 to 600 calories a day -- and pain is nagging. But that was to be expected. In truth, I'm doing much, much better than I feared.

But my relationship with food is changing. Instead of being something I crave as a sensual indulgence, it's become a somewhat grim necessity. I need about 60 grams of protein a day, but when you can only eat a tablespoon of food at a time, you simply can't get that much in. You have to drink protein shakes, each of which has 20 grams of protein. Some of the shakes I've tried in the past week would make a vulture gag, but without them, I feel too rotten to move. Protein is the only thing that helps the energy level, as is drinking 64 oz of fluid a day.

I'm also deathly afraid of dumping syndrome. I experienced a minor episode with some creamed chicken soup that made my heart race and my chest hurt. I definitely do not want the full-fledged deal, not with my insides still healing. My sister and I went grocery shopping, and I studied ingredient lists, searching for hidden sugar and considering fat content. It seems if something's low sugar, it's high fat and vice versa.

I am only eleven days into my quest for the new Angela Knight. I have a great deal to learn, new habits to acquire and bad ones to break.

Wish me luck.

Oh, for more on gastric bypass surgery, check out this support group:

--Angela Knight

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A few words about women's erotica

Summer is here, and with it the usual romance writers' conferences. Once again, editors of various romance houses are talking about acquiring erotica and erotic romance. But some of the things I'm hearing have started to worry me.

(This is not, by the way, a comment about my own wonderful editor, Cindy Hwang, who really does get it.)

Erotica and women's erotica are extremely new markets, and the houses aren't sure yet what's going to sell. So they're trying all kinds of stuff to see what works.

Since both erotica and women's erotica are topics I care about, I decided to share my thoughts -- (and hope I don't get myself blackballed in the process.)

Now, when I was 20, before I became a really diehard romance reader, I read erotica. And since nobody was publishing women's erotica, there was nothing to read but erotica for men. I was desperate enough to read it anyway, because frankly, I had more libido than boyfriends. (This was MANY, many pounds ago, and before I met the man of my dreams.)

I found men's erotica unsatisfying stuff, frankly. Yes, some it was arousing, more or less, but mostly it was just frustrating. The heroines were all life support systems for genitalia, which made it difficult to care about them, while the guys were cads who treated the women like toilet paper. Even when a female character had a bit more to her, she usually loudly declared her independence by the end of the book and flounced away, leaving the hero a broken man.

As for plot -- surely you're joking. Men don't read erotica for plot. It only takes them 10 minutes to beat off. If they want a plot, they'll go read WAR AND PEACE. Now, me -- it takes me a bit longer, which gave me far too much time to think, "This doesn't make any sense."

As a reader, I wanted characters I could care about, male and female. I wanted a happy ending. I wanted a ROMANCE. And I wanted hot sex. I was obviously not going to get that from men's erotica, so eventually I got disgusted and went off and started reading romance.

At the time, the hot sex was more implied than anything else, and most of the heroes in those bodice rippers were jerks, but there was a happy ending and a romance, and I decided that was as close as I was going to get to what I wanted.

In the meantime -- around 1990 or so -- I started writing what nobody else was giving me. Steamy sex, happy endings, and romance. Utterly unpublishable at the time, of course, because the stories were too short and the sex was WAY too hot for the romance market.

So, fast forward to 2006, when romance houses have suddenly discovered erotica. So what do some of these editors say they're looking for? Plot? Not particularly important, one said.

"We don't really want to see the hero's point of view," another said. (Sounds to me like he's going to become a life-support system for genitalia. Sound familiar?)

"We don't necessarily want a happy ending. We want a series of sexual encounters. These are not romances."

Well, SNOT. Here I waited 20 years for New York to start publishing what I want to read, and most of the houses (with the exception of the splendid and wonderful Berkley) are doing the exact same damn thing as the men's erotica that turned me off when I was 20. Except maybe more artsy. As one writer friend explained, "These books are supposed to be voyages of sexual self-discovery for the heroine."

Hell, THAT doesn't sound like any fun!

And that's the real problem. Erotica is supposed to be FUN. That's the whole point. If I am sitting here getting all warm and yummy reading about some marvelous hunk, I am NOT, thank you, in the mood for a voyage of sexual self-discovery.

Let me be crude: I WANT TO GET OFF.

Do not hand me an endless series of depressing and meaningless sexual encounters. I did that when I was in college, dammit, and I hated it the first time.

Here's a clue, ladies: orgasms and depression are not a good combo. In fact, where there is depression, there is no orgasm. Orgasms are fun. Sex with a handsome, horny guy is FUN. It's supposed to be fun.

Now, if I pick up your work of erotic fiction expecting to have a warm, happy time, followed by molesting my husband, and instead you leave me feeling like it's 1982 and I've just woken up next to yet another jerk...

Well, the next time I see one of your books sitting on the shelves at B&N, I will keep right on shopping.

On the other hand, if you show me a good time, at the end of which Our Heroine finds warmth and joy with a guy with a really big d**k...well, you've got a new fan.

Consider this a message to all you budding newbie Women's Erotica writers. Keep this post in mind, and I think you'll find many happy sales.

Angela Knight

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Steam 101: A Guide to Writing Romance

I thought I had posted this here, but apparently not.

By the way, if you're a kid -- GO AWAY. This is not for you. You don't write romance novels anyway. Go download somebody's music.

Erotic romance is hot. Readers love it, and publishers are actively working to acquire it. Yet surprisingly, editors say it’s hard to find people who write erotic romance well, despite the fact that almost every romance has at least one love scene in it.

So if you can write erotic romance – or even just regular romance with good love scenes – you’ve got a real advantage when it comes to finding a publisher. I’m proof of that: a couple of years ago I was approached by an New York editor who’d read my novellas in the Secrets anthologies. She e-mailed me to ask if I was willing to write something steamy for Berkley.

As anybody knows who has spent any time trying to get published in romance, editors simply do not approach writers who’ve never been published by a New York house.

Apparently, I’d done something right; I ended up with a two book contract.
This article is an attempt to share a few techniques and principles with those interested in writing romance – including the non-erotic variety.

Repeat after me: Romance does not equal porn

A year or so ago, I saw an RWA-sponsored ad to the effect that romance novels don’t really have all that much sex in them. It then listed various books and the number of love scenes in them – generally just one or two.

That ad really ticked me off, because it implied that a book with only one sex scene is somehow more moral than one with four or five. I’ve encountered that attitude a lot in other romance writers who sniff that they write love scenes only because their publishers demand it.
Apparently, like Victorian wives suffering the attentions of randy husbands, they lie back and think of England.

My personal belief is that somebody who writes mechanical sex solely to placate a publisher and make money is a lot more guilty of being a pornographer than I am.

No matter how much some writers might like to pretend otherwise, at their core, romances are about a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, not a purely spiritual union of souls. After all, when was the last time you read a romance staring Ghandi?

I’ve heard writers argue that their readers don’t care about sex, that in fact, they skip the sex scenes. My response is: then you’re doing something wrong. Anytime a reader can skip any scene in a book, the writer has screwed up. Every scene should advance the plot, characterization, or conflict -- preferably all three. That includes love scenes. A scene your reader can skip needs to be rewritten.

Now I’m going to make a confession: sometimes I skip love scenes too. But it’s not because I’m somehow too moral to read them. It’s because they’re boring! Too many of them are just like every other love scene I’ve read in my twenty years as a romance junkie.

The worst sin, the very worst sin, a writer can commit is boring the reader. When you bore her, you cheat her out of the seven bucks she paid for your book.

Not only that, but you’ve cheated the characters you’ve worked so hard to make real in the rest of the novel. You’ve basically turned them into porn actors, moaning and going through the motions because your publisher wants so many sex scenes per book.

Worst of all, you’ve cheated yourself as an artist. You haven’t had the guts to realize your artistic vision for that book because you’re either afraid of being called a pornographer or you’re worried the neighbors will think you’re kinky.

Screw the neighbors. Screw the critics. Tell the story of those two passionate people you’ve created without flinching and without chastely averting your eyes. That’s what being an artist is all about.

Sex is action

One of the hardest things about writing a good love scene – particularly when you’ve written a lot of them – is how to keep them fresh and different.

After all, the physical actions of sex are basically the same – kiss this, stroke that, insert tab A into slot B. You can spice things up by using different positions, locations and props, but that only works so many times.

Besides, readers are not dumb. They notice when you’ve got three sex scenes, and you tick through the basic positions in them: “Okay, we’ll do missionary in this one, and female superior in this one, and in this one he’ll...”

Yuck. Getting into porn territory again.

I’ve found that to keep sex fresh and different, love scenes needs to grow out of the characters themselves, not my reference copy of the Kama Sutra.

Every time the hero and heroine go to bed together, it should reflect where they are in their relationship. In fact, ideally you should be able to read through the sex scenes alone and track the progress of the romance through the book.

In that first scene, maybe they’re uncertain or cautious or exploring – or maybe they just go nuts from pent-up sexual tension.

In the next scene, maybe they’ve had an argument right before going to bed together, and that anger bubbles under the surface so that the love scene becomes another expression for the conflict. And so on, until the last scene in the book, when we see how they make love now that they’re really in love and committed to one another.

Sweet, tender action will do more than flowery declarations of love to tell the reader that these folks really will live happily ever after.

Remember, too, that each love scene should not only mark the progress of the relationship, but advance it. The characters are sharing a deeply personal interaction, exposing themselves to each other emotionally as well as physically. It should change how they relate to each other.

Some Examples

To illustrate, I’m including the opening paragraphs from loves scenes from my Berkely novel, Jane’s Warlord.

Baran, my hero, is a warrior from the future who has time-traveled to the 21st century in order to protect reporter Jane Colby from Jack the Ripper – who, it turns out, is also a futuristic warrior.

Baran comes on very cold and hard in the first few scenes of the book, so in the first love scene, I wanted to show another side of him: the tender lover. The idea was to demonstrate that Baran is someone both Jane and the reader can trust.

For me, that’s one of the keys of developing a sexy hero: you’ve got to first establish that he’s not a bully and that he respects the heroine’s needs, even when he’s being sexually demanding.
It’s absolutely vital to set up his heroism and concern for the heroine as another human being before you let him start playing dominant bedroom games.

If you don’t, you can end up with a hero who comes off as a selfish brute interested only in his own pleasure. And the reader’s just not going to like him.

Jane looked up blindly in the darkness, saw the shimmer of his eyes an instant before his mouth came down over hers. She tried to pull away, startled, but long fingers tangled in her hair and held her still. The kiss was an easy, practiced slide of his mouth against hers, carefully undemanding.

Jane had expected skill, but Baran’s tenderness took her by surprise. His tongue caressed her lower lip, then entered her mouth in a long erotic stroke. He mouth tasted of a sweet, spicy something she couldn’t identify. Strong hands closed gently around her shoulders, turned and lowered her to the mattress. She cupped her palms around the curve of his shoulders. They more than filled her hands. “We shouldn’t do this.”

“Probably not,” he murmured. “But it seems we’re going to do it anyway.”

The second love scene in Jane’s Warlord follows some heavy revelations of the characters’ personal histories. They’re more comfortable with each other, and they express that in playfulness. Too, the tension had gotten pretty thick, and I needed to lighten things up a little.

Baran grabbed the door just before she managed to slam it in his face. Shouldering through, he purred, “Are you running from me?”

She retreated quickly to the glass stall that took up one side of the room. “Who, me?” There was a definite squeak in her voice. Whirling, she started fumbling with a set of chrome knobs that made water shoot from a nozzle in the wall of the stall. “Why would I do that?”

“Maybe because it’s a good idea?” He strolled over to snatch her against him, grab the hem of her T-shirt, and jerk it over her head. She hadn’t bothered with a bra that morning, and her bare breasts bobbed with the motion. Those pretty nipples were delicately erect, pink and tender. He swooped in to sample one, sucking it into his mouth as he grabbed the waistband of her baggy trousers and started pulling them down her thighs. “I thought I told you not to wear these ugly pants again,” he growled between nibbles.

“And I don’t ... AH!... take fashion advice from a guy with beads in his hair. Baran!” The last word was a yelp of protest as he snatched her off her feet, one hand around her backside, the other arm circling her torso.

Here’s another point: don’t pair a dominant alpha hero with a dishrag heroine. He’ll come off as a bully, because she can’t or won’t give him a decent fight. So I let Baran try to give Jane orders, but I make it equally clear that she obeys them only when she thinks she should. This strengthens the conflict, because Baran thinks that unless Jane obeys him without question, he won’t be able to keep her alive. Jane thinks this is just dumb, and tells him so.

Humor is a great weapon for heroines to use against alpha heroes. Part of what makes alphas so attractive is the idea a powerful, physically overwhelming male. But those same characteristics makes it difficult for the heroine to hold her own with him. You need to demonstrate that she’s his equal in wit and will so the reader will respect her. And letting her get off a good joke at his expense is a great way to do that.

In the next scene, I use a sexual encounter to express Baran’s growing fear that he can’t protect Jane from the killer. I also play with his more erotically superhuman qualities to give the scene a special kick for the reader.

Baran had taken her before in calculation and in heat, but this desperation was new.

Jane could taste it in the way he kissed her, open-mouthed and fierce, his long fingers curling around the back of her skull, angling her head just the way he wanted it.

He took her in a long, sweet stroke of tongue and lip, hot and wet and hungry. Somewhere in the endless tumble into delight, she heard the rumble of a passing car, accompanied by the short, mocking toot of its horn. A tiny measure of sanity returned. Prying her mouth away from his, she panted, “We can’t do this on the side of the road, Baran!”

“Yes, we can,” he growled, and captured her mouth again, the kiss drugging, hungry.

Jane wrestled free and threw a desperate glance around them, trying to determine if they were being watched. She realized she knew the area from her wild teenage years. “There’s a spot down by the woods. A stream. We could....”

He looked down at her. The lust in his eyes was so intense, it didn’t seem quite human – and not just because of the fiery glow.

His lips pulled back from his teeth in a slow, erotic smile. “Run. Before I take you on the hood of the truck.” His powerful hands reluctantly relaxed their hold.

It wasn’t an idle threat. Jane whirled and fled as if chased by something that would eat her. And with a little squirt of heat, she knew he intended to do just that.

In the last love scene in Jane’s Warlord, I wanted to demonstrate just how far they’d come in their relationship.

“No!” she panted. “I want... I want....”

That got his attention. He stopped and looked at her, leaning his face against her thigh.

“What? Anything you want me to do, I’ll do.” Turning his head, he gave her thigh a tempting little nibble.

“I want to be on top!” she gasped.

He lifted a brow. “Of course.”

“No, I mean...” She drew in a deep breath and managed to bring her desperate pants under control. “I want to be in charge this time. Dominant.”

He lifted his head in surprise, then shrugged. “Your wish is my command.”

Jane managed a cheeky grin. “That’s the idea.” She sat up. “Lie down on your back. I want to tie you up this time.”

Because she was looking directly at him, she saw his eyes flicker. “All right.”

That moment of unease reminded her of that horrific story he’d told her of being paralyzed while the Xer tortured him. They hadn’t discussed it, but she strongly suspected the abuse had been even worse than he’d let on.

And yet, he was willing to allow himself to be bound if she wanted it that way.

“Just... extend your hands over your head,” she said, hastily modifying the game. “Grab one wrist, and keep them there. Don’t let go.” She watched while he obeyed, slowly stretching his big body out, assuming the position she directed.

It was her turn now.

The role reversal demonstrates that Baran loves Jane enough to yield to whatever she wants, including tying him up, even though that’s something he’s got a phobia about. She, on the other hand, modifies her request when she realizes this hits one of his hot buttons.

The final sex scene should, I think, demonstrate the fact that the characters know and love one another. Whether it’s tender or kinky, their lovemaking should show that this is definitely love.

They’ve reached the happy-ever-after ending readers crave.

And that, after all, is what romance is all about.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Saving the Book From Hell

It happens to every writer, no matter how skilled you are: the book from hell. This is a book that absolutely does not go where you want it to go, and which limps like a three-legged dog as it wanders away. When you read over it, you get this sick feeling in your stomach that whispers, "This book sucks."

Having said that, I will admit that I always get the "this book sucks" feeling with every single book I write. But it's usually late in the process. For me, it tends to hit in galley edits, when it's too damn late to do anything because the book has been typeset. When I get that feeling, I end up going to my editor or my critique partner and whimpering, "It doesn't really suck, right? You'd have told me, right?" And they always pop me upside the head and say, "CUT IT OUT! It's FINE."

End-of-book suckitus is just part of the writing process, because writers are all neurotic. (This is another argument against doing too many rewrites during the early part of the process. If you start rewrting too early, you'll get suckitus before the book is even finished, and then you'll never complete it. This was why I never finished a novel until I hit 40.)

However, whenever I start getting that feeling early in the process, it's a bad sign. When I'm in the heat of a book, I'm always convinced it's brilliant. There's a kind of high involved that's like the first buzz of being in love. You're convinced the loved one is without flaw. You don't let yourself even notice his habit of leaving his underwear on the floor.

Fact is, I think you need that high in order to get through the grueling process of writing a book. That's why critique partners like my wonderful friend, Diane Whiteside, are so invaluable. Diane doesn't have to love my book, because she's not writing it. She can usually tell me when I'm going off-track early enough that I can fix it without killing my forward momentum. (If you don't have a CP and you want to write, you need to get one. Join one of the many yahoo groups for romance writers and ask around. My own AK loop is

But whenever my gut starts telling me the book sucks when I'm in chapter five or so, it's bad news. This happened to me in an early draft of MASTER OF WOLVES. As I mentioned in the previous blog, I hadn't thought the book through far enough, because I had a cute, high concept idea I couldn't resist. Werewolf hero goes undercover as a police dog and falls in love with his handler.

So I wrote four chapters of the hero and his beautiful police officer partner, and just had a ball. They chased drug dealers. He turned into a man and snuck sandwiches because he couldn't stand kibble... It was really fun, and I thought it was funny. Unfortunately, it wasn't a romance. It was the Shaggy Dog with a badge. Diane Whiteside finally said, "AK, this ain't working. Where'd your romance go?"

So I realized I had to spring the hero's secret sooner. I decided the heroine was going to have to become a werewolf early in the book. But all that meant the plot I'd come up with wasn't going to work. I threw out all but a chapter and started over. Sixty pages down the drain, and my deadline coming up. Argh. So I replotted and wrote all the way out to chapter eight before that little voice started whispering again. "This book sucks."

ARGH!!! What was wrong? I read it. My critique partner read it. I read it on the plane to the RWA conference. The book sucked. I didn't know why. Diane couldn't tell me why either. She'd gotten too close to it too. Finally, in desperation, I asked my agent to read it. Now, I rarely ask Roberta Brown to hold my hand on stuff, but this time I had no choice because I did not have a clue. Roberta started reading it and called that first day and said, "This book is wonderful! I love it. What's the problem?" I said, "There's something wrong. I just can't put my finger on it."

Then the next day she called and said, "This book goes off the rails on page 103." She had it down to the PAGE NUMBER. We discussed it. Finally I realized my kickass cop heroine had started whining like some bimbo from an eighties romance. Kickass heroines do not whine. So I gutted 80 pages, replotted the book AGAIN, and proceeded to write 300 pages in a month. It turned into a rollercoaster of a book that I think the readers are really going to enjoy.

This has happened to me before, by the way. MASTER OF THE NIGHT did the same thing, and so did FOREVER KISS. From what I gather, it happens to almost every writer, even the really big names.

There are three things you need to remember when dealing with this kind of problem. First, as I said in the previous blog, you really need to plan the book and consider how it's going to work as a romance. You need to look at the structure and make sure you have a strong internal plot, an external plot, and a romantic plotline, all of which you need to weave together. I'd write them out on notecards or something and color code them, to make sure one of the threads doesn't disappear on you. You particularly can't afford to lose the romantic storyline, because you're writing a romance.

Second, when a book goes off, you often don't see it. You need to find somebody objective to look at it. Even your critique partner may not spot the problem. Diane had a similar problem with one of her books that I didn't see coming, because I'd been reading it chapter by chapter, and I had gotten too close to it.

Finally, you may just have suckitus. An objective reader can tell you if the book really sucks or not, or whether you're just being neurotic. You may want to find several trustworthy readers who are willing to give the manuscript a read, and see if any of them agree on the problem. If they agree, that's your flaw.

But even if your book really does suck, don't give up. As long as the underlying structural idea is sound, you can fix it. You may have to gut it and start over, but believe me, you won't be the first.

Happy writing!


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How NOT to take 20 years becoming an "overnight" success

First off, if you're stopping by my blog after seeing a mention of it in ROMANTIC TIMES, thank you so much for coming. And if not -- thank you so much for coming! LOL!

When I saw the magazine was out, I started thinking about what would be the one message I'd give aspiring writers who are just getting started in the business. The answer was obvious -- don't do what I did.

Now, on the face of it, I've done pretty well since my first book came out in June, 2004. I've had four novels out, the latest of which was on the USA Today list for three weeks. One of the anthologies I was in, HOT BLOODED, won the Borders Group Award for best selling romance anthology last year, and another book, FOREVER KISS, won RT's Critics Choice award for Best Erotic Romance.

All of which sounds pretty good, until I tell you how close I came to blowing it. I want to share my mistakes with you, because I'm pretty sure some of you are doing the exact same things.

I decided I wanted to become a novelist when I was nine years old. From then on, I always had a book going. There were maybe two years in the past 36 when I wasn't actively working on a book. The trouble was, until I turned 40, I never FINISHED any of them. I always convinced myself they weren't good enough. I'd write a few pages, and I'd immediately start rewriting, and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite, seeking perfection, until I became so thoroughly SICK of the idea that I'd just walk away. Then I'd start another book and do the same damned thing.

So my first piece of advice is this: DON'T REWRITE UNTIL YOU GET THE FIRST DRAFT FINISHED. Or at least more than halfway done. The editing function of the brain is different from the creative function. Once you turn that editor on, creativity comes to a screeching halt. So resist the impulse to rewrite. Then, when you do get it finished, give the book two complete rewrites and send it out the door. Do not let yourself tinker the book to death.

After you finish the book, SUBMIT IT. Fact of the mater is, I was probably publishable fifteen years ago, but I never submitted anything (Because, hey, never finished anything.) You're going to get rejections. Ignore 'em. If the editor has any suggestions about how to make the book better -- THAT WORK FOR YOU -- make them. Otherwise, send the book out again. Repeat the process until somebody buys it or you realize you can write a better book.

As to agents -- Kids, I hate to say this, but for newbies, messing with agents is generally a waste of time. Yes, there are some markets that require agents, but agents are like the rest of us: they don't like to work all that hard. It's a lot easier to get an agent after you get an editor's interest.

True story: in 2000, I decided I was by God going to finish a book. Wrote FOREVER KISS. (The one that won the Critics Choice award.) Sent queries to ten agents, got ten rejections. I was really discouraged, so I mentioned it to Alexandria Kendall, who publishes the Red Sage erotic romance series SECRETS. I'd been writing novellas for Alex for years, and she believed in me. She said send it to her, and she bought it. We ended up making a ton of money on it. Anyway, soon afterward, I got a call from Cindy Hwang at Berkley, who had discovered my Secrets stuff and wondered if I would be willing to write something for Berkley. Youbetcha. I came up with two ideas that weekend, pitched them on Monday, she said send a proposal. Then I got online and asked my Secrets author pals if any of them knew any agents. Emma Holly suggested her agent, Roberta Brown. I called Roberta, sent her a copy of an anthology I did for Ellora's Cave, and she accepted. Within a month, I had a tw0-book contract AND an agent who got me more money that I would have been able to get myself.

The point of this story is that it's MUCH easier to get an agent after you've engaged an editor's attention. The second point is that once you have engaged an editor's attention, GET AN AGENT. A good agent -- check them out and make sure they're not thieves before you sign anything with them. Agents can get you more money than you can get yourself, but only if they're honest. Mine is! (Many, many writers and artists have been ripped off by dishonest agents. Protect thyself.)

Next -- I realize a lot of people swear by the fine art of seat-of-the-pants writing. Many of them are writers I personally worship. You may be one of those people who can't write any other way, in which case, God love you. But if you're not sure whether you're a ploter or a panster, TRY PLOTTING FIRST. Spend time thinking about your book. What are your conflicts? What is the thing that keeps your hero and heroine from instantly falling in love on Page 1? And there had better be something, or the book is going to be impossible to write. Here's a trick I've learned: the more conflicts there are, the easier the book is to write. Figure all that stuff out. Figure out what your hero wants, what your heroine wants, and what your villain wants. Then figure out the steps each will take to GET what he wants, and how the others will react to those moves. They're going to do something to get in each other's way. The villain is going to try to murder the heroine, and the hero will try to stop him. Or the heroine will decide to steal the hero's priceless antique whatzit, which she needs to stop the villain. How is the hero going to react to that?

THINK about your cool book idea, and whether it will really work as a romance. I had a nifty high-concept idea: werewolf hero goes undercover as a police dog to investigate a murder, and ends up falling in love with his handler. Cute idea, huh? Only thing is, I had neglected to consider a simple detail: If the heroine thinks the hero is a dog, she's not gonna fall in love with him. DUH. Thus I got 100 pages into the book, going nowhere, before I realized I had a serious problem. I had to go back and gut that book four times before I figured out how to get it to work. If I'd sat down and really thought about the implications, I would have seen the problem coming.

Now, in case you're wondering, I did do some stuff right. First, I learned my craft. I learned how to write a clean sentence, and I studied the market. I read the stuff I'd written, and I looked for my strengths and weaknesses. Reading the stuff I wrote in the early 1990s, I realized that the scenes that worked best were the love scenes. I tried to figure out why the love scenes worked and the other scenes didn't, and realized it was sensual detail and emotion. Then when I found a publisher that was publishing sensual stuff, I targeted that market and was quickly accepted.

Finally, when I DID have an opportunity thrown in my lap -- Cindy Hwang's phone call -- I did not let my fear and insecurity keep me from writing the best book I was capable of. I seized the opportunity and ran with it.

I firmly believe if you apply these lessons to your own writing career, you'll be off to a good start.

Remember: never give up!

Angela Knight