The Sad and Shocking Truth…

… is that, although I write romance and erotica, I honestly don’t read a lot of either.

Because so much of it is bad.

I know! That’s a terrible thing to say! (Especially for someone in my business.) But here’s how it came about. I was down in Portland (Oregon, not Maine) last weekend, and made the inevitable pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books. (Don’t know it? You haven’t LIVED until you’ve been there! Hope remains for independent bookstores, yet!) Anyway, as anyone who’s ever been to Powell’s knows, it’s organized by genre. Eagerly I perused the aisles of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, graphic novels, classics brought to the forefront again, even the latest-and-greatest nonfiction on display. At last, my arms full of books, I ventured into the back corner, behind the cafe, where they stash all the romance and erotica.

From the moment I entered, I felt turned off. What met my eyes was shelf upon shelf of waxed, muscular, glowering male torsos (in various states of undress, to indicate their respective settings), swooning maidens, and cringe-worthy titles. (“His Christmas Bride,” anyone?) I did my best to give a couple covers a chance, but the blurbs had me running back. Back, back into the relative safety and dignity – indeed, the superior sexiness – of the other fiction aisles.

So what gives? Why is so much romance and erotica so god-awful bad? Honestly, it bums me out, because a story without sex is like bread without butter for me. (Hence my lackluster appreciation of YA… but that’s for another post.) Also, I know for a fact that there are many excellent erotica and romance writers out there, who do far more with their work than deliver the necessary bump and grind. And yet, romance remains a genre I am hesitant to read – despite my interest and appreciation of its content – because the vast majority is, sadly, unpalatable. (Even more appalling… might I be lumped in with authors of such books? Worse, is my writing just as – gulp – bad?!)

What is a person like me to do? I love sexy books, but I also love GOOD books. They have to be one and the same! And that, alas, is the pickle. Until we readers demand smart, literary erotica that stimulates our minds as well as our tingly bits, Powell’s is going to have to keep that section hidden in the far corner of the cafe. Where few people venture anyway, and with good reason.

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The Paramount Importance of the Blurb

So I do a lot of book shopping, as you know. Hell, this afternoon I dropped $75 at the used bookstore down the street! (Don’t tell my husband…) And while I love browsing – and overspending as a result of far too many tempting paperbacks out there – I do, naturally, also indulge in a good bit of Amazon.com perusal. When I go to the bookstore, different elements might catch my eye. Maybe an evocative title, an artistic cover, an attractive table laid out with books like a literary buffet, or a friend’s recommendation. (In the aforementioned case of the $75, I can blame it all on my friend! I only went with the list she gave me… the list of 8 books I just MUST read!) When shopping online, however, there is really only one deciding factor in whether or not I’ll buy a book. And that is the blurb.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s true. However, you can absolutely judge a book by its blurb!

I can’t really say how many god-awful blurbs I have come across. And, sad as I am to say it, the majority of those are from self-published authors. I think many of us ignore the blurb and just kind of throw it together. This is a huge mistake, because it is the one element – yes, even more important than a snazzy cover – that will convince someone to buy your book. It is a chance to highlight your writing style, present the plot and characters, and give just enough information to make them yearn for more. And, you know, purchase the book. ūüôā

So what makes a good blurb? Now I am hardly a blurb-master myself. (In fact, no doubt my work would be well served if I were to go back and rewrite some of my earlier ones…) However, there are some general rules to follow. Plus some major what-not-to-do’s. Here is my humble two cents on the subject:

  • The blurb should give a fair interpretation of your writing style. If the blurb has lovely, long, flowing sentences, that’s what I expect in the book! If it’s Hemingway-esque, you’d better deliver the clipped, raw goods. And if the writing in the blurb sucks, well, I’m pretty sure the book’s writing is equally bad! (As we all know, life is too short to read bad writing…)
  • The blurb should introduce the characters, the setting, and the problem (also known as the story!), without giving everything away. Even if your book is not a mystery, the blurb should be. After all, you don’t want to¬†reveal your fabulous twists and wrinkles – of sheets or plotlines!
    • On that note, lots of people fill¬†their blurbs with questions. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. But when I’m picking a book, I don’t want to play 20 questions. I want to know some major themes, the people involved, and where it’s happening. Limit questions to one or two really juicy ones.
    • If your blurb is a full summary of the book, that’s bad news. Just an introduction, please! Think of it as a preview to a film. You give glimpses, but don’t haul out all of the best bits for the teaser. (In other words, don’t model yourself on the overly-detailed modern previews. I didn’t even watch Revenant and already I know everything that happens. Go for an old-school, classy, suggestive kind of preview…)
  • If your book has any accolades – prizes won, bestseller lists, and such – they should go at the top, but discreetly. One line is enough to get all that info out there, and then let your reader get on with the blurb!
  • I was recently critiqued on this one: it’s best to keep blurbs concrete. Mention specific details – maybe a hot scene, a building tension, something unique about the setting. Generalities will not give a reader enough to sink their teeth into. I have reread my old blurbs and made many improvements with this in mind.

A good blurb is a tempting peek¬†into the book. Kind of checking out its ass in those nice jeans, without really knowing all the goodies hidden underneath… It’s a flirty meet-and-drink at a bar, just getting to know the guy, trying to decide whether to take him home. Think about it. What would convince you to take that man(/book) to bed? For me it would be an interesting question, characters I want to meet, a place I want to go… and some slick writing. When you are able to seduce in just one paragraph, you are the blurb-master!

That New Book Smell

My husband and I popped into a local bookstore today – he to buy art supplies, I to spend my woefully insufficient $25 gift card from last year. The place was a paradise. If the world ever ends, I plan to hole up in a huge public library or, if those are all overrun with demon spawn, the bookshop. I could easily have spent hours browsing, but right away three books jumped out at me. I greedily gathered them up, breathing in that special smell of new paper and ink, feeling them crease as I bent the hardback covers to read the inside flap. There is an illicit pleasure in being the first to deflower a new book. Used books have soul, but new ones have that crisp allure of the untouched.

So forgive me, friends, if I’m not online much for the next several days. I’ll be reading!

An Enduring Love of Paper

I finally did it. This may shock many people, considering how behind the times it seems. Those who know me in “real life” understand that, actually, I can be irrationally old-fashioned. (Hey, it’s charming!) However, being an author and e-publisher, I really should have got with the program by now, if only in solidarity. Yet it took me years and years before I finally gave in to the inevitable.

Yesterday, at long last, I gave in. I bought a Kindle.

At this point you are thinking one of two things: a) It’s about time! What the hell was wrong with you, that it took you this long to get an essential piece of reading technology?! or b) So what?

I bought it for the same reason many people have, for convenience. It will be so lovely to just have my Kindle, stocked with all the stories I could want, long and short. I’ll just be able to curl up somewhere and read them in any order I like, or take them traveling with me, or at the bus stop. I’m especially glad to have it for short stories, because those are so inconvenient in printed form, and the computer, after a while, does hurt my eyes. No doubt, the Kindle will transform my reading life and make it both more diverse and more agreeable.

And yet.

Way back in the nineties, when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast came out, I was one of those girls who gasped with delight (along with Beauty) when the castle library was revealed. Shelves and shelves, all the way to the ceiling, stacked with books of every color, size, and type. How I longed to be there, surrounded by all those beautiful tomes! That was the moment, really, that Beauty began to fall in love with the Beast…as did all the rest of us wistful readers.

The public library has always been a place of wonder and magic. So have used bookstores. I love holding books in my hands, feeling the texture of the paper, enjoying the freedom of browsing. When I took books home, I amused myself by imagining all the other hands that might have held it, and dreaming of how other people may have felt when reading the very same book. That textural history, the fact that these treasures had come into my hands from someone else’s – who knows how many! – and that somewhere, I was sharing the experience of reading it with a stranger, was fascinating to me. I still love those places, and imagining the people who loved the books before me.

When I lived abroad, books were my consolation and my addiction. The house we shared had an enormous library (not quite as fancy as Beauty’s, but pretty damn nice), with books of all varieties. I read voraciously. I filled my arms with books, carried them heavily as I walked, and took them to my lonely apartment. There, I devoured them, turning pages in near-desperation as my mind swirled in imaginary worlds. I kept a stack of them on my dresser, promises and hopes to keep me going for another couple weeks, before returning to the library to restock. It was not easy to transport so much heavy paper¬†back and forth, but for me it was worth it. Nothing felt so satisfying at the time as a backpack loaded with fresh books. I welcomed the ache and the weight of it on my shoulders; I felt I earned the joy of reading them, through my commitment to them. At the time, I needed this. And only books gave it to me.

I will never be so young and lonely again (if only because – thank goodness – I’m no longer 21), but I will always have memories of that time, and the books that were my companions. There is more to it than that, though.

My love of paper goes even beyond my own personal memories. In Paris, I ended up in a shop specializing in rare antique books. Because of a family connection with the owner, he sat me down and showed me some of his treasures. Into my hands he placed a small, leather-bound volume. A book of prayers. A woman’s signature was scrawled on the front page.
It had belonged to Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots, who for a short time had also been dauphine of France. I held that book in my hands, reflecting that in 1500-something Mary herself had held it, had run her fingers over the pages. Overwhelmed by history, and the suddenly physical link I had with that doomed queen of long ago, I regarded that book as something close to magical.

Books aren’t magic, of course. But like all objects of personal importance, books retain some of the essence of their past lovers. (As do we all…) Paper can be touched and folded, smeared and creased, written on, stored, revived, and passed on. Paper has a long past, and a future. For a sensual person, there is no substitute. For a person who treasures connections with the past, and hopes to provide such for future readers, it is essential. Paper books have souls and histories unique to each. Paper books can fill library shelves, tumble down, lean against one another. They are a feast.

And so, although I am looking forward to receiving my Kindle and buying books for it, I will never give up my enduring love of paper. If I read a book and love it, I will always buy a printed copy, and tuck it into my ever-growing library like the masterpiece it is. Paper books are the physical manifestation of my passion. No matter how many e-books I read, or how much I type on my computer, I will never give them up. There is no true replacement for the joy, the feeling, the scent and weight and mystery, of holding a true book in your hands.