Review of Readers ‘n’ Ritas 2010

Sharon Ashwood
November 18, 2010  •  No Comments

Okay, for those who don’t know this event (put on by the folks from Fresh Fiction), it’s an intimate readers conference with a ratio of about 10 readers per author. The guest of author this year was Sherrilyn Kenyon, so there were quite a few of her fans in attendance and the event had a distinctly paranormal flavour. However, there were other genres well-represented by the likes of Lauren Willig and Tara Taylor Quinn. See here for a complete list of guests.

Confession time: going to a conference where I know next to nobody is not my comfort zone, especially when I’m supposed to be witty and engaging. Unhappily, I had to face the dreaded microphone twice—and I wasn’t expecting it on either occasion. The first time was Friday night, after two glasses of wine, no dinner, and 15 hours of solid travel (I have no idea what I said) and the second at 9:30 the next morning, with still no food and barely a slurp of coffee (no idea what I said that time, either). I might have been blazingly brilliant or utterly incoherent—my memory is a blank. Folks still talked to me afterward so I guess I didn’t sound totally out of it!

There was a reception on the Friday night. Saturday had panels, a luncheon, a book signing and a costume contest. Sunday folks went out for brunch in groups. There were also some ongoing things, like raffles, silent auctions, a room where authors and readers could hang out, and so on.

The best part of the get-together was the people. I adored the readers. I adored the authors (had a few quiet fan girl moments). I met so many super people, I soon forgot about not knowing anyone and felt like I knew everyone. If you (like me) are a little on the shy side, this is a good event to try out. It’s a very comfortable size.


The grade A alpha – no poodles need apply

Sharon Ashwood
November 16, 2010  •  3 Comments

As I write this, I’m at the Readers and Ritas gathering in Dallas, Texas. This event (put on by Fresh Fiction) is an extraordinary bash for readers of romance fiction, hence the “readers” part of the title. The “ritas” references margaritas. So far I’ve seen plenty of the former and very few of the latter. The drug of choice here appears to be Sherrilyn Kenyon, the guest of honour.

So, on to the “hot hero” part of the blog. As I’m in a perfect position to do field research, being in the middle of a pack of avid readers, I can accurately report the preferences of at least this slice of the reading populace. Heroes get points if they are a Dark Hunter. They get extra points if they’re Acheron. Points are awarded if you’re Taylor Lautner or could possibly be portrayed by Taylor Lautner. Beyond that, vampire porn will suffice, with the odd furball thrown in. The one “must” is that they are an alpha, because these readers are big girls not looking for “safe”—at least not in their reading material. The nice-guy beta hero is more the fare of the YA market.

Reassuring, because the vampire hero I’m working with at the moment is more alpha than any of my previous ones. I like to think of him as Bruce Willis from “Die Hard” crossed with Hellboy. The only thing that saves him from being obnoxious is a sense of humour. I had to give him something redeeming because, good grief, he’s occupying my brain for the next while. Y’know the cliché of the vamp in formal wear with all the fine china and expensive décor? Not this fella. He’s more of a sports bar vampire—and just the ticket if you want to save a town from some very evil forces disguised as a beer.

Now, all that being said, it does lead me to one question. Trade fangs for fur or a corporate suit for a cowboy hat, alphas are all broody, sexy, take-charge guys. Stray too far from that basic DNA, and many readers lose interest. I’ve always wondered how far the envelope can be pushed. A non-traditional occupation? A fondness for goldfish? He rides a bicyle? Owns a bichon frisee (okay, that might not work with a werewolf)?

How far and in what way can the essential alpha vary and still be true to the romance code?


Fangy-toothed butterflies

Sharon Ashwood
November 10, 2010  •  No Comments

If you ask a kid if they can sing, they say yes. They can dance. They can draw. They can be a fire engine. It’s only when they get a little older that they begin to doubt themselves.

Stage fright and lack of self-confidence are learned behaviours. There’s a great book called A Soprano on Her Head that goes into this with reference to music performance, but what it says applies to pretty much any situation. We’re programmed to be scared. The message of why we can’t do things sneaks into our brains in a million horrible ways. Our job as functional adults is to slam the door on those lies and reclaim our creative expression.

Which of course sounds easier than it really is. Reprogramming instinctual responses takes time.

I recently took a course on public presentations—the type where you have to get up and speak with or without preparation or a topic of your choice. While I hated doing it, I’ve had enough practice to know that I won’t actually die if I get up on stage. Yes, I’m suddenly exposed and vulnerable, but the fight/flight response is entirely unwarranted. The problem is getting my brain to convince my body that I’m NOT about to be eaten by tigers.

That bit has taken years. The only thing that’s helped me get over stage fright is practice. Lots and lots of it. Eventually those butterflies become part of the preparatory process, but if I stop practicing the terror seeps back and those butterflies grow fangs.

You’d think writing would be easier because you’re not on stage. In some ways that’s true, but really the same gut “uh-oh!” reaction happens at critique groups, when you’re talking to your agent or editor, when you have to go do a reading, or when you click “read review” on a web site. There’s that sudden jab of nerves that says you’re prepped for attack. And if that’s not bad enough, there’s that darned blinking cursor every day telling you to be a genius in the next five minutes or your entire career is over, over, overoverover, baby. No pressure.

But the cure is the same: practice. Type that blinking cursor into submission. I’m not brilliant nine times out of ten, but I’m confident that I can cover paper like crazy, and if I write enough I can keep the good bits and throw out the dumb parts.

I think that’s what’s behind the old saw, “Write Every Day.” You get over the shock of what you’re allowing yourself to do. The sense of risk fades into the background. Like any performance, once you can relax into it, you get a whole lot better.

And maybe even have some fun. Now there’s a thought.


Happy Halloween!

Sharon Ashwood
October 31, 2010  •  No Comments

Best wishes to all those out there who like Halloween as much as I do. It’s a gorgeous morning, the Demon Lord of Kitty Badness is curled up next to the laptop, watching the birds play in the birch tree. I have fresh coffee. My laundry is already started, which means I’ll finish up in time to do more than just chores today. All in all, I’m content.

I’ve been working on an As Yet Untitled for a book proposal. It dragged its sorry backside throughout yesterday, only to get a burst of oomph at about 10:00 pm last night and I burned through to the end of the chapter. Yes, it’s rough, but it’s something I can work with.

It’s a hard chapter, because it’s the set-up, nuts-and-bolts boring stuff that has to get out there so the reader knows what’s going on. In the Victorian novel, no one blinked if an author included whole chapters that were sidebars designed to explain all that stuff. In current fiction, no one has the patience to wade through the facts. So, authors proceed like harried mothers trying to disguise vegetables so that their kids will consume them. Enough cheese sauce will hopefully do the trick.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to put an FAQ in the back of the book and go from there.


Support groups: which one is right for you?

Sharon Ashwood
October 27, 2010  •  No Comments

So you’re a fiction writer looking for a support group. Here is a short questionnaire that should help you find the kind of people you’re looking for:

1. If you go on a holiday, do you pick:

a. A convention featuring people wearing antennae
b. A Mediterranean cruise giving people the opportunity to gaze at you while sunbathe and contemplate your next best-seller
c. A convention featuring handcuffs and people in teddy bear suits
d. An African safari

2. When you go shopping for entertainment, do you visit:

a. The comic book store
b. The spa to enhance your godlike physique with a gold sparkle tan
c. The leather shop
d. The gym to watch a hand-to-hand fight to the death

3. Your typical lunch companions are:

a. Romulans
b. Your entourage
c. You think his name was Mossimo, but it was hard to tell around the gag
d. Not sure, but he drank a lot of Bushmills and talked about riding elephants

4. From friendship, you seek

a. A close and meaningful bond, kind of like a mind meld
b. Unconditional adulation
c. Benefits and occasionally pain
d. Someone willing to walk into the jungle and blow up tigers with you. It’s a guy thing.

5. In terms of writing, the kind of support you need is:

a. Someone who will undertake the translation of your latest work into Klingon in time for the Con
b. Someone who will post a five-star review on every review site, even if your book sucks
c. Someone who knows exactly what button to push to get your mind off a bad review
d. Someone willing and able to boil the reviewer in a large pot, and then eat him

If you answered mostly “a”, you might have had a great support group, but they’ve all been abducted and taken to Roswell.

If you answered “b”, remember to tip well.

If you answered “c”, you already have interesting friends. Gil Grissom will be investigating your cadre during his guest spot return to CSI next season.

If you answered “d”, you must like Hemingway a lot.


Ooops, did I say that?

Sharon Ashwood
October 20, 2010  •  No Comments

skull_n_bonesAh, yes, those subjects one should never touch. They glow in the dark, radiating with a white-hot intensity, daring the author to slip them into her story. There should be a warning alarm that sounds during these moments, with an automatic computer shut-down that forces the writer to rethink her plans.

There is the risk of offending readers. There is also the risk of climbing on a soap box, where it’s all too easy to sound preachy. There’s nothing worse than being offensive AND boring.

So why not skirt the difficult questions altogether? Because fiction has a plot, and a plot has conflict. Depending on who your characters are, that will often come back to hot button issues like sex, politics, and religion. If an author doesn’t have the honesty to dig to the bottom of their character’s issues, the book will come out as compelling as cream of wheat. So what to do?

There is a trade-off when it comes to addressing “tough” subjects in fiction. I look at it like I would the spice cupboard. A teaspoon is good; dumping in the whole jar is too much. For this reason, I skirt the best-sellers dealing with chronic child abuse and head for the pulp fiction featuring demon abuse. Somehow it’s more okay in a fantasy setting.

Yes, that’s weird and perhaps hypocritical, but taking hot topics one step out of the here and now and putting them in the realm of the fantastic allows us to look at them more dispassionately. After all, much science fiction successfully deals with power struggles (often political ones), environmental issues, and ethics. That’s one of the things I love about the genre—it makes me think, engaging my mind as well as my heart, but it does so in a subtle and entertaining way.

I try to model my stories that way, and on a good day I get it right–I hope! My aim is to bring a complete world into being, with all the good and bad that goes along with it. The big difference is that all those difficult subjects, while present, are never the focus of the story. I write paranormal romance, not social commentary for vampires.

Though it would be interesting to hear what Dr. Phil would have to say about Dracula and his wives. Was locking up three wives in the castle basement the first clue that there was something funky on the domestic front?


Signing karma

Sharon Ashwood
October 13, 2010  •  No Comments

feather-pen I remember once upon a time Anne Rice came to town and the line-up snaked through the local mall and out the doors. I had two thoughts. First, I wanted to write books that people loved that much. Second, I was glad I’d phoned ahead and my signed copy would be waiting for me at the cash desk the next day and I could buy it sans line-up. Yes, I’m bad for not sticking it out for hours to meet Anne Rice, but patience never has been one of my virtues. I think I collected some bad signing karma that day.

Signings are odd events. From the author’s perspective, they’re fabulous, exhilarating, glorious romps when people show up. When they don’t, it’s mortifying. As far as I can tell, there’s little rhyme or reason as to whether it will be busy or dead, which makes every occasion a nail-biter.

How do “live” signings happen? Often the stores arrange them, or sometimes the authors do it themselves. When I was first published, I organized some events locally and then some a plane ride away in my “home” town. Setting up the events at a distance was an eye-opener. Out of about 5 stores, one actually remembered I was coming AND had the books available for sale. Another time, I drove all over Seattle looking for a store I never did find. I think it had disappeared into the gray, just like in Kat Richardson’s books. In other words, the logistics can be frustrating–and I’ve worked off every bit of that bad signing karma!

However, when the right magic strikes, a signing is a high-energy live performance. One or two of those events is all it takes to create an addiction. It’s wonderful to get an email from someone saying they like my work. It’s way, way better to have them tell that to my face. I love readers, I love meeting them, and I love that connection that comes from sharing the same imaginary world.

And fortunately, there are many people much more patient than I am about meeting authors!

Do you collect autographs? Is there a story about how you gone one?


Lies, all lies

Sharon Ashwood
October 5, 2010  •  No Comments

The worst part of writing a proposal is that I’m sure I’m lying. I’m lying because my books never follow exactly the path I map out for them. If I already know all the twists and turns, what’s the point of writing it?

That being said, my poor editor needs something to go on. I’ll need to be in the business a lot longer before “trust me, it’ll be great” will be enough for the publisher to cut a cheque.

So, I have to apply seat to chair and type something up. Usually this means (for me—like Annette says, it’s different for each editor) a very detailed synopsis with all the internal and external plot arcs explained. It can also mean writing about the first fifty pages.

In order to do all that, I have to complete the absolute worst part of the book—the beginning. I hate, hate, hate slogging through those first few chapters. Getting them just right takes a healthy chunk of the total hours of book construction. So, by the time I’ve pulled a proposal together, I think they should absolutely buy the stupid book because I’ve already done 50% of the work of a bleepity whole novel. As you can tell, the whole process puts me in an intense mood. 👿

Part of the process involves convincing my characters to play along. It’s a tough thing, because it’s a bit like saying: “C’mon, I know that you could be revised and end up as a border collie or a talking teapot, but for now just pretend you’re a Samurai warrior transported through the centuries to wreak vengeance on a major city.” But he knows that if the proposal’s rejected, it’s back into the ether with a resounding “poof.” With a deal like that, sometimes it’s a little hard to get your hero to assume the position. They keep snarling something about contract clauses.

So that’s what I’m doing right now:
• Bullying heroes and pleading with heroines to behave.
• Bashing at a synopsis in hopes that dumping enough words on the page will make it coherent.
• Drinking way too much coffee.
• Trying to remember how good it feels once the book is underway.

And that’s true. Once I get the green light, I’m in seven kinds of heaven and it’s all worthwhile.

What nasty job do you dread–but feel great once it’s done?


Am I crazy?

Sharon Ashwood
October 3, 2010  •  No Comments

Okay, so I used to sew. A lot. It’s just with writing and stuff I don’t have much time anymore.

However, Readers ‘n Ritas is having a masquerade night, so I need a costume. I looked in the Halloween costume shops and, well, yuck. Once you’ve sewn yourself, those puppies don’t cut it, and they’re pretty expensive for what they are.

So then I wandered onto the Simplicity pattern site and found this. And I think I’m going to make it by mid-November. We’ll see!!


Roast beast. Or not.

Sharon Ashwood
August 25, 2010  •  No Comments

My parents had one of those two-hot-dog hibachi grills. I’m not sure what it was good for, since it was cast iron and unsuitable for backpacking. I think it might have held half a dozen charcoal briquettes if you stacked them carefully. A burger would have overwhelmed it.

In later life, I attempted back yard grilling, but al fresco dining always resulted in el freezo. I seem to go for windswept properties designed to suck the heat out of food and/or blow dinner into the next yard. Happy crows, sulky me. Consequently, most of my satisfactory outdoor experiences have happened at other peoples’ parties.

One of my university friends had genius parents who could cook absolutely anything in tin foil. There I learned the joys of barbecue baked potatoes smothered in cheese, onions, bacon, and chilli if you had it. As a starving student, one of those babies could keep me quoting Swinburne for a week (three days if it was Milton involved—there’s got to be a 2:1 ratio of energy burn for Paradise Lost).

Other times, once we all got so busy that potluck became the norm and no one admitted to eating dessert anymore, I appointed myself salad girl. It was an easy role to uphold and dietarily correct.

Bean salad is a classic, but can be kind of boring. This recipe definitely is not and makes a good meal:

Cook 2 cups of fresh beans (green and/or yellow) chopped into 1 inch lengths
Add:
– 2 cans (drained) of mixed beans (kidney, white, pinto, etc.)
– 1 bunch freshly chopped parsley
– ½ mild onion, minced
– 1 cup mixed Italian olives (spicy is good)
Mix:
– ¾ cup olive oil
– 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
– 1 tablespoon crushed garlic
– ¼ cup lemon juice
– Handful of fresh chopped herbs (basil, oregano, and marjoram are all possibilities)
– Salt and lots of pepper

Pour marinade over beans and chill overnight.

And (not so dietarily correct) this is the best berry ice cream you’ll ever eat:

Crush 1 quart of hulled strawberries or raspberries. Add 1 cup of sugar and stand for an hour.
Dissolve a package of gelatin in 6 tablespoons of boiling water. Stir into berries. Add the juice of one lemon and cool until nearly set. Fold in two cups of whipped cream and pour the mixture into a wet mold (or just a pan if you don’t wish to get fancy). Chill for 12 hours if you wish to unmold it. Or, if you’re impatient, freeze for a couple of hours.


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