Monthly Archives: November 2011

Out in the Open with Suzanne Brockmann

Posted by November 30th, 2011

Talking genre and GLBT with the bestselling author and gay-rights advocate

Suzanne Brockmann headshot - small

“I’m bored and tired of books and TV shows and movies that define America as white, upper-middle-class, and straight.”

We’ve received a surprising number of emails over the past several months about categorizing GLBT genre fiction on the Genre Map. The questions came at us from all angles: “Where do I put my male-male Romantic SF [or insert genre here]?” “Where is the GLBT genre?” “Why are there not separate subgenres for GLBT stories?”

Then I started hearing more discussion among writers and readers about the varied responses to GLBT literature and how it’s perceived by the industry, particularly when it comes to genre fiction and young adult fiction. I couldn’t believe the amount of controversy being stirred up by something that, to me, shouldn’t be segregated out in the first place.

So, when I heard New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmanngive her keynote speech and Q&A at the New Jersey Romance Writers’ “Put Your Heart in a Book” conference last month, I knew she’d have something special to add to the conversation. She was kind enough to let me pick her brain on her the matter, delving into her own experiences and beliefs about GLBT fiction. She also gives us a little heads up regarding her own upcoming projects:

DP: Ok, before we dive into the real topic of this interview, I’ve got to ask for your fans’ sakes: There’s a rumor going around that your beloved “Troubleshooter, Inc.” series is coming to an end. Sad but true? 

SB: I have a “never say never” policy, and while I definitely can imagine writing more books set in the Troubleshooters universe, I know—from past experience—that after taking a “break” from the series, I might not go back.  So I don’t want to make any promises to readers.  With that said, yes, I can imagine writing Jay Lopez’s book. But I’ve been writing books in the TS series since 1999, and not only did I really want to do something completely different creatively, I felt (and my publisher agreed) that I’ve hit a plateau with my military romantic suspense readership.  As a writer, you’re always looking to grow your audience—and the idea to do something new was well-received by my editor.

So I’ve brought back all the elements I that I love about writing the TS series (close-knit, highly skilled and trained characters who work together as a team; on-going story arcs that stretch out across several books; the dramatic/comedic elements that make character growth rich and multi-layered) but I’ve set this new series, called Fighting Destiny, in a darkly futuristic, urban fantasy world.  It other words, it’s a paranormal, but it involves telepathy and telekinesis instead of vampires, monsters and demons.  Born to Darkness is the first book in the FD series, and it comes out in hardcover from Ballantine Books on March 20, 2012.  And oh yeah, it also features a hero who is a former Navy SEAL.  (What can I say?  I love writing about SEALs—they make great heroes!)

DP: You first gained recognition for writing romantic subplots of openly gay characters with your 2004 release of Hot Target. How did your agent/editor/publisher first react to the character of Jules Cassidy? Was there any apprehension about publishing his story in such a popular, mainstream series? 

SB: I received no resistance whatsoever—not from my editor or from anyone else at my publisher, which is Ballantine Books.  But remember, my editor first met Jules close to the same time my readers met him: He came in as FBI agent Alyssa Locke’s partner in the second book in the TS series, The Defiant Hero.  By the time I gave him that romantic subplot in book #8, Hot Target, readers had gotten to know Jules quite well—and had a chance to be impressed, over and over again, by his skill as an FBI agent, by his excellent sense of humor, his loyalty and friendship to Alyssa.  The guy is a hero, and I was not at all subtle about showing that in the books!

So I really think that everyone was ready for Jules to get a little something-something. <g>

Well, except for the readers I lost by allowing a gay character to be a realistic, living, breathing, sexual human being instead of an asexual stereotype.  But we’ll talk about that in detail in a bit.

TS_8_HT_300_dpi

DP: What inspired you to tell Jules’s story in the first place? Was there anything in particular you were hoping to accomplish in doing so?

SB: I make that extremely clear in the dedication for Hot Target.  In a nutshell, I recognized that my son Jason was probably gay back when he was around three years old. It was really important to me that Jason got a chance to grow up without even the slightest sliver of doubt that there was anything wrong with him—because there isn’t anything wrong with him!  It was also vitallyimportant to me that Jason not spend his life hiding his true self from the world.

So I was working it, hard, to make sure that he had great gay role models, that we had out gay friends in our lives, and that—at the same time—he was as protected as he could be from society’s sometimes careless, but sometimes even more overt, homophobia.  And as a result of wanting to help my son, I became educated and informed about the GLBT community—and that confirmed for me the importance of being out.  Gay rights groups around the world agree that things can and will change if more and more gay people move out of the shadows and into the sunlight. I wanted my readers—especially those who lived in extremely socially conservative parts of the country—to have a gay friend, and so Jules Cassidy was born.

But bottom line, I brought Jules into my Troubleshooters world for the very same reasons I create all of my characters: America is a diverse country filled with fascinating and heroic people of all colors, shapes, sizes, orientations, and beliefs.  And frankly, I’m bored and tired of books and TV shows and movies that define America as white, upper-middle-class, and straight.  I created Jules for the very same reason I created characters who are African American or Asian American or Cuban American—I want my fictional world to reflect the diverse group of people who live in my American neighborhood.

Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” said it best:  “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

My hope is that by showing America as I see it—as a richly diverse country—I’ll help redefine normal.  Having a gay FBI team leader shouldn’t be a surprise.  It should simply be no big deal.

DP: In your personal experience, what challenges were involved in writing a GLBT storyline/character? How did you overcome them?

SB: I think a writer’s challenge when creating any character lies in being able to make this fictional person believable and compelling, to make him live and breathe. Being gay is just one part of who Jules is—it doesn’t define him.  He’s far more defined by being a kick-ass, exceptional FBI agent—who happens to be gay.  So I didn’t feel that creating Jules was any more or less difficult than creating any other character.

I think the biggest challenge for me came from writing the culmination of Jules’s romantic story arc with movie actor Robin Chadwick. The love scenes. The first time Jules and Robin get intimate is in the back of a limo inForce of Nature, and I spent a great deal of thought and effort in deciding exactly how explicit to make that scene.

By all rights, I should have been able to make that scene as detailed as any other love scene I’d ever written. And I wanted to. It felt wrong even to question this. But I knew that my readership leaned conservative.

It was very important to me when I wrote that love scene to make it a love scene.  The emphasis had to be on Jules’s and Robin’s emotions.  And I made the very hard choice to pull the gauze over the camera lens (so to speak) and make the scene vague enough so that I didn’t lose my more conservative readers.

I hated having to do that—and you better believe that my more progressive and liberal readers let me know that they were disappointed.  Some of them believed that I intentionally pulled back from the graphic gay sex because of squeamishness—suggesting I wasn’t as open and accepting as I claimed.  That hurt.

I ended up writing an essay called “So That Happened” that dealt both with the fact that (despite my intention) Force of Nature ended up being the book in which Jules and Robin win their HEA, and the fact that I soft-pedaled their gay love scenes.  As I say in that essay, “But my message—love is love is love—is so important, I just couldn’t bear the thought of frightening away a more timid readership by putting in too much man-on-man action. And I believe that the truth is—at least my truth—that making love is about emotions. I felt the most important part of the Robin/Jules love scene was how Jules felt when Robin confessed that he loved him.”

DP: A lot of people are uncertain about how to categorize GLBT fiction, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Is it GLBT if it’s a male/male romance between secondary characters? Does the GLBT character need to be the protagonist? Does it even matter? 

SB:  A book is the book that it is, whatever label we give it. And the labels are pretty arbitrary. Still, we live in a society where we use shortcuts and labels to define and organize all kinds of things—books included.  And fiction is divided into genres, and those genres are divided into subgenres, and those subgenres are used by publishers to market the books that they sell.

All of my books with GLBT characters are considered to be mainstream, because I’ve made my name as a mainstream romance writer.  Even All Through the Night.  This is a holiday novella that tells the story of Jules and Robin’s Boston wedding.  So it’s a “mainstream” romance with a hero and a hero.

And because it was marketed as a mainstream novel, it failed (IMO) to reach the GLBT audience, which was a shame.  (I tried to talk my publisher into printing a trade paperback version instead of a mass market paperback reissue that came out about a year after the hardcover.  I thought that would be a good compromise, but they didn’t do it.  <sigh>)

Okay, so the pro side is that there was a mainstream hardcover romance novel about a same-sex wedding—a book with a hero and a hero that hit theNew York Times list.  That’s awesome.  I can’t complain about that on so many different levels.

But on the con side, because of that lack of marketing to a GLBT audience, I’m still practically unknown to that very substantial readership.  Yes, some readers of GLBT fiction have found me, but that’s mostly been through my involvement as a gay-rights activist. Or by chance.

You know, I have a production company called small or LARGE Productions, and last June we filmed a low-budget feature-length romantic comedy with a hero and a hero, and we’re currently in post-production.  The movie, “The Perfect Wedding,” is not about being gay—no one is in the closet, no one has gay-related health issues, no one’s a drag queen (not that there’s anything wrong with that! <g>).  There are three gay characters and they are all out and open, and their friends and families love them, and they love themselves.  No angst about being gay—that’s not what the movie is about.  It’s about two young men, Paul and Gavin, who spark when they meet, and how they deal with it over the course of a holiday weekend.

Paul and Gavin on deck med size

And we recently held a screening with friends of ours who are gay, because we wanted their feedback. And they all felt that it would be a mistake to market this movie solely as a gay romantic comedy.  They felt doing so would pigeonhole it.  And they also all said that they had never seen a movie like this before, where the gay characters were just characters who happened to be gay.

Now, this is our movie, and as producers we get to decide (at least at this stage) how it will be marketed.  We have a lot of options and a lot of choices to make.

I want to be really clear, though, that my choice for how my All Through the Night should have been marketed (in the broad sense) would have been 1) mainstream and GLBT, and 2) mainstream. To have had this book marketed only to the GLBT audience would have been, IMO, a loss and a mistake. Frankly, I think it’s more important for me to include gay characters in my mainstream books than it is to write books that reach only/mostly that GLBT audience.

DP: I know a lot of writers who are interested in creating GLBT characters in their novels, but who are reluctant to do so, not because they have a problem with homosexuality but because they are afraid to offend people. Do you have any advice for those writers?

SB:  Hmmm.  That word “offend” is offensive to me. The idea that my son could offend someone simply by existing is pretty ugly, don’t you think? And that’s what is being implied here. And when something like that is implied, it’s hard for me to not get defensive and protective.

So let’s change the language. What if they’re afraid to “upset” people. I still find offensive the idea that my son could upset someone simply by existing. <g>  (See how it plays out when you make it personal, when you make it be about my wonderful, lovely, terrific son, Jason, instead of some unnamed GLBT character…?)

Frankly, if someone is offended or upset or even distressed by my son’s very existence, I don’t give a flying you-know-what whether or not I offend them in return by the books I write and the characters I create. (How’s that for a passionate statement?!)

So for me, it’s very simple.  I write what I write, and I don’t write expecting every reader in the world to love my books.  In fact, I think the best way to write an incredibly mediocre book is to attempt to please all readers by remaining precisely in the middle of the road.

Bottom line: I would ask those timid and fearful writers precisely why they write.  Do they write because they have something important to say?  If so, they need to speak from their heart and say it, regardless of who they might offend.  I believe when you write from your heart, your passion is in your words and your stories.  And I believe that it’s that passion that makes a book really memorable and special.

DP: What about the fear of portraying GLBT characters too stereotypically? There is so much room for error when writing a character that is already under such cultural scrutiny that there can be a lot of sensitivity from the community. What are some pitfalls to avoid when writing an GLBT character? Are there any “do’s and don’ts”?

SB:  I’ve never been a petite Asian American former LAPD officer, or a six-and-a-half foot tall African American Navy SEAL who attended Harvard, but I’ve gotten really positive feedback about both of those characters.

I do research for every character I’ve written—I think that’s really important.  And I would urge other writers to do the same thing.

One thing that I do is read first-person essays about growing up in America as a black woman, or an Asian woman, or a gay Irish kid from Boston’s North Shore.  There’s a lot of great material out there that you can absorb in order to create a truly authentic character.

Always avoid stereotypes by knowing exactly what the stereotypes are. Do your research. There’s a ton of great material out there, blogs a-plenty, and websites galore, including www.HRC.org and www.pflag.org.

DP: You’ve recently taken your writing of GLBT romance to a new level with your novella When Tony Met Adam, which focuses on a gay couple as the main romance. What made you choose to take that step four years after publishing the GLBT subplot in Hot Target?

I also noticed that When Tony Met Adam was pubbed as an e-only short story. What was the rationale behind releasing it in that format? Did the decision have anything to do with the “controversial” subject matter?

SB: I wrote WTMA during the run of an Off-Broadway play called “Looking for Billy Haines” that I wrote, produced, and directed.  (William Haines was THE biggest male box office draw in Hollywood in 1930, but he was openly gay, and after the codes came down, he refused to give up his longtime relationship with his boyfriend, a former Navy man named Jimmie Shields and go into the closet.  So the powers that be essentially erased him from history.)

But back to WTMA, it was originally intended for inclusion in an anthology of TS short stories, called Headed for Trouble, due out in paperback from Ballantine Books in late August 2012. But it came in a little long [for that].  AndI had the opportunity to use WTMA as a special bonus “extra” for my virtual signing for last March’s hardcover, Breaking the Rules.  I try to include a bonus item that will make the virtual signing extra-special, and for BTR, I included a special limited-edition printed version of When Tony Met Adam.

As for selling WTMA as an e-book short story—that was my idea.  It was a specific attempt to reach that elusive GLBT readership.  I knew, first-hand, through my son, that e-books are huge with the GLBT audience.  I asked my publisher to include information about Jules Cassidy and an excerpt fromHot Target at the end of WTMA.  (Hello!  I am out here…!  Find me!) My publisher liked the idea and suggested we release it in June, which is Gay Pride month.  Which is what we did!

when tony met adamDP: I would imagine writing such open and honest GLBT storylines would get you a mixture of positive and negative attention. What kind of responses have you gotten from your readers and the media? 

SB:  The response has been predominantly, overwhelmingly positive. I have thousands and thousands of emails from readers who felt the need to reach out to contact me because Jules’s love for Robin resonated with them. That doesn’t mean I haven’t lost readers, because I definitely have. But I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost.

The biggest problem is that ugly, angry voices tend to be shrill and loud.  And people who are satisfied are often quiet in their approval.  So it can feel unbalanced at times.

I’ve sometimes come under attack from people who organize fellow haters to hit me with an email campaign.  (Most of the time, those attacks are personal, too, which really tells you something about the people who write those emails.)  Not from readers—the handful of emails I received were from people who admittedly hadn’t read my books.  But they’d “heard” about me, and they were going to tell everyone they knew never to buy my books and yada yada yada.  Not that I cared what those people thought.  I write what I write.  As a reader, it either works for you, or it doesn’t.  If you don’t like it, that doesn’t make it—or me, or the millions of readers who do like the books—bad.

In [one] particular instance, fearing [a] deluge of hate mail, I went onto my Facebook page and I sent out a message to as many of my readers that I could reach.  I told them if they’d ever thought about maybe emailing me to tell me how much they loved Jules and Robin and the diversity in my books, now might be a really good time to write and send that email—to counteract this wave of hatred.

Turns out the wave was a mere swell, not even close to a surf-worthy monster.  I got maybe seven ugly emails in all. But my call for help went a bit viral in the internet romance world, and I got well over a thousand emails from real readers with things like “I love Jules” in the subject header.

DP: Do you think people’s reactions would be different if you were a GLBT writer creating GLBT stories?

SB:  No, I don’t. But it’s kinda funny how often I’m approached by older gay gentlemen at book signings.  They usually say something like, “I stumbled upon this book, and I couldn’t believe it was written by a straight woman!”

And before I can say something pithy, like, “Yeah, and I’m also not a Navy SEAL.  Or an impossibly beautiful African-American former FBI agent, (which is why I think it doesn’t matter who I am)” their eyes fill with tears and they take my hand and they tell me how lovely it was to find an out gay character in a mainstream book, and to read about my own son Jason who came out when he was fifteen.  And they tell me that they were thirty or forty or even fifty before they came out, and they never told their parents, and they’re finally—just finally—starting to accept themselves and be truly happy.

I always take the opportunity to thank them for having the courage to come out at a time when coming out could mean losing their job or their home or even their life.  I thank them because their act of courage paved the way for young gay men like Jason, who never spent a moment of his life hiding his true self.

DP: What’s next on your writing agenda? 

SB: As I mentioned earlier, Born to Darkness, the first book in my new Fighting Destiny series comes out on March 20, 2012. The series follows the adventures of eight recurring characters, seven of whom appear in Born to Darkness.  The main hero is a former Navy SEAL named Shane Laughlin, and the heroine is a mysterious woman who works for a scientific research facility called the Obermeyer Institute.

I’m working on a really fun project to promote this book.  I took my skills as a film and stage producer and I held auditions and cast actors as the six main characters in Born to Darkness.  And I held a photo and video shoot with costumes, and got about 800 fantastic photos—so that readers can see these characters exactly as they appear inside of my head.  (Check my website for the first photographs and the first excerpt from the book!  The rest of the photos will be featured during my “Countdown to Born to Darkness,” on my website and Facebook page starting on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2012.)

One thing I wanted to mention here, since we’re talking about GLBT books and characters:  Born to Darkness features a gay romantic subplot with an honest-to-goodness gay love scene.  Right smack in the middle of a mainstream hardcover romantic urban fantasy suspense.  (Or however the publisher is marketing the book! <g>)

So stay tuned to find out if and when heads start to explode. <g>  (I like to hope it won’t be a big deal.  Kind of like when I wrote Gone Too Far, and no one so much as mentioned that the book was an interracial romance.  Which is how it should be, right?)

As for what I’m doing right now:  I’m working on a series of short stories — most for my Troubleshooters anthology (Headed for Trouble).  But one of the stories I’ll be writing is tentatively titled Shane’s Last Stand, and it features the hero from Born to Darkness. The story is about Shane’s last mission as the CO of a SEAL team.  The plan is to release it as an e-book short story in early February, about a month before Born to Darkness comes out.  It’ll give my readers a chance to meet this new character—and to understand that even though the series is set twenty years in the future, there’s still going to be a lot that’s similar to the TS books.

Find Suzanne Brockmann online: 
www.SuzanneBrockmann.com
www.facebook.com/SuzanneBrockmannBooks
www.facebook.com/SuzBrockmannFOJ (Suz Brockmann’s Friends of Jules — a special page to talk gay rights and politics)
www.twitter.com/SuzBrockmann
www.ThePerfectWeddingMovie.com

Photo of Suzanne Brockmann (c) Shirin Tinati
Book covers and film still courtesy of Suzanne Brockmann

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What Makes a Mystery So “Cozy”?

Posted by November 23rd, 2011

Book Country Twitter Chat (November 17, 2011)

Delve into the cozy mystery subgenre–what it is, what’s expected, how to write it–with editor Faith Black and author Gayle Trent

 twitter_newbird_boxed_blueonwhiteFor some, cozy mysteries are quite the enigma. They’ve gotten more and more popular over the past several years, wrangling readers of all kinds, but many still think: but what is a cozy mystery exactly? How is it different from a general mystery? What makes it so “cozy”? Don’t most books inspire that curl-up-with-a-good-book feeling of warmth and wonder? Hmmm….curious…


The Book Country Genre Map defines cozies as “a subgenre of mystery set in a small town or village. Cozies are characterized by their lack of explicit sex and violence. The protagonist is usually a likable female sleuth who is often viewed as an annoyance by the local police. Well-known cozy writers include Donna Andrews and M.C. Beaton.”

But there’s much more to it, which is why we brought in the experts–Faith Black (@FaithBlackGirl) and Gayle Trent (@GayleTrent)–to tell us how it really is.

Editor Faith Black acquires mysteries for Berkley’s Prime Crime imprint (and much more, of course). Her vast experience in genre fiction and love of cozies is clear after even a brief chat with this awesome lady!

Gayle Trentis the bestselling author of Murder Takes the Cake, the first novel in her Daphne Martin Cake Decorating series, currently with Gallery Books. She also writes fun embroidery cozies for Berkley Books under the name Amanda Lee–The Quick and the Thread is the first in the series.

Take a look at these helpful excerpts from our chat:

 

@GayleTrent: I define cozy mystery as Desperate Housewives meets Mayberry RFD. Everyone knows everyone, but someone has a deep, dark secret!

@FaithBlackGirl: The protags [in cozies] tend to be mostly female but I would actually love to read more cozies with male protagonists.

@peachereader: We like the hobby cozy because it gives us one more thing we can relate to. Hence reading a cozy is always like coming home.

@GayleTrent: When you’ve absolutely GOT to tell someone what weird,  hilarious thing someone just did, you put it in a book with a secondary character.

@FaithBlackGirl: Some [police procedural] knowledge is definitely useful but you don’t need to go all CSI. More Miss Marple, less David Caruso.

@Chumplet: The feeling of familiary in the setting and characters make cozy mysteries easy to love.

If you missed the chat or want to remind yourself, we’ve posted the entire transcript as a PDF document here. The PDF will open in your browser and you’ll be able to save it to your computer if you like. You can also get to know your fellow genre fiction lovers by clicking directly on their Twitter handles.

Please note that the chat appears from newest to oldest tweets, so start at the bottom and work your way up.

Thanks to all who made this chat such a great success!

REMEMBER: Book Country Twitter chats occur every other Thursday night from 9-10 pm EST. Just use the hashtag #bookcountry to participate or follow along. Topics are announced in advance in the Book Country Discussion forums, so be sure to take a look!

 

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A Flawed Heroine is a Strong Heroine

Posted by November 12th, 2011

Book Country Twitter Chat (November 3, 2011)

Bestselling authors Christina Dodd and Jeaniene Frost talk about how to write a strong, but flawed, heroine and why it’s important.

 twitter_newbird_boxed_blueonwhiteWhen creating a strong heroine, there’s a delicate blend of assets and flaws that must be found. She should be realistic and sympathetic, yet she also needs to be special, unique, and strong. But how do you know if you’re achieving this goal? What can you do to ensure you’re on the right track?


Like all elements of writing, mastering this mix takes time and practice. It also takes knowledge. So, we asked New York Times bestselling authors Christina Dodd (@ChristinaDodd) and Jeaniene Frost (@Jeaniene_Frost) to be our professional tag team and share with us their expertise on the subject.

Christina Dodd is the bestselling author of numerous historical romance, paranormal romance, and romantic suspense novels. Her heroines are always the perfect mix of strong and sympathetic. Don’t believe me? Just check out her “Scarlet Deception” series and you’ll see for yourself!

Jeaniene Frost is similarly skilled at writing the strong-but-flawed heroine. Her array of bestselling paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels portray female protagonists at their finest. Cat from Frost’s “Night Huntress” series is as imperfect and kick-ass as they come!

These two ladies–and our awesome participants–had so much to share with us in our hour-long Twitter chat:

@ChristinaDodd: Flaws are there for a reason. Strength is there for a reason. You as writer have to know those reasons/create story from them.

@Jeaniene_Frost: I first jot down my heroine’s fears and affections. What/who she loves most & what/who she fears most tell me a lot.

@Chumplet: Heroine can use her flaws to move plot forward. If she didn’t screw  up sometimes, there would be no crisis to deal with.

@jimnduncan: Yank the rug out from under [your characters]. Disable all of those props they use to keep themselves standing (emotionally)

@ChristinaDodd: A hero/heroine can do anything, no matter how stupid or trivial, if they’re well motivated.

@Jeaniene_Frost: A heroine’s strengths can become her flaws when they endanger the people around her, emotionally or physcially.

@Tina_Moss: As a reader I want to relate to the heroine and fall for the hero. W/hero’s flaws, I see fixes. W/heroine, I see a mirror.

If you missed the chat or want to remind yourself, we’ve posted the entire transcript as a PDF document here. The PDF will open in your browser and you’ll be able to save it to your computer if you like. You can also get to know your fellow genre fiction lovers by clicking directly on their Twitter handles.

Bear in mind that the chat appears from newest to oldest tweets, so start on the last page of the PDF and work your way forward to the first page

Thanks to everyone who stopped by to participate!

REMEMBER: Book Country Twitter chats occur every other Thursday night from 9-10 pm EST. Just use the hashtag #bookcountry to participate or follow along. Topics are announced in advance in the Book Country Discussion forums, so be sure to take a look!

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A Conversation with Billy Freda

Posted by November 9th, 2011

Cover model Billy Freda tells us what it’s like on the other side of the book…

Bill Freda headshot_smallest_cropped

“There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff.”

New Brunswick, NJ — Sitting across an IHOP breakfast table from a male model makes it a little difficult to focus on your omelet, let me tell you. It’s even more difficult when you have a copy of a romance novel in your bag of which said model’s image graces the cover. But when he’s known in the industry for his comedic tendencies and light-heartedness like Billy Freda is, it’s more than manageable.

With 83 books covers in his portfolio, Billy has been involved in the Romance community for more than eight years. From literal “knight in shining armor” to “midnight cowboy,” he’s run the gamut and lived to tell the tale.

There’s more to being a cover model than just a pretty face, though, and I, for one, was eager to learn more about this facet of the publishing industry that gets so overlooked, despite its über-visual nature. And with a tape recorder on the table, I was about to get some insight:

DP: So, how did you start modeling?

BF: Fell ass-backwards into it? [laughs] I started in college for some extra money. As a matter of fact, my college girlfriend saw a posting in…remember these things called the “Classifieds” in the newspapers? — Yes, I just dated myself about how long I’ve been modeling. — But she saw in the Classifieds, ya know, “Model Wanted yada yada.” I went in, and I got the job. My first big job I was a Claiborne guy for a while, for their men’s division. And then I just started getting into it. I got my shots done, found an agent, and just snowball, snowball…

DP: What made you get into modeling for book covers and the publishing industry?

BF: Really funny that you asked that following when I started….The photographer from my first shoot was literally the first person I ever shot with, and I had moved on from him but maybe two or three years later, out of the middle of nowhere, he saw that the romance world was looking for contestants [for the Romantic Times Mr. Romance competition].  He submitted me with the pictures that he had shot.

DP: [laughs] Without your knowledge?

BF: Yeah, I didn’t know! And the next thing I know, I get a phone call from a Cindy Walker telling me I’d been selected to make it into this competition and I’m like “huh?” And that’s how it all started.

Medallion cover - Bill Freda

DP: That’s too funny….What made you want to model? Or was it just that it fell into your lap?

BF: I mean, it kind of fell into my lap, yeah. Did I think when I started modeling in college for money that that would be a third to fifty percent of my career? No, never. But we’re all starving college students. It was money at the time and now it’s an integral part of my career.

DP: What about after college? Did you continue right into the modeling world?

BF: Kind of. I did modeling while I was a practicing engineer. And you know, it’s a little tougher obviously, having a 9-to-5 and trying to model. But if people want you, they will work around your schedule. You know, your bigger shoots—the higher paying ones, the commercial shoots, stuff like that—no, they won’t work around your schedule. But that’s why God created sick days, so… Yea, I continued to model right through while I worked as an engineer for six years, and then really stepped it up and put myself out there when I went into entertainment full time.

DP: Tell me a little bit about that experience with the Mr. Romance competition. You were not only one of the winners, but you’ve hosted it a number of times too.

BF: Like I said, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a great experience though. There are a couple guys from my year that I’m still in touch with and friends with. After I won, they found out that I do a lot of TV hosting and emceeing live events, so in ’05, I hosted one of the segments with Cindy Geyer, who is like the Mrs. Fabio. She’s been on hundreds and hundreds of covers, if not more, and she’s a doll, great to work with. And then in ’06 I co-hosted it, and in ’07 and ’08 I wrote it and hosted it.

DP: Can you walk me through a typical cover shoot?

BF: Well, there are two different types of cover shoots. There’s one where they’re shooting for a very specific cover in mind. The author’s requested this [scene, etc.]. A lot of times I ask for a synopsis of what the hero is like so I can portray that. And then there are shoots where publishing companies just want ten clothes changes, different time periods, and are just going to sit them in a database and use them as they are needed.

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DP: About how long does a shoot take?

BF: If we’re shooting for a specific cover, we can bang it out in an hour. I’ve done a couple of Harlequin covers where they have it down to such a science: you walk in, you meet the girl who you’re about to quote-unquote sleep with, who you’ve never met in your life, which is always a little awkward… You’re literally on set, under the covers, in fifteen minutes. The shoot’s done in 30 after that.

DP: How long would it take if you were to do ten covers at once?

BF: That’s an all-day affair.

DP: What makes a cover shoot good or bad?

BF: I think what makes a shoot good is just professionalism and…well, professionalism. Just like you want an actor to show up and know his lines, I don’t want to show up to a set and the lighting isn’t set, we don’t know what we’re shooting, “oh crap, we forgot a prop,” et cetera et cetera et cetera. Get in, gone on, get done. Boom.

DP: How do you get jobs? Do you have an agent? Do companies call you specifically? 

BF: A book cover is one of the only print-type work I don’t do through my agents for. Everything is self-promotion. And honestly, at this point, between being a former Mr. Romance winner and hosting the show for three years, everybody knows me so I really don’t need an agent. The covers kind of come to me.

DP: So people will come to you—there’s not an audition process or anything like that?

BF: Yes, there is no audition process. Occasionally you will see a cover model request in the breakdowns, though. The breakdowns are the list of all available work in the acting-modeling world. So, when I see a breakdown, I just basically send a quick cover note saying, “Listen, I’m a veteran at this. I’ve done 80+ covers…” and I’ll probably send them two or three samples, and if I’m the right look, then I’m the right look.

DP: So after you get a gig and shoot a cover, do you see it again? Do you get to approve anything? What’s the process after you’re done the modeling part?

BF: There are a couple houses that I do ask for approval from. They will say, “Is this good or not?” Now, is this a formality? Are they extending a courtesy? If I said, “Actually no, that is terrible” well, you know…

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DP: Do they send you a copy of the book or anything like that once it’s published?

BF: Yeah, I have a copy of a lot of my covers. Some of my favorites, like Kate Hofman’s My Love, Forever and Carol Carson’s Fortune’s Treasure, are cover facing out in my library. Just because it’s like anything else, you know. It’s like if I were a painter and I had one of my own pieces hanging up.

DP: I hear you also have a sword on display in your home–is that from a shoot?

BF: Oh, yeah, I do. The sword that sits on my mantle is actually a sword I brought home from Spain. It’s a real sword made of Marlow Spanish steel, and obviously I took it back prior to 9-11. [laughs] It’s a little tough to get on planes with them now. That was the sword I used the year I competed [in Mr. Romance] actually.

DP: How did you use it to compete? What do you mean by that?

BF: Each year it’s slightly different, but usually you have to portray certain characters throughout the competition. I had a contemporary—my contemporary was from a book written by Beth Ciotta and I was a billionaire—and then for my historical hero I came out full chain mail, the real boots, the gloves and the cuffs, and that was what I wore for the competition…and I carried that sword.

DP: In addition to the Romantic Times convention, you go to a lot of other romance conventions and signings. So, I’m curious, do you get hit on at these events?

BF: [laughs] Yes.

DP: What’s the craziest, weirdest encounter you’ve had? 

BF: Oh, man. You want me to put this on-the-record? Okay, so a lot of the times people will hand you a book or a calendar, ask you to sign, and then ask “Can I get a picture?” Sure! I’ll say. And, as you know, a lot of these conventions and signings are at hotels. So, in the middle of a picture, I actually had a woman slide her room key in my back pocket, and after the picture was snapped, she said the room number and walked away.

DP: Wow. 

BF: Yeah…and now she’s my ex-wife. [laughs] No, no, I’m kidding about that part. But yeah, I get that kind of thing a lot.

DP: So, what’s next for you when it comes to working in publishing?

BF: Well, first of all, book covers is a very small facet of my whole entertainment career. I’ll say maybe print comprises half of what I do, and then this, the book covers, is just a small percentage of that half. I enjoy the industry, though; I like it. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not going anywhere. I mean, it’s going to move digital, but it’s not going anywhere. I’ll continue to do covers, I’m sure. There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff. So, there are always going to be heroes—I’m sure there are heroes in some romance books that are 60—so I’ll probably be doing covers for a very long time.

DP: It’s a tough profession to be in, though, no?

BF: Yea, well, the entertainment industry is the most miserable profession in the world. And I mean that whole-heartedly. But here is how you know you’re doing what you want to do: The alarm goes off in the morning and you turn it off and you say “I am in the worst profession in the world” and you get up and do it anyway. That’s how you know you’re doing what you want to do.

Bio: Billy Freda started his acting/modeling/hosting career while attending Rutgers University College of Engineering. Since then, Billy’s career has consistently been on the rise, and has included countless prints ads, national campaigns, billboards, calendars, fitness magazines, and book covers. Billy’s favorite facet of his career, acting, has been receiving attention lately with his performance in the lead role in the TV pilot, “Bodies of Work.”Soon, you can find more info on his website, http://www.billfreda.com, which is currently down for maintenance.

Photo courtesy of Billy Freda.

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What Mystery Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 8th, 2011

Mysteries can be a mystery! NAL and Berkley editorial give us an inside look at the mystery market: what works and what they’re looking for. 

 book and glasses - special credit reqIn this second installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want,” we’re shifting the focus from romance novels to mystery novels, an intriguing and timeless genre with a number of popular subgenres. With so many different kinds of mysteries on the shelves, it can be confusing to figure out what exactly it is you’re writing and if it’s what a particular publishing house is looking to acquire.
We’ve once again turned to the experts, the mystery editors at New American Library (NAL) and Berkley Books, to give a quick lesson about the mystery genre as a whole, what’s hot right now, and what they’re looking for:

When it comes to writing a mystery that fits into the current market, first get back to the basics to make sure you’re book is categorized correctly. It’s easy to confuse a mystery component of a novel with a mystery novel itself. A “mystery” refers to novels whose plot revolves around a crime, typically a murder, and the search to figure out who committed it.  The protagonist is generally a sleuth, either professional or amateur, who engages in a hunt for the culprit by investigating and following various clues and reasoning processes.  After weeding out other potential suspects, the story usually ends with the apprehension of, or at least understanding of, who the killer is and what motivated them to commit the crime.

While mysteries often have other elements included in the story, the protagonist of a mystery is primarily concerned with the solving of the crime. For instance, the main character might have a love interest, so there could be a romantic subplot, but as long as it is secondary to the crime itself, you are still writing a mystery, and not a different type of book, like a romance.

Mysteries are related to, but different from thrillers, in that a thriller also tends to begin with some sort of crime.  However, in a thriller the reader usually learns quite quickly who has committed the crime and the driving force of the plot is not to figure out who-done-it, but to see if the hero can prevent the antagonist from getting away with the crime and striking again. Now, of course, there are all types of mysteries, so you’ll see that the genre has all sorts of subcategories.  This is because people shop for mysteries by the settings and time periods they find most interesting. The most popular subgenres change with time, and the best way to keep track of what the current ones are is to read the bestseller lists and see what kinds of mysteries are most popular.

Right now, some of the most successful genres are the following, and we editors are always looking for more fresh and exciting stories in the same vein:

Cozy mysteries
A descendent of  the novels written by Agatha Christie, this is a mystery where the sleuth, who is often female, is an amateur detective (meaning they aren’t a professional PI, police detective, cop, FBI agent, or any of the other various licensed professionals who might legitimately be solving a crime).  There is little to no violence on the page in the cozy mystery.  The setting tends to be small towns and the characters often know one another.  Usually there are subplots involving romances and friendships, with various relationship and career issues. In a cozy, the balance between character and storyline, the characters and the relationships between them, are often as important as the puzzle of the plot. We are especially eager to see more Cozy mysteries on submission.

There are also a number of variations within the cozy subcategory:

  • The culinary cozy, where the amateur sleuth is involved in the world of cooking and/or the setting is connected with food.  Think of New York Times bestselling author Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Schulz series has been running for decades now;
  • The crafty cozy, where the amateur sleuth is part of some hobby within the crafting world (like knitting or quilting) and the members of the world help to solve the crime.  Authors like Maggie Sefton,Earlene Fowler, and Betty Hechtman are all people who are using a fiber hook in their mysteries and making the most of it;
  • The paranormal cozy, where the sleuth often has some sort of paranormal ability and/or investigates strange happenings connected with the paranormal world.  New York Timesbestselling author Victoria Laurie and national bestselling authorSofie Kelly are two authors among many who have made the light paranormal mystery their own;
  • The chic-lit cozy, where the sleuth is often involved in more glamorous pursuits like fashion, jewelry, accessories. Ellen Byerrum and Elaine Viets have been crafting fun chic-lit mysteries for decades.

Historical mysteries Here the setting is an intriguing historical time period, the sleuth may or may not be modeled after a specific, well-known historical personage, and historical events often serve as a springboard for the mystery explored.  Variations include:

  • Historical mysteries where the sleuth is based on a recognizable or famous historical personage, like Abigail Adams, Dorothy Parker, or is a minor character connected with a more famous historical character, like the maid to Sir Author Conan Doyle.  New York Times bestselling author Laurie King writes a “Mary Russell series” centering the fictional wife of Sherlock Holmes, and more recently J.J. Murphy has put Dorothy Parker at the center of mysteries and the Round Table;
  • Mysteries set in a particular time period, like the Regency era or early Colonial America, whose protagonist is in some way a stock character typical of the era.  Victoria Thompson’s gaslight mystery series, set in turn-of-the century New York with a midwife protagonist is just such a series.

Traditional mysteries
Unlike cozies, in the traditional mystery the puzzle of the plot and the setting become as important as, if not more important than, the relationships between the various characters in the story.  Often the characters in these mysteries are well developed with deep backstories and complex personalities—yet still they play second fiddle to the solving of the crime. But because the characters are so vivid, the crimes also tend to be complicated, complex, and fueled by surprising motivations.  Some of the mysteries in this category may use language that is quite literary in nature, so the style of the language becomes a distinguishing feature of the book.  Authors you may have read include Nancy Pickard, with her wonderful “Kansas” series, or Louise Penny, with her long running “Chief Inspector Gamach” series. Other mysteries in this area may high suspense and semi-realistic chase scenes, so they may at times feel like thrillers.

Scandinavian mysteries
These are mysteries that have come to the fore in recent years.  Set in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, or Finland, they often have a traditional PI investigating a crime that is indicative of things gone amiss in the society at large.  The detective in the Scandinavian mysteries can exhibit a modern, world-weary attitude and be overcome by feeling of ineffectualness and despair.  The setting becomes all important as the ice and cold of the physical world becomes metaphoric for the conditions the detective seeks to surmount.  These books have dominated the New York Timesbestseller lists lately and well known authors include Stieg Larsson,Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo.

Hard-boiled mysteries
Of course, not all mysteries can be doing well commercially all the time.  The hard-boiled, or “noir,” mystery is a type that has long existed but is not enjoying as much popularity at the moment.  These are mysteries in which the sleuth is usually a professional PI (and often a tough, quiet sort of guy) and the setting is gritty and realistic.  There are varying degrees of violence and the crimes are often explicitly described on the page.  Guys like Mickey Spillane were some of the commercial founders of this category.
However, even if a certain category is not popular now, it will no doubt, have its day eventually.  Twenty years ago American readers weren’t generally reading Scandinavian mysteries, and now they dominate the bestseller lists.  The only thing you can really count on is change.

So, study the market, pay attention to what’s on the bestseller lists, and read the books that people are talking about the most. Not so you can mimic them, but so you can meld your own interest with what the market supports.  Some worry that this is being “overly commercial,” but editors would argue it’s a way to be relevant to the current reading world.  If you don’t pay attention to what mystery fans want to read, you may have to accept that you’ve spent your time and energy working on a project for an audience of one (or maybe two or three!). If you want reach a bigger fan base, you need to stay in touch with what readers are responding to.  That is what we editors will also respond to.

  
Next up in our “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” series:  Science fiction and fantasy!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

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What Romance Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 1st, 2011

Writing a romance novel? The NAL editorial team gives us a tutorial on the romance market: today’s hottest subgenres and what they’re looking forHere’s what the romance editors want:

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When I was in romance editorial, it astounded me how many submissions I received that had nothing to do with what I was actually looking to acquire, or even that fell outside of the genres in which my imprint specialized. Sometimes the manuscripts hooked me despite this fact, and I fell in love with the writing or the story or the potential I saw for the story. But there was nothing I could do; if it didn’t fit for our list or the market, my hands were tied.
As an author, even after doing all your homework–researching the market, reviewing an imprint’s recent publications, checking Publishers Marketplace for an editor’s acquisition history–it can still be difficult to figure out if what you’re submitting will give the editor what he or she wants. Particularly when it comes to such a robust and diverse genre as the romance market.

With this challenge in mind, Book Country asked the romance team at New American Library (NAL) to share a little bit about their experience with submissions and what specifically they hope to find among the pile:

Most editors at NAL find that when we’re looking for new talent, the biggest problem with the submissions we receive is not that they’re badly written (because many of them are very well done) but rather that the books are not the kind of stories that readers are looking for.  The romance reader is very particular in her tastes and preferences, and trends tend to dominate the market.  If you want to attract a big readership among romance fans, it’s crucial you know what kind of story they are looking for in the current market.
To help you figure out how to do that, the editors at NAL want to offer you some friendly advice about writing romance and positioning your book:

First, make sure you’re writing a romance novel and not a women’s fiction novel! Romance novels have as their central focus the relationship between the hero and heroine of the story.  Their developing romantic relationship forms the backbone of the book’s plot. Most often this involves a man and a women meeting and having a powerful attraction; however, there’s an obstacle getting in the way of their relationship. Frequently, each character has an internal conflict that she or he must overcome. The end goal is for this couple to reach their HEA, or happily ever after, together (with realistic complications along the way). In other words, they meet, they have a conflict, and they must react and develop in response to it before the book can reach a satisfying conclusion.  These conventions are common to romance novels across the board and can act as a helpful rule of thumb to guide you according to what readers will expect to see in your romance novel.

You also need to remember that most romance readers buy according to subgenre, based on themes, settings, or time periods.  The most popular subgenres in romance change over time, and the best way to identify what’s most popular in the romance market at a given time is to watch the bestseller lists. Our job as editors is not only to follow the trends but anticipate them, while your job is to write a great book people want to love.

Right now, some of the most popular genres in romance (and the ones our editors are most excited about) are:

Vampire romances
This means a love story where at least one of the main characters is a vampire, with supernatural powers and an immortal lifespan. The setting can vary. J. R Ward‘s “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series was at the forefront of the vampire trend from the start and remains a beloved favorite among paranormal romance readers.

Regency-set historical romances
While settings for historicals can vary, England is the most popular setting. Regencies are romances that are set during the Regency period in England, which strictly speaking was from 1811 to 1820.  Historical romance readers will expect these novels to be historically appropriate, meaning that the characters should act according to what was expected in society at that time. Some of Penguin’s bestselling Regency romance authors include Jo Beverley and Jillian Hunter.

Scottish-set historicals
Ever since the release of Braveheart, we have seen a high demand for romances set in Scotland.  The most popular time period is definitely medieval, but the Jacobean era (1603-1625) works as well for this subgenre. Bertrice Small’s “Border Chronicle” series is a fabulous example of the historic Scotland setting.

Shapeshifter romances
These are paranormal romances in which at least one of the central characters to the romance can shift shape into another form.  Shapeshifting characters might be dragons, werewolves, falcons, coyotes, the list goes on… To name two examples from NAL’s popular shapeshifter romances, we publish Michele Bardsley’s “Broken Heart” novels and Deborah Cooke’s “Dragonfire” novels to great acclaim.

Paranormal romances
Paranormal romances are ones in which the love story features a character with otherworldly abilities (in addition to but not excluding being a vampire or shapeshifter).  There are witch romances, fallen angel romances, mermaid romances, demon romances, among many others.  Sylvia Day’s “Renegade Angels” series and Regan Hasting’s “Awakening” novels will give you a great idea of the fallen angel and witch trends, respectively.

What we call “gentle fiction”
Gentle fiction is a subcategory of contemporary romance, which means a romance set in the present day. These are love stories set in a small town setting with lots of quaint charm and heartwarming emotional elements. The heartwarming sense of town life and the gentle tone of the emotions really set this subgenre apart from other mainstream contemporary romance. They are the most popular kind of contemporary romance at this time, and have no paranormal elements. One visit to JoAnn Ross’s “Shelter Bay” series and you won’t want to leave this wonderful town!

Western romances
Heroes from the Wild West hold much appeal, whether it’s a contemporary cowboy romance or a historical western. There’s just something readers love about a charming cowboy!  One bestselling example from NAL’s list is Catherine Anderson, who writes both contemporary and historical Westerns.

Romantic suspense
Romantic suspense has a fast-paced storyline with lots of action because the romance between hero and heroine takes place in the face of some kind of danger that threatens one or both of their lives. The suspenseful nature of the plot is almost as important as the romance, and there is usually a mystery to solve. These novels are usually contemporary settings and are always real world stories.Shannon K. Butcher’s “Edge” novels and Christina Dodd‘s “Bella Terra Deception” series give a great example of the kind of high-octane action and edge-of-your seat suspense readers look for in this genre.

Urban fantasy
While not technically romance, Urban Fantasy novels often involve a strong love story that appeals to romance fans. Whereas the third person point of view is common in the other romance genres, urban fantasy often takes a first person point of view. And the mystery that’s driving the plot and the action is almost as important to the novel as the romance itself.  The characters in these novels are very tough, and the stories may contain violence.  Lee Roland’s Viper Moon thrills with a captivating voice and a complex urban fantasy series world.

As you can see, there are many subgenres currently driving the market from the editors’ perspective, so make sure your novel fits into one of them. Or if you are trying your hand at something different, remember to keep your story within the conventions of a romance novel in the first place and understand that your story really has to be something special if it colors outside the lines. Editors love to find fresh new authors with budding talent, so give them something they can work with!

Romance is not the only genre where editors have specific interests though…

Our next installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” will focus on the mystery genre. 

Stay tuned!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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