Friday, April 29, 2011

And They All... Lived

These hips are perfect for birthing babies. Now go make me a grandma.
I've had weddings on my mind lately, as have several of you, I suspect. I watched The Wedding this morning, and loved every minute of it. It's always wonderful to see a loving couple celebrate this momentous milestone, and Catherine and Prince William seem genuinely happy together.

Beyond the narrative of a couple joining together in matrimony, of course, is the fairy tale aspect of their story. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (or Kate Middleton, as she was just twelve hours ago) was a beautiful commoner who caught the eye of a prince. They fell in love, he made her a princess, and they all lived (say it with me now)...

...happily ever after.

That's the ending we want for them. In fact, I have heard many media outlets in the last week or so refer to the wedding as the happy ending to their story.

It would be shortsighted in the extreme, however, to think today's event was a happy ending. Today was a happy day. A joyous one, a beautiful one, a day to stop and celebrate some of the better parts of human nature--our capacity to love and care for one another deeply and truly. But it was no ending. Today marked a beginning for the new royal couple. We wish them all the best in the world, but we need only think back over the last twenty years to recall that a fairy tale wedding is no guarantee of Happily Ever After.

We romance authors are in the business of Happily Ever After (so much so that it's capitalized and given its own spiffy abbreviation, HEA). HEA is not just a good idea, it's an industry standard. If a "romance" novel does not end in HEA, it cannot be categorized as genre Romance--it might be a love story, but not Romance.

At the reception, the best man and maid of honor
slipped away to make out in the coat closet.

HEA is the assurance of lifelong commitment. If the couple hasn't quite made it to the altar by the end of the novel, the reader at least knows the hero and heroine are headed there. Theirs will be a lasting love that stands the test of time. Together, our lovers will stand strong against the world, secure in the unshakable foundation of their relationship.

Maybe contemporary royal history has made us wary of this narrative. Maybe we're all too familiar with divorce. Maybe we (and by "we" I mean "I") got tired of the Disney princess getting her HEA at the ripe old age of sixteen. Whatever the case, even I can't sometimes help but feel a little worried about the characters I have just spent 350 pages coming to know and love and root for. Will they really be okay after I close the book?

Over the last decade or so, a wonderful trend has emerged in Romance publishing which addresses this worry. Authors frequently connect their novels so that the starring couple from one novel reappears in subsequent novels as secondary characters.

Loretta Chase's delightful series featuring the Carsington family is a prime example. In each novel, one of the Carsington brothers finds the love of his life. That couple might pop up again in another book to help the new hero and heroine along their own road to lasting happiness. In the meantime, we get to catch up with our old friends and make sure their relationship is still holding strong. Mary Balogh's quintet about the Huxtable siblings spans a number of years, so we get to see the couple from the first novel bring children into their family as time passes. Witnessing the love a couple has for each other expand to encompass their growing family adds to our sense of happiness and contentment for these characters.

As a reader, I enjoy visiting with the characters from previous novels again. If the writer has done her job well, I've become emotionally invested in these crazy kids, and it's reassuring to know their HEA continues. As a writer, I have spent a lot of time creating my own little Regency world. It's fun to give my heroines and heroes cameo roles in other novels, and to watch them continue to grow in love. It's great to touch base with these couples, and to know that they are there, living. That HEA is not the end of their story, but the beginning.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tuneless Lullabies

There has always been music in my heart--pure, lovely music. It wells up inside of me until I can't take it any more and I have to sing. The emergent sound could charitably be called unfortunate. Growing up, my parents suffered my soulful caterwauling until they couldn't take it anymore, and then asked me to kindly shut the hell up.

When the Boyce babies came along, I knew it was my big chance to sing to my heart's content. A captive audience who didn't yet know how to tell Mom to stuff it? Perfect! Plus, no one would ever be cruel enough to tell a mother not to sing to her infant.

Not long after the first Boy Boyce was born, I had my big chance. Two a.m. feeding, and out I came to debut as prima donna of the rocking chair. I settled in with my arms full of soft, new perfection, love bursting from my pores. Now I could give my heart in song to someone who wouldn't care that the high notes disappeared, or that the lows were too raspy.  He would hear the love in my voice, and would love my singing in return. And so I began:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star...

It was a letdown. Frankly, that song just doesn't have a lot going for it. I tried again:

Bye, baby bunting,
Daddy's gone a'hunting...

I smiled sadly at my son. I felt like I'd failed him. There wasn't anything I could give him with these songs. I didn't feel anything for them.

Honey, can you tell if his eyes are closed?
I kept singing at night, but my heart wasn't in it anymore. My repertoire of lullabies was depleted within 10 minutes, and then, like a cd on repeat, I'd start over and sing the same handful of songs again. And again.



Until, one dark and colicky night, I had held that baby in my arms for hours. He drifted off in my grasp, only to jerk wide awake and resume wailing the instant I put him down. There's a wonderful defense mechanism that kicks in during times like these. A sort of benevolent serenity came over me. I was beyond the crying, beyond the ache between my shoulders. Really, I was just numb with exhaustion, but at that moment I felt like Mother. No, Mother. Capitalized. Italicized. For emphasis, on account of just how infinite was my well of patience for this tiny, squalling creature. I could comfort and lull this child to sleep. I would. I had it in me. I opened my mouth, and out came...

Words. Just words.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engenderd is the flour...

Yes, what came pouring out of me was the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Why? I don't know. But at that moment, when I absolutely knew I had it inside me to love and comfort and hold that infant as long as I had to, what I had to give him--the heart of my mothering--was words. They came easily after that. And they felt right.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time...

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits...

And on. Poem after poem. He fell soundly asleep long before I ran out of material.

Since then, I have continued to sing to my children at bedtime. We've settled on "You are my Sunshine" as a tune I can pull off without butchering, and words with a little more sentiment than astronomical bewilderment.

But in the dead of night, alone with each of my infants, the true lullabies of my heart emerged to swaddle my baby and me in the soothing, tuneless music of words.

Monday, April 18, 2011


One of the things I love about language is its fluidity. A word's meaning today might be entirely different a hundred years from now. How exciting! Though I fancy myself something of a connoisseur des mots, I am by no means a pedant. I love colloquialisms, and truly feel that so long as an individual has effectively communicated his or her message, then juggling words around a little is just fine by me.

However, there are some misuses of language so heinous as to cause me to gnash my teeth and induce spikes in blood pressure. The first I'm lining up in front of the firing squad is a reference to the eponymous 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Just thinking about typing it makes me cringe. OK, here it is:


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
-Nabokov, Lolita, chapter 1

You have read Lolita, haven't you? You know to whom the above words refer: A sexually promiscuous teeny-bopper who dresses provocatively and gets off on attracting older men.

At least, that's what you'd think if you got your cultural contexts from the media, who just looooove to turn Lolita into an asinine adjective, Lolita-esque. To wit:

Here: Meanwhile, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, along with fellow teen stars Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson, were a new breed of barely legal pop princesses, prevailing against chart competition from older acts with their Lolita-esque ways.

And here: Evan Rachel Wood always seemed sort of intense to us, from the roles she chooses to play, to the fact that she dated Marilyn Manson for four years, to her occasional penchant for Lolita-esque attire. 

And here: Marketed as empowering to women, “Sucker Punch” proves to be just the opposite — Lolita-esque characters prancing about in tiny skirts and fishnets seem to be more about fetishism than empowerment.

Dearest Readers, I could copy and paste all day, but I trust you get the idea. In modern parlance, Lolita, or Lolita-esque, translates to a minor female who spends her days playing up her sexuality and angling after the sexual attention of men--especially older ones.

Heavy sigh. People....

Preach it, Inigo.

So, if Lolita wasn't the strumpet we're told she is, who is she? Her name is Dolores, not Lolita. Dolores Haze. A 12-year-old child who is kidnapped by a pedophile, constantly moved around the country to evade detection and prevent her escape, and serially molested over the course of several years.

Not quite as titillating as pop singers in short skirts, now is it?

In fact, if "Lolita" is going to be the encapsulation of an idea, it should be that of the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of an unrepentant predator. Framing Lolita as a seductress is classic victim blaming. A barely pubescent 12 year old child cannot, CANNOT, "seduce" an adult man.

Even though Dolores Haze is a fictional character, I can't help but feel sorry for her when she is so grossly misconstrued in the media, and her nickname is abused in the common tongue. Those who use 'Lolita' as a synonym for a sexually promiscuous young girl have utterly missed the point of the novel, and thus reveal their ignorance. And yet, the malapropism persists.

Dolores, I know who you are, and I vow never to hear the term 'Lolita' perverted by ignoramuses without feeling enraged on your behalf.

How about you, readers? Does 'Lolita' get your goat like it does mine? Are there other linguistic abuses that crush your will to live? Do tell!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Unpublished Novel and You, Part Two

A writer has given you the opportunity to read her or his unpublished novel. Having consulted my first post on the subject, you've decided to seize that opportunity by the horns. Now what? Well, you have a little work to do, which we'll get into in just a moment. The fun news is that you have a shiny, new job title to show off. You can call your mom and tell her you're a:

Beta Reader

"Wait a second, what's a beta reader?" you may wonder. Perhaps you've heard the term "beta tester" in relation to tech stuff. Video games, for instance, are beta tested before they go into production. Beta testers play a mostly-finished version of a game to get a feel for the overall experience. They hunt for problems the game's creators may have overlooked--bugs, glitches, story continuity, the secret cow level... that kind of thing.

In the writing world, beta readers (sometimes called "first readers" by people who like to be contrary) play a similar, important role. Beta reading is the step between the completion of a manuscript and submission for publication. The bulk of the technical writing work should be done by now. The diligent writer will have edited and proofread her manuscript before putting it into your hands. Don't worry if you aren't an expert grammarian; that's not why you've been recruited. As a beta reader, your job is to experience the novel and let the author know whether or not it works. Curl up with that unpublished novel and grab a notepad. It's time to read.

Can we skip the hobbit toes and get to the party?
In the Beginning...

Within pages--and definitely by the end of the first chapter--you should have a sense of where this novel is headed. You won't know precisely what's going to happen, but a successful opening will introduce one or more major character, set the tone for the novel, and give you a taste of the story's conflict. Does the beginning compel you to keep reading? That's called a hook, and your writer wants a strong opening hook. Let him know whether or not the initial chapter draws you into the story. Beginnings are hard to get right, so your input here is truly invaluable. What works? What doesn't?

The Long and Winding Middle

As the novel progresses, keep a close eye on plot and characters. Although complications will arise for our plucky heroes, the main thrust of the novel should remain focused. At the beginning of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we learn Mr. and Mrs. Bennet wish to make good marriages for their daughters. We are told of Mrs. Bennet: The business of her life was to get her daughters married... (pg. 3) The rest of the novel all ties back to this single point. Complications such as Lydia's elopement with Wickham and Lady Catherine's staunch disapproval of Lizzy are roadblocks to the main goal of getting the Bennet girls married. As you read the unpublished novel, mind whether subplots and complications are related to the main goal. If the story ever becomes bogged down or confusing, take note!

Initially, you might not know why a character makes the choices s/he does. But as you read, each character's motivation should become clear. If you get to the end of the novel and still don't know why the villain wanted to blow up the farmer's market, your writer needs to hear about it.

Yes, but why have we spent all morning staring into this pond?

Jot down a few scenes or characters you enjoy. What's good about them? If the dialog is witty, or a narrative passage is sensually engaging, or a character has appealing swagger, be sure to let the author know. Hearing what we're doing right is just as important as what we're doing wrong.

Hindsight is 20 / 20

Sometimes you just won't know until the very end whether or not a novel works. After you reach "The End," take some time to think about the story arc. Does the novel end in a satisfying way? A satisfying ending is one that makes sense in the context of this particular novel. Has the major plot been resolved? Have subplots been tied together? Note any dropped plot threads.

How about the characters? Has the main character evidenced growth from the person s/he was at the beginning? Do you feel like each character got the ending that's right for him or her?

"What did you think?"

When you've finished reading and making notes, it's time for the beta reader to report back to the writer. Whether you email your thoughts or carry on a conversation, remember to be honest, but tactful. Tell the writer what you enjoyed, and where you saw room for improvement.

What if you hated the novel? First of all, decide whether your dislike is a matter of taste or a matter of execution. In other words, did the novel succeed in conveying a coherent story with well-developed characters, and you just didn't like it? If so, try to keep your remarks objective.

Sometimes, a novel just honestly is not well written. What then? Pick two or three of the most egregious shortcomings to remark upon, and remember to stay non-judgmental in your wording. Say, "I feel the plot lacks focus," rather than, "This book is pointless." Dig deep and find something positive to say, too.

When you act as a beta reader, you provide a great service to a writer, and you get to be one of the first to read a (hopefully) good novel. Remember, every great novel was once an unpublished manuscript. Don't be afraid to give beta reading a try!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Unpublished Novel and You, Part One

There's a good chance that there's a writer in your life. It may be your spouse, your best friend, or the guy three cubicles down you exchange pleasantries with at the microwave in the break room. In any event, if you know a writer, someday you will likely be confronted with an unpublished manuscript. What to do with it? Simply reading the thing seems too easy, and indeed it is. I'm here to make this process as painless as possible for all involved.

Do you really want to read this?

Then he did what to the gerbil?
Maybe there was an awkward pause in conversation when the person you just met at a party said she's writing the next great coming of age novel, as seen through the eyes of a classroom guinea pig. You are not--I repeat, NOT--obligated to break the silence with, "I'd love to read that!" It's perfectly acceptable to nod politely and wish the writer luck with her endeavor.

If a writer approaches you and asks you to read a manuscript, think carefully before answering.

What genre is the work? If it's something you're not into, you aren't going to do anyone any favors by forcing yourself through it. My husband doesn't read romance. I know this, and I don't try to make him read my novels. Also, don't be afraid to ask about the adult content level of a piece. Some people don't want to read explicit sex or violence. There's nothing wrong with inquiring, and declining if there are scenes that may make you uncomfortable. Once a project passes your initial sniff test, continue on to consider...

Do you have time to read this?

You know how when you pick up a book at the library, you are frequently presented with something that spans several hundred pages? An unpublished novel is a lot like that, only it isn't neatly bound. If you agree to read an unpublished novel, prepare to have hundreds of pages of loose paper dumped into your lap. The thoughtful writer might give you a bulky three-ring binder. Alternatively, your new reading material might show up in your inbox, leaving you to either print the thing off yourself, or read it on an electronic device.

However it's presented, the unpublished novel is, in fact, a novel. Can you read it in a timely fashion? If not, don't say you'll read it. Please. An unpublished writer can usually count her readers on one hand--two, if she's lucky. We know who you are, and we know you haven't read it. It's a tiny little punch to the soul to wait for feedback that isn't coming. Don't do that to the writer in your life.

So, do you have both the time and inclination to read that unpublished novel? Great! In our next lesson, we'll cover the nitty gritty of critiquing: story arcs, character development, and how to nicely tell a writer her novel sucks.

In the meantime, have you ever been asked to read an unpublished novel? Tell us about it in the comments!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Welcome to the Ball

Hi! My name is Elizabeth and I write novels. My stories are set in the British Regency (1811 - 1820). You won't find me in a bookstore just yet, but I'm working hard to get there. I look forward to sharing my journey to publication with you. In future posts, I'll tell you a bit about why I write historical romance, and maybe share some snippets from my novels. For now, I just want to tell you a little bit about my hopes for this blog.

Why the name Bluestocking Ball? Well, let's let the words speak for themselves:

1. a woman with considerable scholarly, literary, or intellectual ability or interest.
1. a large, usually lavish, formal party featuring social dancing and sometimes given for a particular purpose, as to introduce debutantes or benefit a charitable organization.
2. Informal . a thoroughly good time

During the Regency, 'bluestocking' was a derogatory term. Educated and opinionated women were frowned upon in polite society. Females with intellectual pursuits were misfits. Even Jane Austen had to publish anonymously, as a female novelist was fodder for the gossip mill.

The Bluestocking Ball is a place to share and discuss our literary and intellectual interests. We'll chat about books and history and ideas. We'll talk about romance, and maybe someone will slip some champagne into the punch. In the nineteenth century, bluestockings were overlooked at balls. No respectable gentleman wanted to be seen with an undesirable lady. But at this ball, the bluestockings are taking over the floor.

So, welcome to the Bluestocking Ball. We're going to have a thoroughly good time.