Monday, July 26, 2010
Sure, Lara would like to be “a have,” but she’s not planning to bed the rich guy to get her hands on his money. She’s planning to take him down because she thinks he’s a menace to womankind. Everyone else who’s read the opening has been absolutely clear on that.
Was Mata Hari a whore? Or Cleopatra? Both of these women, it seems, were willing to take one for the team, so to speak. Both used sex appeal to make men believe she was on their side. When you go undercover, you have to make your opponents think you’re on their side.
And so, when Lara lets Clay think he’s seducing her, she’s actually seducing him, not “losing her resolve.” She’s pretending. It’s part of the plan. And I’m betting readers will be smart enough to figure that out.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
One judge said Clay lacked respect for women because he maintains his “mystique” by always having three women who act, shall we say, as his “official” consorts. “The three girl rotation is completely repulsive—to me in any case,” the critique said. “I won’t say that respect for women is mandatory in a romantic hero, but it sure helps.”
That last part sounds right.
But all we “know” about The Rotation at first comes from Lara’s description, and it raises the question, Is a character a low-down, dirty rotten skunk just because another character says so? Especially right at the beginning?
I mean, what if Lara’s wrong?
Let’s say a thriller opens with darkness. Two shots are fired. The lights go on, and all we see is Suzy Q. holding a smoking gun and Senator John D. lying dead with two holes in his chest. Case closed, right? Suzy did it in cold blood. Spark up the electric chair.
Of course not. And readers know it. They know there’s a good chance Suzy didn’t do it, or if she did, she had good reason.
Boo Radley gets some bad PR in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Is he really the monster the kids suspect he might be? Ebenezer Scrooge is quite a dick at the outset of “A Christmas Carol,” but does that make you want to close the book?
In every one of these cases, the whole point is to find out what’s really going on. And what’s really going on isn’t necessarily what we’re told up front.
Lara’s unflattering description of Clay—the one that offended the judge—comes in the first couple of pages of Fast Lane. The same judge also said, “Nice opening scene! Interesting premise,” and added that she “was open to liking (Clay),” so that’s encouraging. My takeaway is that the opening and premise are fundamentally sound, but could use a tweak or two.
At any rate, I hope this judge gets a chance to read the whole story some day. I think she’d end up pleasantly surprised.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I picked up my Chicago Tribune recently and the top headline on the front page included, in all caps, the words “FAST LANE,” while the most prominent feature on the cover of the business section was a photo of Hugh Hefner. Not that any of Fast Lane’s characters are based specifically on Hefner: I really don’t know much about him. But since Clay Creighton is a playboy (with a small p), comparisons are inevitable.
Here’s another recent coincidence: A few days after a member of my writing group wondered if it was plausible for one woman, Lara Dixon, to bring down a commercial enterprise like Fast Lane, an e-mail update from Writers Digest magazine listed this as one author’s favorite advice: “It doesn’t have to be probable, it just has to be possible.”
Is it plausible that Bernard Madoff could bilk a bunch of savvy investors out of billions of dollars? What if someone made that story up? How many intelligent people would say, “Couldn’t happen. Someone would figure it out long before it went that far.”
I’m sure I don’t need to include a spoiler alert here, but it did happen.
So, yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s possible—and therefore plausible—that one woman could topple a commercial empire like Fast Lane, which comprises a popular webzine, a Palm Springs resort and lines of clothing and exotic liqueurs. The company’s success is based on the notion that Clay is in charge in his relationships. If he’s not, he ceases to be the go-to guy for regular schlubs seeking advice on sex, cars and how much Cynar to mix into a Little Italy cocktail.
Fast Lane isn’t journalism. It’s fantasy. A fish-out-of-water story. An in-over-your-head fable. A be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale.
More important, though, is that Lara’s on a mission and believes she can do it.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I usually breeze through opening pages, and it was no exception with Fast Lane. I think it’s because I don’t write something unless I have what I believe is a winning premise and a clear idea where the story should go. Setting up the action, introducing the characters, establishing a tone…it’s all very exciting. The first several pages seem not to flow, but to gush forth.
And then, bam! The time comes to write everything after the opening, which is to say ninety, ninety-five percent of the piece. The gusher slows to a trickle. Every day the plot and the characters bash against rocks, swirl in eddies and get stuck behind dams that redirect the flow into tributaries out of the main channel. The trick is to get back on course and make it look natural in the process. You can trim the sails or drag an oar in from time to time, but if the readers notice, it will seem forced and untrue.
If writing a book were a marriage, this would be after the honeymoon, the part about which people say, “It takes hard work to make a relationship successful.”
And then, there is apparently no good way to start a story. If you write a page and a half of back story near the front, someone will tell you that’s way too much. If you cut back on the back story, someone will complain about having no idea who your characters are or why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Here’s my take: The opening can’t do everything. And why should it? It’s not everything. It’s only 1 or 4 or 10 percent of the whole. Two things I think an opening can’t do:
• Reveal all there is to know about the main character. You don’t know everything there is to know about someone the moment you meet them. You find out stuff along the way—including interesting stuff, stuff you like and stuff you don’t like. Isn’t learning about a character—and sometimes being a little surprised—part of the fun of reading a book or watching a movie?
• Reveal the exact course of the story. I mean, really. You can guess in the opening moments of “Romancing the Stone” that Kathleen Turner is going to go an adventure, but what adventure? And how many directions could a book go that opens with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”?
As it turns out, the easiest part to write, the opening, is the part that gets picked apart the most. Yet it’s the middle that seems to be the most arduous for the writer. Screenwriters even refer to the middle as “the second act desert.”
As Fast Lane opens, the heroine, Lara Dixon, is pitching her expose to a publisher, justifying the project by making a broad-strokes argument about why the king of Fast Lane’s empire of pleasure, Clay Creighton, needs to be taken down. Some back story is woven into the dialog. But how much about Clay do readers really need to know at this point? About Fast Lane? About Lara? Some of my readers say more than I have, others say less.
And so I go back into the first two pages with the challenge of trying to please everyone by using fewer words to say more.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I pecked the first lines of my would-be erotic romance a few days before Thanksgiving 2009. Fast Lane is about a divorcee who aims to avenge all women by romancing the magnate of a men’s webzine so she can dump him and write an expose about his sordid, misogynist empire. I was entering uncharted territory.
So why was I doing it? Because one day I descended from my attic office to find my wife, Mary Jo, in her work nook on the first floor, ready to click on the purchase of an e-book.
An erotic romance.
It was a bad time for freelance writers. Mary Jo and I have endured ups and downs during our 10 years in business, but during the last quarter of ’09, most of our advertising and business-to-business clients simply had no work. An erotic novel might not seem like the wisest purchase for a self-employed couple who had a kid in college, $1,000-a-month health insurance premiums, a mortgage, a car payment and no income, but there was a method to this madness. The 25,000-word novella had been written by a member of Mary Jo’s online writing group, and she thought she might use her unwelcome free time to write something similar, sell it and start earning royalties before we went broke.
Or Christmas. Whichever came first.
The e-book Mary Jo was reading reminded me of letters in Penthouse Forum that are purportedly from readers about their sexual exploits. Letters so graphic, so consistent in style and tone and so much like my 19-year-old-male fantasies that I’ve always had a hard time believing they’re really letters. Now, I know for a fact that Mary Jo had never written anything remotely like this book nor, as far as I could tell, had even read anything like it. Mary Jo can be X-rated at the right moment, but since she aspired to publishing novels for 10-year-olds, I never thought she’d even consider writing something in which the word “cunt” would be not only welcome, but required.
And aimed at women, no less.
Well, I thought, if Mary Jo was willing to try this, I should, too. A husband-wife duo writing explicit literature for women? Could be a real selling point. And so I downloaded an erotic romance by a different author. Marking up and dissecting the sex scenes as I went, I realized pretty quickly that I was about to undertake a daunting task.
Yes, daunting. Neither Mary Jo nor I approached this with a cavalier attitude. Neither of us ever said, “Hell, it should be easy to bang these out in no time, and we’ll be rich.” We’ve both been writers for way too long to think anything like that. Writing is hard, whether your bread-and-butter is a newspaper column about groundbreaking automotive technologies or novels about women savoring a stud’s quavering manhood in ways that seem kind of new, but probably aren’t. The only thing I was absolutely sure of was that the people who wrote these books could do something I might not be able to.
I’d written sex scenes before, but not sex scenes specifically for women in a style that not too long ago would have been considered inappropriate for “mixed company.” When it came time to describe the deeds, would my fingers be able to type the words? And would my lips be able to speak them when it was my turn to read to my writing group two times a month?
As I approach page 100, some answers are starting to materialize. Apparently, not a lot of romance novels, erotic or otherwise, are written by men. But I’m doing it, and it’s been an interesting ride so far. I’m not going to give away too many spoilers, but I hope you’ll find the adventure as fun and as funny—and as illuminating—as it’s been for me.