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Thursday, June 30, 2011

We were talking about…

Romance author and ManWARrior Donna McDonald says she works hard to get the male point of view right in her novels. I think she nailed it with this comment in Dating Dr. Notorious:

Regina hadn’t said Alexa was engaged, but then Ben hadn’t shown an interest in the details of her friend’s life.

Ah, yes. This brings to mind a discussion I once had with a woman about intergender communications. She said that when a woman doesn’t understand what a man’s saying, it’s because he’s talking wrong. When he doesn’t understand her, on the other hand, it’s because he’s listening wrong.

I said it could be that men and women just communicate differently.

In Donna’s example, Regina’s reasoning might go like this: “I care about my friends as much as I care about myself, so if Ben doesn’t care about my friends, he doesn’t care about me.”

What Ben’s thinking is, “I care about you, but it’s somebody else’s job to care about what’s going on with Alexa.”

What he means is, “It’s hard enough keeping track of one woman.”

I have a buddy who calls me now and then to take 45-minute walks. When I get back home, Mary Jo asks what we talked about. The answer is “I don’t know,” not because I don’t want her to know we were talking about famous women we’d like to do, but because I really don’t remember.

On demand, at least. I invariably produce an unprompted tidbit or two at breakfast the next day.

Besides, what’s most important is that we walked and talked and hung out for a while. But he never solves any of my problems, and I doubt I ever solve any of his. And I really would not care if Mary Jo didn’t care if she heard a full account of our conversation.

For the record, the conversation usually revolves around the music we liked when we were fourteen, how the Brewers or Packers are doing, what’s up with our work or kids, and what famous women we’d like to do.

We also talk about religion and politics, but Mary Jo’s already heard—and is sick of—those rants.

One important thing I want to say about Donna’s Ben is that the next line is, “He was going to have to work on handling Regina’s revelations better.” And, believe it or not, that’s realistic. We really do think about such things.

In Fast Lane, Clay’s first Rule of the Road for his followers is, “Make her feel like she’s the center of the universe.” And really, if paying attention helps get the job done, why wouldn’t you do it?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Just like a woman…kinda


My writing group doesn’t always tell me what I’m doing wrong. In fact, just the other day, Kris said, “You know more about women than I do.”

Which is quite a compliment. Kris writes about women. Oh, and she is one.

I think she was employing overstatement, but it still felt good to hear. I have been told before, though, that I write credible female characters. Why would that be?

If you believe in such things, it could be in the stars. I was born with the sun in Cancer, the most unfortunate name in the zodiac. Scorpio. Sagittarius. Virgo. Cancer. Ugh. Ophiucus is better. Even Uranus, which isn’t a sign, but was still available when the signs were getting their names.

Cancer is associated with domesticity and family. It’s also a so-called feminine sign and a water sign, which signifies being more likely to fill a vessel than to be one.

Add to the equation that my numerological “life number” is 2, a feminine digit associated with partnership. Plus, I was born in a Year of the Pig. Or, if you don’t like the connotation, Boar. Like that’s an improvement. Either way, it’s a yin, or female, sign, an “excellent year to marry and have children,” according to the Universal Psychic Guild.

No one believes me when I tell them all this. My rising sign is Aries, so people think I come on like a tough guy. Plus, Cancers have a cantankerous side. With our shells, we’re kind of like those hard candies that have gooey stuff in the center, only grumpy and brandishing pinchers.

If you don’t give such things much credence, I will say I grew up in a traditional 1960s-style family with a mom who stayed home and two sisters. Both of my grandmas lived nearby and I visited them often. Every teacher I had until middle school was a woman.

My first job after high school was as a teller at a savings and loan. I was the only male teller in the company—and maybe even in the city of 100,000 people where I lived. Believe me, the opportunity to hang around women in their early twenties every day will motivate an eighteen-year-old dude to get to work on time just as much as the $3.10-per-hour paycheck.

In college, I worked for a female yearbook editor and some of the people who had the biggest influence on my writing style when I was a journalist were women.

I also stayed home with our infant daughter for three years and have been married to the same woman for twenty-eight.

So I would hope I’d know something about women. Probably not more than Kris, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zipless schmipless

“Straddling him, Lara reached behind herself to unzip her dress and let it fall in silky folds onto his waist.”

Here you have it, for the first time ever, an actual line from Fast Lane.

That I’m going to change.

I read part of my rewrite to my writing group—again, with only women in attendance—and every one of them liked the passage overall. Laurel, though, illustrated, with gyrations that made me fear for the well-being of muscles and tendons in every part of her body, the line’s impossible physical requirements.

“First,” she said, making like she was trying to scratch an itch between her shoulder blades, “Lara would have to reach up here and move the zipper down as much as she could, which isn't very far. And then she’d have to go down around here and…”

This time she squirmed the way you might if you had ants crawling up your back, while crooking her arms in the way you fold a turkey’s wings before jamming it into a roasting pan.

Do all women’s clothes double as instruments of torture?

Anyway, here’s the thing. It wasn’t a sex scene. It was a fantasy. A man’s fantasy. Could a guy really be expected to know the rigors of shedding any article of clothing that might adorn a woman’s body? I don’t know about you, but in my fantasies, nobody’s thinking about the logistics of clothing removal. The clothes come off. Period.

But here come those turkey wings, wrenching all the fun out of Clay’s zipless fuck.

Okay, I know the term “zipless fuck” is mostly about sex without emotional involvement. But in Fear of Flying, Erica Jong does say that “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.”

Sounds like fantasy to me.

Still, I’m going to change the line. Laurel even had a good suggestion on how. She put both hands to her hips and shot them up over her head. Ending with a flip of her fingers, she said, “Pffft…the dress comes off.”

Works for me. Plus, now I can use “silky folds” somewhere else in the book.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Good words from people in the know


I attended the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books on Friday and got lucky.

No, not that kind of lucky.

What made me fortunate was that two sessions on romance writing did not coincide with the session on screenwriting I moderated, so I got to hear several authors say interesting—and encouraging—things, like

• “Alpha” male characters should have some “beta” characteristics to make them seem more real.
• Stories involving billionaires are popular.
• You don’t have to use terms like “sword of flesh”* or “velvety steel shaft” when writing sex scenes.

I don’t want to say too much about Clay’s beta characteristics, other than that he’s got some. Of course, he is a billionaire. And I steer clear of “sword of flesh” and “velvety steel shaft (though I might start using the latter in other situations).

The most encouraging thing I heard, though, was a round of applause when one of the panelists noted there was a man in the room who was writing a romance. Another example of how it's always better to show, not tell.

Here’s what the panelists had to say on various other topics:

Why read romance?

“I have a friend who reads a lot of romance, and you know why she says she likes them? They’re easy to read, they go fast and they make her feel good.”

—Publisher’s Weekly blogger Barbara Vey

“Pirates of the Caribbean is the number one movie, and everyone’s fine with that. Some people can read a category romance in two to three hours, so it’s a lot like going to a movie for them. What’s wrong with having a book that’s purely entertainment?”

—Author Helen Brenna

Why write romance?
“I’ve always been a very positive person. In romance, you can set your characters up in a tree and throw rocks at them, but as long as they get together in the end, everything’s OK.”

—Author Ilona Fridl

“I’ve had the satisfaction of people saying to me, ‘This isn’t as bad as I thought.’”

—Author Isabel Sharpe

What about sex?
“To me, what makes a romance sexy is sexual tension, not necessarily the sex part. In my books, sex never solves anything. It always makes things worse.”

—Brenna

“In my new book, I named a character after my hairdresser and the character is…kind of a slut. My hairdresser is a Pollyanna, and she’s dying to read the book. I think she wants to live vicariously through the character.”

—Brenna

“In my first book, the male character was based on that Stetson ad with Matthew McConaughy, the one with his shirt open to…yeah.”

—Author Stacey Joy Netzel

I get the sentiment behind that last one. I feel the same way about episodes of Entourage that feature Carla Gugino. Nonetheless, I still think of Lara as more of a Sandra Bullock type.

OK, time to get back to my rewrite while that clapping still echoes in my ears.

* I've got to mention author and editor Elizabeth Ridley contributed "sword of flesh" to the discussion. I believe she rolled her eyes as she said it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

All dressed up and going no place

Yahoo News has this first-date fashion advice for men: Avoid khakis, striped shirts, white socks and anything with neutral colors.

And be yourself.

Well, the article actually says, “What you wear should speak to your individuality.”

But what if you’re a guy who wears business casual everywhere? Or who sports his local team’s colors 24/7? Or lives in skinny jeans? Or shorts and flip-flops, even when the temperature dips below zero?

My hasty and by no means exhaustive search of the Internet revealed a similar article at The Dating Pages.com. that warns women not to over- or under-dress for a first date and to avoid being too trendy. It also says to wear what’s comfortable—unless what’s comfortable is strapless or low-cut, because “guys are simple creatures and they have a difficult enough time focusing without your bare skin distracting them.”

On the other hand, leave your face relatively bare because “too much makeup scares dudes.” And, yes, the editors thought it necessary to boldface that sentence.

This all speaks to one of the great conundrums of love and romance. You have to be yourself, but you have to be open to improving yourself, too. The question is whether wearing a polo shirt, as theYahoo article suggests, instead of a pinstriped button-down makes you a better person.

When Mary Jo and I met in 1979, she was wearing a slinky purple disco dress and I a deep blue, wide-lapel velour suit with a tie impeccably knotted into a double Windsor as big as a baseball. Only one of us looked great, but apparently both of us made good first impressions. I’m guessing my John Davidson hair compensated for the suit.

Neither of us, though, was what you’d call a fashion plate. Even for 1979. Mary Jo liked wearing bib overalls. I liked wearing a ratty heather gray hooded sweatshirt under a ratty green windbreaker. She says I wore the sweatshirt and windbreaker on our first date. Neither of us remembers what she wore, but she says it wasn’t the bibs. Even so, I saw her in her full-body denims plenty of times those first few weeks.

If one thing was certain, it was that each of us was looking at the real thing. And I liked the way she looked in overalls. So much so that I got her a new pair for our first Christmas together, which her mother hated and she loved. I got her a necklace, too, but legend has it that it was the bibs that won her heart.

(Or maybe it was my ’65 Plymouth convertible. Two-tone, rust over baby blue. With at least three of the hubcaps in place most of the time. Mary Jo says she married me for my mom’s ultra-comfy 1971-model couch, now the central fixture in our living room.)

At any rate, what I have to say about Yahoo’s advice re first-date attire is, if you’re a guy and you think you’d like to spiff up your wardrobe, do it. But if you love khakis or hoodies or ratty windbreakers or untucked heavy metal T’s, wearing a polo shirt on a first date ain’t gonna fool anyone for long.

Besides, if you like untucked heavy metal T’s, do you really want to go on a second date with a woman who thinks more of you in a polo?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Whatchoo lookin’ at, beach?

After I read the new, improved opening to Fast Lane, one woman in my writers group nodded and said, with a faraway look in her eyes, “Women can be so insecure about the way they look. I really get that.”

To her, showing more evidence of Lara’s insecurities was evidence that the opening to Fast Lane had, indeed, gotten better.

Not that I can't identify as well. Men have these insecurities, too. That’s why you see ads for Rogaine, Cialis and weight-loss elixirs during NFL games. Sometimes we even confront these insecurities in literature, movies and plays.

And rock ’n roll. The Rolling Stones sum it up nicely in Beast of Burden: “Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I’m not too blind to see.”

At no time do these insecurities raise their ugly heads with more ferocity than during the teen years. I come from a generation that was forced to take showers after gym class. The strong with the weak. The skinny with the ripped. The hairy with the baby smooth.

Thank God I’m old enough now to not give a damn. If I’m in a locker room and need a shower, I’m in the shower—I don’t care who’s hanging around. And since I work out at a college rec center, who’s hanging around is always some buff young lion. Heading for the sauna with a swimsuit on and a towel wrapped around his waist.

Then there are the old lawyers, lollygagging in all their glory for hours with towels draped over their shoulders as they try to out-Republican each other and argue about a hinder call someone made on the racquetball court three months ago. I once heard a comedian ponder this very phenomenon by asking, “Why is it that the older you are, the more naked you have to be in the locker room?”

I know why. The older you are, the less you fret over blemishes and bulges—or lack thereof.

I don’t know if it’s like that for women. But I know this: Riding my bike past a popular Lake Michigan beach the other day when the temperature was ninety-four (a coincidence, I swear), I noticed that a significant number of younger women seemed not to be pathologically concerned about how they look in two-piece swimsuits, even though their bodies did not resemble, shall we say, Angelina Jolie’s.

Which I take as a good sign.

Maybe somewhere there’s a Rubinesque twenty-two-year-old woman who’ll read Fast Lane on the beach wearing a skimpy bikini and say, with a faraway look in her eyes, “Why can women be so insecure about the way they look? I don’t get that at all.”