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Hello

Hello, I'm Eliza Mars and I write erotica, contemporary, and steampunk. My current WIP is a steampunk book about witches during the Gold Rush. I love mulling over and writing about the romance genre.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How mixing up “telling” and “showing” confuses the reader: a case study to warn the unwary

Secondary characters can layer your plot with tension and add depth to your world.  Unlike the hero and heroine – who in theory deserve their HEA by the end of the book – the other characters’ fates are not predetermined.   Will the Plot B heroine get her guy? Does she deserve it?  Is she ally or double agent?  We don’t know.   Cue the music.  Da-da-da-DUM.

But “morally ambiguous character” is not the same as “wildly unpredictable plot fodder”.  If done intentionally, fine.  Sending mixed signals to other characters and the reader about a secondary character can reveal their internal conflict and build tension.  If done poorly – or worse, as the result of careless writing – such characters erode trust between you and your reader. 

My favorite example of confusion-done-well is not a character but the story structure of a movie.  In “Pulp Fiction” the scenes are in non-chronological sequence, but the audience is never truly confused – we know we’re in good hands.  The structure serves the story, and thus, we as viewers can relax and enjoy the ride. 
It’s different when we’re confused because the director or author isn’t delivering on their promise about a character – or can’t even articulate what the promise is.  

I’ve been kept up at night worrying - and not in a good way - about the fate of a secondary character, the wife of an alpha shifter in a Series That Shall Not Be Named.   She is a perfect example of how sending mixed signals backfires on the reader and undercuts the credibility of the morality of the world she lives in.  To protect the innocent, we’ll call her Rachel.

The setup:  Paranormal shifter series.  They live long or forever (as long as they don’t get the ol’ head chop choppy).  Sort of Urban Fantasy because there is one main couple throughout the series, but the point of view is third person and switches between a few characters.  The crime and the evidence, after the jump:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

#RWA13: awesome, awesome, awesome

Last night I cheered with 2000 other women for a book called "The Billionaire's Hypnotized Mistress" to win an award.  I looked around the ballroom and thought:  I have found my people, and they rock.

My first RWA conference was frankly mind-blowing.  Writers of genre fiction have a lonely time of it, and for 3 days I got to meet funny, smart and warm women who love the same books I do.  I survived my first pitch and went to my first book signing.    During the craft workshops, I figured out my revision game plan. The only advice I will ignore is to not use "awesome."  As a native Californian, I took that personally. 

Fellow first timers:  thanks for your support, especially to the person who helped me realize I was 12 floors away from my pitch appointment.   RWA14? I'm on to you.  Next time, I'll use GPS.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Paranormal Romance: IN A WORLD…


Good paranormal romance universes set heroines up for conflict, and then let heroines battle and triumph against it – a lot like contemporary romance does for women today in the good ol’ U.S. of A.  I might not be a vampire assassin in my day job, but I can relate to someone who is too tired to wipe the blood off her stakes at the end of the day. 

In fact, I love paranormal romance and urban fantasy because of the world-building -- my favorite usually take on a certain challenge contemporary life, then force me to look at the issue with a different focus or more intensity.  Shifter romances explore what it means to have consciousness and live in modern world but at the same time be an animal and connect with natural world.   Demon and angel worlds throw moral issues in sharp relief.  Vampire romances usually involved a highly evolved culture or sub-culture, with its own rituals, fashions and traditions while helping us understand the transitory and often irrational cultural traditions we ourselves follow.    Vampire worlds also tend to explore class issues, because there’s usually a strict hierarchy or nobility structure.   Worlds with multiple races, like the Psy-Changeling series, let authors confront racial stereotypes and look at racial conflict in a way that would be difficult in a straight-ahead contemporary romance.

I’m fascinated by world-building partly because I came to romance as a refugee from science fiction.  Too often science fiction authors (usually male) can envision a world with breathtaking technology, but not a world where men and women were equal.  I read one book where some men investigating a space ship accident found a woman’s remains in the wreckage.  They shrugged and dispensed with her life and death in one sentence:  clearly she was the ship’s prostitute.  No mystery there.  Women fared even worse in another book, where females of a feline race women weren’t sentient.  Literally, the women were animals that that men fed, rutted into, and, one hopes, dewormed.    And… I’m outta here folks.  No thanks.

So it was strange to switch to romance, only to find that many of the worlds women authors were creating weren’t that great for women, either.  Some were, of course.  It’s challenging to generalize about romance genre, because the sheer volume of available source material will overwhelm you.  You could spin any number of hypotheses and find an example to support it. 

Today I’m thinking about two classic vampire series, the Black Dagger Brotherhood and Midnight Breed, because they both set up a universe at the beginning of the series where women are highly oppressed, and then go in different directions.    

7th Inning Stretch is Over. Play ball!

I wrote this blog for a month and had big plans for future posts.  Then I was hit by one of those tiresome curve balls life throws at us sometimes – two, actually.  Funny how right after I make a plan or voice an opinion, something happens to remind me I’m not in control and don’t know as much as I think I do.   Thanks, curve ball.  Lesson learned. Now, no more, 'kay? I have stuff to write.

Luckily, these particular two roadblocks gave me time to read some romance books – most of them compelling and heart stopping, and a few listless and downright depressing.   Which always gets me thinking - why? Why do I love some books and am challenged by others?

Then I had the good fortune to have lunch with another writer.  Afterward we started talking in a windy parking lot about a paranormal romance series we both had read and loved, the Black Dagger Brotherhood.  I said that I loved some female characters and books in the series, and was completely annoyed and frustrated by others.  I couldn't quite put my finger on why at the time.  

But while I was under strict doctor orders that boiled down to Lie in Bed; Stare at Ceiling, I had time to ponder and mull about the windy parking lot conversation and why I like or dislike certain paranormal books.  I think the key is world building.  

So I'm back, I'm writing, I have a post going up soon, and then I'm running out to buy a baseball glove.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Breaking the rules - very, very, carefully

Half of the world says, "follow the rules," and the other half yells "they're really more like guidelines!" and as a writer we have to suck it up and make a game-time decision.

Sucks is right.  

I reread a draft of a contemporary I wrote about two years ago.  I love it, and I love the heroine and hero, but talk about unmarketable.  Yowza.  Both lead characters are working through serious problems, part of the plot revolves around cryptography (oh, you sexy storyline advancer you!), and the hero makes a Big Mistake.

One of the conventions of romance is that the hero does not sleep with anyone else after meeting the heroine.  

I'm not sure how much this is discussed, but I'm hard put to think of a romance book where this happens aside from Second Chance Romance, or the "I've been friendzoned for 10 years but damn it I'm going to make my play!" books.  Both of which I love.  This book is neither of those.  

As a reader, I'll come out and say I don't like it when this rule is broken.  I'm a vociferous Heroine Advocate.  As a writer, the Big Mistake is very important and I forgive the hero, most importantly the heroine forgives the hero, and I hope that readers would forgive the hero.  Romance needs diversity and rule-stretching just like any other genre.

As a veteran of the Amazon comment wars, I don't have a lot of optimism it will work.

/smallvoice But I think I'll keep it the way it is /endsmallvoice.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Writing alpha-alpha male POV


I was reading a romance from the 1980’s where the hero was described as “alpha” and I thought, really? He’s just … strong and silent.  He hasn't once bemoaned the heroine’s lack of security system (to be fair, it was a Western) or told her that in a combat situation, she had to do exactly what he said. OR ELSE.  Dum dum dum dummm.

A common perception is that modern romance books are more, well modern, and far away from the rapetastic books of the 1970’s (“The Flame and the Flower” being an infamous example).

Yet, some recent military romance, romantic suspense and even some paranormal have been trending lately toward a retrograde alpha male. I’ll call him the alpha-alpha male. 

Let’s just be clear -  I love a well-written alpha-alpha.  That’s the guy you want if the Russian mafia, the CIA or an unreliable car mechanic is you giving you a bad time.  He’s strong, he’s protective and his number one priority is the heroine.  In other words, he’s covered in an awesome, if slightly old-fashioned smelling, sauce.

The reasons way the uber-alphas are taking over some sub-genres are beyond the scope of my post here, which is to help you write better alpha male POV – and I’m not entirely sure why.  My guess is that it’s part of people supersizing a trend.  Vampires are big? I’ll do vampires and demons and angels.  People liked “50 Shades of Grey?” I’ll do 70 Shades (not sure what that means, but it sounds impressive).  It’s all about capitalizing on a trend and stretching its limits, which is great fun as far as I’m concerned.  Let’s pop the popcorn and see how a genre can evolve.

Less benignly, it may also be part of a pendulum swing toward normalizing violence against women in North American culture.  We’re always somewhere on that scale, and I’ll give you my highly unscientific, “lick my thumb and stick it up in the air” instinct that generally the wind is in that quarter.

It’s definitely not that the author wants to be any part of that trend – in fact I think authors spend a tremendous amount of energy to justify the alpha male’s behavior so the modern romance reader can accept it (in fact, that’s a red flag the author is stretching the hero to caveman limits).  Bottom line:   we live in culture, and can’t escape it. The first trick is to figure out what we like about alpha males, and where the line gets, as I call it, “squicky.”

You can’t let your heroine bring a knife to a gun fight. 

(More on that, and the second trick, after the jump).

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Hero Always Wears Armani: brands, class and character


Brand names are tricky, tricky, tricky.  Here be shark-infested waters, y’all!

The following are guidelines to help eliminate common problems with brand names in contemporary romance.  Usually I think rules can be broken for good reasons, but with brand names it’s the rare author who can use them wisely, and the rare book that merits heavy-handed displays of Lladro figurines on top of Chippendale hutches resting on Aubusson carpets.  Unless someone needs target practice.

·         Readers all have different views on brands.  One person’s fashion forward is another person’s tacky is another person’s never-heard-of-it.  Some brands are so established, they’re safe because it’s clear what they signify.  Chanel means “rich old urban sophisticate” (it’s practically in the dictionary).   But does Philippe Patel watch mean new money?  Status conscious?  Rich dad?  Old money?  Recent promotion?  Concern about punctuality?  Who the heck knows, especially if I haven’t made it clear with other character tells.

·         Brands date your work.  Yesterday’s Hugo Boss is today’s Marc Jacobs.  Another reason to use established brands with clear meaning, if at all.

·         Using brands to telegraph upper class can backfire on you.  Oddly, a fascination with brands is more a sign of middle class than upper class.  Sure the hyper rich buy top brands, but they don’t think about brands the way a middle-class person does. 

An Old Money Hero is unlikely to talk about brands in his head.  But a newly-minted CEO Hero who grew up poor and just put his first million in the bank?  You betcha in his POV he is going to note that there’s a Mercedes S-class and not a C-class in his garage. 

Old Money Hero thinks, “Oh, there’s the car.  Right where the driver left it.” 

·         Use brands sparingly and with good reason. Just like the CEO Hero with his S-class, only a certain type of person references brands in their POV.  Littering a book with brand names will lose their significance.  Even if you limit it one character, it should have meaning for them.  Unless handled well, and if it’s a character you want readers to like,  it can mean the person is status conscious and a wee bit insecure.

If a character references a lot of brands but you don’t mean for her to appear shallow, there should be a good reason she’s doing it.  Why is she getting a new Dooney-Burke bag every week, proud of her Mercedes minivan and asking for jewelry from Tiffany?  Sounds like a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown or pawning items.

·         Do research.  It’s easy.  Say I’m going to write about a playboy billionaire in need of the love of a good woman.  Since the number of playboy billionaire I know is limited (okay, zero), my perceptions of what playboy billionaires wear is probably different from what playboy billionaires actually wear.  Whether you go the sociological route and read about social class from academics, or read about lives of actual billionaires, figure out what the brands really are that work for the setting, income, and social class of your characters.  Again, brands can signal more about your than your character, and that’s distracting to readers.

A fascinating documentary I watched some time ago by one of the Johnson & Johnson heirs confirmed that I really had no idea how billionaires live.  For the record, they seem very uninteresting and I’m mostly felt sorry for them.  But then, I’m middle class..  I feel sorry for everyone, because I listen to public radio.

·         Be honest – if the brands don’t work, change class or setting.  Being upper-middle class is just as awesome as being upper-upper class -- at least, this is what I hear. 

Think about flying.  Business class is so much better than coach that really, the fact you aren’t in First Class doesn’t matter.  Either way, there’s hot food and leg room.   If you’re relying on brands to sell a setting or character that you don’t in your bones feel you can pull off, don’t!  Turn the billionaire into a plain old millionaire and downsize the pied-a-terre.  The emotional truth of your story will still ring true.