Writing in Books with Boys

So I wrote a book with a guy. You may be wondering how that happened. Many of my friends are. Actually, they’re just wondering how he survived; I think they thought I’d lose it midway, bite his head off, and lay eggs in his neck. Which is odd because, really, I’m a cupcake to work with.

So here’s the story.

A long time ago, I worked on a dissertation on the differences in the way men and women tell stories, or to put it in academese, the impact of gender on narrative strategies. As part of the research, I read one hundred romance novels, which is what made me switch my diss to romance, and then shortly after that begin writing romance. But I really loved that diss topic, and the stuff I discovered was great: men tell stories in linear plots and women tell them in patterns, men privilege action and women privilege relationship (not only between people but also between things and events), men are about getting to the goal and women are about the journey, men want to tell the big picture and women want to tell the detail . . . really, it was fascinating. And of course these are all gross generalities because there are men who like detail and women who want the big picture, but still from what I observed and what I read, the differences were real and had a huge impact on not only publishing but also TV, film, video games, you name it.

But then I sold a romance novel and went into the MFA program and wrote two more novels and then I teamed up with a fellow MFA student, Jeff MacGregor, who’s a terrific essayist and short story writer, to write a novel in which I’d do the woman’s POV and he’d do the guy’s because I wanted to see what would happen with two different gender voices in a text. I don’t know why he agreed, I probably had my knee on his neck and he wanted to breathe. We came up with a premise and I wrote the first scene, which was stellar. Then he wrote the second scene, which was funny as all hell. Then I wrote the third scene and turned it back over to him, and he said, “You know, I think I’m done.” Moral: Do not ask a short story writer to write a novel. (Although in Jeff’s defense, he did write a great non-fiction book on NASCAR called Sunday Money, in your bookstores now.)

I went on to finish the MFA and fifteen novels and then, ten years after my first book was published, I stalled. Flat out hit the wall. I got 60,000 words into a book called You Again and could not find my way out. Which did not mean I didn’t keep pitching, boy, I even took it with me to the Maui Writer’s conference last August (2004) and that’s where, while the surf lapped the sand, I realized that I was Finished. Over. Done with. Kaput. Fifteen books is a career, I told myself. Fifteen damn good books, too, if I do say so myself. Nothing to be ashamed of. Everything must end. Nothing to see here. Move it along.

Wait, you’re saying. That’s not funny. Isn’t this blog supposed to be funny? No. Get over that, okay? Sometimes I feel like making fun of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and sometimes I don’t.

Basically, I was deep in a menopausal depression and didn’t realize it. Well, I knew I wasn’t tap-dancing down the road of life, but I thought it was business as usual. I should have recognized something was wrong when I got up one morning, went out onto the balcony, looked at the sun sparkling on the Pacific from a sky so blue it hurt my eyes, and thought, “Another fucking day in paradise,” but no, I just thought I was grumpy.

So that night I went up to the presenters lounge which was full of some of the best people you could ever meet–I love the Maui Writers faculty, those people know how to party–and tried to be Positive and Upbeat while sucking down white wine like a sump pump. If there’d been an IV there, I’d have jammed it in. Which is when Bob Mayer sat down beside me and said, “We should collaborate.” And I looked at him and thought, “This is the guy who’s been gaslighting me all week but he’s written thirty novels so he knows how to get to the end of one.” And then I remembered the reality of my life and realized there was no way I could be that lucky and he had to be gaslighting me again, so I laughed and said, “Good one, Bob.”

Then later Mollie said, “That was kind of mean,” and I said, “What? He was kidding,” and she said, “No, he was serious,” and I thought, “Damn,” and the next day I hunted him down and said,” Save me.” Okay, I wasn’t quite that blatant, but I think he could tell I needed somebody to throw me a rope, and he was a Green Beret so that’s pretty much what he does. Or as Karen Harbaugh said after meeting him, “He’s a German Shepherd.” Except not as chatty. And thank you, Jesus, he barked, “Yes.”

And then because I’m me, I told him how we were going to do it. Because I was still hooked on that failed MFA project, I said, “Two points of view. You write the hero’s and I write the heroine’s and we’ll do a romantic thriller in which the characters are true to gender.” And he said, “Oh-kay,” which I have since come to recognize as BobSpeak for, “Not what I had in mind, but let’s see how it works.” Then I said, “So we probably write really different books, right?” and he said, “I don’t know, what do you write?” And he wasn’t kidding.

I know, you’re thinking, how arrogant are you, Crusie, you’re not famous, but I figured he must have read something of mine because he was asking me to collaborate, right? But no. He liked the way I talked. Which was damn smart of him because it turned out that we have the same speech rhythms which is why the people who have read the book can’t tell that two different people wrote it, but at the time I was just dumbfounded. Except I’d never read anything he’d written either. Self-centered R Us.

So he got a copy of Faking It in the bookstore and handed me an ARC of Bodyguard of Lies, the hardcover he had coming out next (published March of 2005). And we retired to our respective corners and got our rude awakenings. Well, not that rude. I really liked Bodyguard of Lies–the guy is one hell of a writer, his action crackles on the page, plus it was about a kickass FEMALE adventure hero, and I loved her–but it was omniscient and violent and had a lot of infodump and a very high body count. Plus no shoes and no dogs. So we met again at a table in the lanai, and I held up Bodyguard and said, “Lotta infodump,” and he held up Faking It and said, “Lotta dialogue,” and we looked at each other. And then I said, “What the hell, I’m in,” and he said, “Yep,” and we got started on Don’t Look Down.

So I have many stories about this collaboration which I will probably be writing later–there was the struggle over infodump, the jacket debacle, the time we discussed his character’s behavior during a sex scene (that one will live in infamy)–but we wrote an outstanding book, I think maybe the best one I’ve ever done, and I am happy again. And Mollie is going to put up a PDF of the promos for it with the first chapter tomorrow night (Tuesday) so people can see what happened when Bob met Jenny, although DLD is not going to be out until May of 2006. (Look in the blue box on the home page on the website for the link. Oh, and if you’ve read the chapter on the mini-CD or the chapter that used to be on Bob’s website, you have not read the current first chapter. We changed it. A lot. Although you might want to go to Bob’s website just to read the story of the collaboration from his point of view. Warning: His blog is terse. (Click on the Updates link on www.bobmayer.org.)

Mostly this blog entry is just to say: I owe Bob Mayer. The guy’s a hero, a real German Shepherd, he saved my literary butt, and I’m grateful because I not only finished a great book, I FINALLY got to test out my diss thesis and I was dead on right. I love it when that happens.

And now we’re writing Agnes and the Hitman. Or as Bob likes to call it, Shane and the Food Columnist. She cooks, he kills, they have great sex. And the shoes are to die for. Literally.

I am having SUCH a good time.

So thank you very much, Bob Mayer.
And I’m sorry about last week when I told you that you had the sensitivity of a warthog. That was wrong of me.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the Dark Side

When I was in Reno in July, I had lunch with Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the Queen of Romantic Comedy because I have lunch with Susan Elizabeth Phillips whenever I can, but this time I did it mainly because she wanted to scope out the guy I’m a writing a book with.

“This is Bob,” I say as we sit down.
“Wonderful to meet you, Bob,” Susan says.
Bob nods. Bob is not verbal. In fact, he will not be heard from again in this blog entry.
“So how’s Charles?” I ask her.
“Who’s Charles?” she says.
“Your husband.”
“That’s Bill,” she says, with that Crusie-you’re-hopeless look.
Okay, I know this guy, he’s darling, and he looks like a Charles. I wonder briefly how many times I’ve called him Charles over the ten years I’ve known Susan.
“Then who’s Charles?”
“I have no idea who Charles is,” she says and turns to smile at Bob. “So, Bill.”
“That’s Bob,” I say. “Bill’s your husband. Although I still want to know what the hell happened to Charles.”

And it goes downhill from there.

I’m thinking that’s why she turned on me later that afternoon at the Bravo documentary filming.

They’d asked Susan, Jayne Ann Krentz, and me to talk about romance so Jayne Ann and I show up at an empty restaurant in the hotel right on time. Jayne Ann, who never has a bad hair day or a bad outfit, looks wonderful in black jersey. I’m holding my own in a navy blazer (we won’t talk about the hair, I’m hair challenged).

Then SEP walks in.

She’s wearing this top that, as God is my witness, is made out of multi-colored neon bubble wrap. I think it came with a battery. While Jayne Ann and I are shielding our eyes, she looks us over and says, “I knew it. Look at you, you’re going to be on TV and you’re wearing dark colors. What were you thinking?”
I say, “Well, we weren’t thinking you were going to show up as the Rainbow Connection. And now you’re going to be sitting in the center getting all the attention because you’re wearing an electric nipple shirt.”
She says, “I’m going to tell Charles you said that,” and then she leans closer. “Are you wearing make-up?”
“Yes.” I flutter my lashes. “See? Mascara.”
“That’s not enough,” she says, “I knew you wouldn’t be ready for this.” And she whips out a make-up bag and paints my face right there in the restaurant, right after she pins Jayne Ann to a booth and paints hers. Then she plunks herself down in the middle of the banquette with Jayne Ann and me flanking her and proceeds to dominate the interview, flaunting her bubble wrap, until Jayne Ann and I begin to talk over her, just to annoy her.

Plus I have this insane urge to start popping the bubbles. The fabric is made of silk or something so it won’t pop, but I’m just dying to poke my finger in the bumps. I try it once and she bats my hand away, but the temptation is something awful. If they ever show this documentary, she’ll be sitting in the middle looking professional and I’ll be frowning at her, stabbing my finger into her arm.

I should probably mention here that she looks great in this shirt. Odd, but great. And her hair is perfect.

By the end of the interview, SEP has won hands down. We never had a chance.

But then, I never have a chance with Susan. She looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but I always end up holding the metaphorical baby as she sails off, triumphant, into the sunset.

There was the time we were doing a bookseller’s panel and I said, “I’m so happy that St. Martin’s is using the same cover for the Welcome To Temptation paperback as the hardcover because it means I get to keep my cherry,” and she said, right there in front of God and everybody, “Crusie, you lost your cherry so long ago you can’t even remember it,” and everybody looked at me like I was the slut who’d said “cherry” in that connotation. Not to mention that this joke later became the name for my online community, perpetuating her slander. (I do so remember it.)

Or there was the time we were in that fancy restaurant in New Orleans, and I was in a completely different ROOM, and Rod Stewart walked in, and a roll hit her on the back of the head, and she turned around and said, “CRUSIE!” only the waiter had dropped it on her and I was innocent, but still, my name gets yelled across the room, and forget me ever bonding with Rod Stewart now, he thinks I throw rolls.

I have more stories, but you get the idea.

All I can say is, I know why Charles left.

Why Caramel Pecan Perfection Isn’t

I’m having one of those nights. You know the ones where you’re irrationally angry and you want to drive six hundred miles and beat somebody senseless with a shovel? One of those nights. It can’t be PMS, I just survived menopause. And it’s not my life because I’ve gotten a lot of good news this week. Like the letter from my mortgage company saying they were raising my monthly payment by $400, except it turned out to be a mistake. That was good. And I got my first piece of prison fan mail, the last romance writer in my crowd to get some, but he sounds very nice except for the religious fervor, and he’d like to know more about my cats, which let’s face it, beats a lot of other stuff he could have wanted to know about me.

Overall, I’m up for the week.

Then there was the incurable disease I was diagnosed with last week. Sounds like a houseplant: ‘And over in the corner we have a lovely variegated polycythemia vera. Grows to a height of six inches, flowers in the spring.” But that was good news, too. It’s incurable but probably won’t kill me and the treatment is a snap. Actually, it’s an ancient snap: bleeding. My bone marrow’s making too many red blood cells, so to thin the herd, whenever the count goes too high, they take a pint. That’s it, that’s the whole treatment. My doc said I could learn to do it at home, and I’m visualizing myself leaning over the garbage disposal with a paring knife trying to figure out when I’m down a quart. Risk factors are strokes and heart attacks, but I’m 55 and overweight, so I was already in line for those anyway. As a friend of mine said, if I had to get an incurable disease, this is the one to get.

More than that, it’s an orphan disease, so I am very, very special. Depending on which website you frequent, it hits either one in one hundred thousand people or one in a million. Which means no telethon. Of course, that was in the cards when it turned out not to be fatal, although everybody who said that is going to look pretty dumb if I stroke out tomorrow. Which is a possibility because I just ate a pint of Caramel Pecan Perfection Ice Cream made by those pimps at Dove.

Here’s the thing about Dove ice cream: They cover it with ganache. The ice cream is great, but the ganache is truly sublime. The crack cocaine of frozen dairy. Twelve hundred calories per pint, six hundred and eighty of which are fat calories. This is not a dessert for a woman who has polycythemia vera. Now I not only have blood that’s too thick, my arteries just got narrower because they’re lined with ganache. And you know, it didn’t really help. Well, there was the sugar rush while I was standing at the sink shoving it in my face, but then it was over and I felt . . . used. Like a cheap pick-up the Dove people seduced and abandoned in the kitchen, leaving me with sticky hands and an empty cup, still wanting to drive six hundred miles and beat somebody senseless with a shovel.

Which brings me to my final question: Why in God’s name do we turn to sugar and fat when what we really want to do is unleash rage and mayhem? What primal instinct buried deep in our DNA says, “Don’t express your anger, eat something that will kill you”? I know carbs are supposed to sedate you—and if that’s true, why didn’t the crime rate soar during that Atkins fad?—but I’m full of fat calories and I’m still searching through my garden tools.

So I have decided, in the clear light of hindsight, not to do that any more. I will not dull my anger with criminal food.

I will find my car keys, drive the six hundred miles, and solve the problem the old fashioned way: With my bare and sticky hands.

Walden, the Blog

I went to the blog because I wanted to write deliberately . . . no, I didn’t, I went to the blog because my webmistress made me because she said the site needed new content on a regular basis and I might as well provide it by rambling on the net instead of on the phone to her. My webmistress is also my daughter, which I think explains a lot. But I really did see it as a solitary thing. My own little Walden. If an opinion falls in the wilderness and nobody hears it, does it count? Did I care? What I didn’t foresee–forgive my naiveté–was that people would want to talk back. Did Thoreau have people saying, “About that thing you said . . .” No wait, actually, he did. They asked him what he ate and if he gave to charity.

So anyway, here I was, felling my little opinions silently in the woods, thinking it was kind of fun because it was the one place in my life where nobody was reviewing my work, and then the letters started. Plural. Not dozens but more than one. From people who would like to post replies to my blog which so far consists of me telling people what I’ve been doing–“Another interesting thing about me is . . .”–and my thoughts on women’s writing organizations, neither of which struck me as really engaging, although I, of course, found them fascinating. Still, these people wanted to respond.

And I suppose that’s fair. Accountability and everything. There have been websites I wanted to respond to, like that idiot Focus on the Family questionnaire, “How to tell if your child is homosexual.” Who makes up this crap anyway? It wasn’t even fun crap like “Corrects the words when you sing show tunes” or “Criticizes your sensible shoes,” it was stuff like “Doesn’t like sports” and “Cries like a girl.” Where’s the originality in intolerance these days? That’s the real problem with bigoted quizzes, no creativity, no wit, no flair, no SNARK. Let’s face it, homophobic websites need gay writers.

Where was I?

Oh, right, people want to respond to my blog.

I don’t get it, but okay. I’m adding that capability as soon as I figure out how to do it, which since Blogger is designed for the terminally clueless should not be long. I like a site that knows I’m hopeless and plans for that. But I am not answering anybody. I’ve got enough problems answering my e-mail. So I’m telling you right now, I’m not getting in any fights with anybody or giving advice or in any way engaging in a dialogue here. Unless you’re a homophobic website looking for a gay writer because I have some FABULOUS friends.

But really, feel free to read this and not respond. I’m good with that.

Oh, and one more thing: No anonymous responses. If my butt is hanging out here in the wind (a disturbing image), so is yours.

Thank you.

Your Reality May Differ

I’ve had a couple of clashes within writing organizations that I belong to in the past week (yes, believe it or not, RWA was not the only one), and it’s made me think about writers and organizations and how “writers’ organization” is an oxymoron on so many different levels. Face it, nobody becomes a writer to meet people. If we could play well with others, we wouldn’t be making up our own worlds. And that means many of us–and I do mean “us,” I’m in there, too–can have a hard time seeing anybody’s reality but our own. Which leads to mistakes. Big ones.

Mistake # 1. We made a plan, let’s stick to it.
Writers make things up, so they have to have some kind of plan in their lives or they’ll bleed time all over the place. But that same insistence on procedure and policy can come back to bite organizations in the butt when the rules become more important than what’s happening right now. I know any group, large or small, must follow policy, but few policies are written so narrowly as to allow no wiggle room. And when the policy is clearly not in the best interests of the organization, it’s time to change the policy or interpret it in broader ways. Saying, “Nobody but X has the authority to change this” as the entire group careens toward disaster really means that we need a new interpretation of the policy double-quick or somebody should dangle X off a building by her feet until she notices what’s going on and moves outside her narrow view of reality.
Once a disaster has happened, saying “There was nothing we could do, we didn’t know, it’s her fault” is not going to satisfy anybody. We need to keep our eyes on the membership’s needs, not on the policy in place.

Mistake # 2. Let’s play nice, the only place we want conflict is in our books.
What I keep finding in my organizations, which are all primarily women, is that nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings because they all see themselves as Nice Girls. Yeah, that doesn’t work. If somebody is damaging the group by holding onto the rules with both hands while the ship goes down, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to be swift, decisive, and mean. Since the person holding onto the rules is almost always doing it for political reasons (i.e. she wants her way and she’s using policy as a rationale), a simple “You’re being selfish, you’re hurting the group, and so we’re stopping you,” is not rude, it’s a head’s up that she’s about to be dangled off a building. I truly believe that playing nice has hurt more women’s organizations than anything else. We need to knock it off and play smart instead.

Mistake # 3. I have a dream and it’s your dream, too, because I’m the author of everything.
I think it’s that world-building thing. We create entire worlds in our heads and fill them with people who think like we do. Then we go out into the real world and there are these IDIOTS who disagree with us and it is clearly our responsibility to do what’s best even though they disagree because obviously they’re in the minority, they’re antagonists, they must be defeated.
I think it was this mindset that prompted that disastrous survey about making the definition of romance a love story between one man and one woman. When I raised holy hell about that, I was told that the RWA community wanted it that way. The hell they did, the woman who wrote the survey wanted it that way and she preferred to believe that everybody agreed with her. I think that’s also why we got so much conservative propaganda and nastiness at the awards show. The people who wrote the script assumed everybody would agree, that they were preaching to the choir. Then the choir started throwing rocks. At which point those people said, “Well, it’s just a few members, most people enjoyed the show.” Which is when the mountain fell on them.

So my advice to the people in power in writers organizations is this:

Your duty is to support and enhance your members’ lives, not your own beliefs or your power base. If policy gets in the way of the best interests of the membership, change it. If people on a mission hijack the public aspects of the group to the detriment of the group, cut them off at the knees. It may be true that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten, but as I remember it wasn’t just playing nice and taking time-outs, it was also bashing that little bully over the head with a shovel if she got selfish and started making life hell for the others in the sandbox. If we don’t stop the people who are so blind that they’re hurting the organization, we’re going to need that shovel to take care of everything that comes at us afterward, and saying, “We meant well, we had a plan, we were playing nice, we believed everybody felt the same as we did” is just not going to help.

A good solid “We screwed up, we’re sorry, it’ll never happen again” is always appropriate, though.

And then we can all get back to writing. That’s a better reality anyway.