Feminism & Theme in Updrift.

(originally published 3/7/2017)

 

Updrift is first and foremost a love and adventure story with a little mythology mixed in, not a treatise on ideal womanhood or feminism… But. I did write in a theme addressing the challenges modern women face concerning work, family, and love; and I included the backdrop deliberately with the goal of enriching the narrative. The theme is not there to cast aspersions or further divide us, however. Quite the opposite.

In a nutshell, my heroine, Kate, is the daughter of a single, working mother. As Kate grows up, she looks to the three most influential women around her – her mom; her aunt, the corporate go-getter; and Alicia, the stay-at-home mother of her best friend – to try on the incarnations of adulthood each represents. She changes her mind twice in Updrift, changes her mind again in the sequel… and if I were to focus solely on Kate throughout the series, which I don’t, her circumstances and how she applies her values in light of them would change many, many more times.

I took this approach because real women who juggle real, whole lives, don’t have the luxury of adhering to one, pure professional or biological ideal. Real women adapt, with considerable intelligence and strength, to accommodate all the dichotomies inherent in having a job and family and lovers on the side; and they live richer, more communicative lives as a consequence. They’re also, in my opinion, a lot more relatable than the idealized women represented on either end of the spectrum in commercial literature, ones who I don’t think much exist.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen literally dozens of what I call anti-heroines come out of traditional publishing in the past ten years. The last book I read in what’s become a veritable slough of them had the hero and heroine falling in love because of their ability to physically harm each other, with the heroine (of course) being the superior fighter. It was very well written… but I find this trope every bit as one-dimensional and limiting as the damsel trope it’s meant to replace. I also find the arguments in favor of such scenarios too facile, certainly disingenuous, and worst of all, unkind.

Telling a young woman she needs to develop her combat prowess to be a competent romantic partner is no better than insisting on weakness for the same reason. If you don’t know a woman who wrestles with how to have a family and pay attention to it while holding down a job, you don’t know any women. If you think brandishing the banner of ‘either/or’ should be the goal of fiction aimed at young women, I would ask you to approach the idea of womanhood with more expansiveness, more empathy, and more love, both for yourself and for girls coming into adulthood.

This perspective led me to ponder in my writing, “What does ‘and’ look like instead of ‘either/or? What does it feel like inside a real character?” I gave Kate her professional passions because they are a part of her personhood and therefore her womanhood, and she sets aside her romantic compulsions for the man she loves in favor of professional discipline before she commits, which I believe can be hard for some girls but is a worthy choice to illustrate. I make sure Kate feels the friction between duty and love, as many of us do. I do not make her figure everything out at age 20 because I wouldn’t expect that of her, and because life in the real world doesn’t happen that way.

And I just wouldn’t do that to a sister.

Kate’s story contrasts with different heroines in the trilogy, which was drafted entirely before Updriftcame out. For those who are truly interested in this issue and where I take it, I’m happy to provide the following spoiler alerts: Kate will return to her professional interests in Breakwater, where she figures out how to accommodate motherhood and her career ambitions, but on her terms. Breakwater’s heroine establishes her own business and is professionally developed well before engaging with her guy. And in the third, Outrush, the heroine completes medical school and is processing a failed marriage before her romance takes off.

Maybe you disagree with my approach and have good reasons for doing so. I welcome your comments and invite you to share your perspective. And if you have a different story to tell that expands on the ideas I laid out above, I invite you to write the story out, publish it, and share it with the world. I think we need a broader selection of novels than the ones we have. The ones I’ve written, I’ll admit, are based on my musings and mine alone. What would be your theme?

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Beach reads, anyone?

Something about spring trips a switch in my head every year, where the heavy, introspective stories that compel me in fall and winter start to feel suffocating. Of course, I live in Minnesota, where it’s so blasted cold for four months, you have to focus on indoor activities or you’ll freeze your katushy off.

By March/April, though, I can’t care any longer about all those deep explications on the human condition, or even dredge up meaningful interest in anything too serious. A new atrocity in the Middle East, you say? Global warming will kill us all by 2020? Gosh, that’s awful. Why don’t you tell me about it while I whip up a nice batch of cookies for us over here. And when’s the last time you watched the movie, “Splash?”

Basically, if I’ve got a Faulkner or Anne Dillard tome on my nightstand in May, you can bet it’ll stay there untouched and unloved until next November. Maybe longer.

But I think it’s good for us to turn off the news and coldness when we can, to come into the light and reach for relief, because (and here comes my main rationalization for fluffy reading) eating only hardship makes us morbid and anxious, until all we feel is unhappiness and all we do in the world is breed more unhappiness, which is unhelpful on pretty much every front that counts. We also deny ourselves the kind of intercourse that makes us whole and capable, where we indulge in silliness or quirks or flights of imagination that cause others to smile and hope, help us all go out there and do what needs doing to pay the mortgage and care for the kids.

Which means we need a full spectrum of stories to muse over, including those with covers of half-fainting heroines at the mercy of some delicious-looking lover. Such ridiculousness soothes. It transports us to problems that are either gripping or not, but not truly consequential, and certainly not our own.

So here’s the question: What does a UV-deprived, shivering northerner read when she wants to let the sunshine in? I confess the series I’ve written, The Mer Chronicles, was motivated by this kind of need for diversion, but my novels are for others to peruse. For my own getaways, I’ve found tons of books that hit a particular note I like – not too heavy, not harmful, perfectly engaging. Here are a few I recommend, ranging from sweet to intense, and they all do the trick.

“What I Did for Love” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Tender Rebel” and “Gentle Rogue” by Johanna Lindsey

“Blue-Eyed Devil” by Lisa Kleypas

“Dreams of a Dark Warrior” by Kresley Cole

“The Next Best Thing” by Jennifer Weiner

“Blackmoore: A Proper Romance” by Julianne Donaldson

“Passion” by Lisa Valdez

What do you read to get away from it all? Leave your ideas in the comment section below, please!

End-of-Winter Flirtation, Pt. 3

Beach-Bound, Part Three

He didn’t realize he was looking for her until he didn’t find her in the cottage. And he remembered so very little, although the more he concentrated, the more he kind of recalled.

Still, it wasn’t much. Wavy, copper-gold hair catching the firelight, then curling around him underwater as he held her in his arms. Brief illuminations of her long, lean frame as she mingled with others on the beach, every line of her a temptation. His clearest recollections were of her eyes, clear and green and wise; a dozen times he’d caught her stealing glances at him during the party and tried to catch her stare. He wouldn’t let her look away when they were submerged, when he finally got to hold her and became so lost in her gaze he forgot her name.

Except… they couldn’t possibly have gone swimming in this weather. And had she even given him her name? He didn’t remember her saying it… but she must have, because it was just there at the edge of his thoughts. A flower, like a rose. No. A field flower, something sunny and open and strong in the wind. Daisy. Yes. Her name was Daisy.

He absolutely had to find her. In fact, when he was sure she was nowhere in the cabin, he almost bolted back to the beach, reasoning – he wasn’t sure why – she must be in the sea. Which, again, was nuts.

The sensation of floating with her under the waves replayed itself and he experienced every moment of it, the darkness closing off the rest of the world, the intensifying the intimacy between them, which was thick and sweet and wild enough to break a man’s heart.

He was pretty sure she’d promised to come to him here, though. He walked to the front porch and scanned the stretch of sand leading to the water, and then examined the ocean itself. He found himself evaluating each inconsistency in the water’s surface, expecting her to appear and swim toward him… which, again, was nuts. He saw no sign of her anywhere, however. He returned to the house, rummaged for a pair sweatpants and then located the makings for coffee. One thing he knew for sure: he hadn’t imagined her. And if she didn’t come soon, he would go back out and look for her.

Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and bn.com.

 

An End-of-Winter Flirtation.

Got invited to share a short story on the Romance Lives Forever blog site a couple of months back as part of a holiday/snow-themed thing, and want to share it here with y’all. I will post a portion of “Beachbound” for the next five days!

Beachbound, Part I

He knew where he was before he opened his eyes.

First he heard the surf, the rhythmic rush and crash of waves hitting the shore perhaps ten yards from where he lay. The fresh sea air tickled his nose and awakened him further. When he shifted, sugar sand cascaded from his hair, brushing his face as it fell to the ground beneath his cheek.

His eyelids lifted to reveal a weak December sun whose light barely penetrated the gray carpet of clouds covering what appeared to be his own private beach. Diffused and dim, the sky was still too bright for early morning; he guessed the time to be maybe ten? Perhaps closer to noon.

What was he doing here? His mind was clear, his perceptions crisp… but he could not recall the events leading to his current circumstances. He drilled his memory, encountering only blackness until a single image surfaced like the too-brief revelation of a dark landscape by a flash of lightning. A party in someone’s backyard… no, on the beach, at night. There was a fire and laughing; and strange, beautiful women drifted around him and several other guys, everyone a stranger. The women were extraordinary – their eyes, their skin, their hair – every feature, every movement fascinated him. He and the other men examined them hungrily, riveted. He felt like a predator hunting the one he would choose… but then maybe he and the others were prey, there for one of them to select. His mind shuttered and the picture disappeared.

He decided to work his situation backwards instead, to search for tangibles in what he could see and understand at the moment. He was on his back with his face turned toward the ocean, and he was blanketed under an enormous pile of seaweed. Which he supposed he appreciated since he would otherwise be dead from hypothermia. He started to disentangle his arms, and then quickly tucked them back into his body for warmth, and because he apparently needed to make a stronger inventory before he acted as he didn’t seem to be wearing anything underneath all this kelp. This was a significant problem he wasn’t sure he could solve – it felt like it might actually snow – and he peered up the beach. He had an insubstantial memory of parking his car in a lot possibly located just to the north. He calculated the time it would take him to traverse the half-mile stretch and immediately abandoned the idea. He wasn’t sure the lot was even there, and in any case, he’d never make it in this cold.

He lifted his head as high as the weight of his cocoon allowed and noticed markings in the sand next to him. Someone had left him a note.

Seth – Go to the house over the berm.

An arrow pointed behind him and he followed it to see where it indicated. He glimpsed the roofline of a simple, heretofore unnoticed shack, a brown-shake Cape Cod perched on the otherwise bleak landscape, not too far from where he was. Seth fought his way out of his nest and sprinted to the cottage.

 

Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and bn.com.

 

Thoughts on Outside-the-Box Characters.

My former colleague, author Mary Fan, is Chinese American, more academically accomplished than most people you and I will ever know, has a killer sense of humor; and perhaps most importantly, has a gift for explicating complex issues that makes you enthusiastic rather than defensive when you think about them.

Case in point her recent post on her own blog, which was so thoughtful and worthwhile, I gotta share it with y’all. Here ’tis: 10 Bizarre Ways

 

 

Why Does Romance Live Forever?

Romance is the largest book genre on the planet when measured by public consumption. As in colossal-huge, as in more than 20 percent of a market where the next “big” categories languish in the 6th and 7th percentiles. Romance sells into the billions of dollars each year while its lesser brethren deal in the pedestrian millions. We readers seem to love ourselves a love story.

But why? Romance is also the most saturated in terms of offerings – a quick search on Amazon yielded 1,005,777 titles, which is about the number of new books coming out each year across all genres worldwide. And let’s ask the obvious question: after you’ve read eight or nine dozen of these stories, what about them is new or fresh? Who doesn’t know-but-know the heroine’s impossible circumstances will be resolved and the main characters will at some point cozy up? Who can’t count on the HEA as a sure thing? No one, that’s who, yet we’re still riveted. How come?

Critics of the genre have put forth the same rote, dismissive evals for decades… and at this point we have to surmise their criticisms have to do with something other than the actual stories, since discerning readers still choose to read romance novels in droves. Non-discerners are present too, just as they are in all genres; romance’s contingent just looks bigger because… well, it IS bigger. The whole romance pie is bigger.

But I believe romance’s image has more to do with pedigree than its sprawling, amorphous body of work. Its base – its massive, multi-faceted base – is messy, encompassing sweet inspirational and Regency and paranormal and BDSM erotica, subject matters so disparate they probably shouldn’t qualify as a collective. The category includes more readers from more corners of the earth than Croesus had coins, meaning we romancers can’t make any intellectual or ideological claims to purity. We don’t have it. I wrote a humorous piece on this very subject a few years ago, and take a peek if you seek justification for your own reading proclivities.

Writer Jenny Trout also offered a compelling perspective in a recent Huffington Post article, one all of us writing romance should take a moment to ingest. I don’t disagree with her, and if we were having coffee, I like to think we would laugh over the absurd marketing characterizations we writers of the genre get to work under. I mean, targeting “women age 22 to 55” is kind of like hunting “wildlife” in Africa. No disrespect here, but are you looking to bag a crocodile or a gazelle, ‘cause there’s kind of a big difference…

Beyond acknowledging the context in which we write and read, however, we should probably set aside questions of literary integrity and market impact – and let’s be honest: we’re going to anyway. Seriously. These issues, while interesting, change nothing, not our stories, not our drive to write them. They don’t change the appeal of love and intimacy in our narratives; and they sure as hell don’t have any sway when it comes to convincing readers away.

My publisher, Liquid Silver Books, participated in a Kobo event a couple of weeks ago wherein several of us talked about what draws us to romance, and my colleague Susan Vaughn contributed a spot-on response in my opinion. She said any story able to engage another human being is intellectually stimulating, suggested a good romance read draws you into thinking about all kinds of things, including humanity and your own place in it. “It makes you evaluate who you are and what you need and want. It’s like giving your brain a badly needed hug,” she argued.

She’s right. And since romance is universal no matter which yardstick you use for measuring, we really do need to put these questions of salience aside. Now off I go to work on that 1,005,778th title…

New agent, neat lady.

Hi all – A former colleague of mine has recently accepted a job with Corvisiero as a literary agent, and if you haven’t checked her out, you should! Don’t know if any of you are querying for inspirational/romance/mystery or horror, but she’s building her client list now. And her explanations were as thorough as any I’ve ever seen… Take a look:

Query Questions with Kara Leigh Miller
Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It’s what makes their stories so fantastic. But there’s a darker side to so much out of the box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They start pulling out their hair and imagine every possible disaster.

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
Nope. I’m open and accepting queries year round. Response time will generally be a tad longer near the holidays.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
Absolutely not. Everyone makes mistakes, we’re all human, it’s inevitable. A few are forgivable, but if the query and sample pages are riddled with typos and grammatical errors, then we have a problem. While I do have the added advantage of an editorial background that I eagerly share with my clients, if a manuscript is in need of a major overhaul or if I know there will be more red than black after an edit, I will pass.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I will always look at sample pages providing the query matches my list. For example, if an author were to query me with, let’s say, an epic historical fantasy – which I don’t represent – I would respond to let him/her know I don’t rep this genre and then direct them to an agent within the agency who does, or just forward their submission to a more appropriate agent.

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
We have a fantastic group of interns at the agency who are always willing to help, but at this point, I’m handling all my own queries.

Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?
Not usually. I can tell from a first look whether or not I’m going to pursue a project. If I get a query and sample pages that I’m not sure about, I will always request to see more to get a better feel for the story and the writing. By the third or fifth chapter, I know whether it’s something I absolutely have to have or if I can live without it.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
Yes, although most of the time, prologues tend to be unnecessary.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?
Honestly, I don’t have a preference about comp titles. If you include them, great. If you don’t, I’m not going to hold it against you.

Some agencies mention querying only one agent at a time and some say query only one agent period. How often do you pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested?
This is a tricky question. As agents, we truly do want to see authors succeed, so we’re going to do our best to help them, and at times that includes sharing queries within the agency. However, if you’ve sent a query addressed to me personally, I feel that you’ve done so for a reason. (Hopefully because you want to work with me and feel we’d be a good match.) So, to hand off your query to someone else you didn’t personally choose feels…wrong (?) to me. Now, if I get something that’s really well written and has a fantastic premise but I don’t connect with it for whatever reason, I’ll share it with other agents to see if anyone else is interested, but I’ll also let the author know I’ve done so.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
Both! I’ve found that a little bit of personalized chit-chat goes a long way to showing me who you are as a person, and that can be invaluable. Recently, I received a query that was personalized in such a way that made me laugh out loud. It was fantastic, and you can bet I remembered that author’s name. So, feel free to chat me up, but make sure you also tell me about your manuscript J

Most agents have said they don’t care whether the word count/genre sentence comes first or last. But is it a red flag if one component is not included?
That one sentence gives us so much information about your book, and truly does account in our decision making process. It can often be fairly easy to determine genre based on the pitch, (although I’d much rather not have to play Guess the Genre) but we have no way of knowing the word count. If I get a stellar query for a contemporary romance with a missing word count, and I request the full only to find out its 210K, you’ve just wasted my time and yours. Please don’t do this.

Writers hear a lot about limiting the number of named characters in a query. Do you feel keeping named characters to a certain number makes for a clearer query?
Yes! If I feel the need to grab a notebook and start keeping track with ven diagram, chances are good I’ll become confused and frustrated. If you’re querying a romance, I only want two named characters: your hero and heroine. On a side note: Please don’t name the killer in your query letter if you’re querying a mystery or thriller or horror. Save that for your synopsis. For me, the biggest payoff in this genre is trying to figure out whodunit. If you tell me up front, what compels me to read your book?

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
I’d much rather have authors sweat the quality and mechanics of their writing as opposed to titles and character names. Titles and character names can be changed by publishers, so my advice is not to get too attached to them. It seems as though titles get changed more frequently than character names though.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
Right now, I’m receiving about 10 to 12 queries a week. Of course, I’m still new to the agency, so I’m sure that number will increase as time goes on. Of those, I might request one or two.

Many agents say they don’t care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?
If it came down to two queries that I absolutely loved but could only take one, the author with the online presence would win. It takes time to gain a foothold and a following online, so the sooner an author can start, the better. Typically, I check to see if an author has any social media to start with – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. (It’s rare nowadays not to have at least one social media account) – and once I sign an author, I will encourage them to being the process of starting a website or blog if they don’t already have one.

Some writers have asked about including links to their blogs or manuscript-related artwork. I’m sure it’s not appropriate to add those links in a query, but are links in an email signature offensive?
No, not at all. In fact, I actually prefer to see links in an email signature. When I’m interested in a project, I’ll look the author up on social media. Not necessarily to see how big of a following they have, but more so to see how they conduct themselves online. What sorts of things are they interested in, what do they post about, what things are they sharing?

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
Okay, this is kind of a pet peeve of mine. If your book is out on query, you should not be making massive changes to it that would require you to even think about needing to resend it. When you query an agent, you’re essentially telling them that your book is ready. It’s done. It’s been critiqued, beta read, revised, and edited. If you then send me an email asking to send an updated version because you’ve made changes, that tells me you queried before you and your book were ready. With this industry being as subjective as it is, the feedback one agent or editor gives might not mesh with how others feel about the book.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
I always advise authors to include any related affiliations or memberships they have (RWA, SCWBI, etc.); any writing or critique groups they belong to; anything personal that lends credibility to the story they’ve written – for example, if you’ve written about a lawyer and you are in fact a lawyer, I want to know that. Additionally, any pertinent writing classes, seminars, panels, and/or conferences you’ve added. I know, that might seem weird to some, but that shows me you’re out there networking with other authors and industry professionals and that you’re dedicated to learning your craft. Also, be honest that you don’t have any previous publishing credits. It’s okay. We all start somewhere.

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
It can mean a lot of different things. Sometimes it can mean I’ve already got something similar in my list, or maybe it would be difficult to sell in the current market. But mostly, it just means I wasn’t drawn into the story even though there’s nothing wrong with the writing.

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
Absolutely! Having worked for various small presses for a few years, my background is in editing, and I plan to offer authors editorial guidance prior to going on submission so that they have a better chance of standing out within the industry.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
Romance of any kind.
Thrillers / horror.
A YA or NA set during some sort of camp – summer camp, Bible camp, fat camp, a family camping trip.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
Books: The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, The Delirium Series by Lauren Oliver, Matched Series by Ally Condie, It & The Tommyknockers by Stephen King, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (absolutely LOVED that ending, too!), Elite Ops Series by Lora Leigh, Tess in Boots by Courtney Rice Gager.

Movies / TV: Any of the classic horror movies (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Alien), The Avengers, The Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, Survivor, American Pie series, Fast and Furious series.