Saturday, September 24, 2011

Storytelling Instincts vs. Formulaic Expectation


As an author, I have come to trust my storytelling instincts... so much so that I allow my characters a lot of leeway to make decisions that threaten to ultimately change the landscape of my best-laid plans.

This means that sometimes I go outside of convention and buck genre rules; I'm here to write the story true to my vision and my characters and I can tell you even with my romances you may get some payoff, but I can't guarantee you a Happily Ever After.

Some of my romances are more traditional, but others involve triangles where I give the characters what they need, rather than what you may want for them. In fact, I always aspire to fill my characters' needs more than their goals, and sometimes it ain't pretty.

Apparently this could prove very problematic for me finding an audience among those who love the romance genre, as an overwhelming majority of readers prefer and demand a Happily Ever After (HEA) which often includes a major commitment between the two characters.

I have a problem with this particular demand considering sometimes this makes sense for the characters and the worlds I've created, and sometimes it just doesn't.

This was especially the case in my latest book, GROUPIE. When I started out, I aspired to write the typical "romance" where girl falls in love with her fantasy guy, they have a wild relationship full of ups and downs, and ultimately she gets her absolutely completely belief-suspending and unrealistic happy ending.

As much as we want to believe it, there is nothing realistic about an average girl getting the womanizing rock god who juggles a handful of relationships to commit and be devoted after 300 pages.

He may love our heroine... but the question is does he love her MORE than he loves himself?

As long as fame is driven by ego this is an iffy proposition at BEST. There's a reason that long-term romances and marriages are the exception rather than the rule in "Hollywood." I know these guys and I know people who have loved and been seduced by them. It's exciting and titillating, but generally it's the kind of thing you enjoy for the moment, rather than a lifetime.

The whole reason I chose this particular sandbox to play in was to dig down deep behind the weird, seductive and often completely fabricated world of celebrity. I love to turn expectation on its ear; that will prompt me to write quicker than anything.

So I set out to bring something real to the illusion, and do it in a way that everyone could connect to regardless if you've spent time following around a rock band on the road.

Odds are many of us will never get our chance to be with our celebrity crushes; but I'm guessing most of us know what it's like to be cheated on and lied to by a womanizer. I'm also guessing most of us have fallen for the one we couldn't truly have, and hung in there through imbalanced relationships.

Girls think having the celebrity would be glamorous, sexy and exciting. But there's a dark underbelly of that world where you have to share your man with the world - and a litany of other women (both sane and insane) that hate you and are almost literally gunning to take your place.

(This is the B-plot of GROUPIE, which makes it more than just a genre romance from the opening chapter... thus strict genre conventions don't necessarily apply.)

Having said that, I should probably confess that until the book was about three-quarters done I was still willing to grit my teeth and do it to give my audience what they wanted. My characters, however, had a mind of their own. I found myself going the more Danielle Steel route by torturing my heroine and putting her through a variety of near-misses to make HER grow and become the person she needed to be happy all on her own.

Like with any of us, then and only then can we truly be happy with anyone else. (It's not easy being a feminist romantic.)

Needless to say this put me in QUITE the quandary of following genre convention vs. my own storytelling instinct. I found my original plot not serving the characters as they were written, which was as honestly as I dared write. Each decision that they made had natural, organic consequences that escalated their conflict (rule #1 in dramatic storytelling.) The further down the rabbit hole I went I realized the story simply could not tie up in a happy little bow. To do so would have robbed the story of its integrity, and cheapened all the characters I came to love.

I would have to bend my own rules and undercut my own standards to Macgyver it to give it the HEA the romance genre often demands. Some feel that the absence of the HEA invalidates the whole story leading up to the end, but to me cheating the ending cheapened the story that came before it.

So I could either sell my soul (and principles) to sell a few more books and avoid harsher, more negative criticism OR... I could stay true to my vision and let the characters reveal the story for all of us.

What to do, what to do?

After some agonizing soul searching I realized I just couldn't do it. Sorry, folks. I'm always going to default to story over genre. Genre may be how I sell it to you... but story is how I sell it to myself.

Granted there are plenty of romances that do not have a true "happy" endings, but modern readers prefer to see the girl get the guy of her dreams even if he is the absolute worst thing for her in the shape he's in.

I've reprogrammed a few frogs into princes in my day, and this is not an easy task. To quote Roseanne, "You think they come out of a BOX that way?" This can take years... and to say that Vanni is a fixer-upper is putting it mildly.

But I get it that a majority of romance readers couldn't give a rip how "unrealistic" it was to complete a miraculous conversion for my romantic hero. The general understanding is that women don't pick up romance novels for realism but I will let you in on a little secret: I have more faith in my readers than that. If you make it to the end of this book then I've already done something right by giving you characters in which you could invest yourself. If you're mad at me, then I've done my job as a romance writer; you WANT the characters you love to get together.

Guess what? I want that too. But it has to make sense.

In the case of GROUPIE, the leading man is an up and coming rock star whose need for fame and all its trappings, particularly LOTS of female attention, affects how he thinks and the decisions he makes. As far as he came within the three year time frame I covered in 300 pages he still wasn't evolved enough to give the readers - or the leading lady Andy - what they wanted (and deserved.)

Simply put there was more to this story than could be told in one book. To chop it off just to hang the ending on a HEA would have been a band-aid on a gaping wound. This guy has a lot of issues (which is why he was so fun to write,) but no real impetus to change. He gets too much of a payoff with his current behavior - which is further facilitated and encouraged by his growing fame. Changing that to make him a one-woman romantic hero would have felt like an abrupt cheat to his character and their story. At least to me.

And frankly I'm the person I write these books for in the first place. I'm glad (and often ASTONISHED) that other people love these stories and characters as much as I do. But in the end, I have to do what is right for me.

I'm the parent. These are my babies. And I have final authority on how they "grow up."

(Interestingly enough those readers and consultants who have actually had relationships with celebrities and musicians were the ones who advocated the strongest against a cliche HEA. And it was with great consideration that I weighed their advice and experience when crafting the ending of this book.)

That means I deliberately crafted each part of GROUPIE, even if I ended it differently than I originally planned. This was thanks mostly to the introduction of Graham, a character wrote himself in and created UTTER CHAOS by being the kind of man Vanni is just unable at this point to be.

As a writer, and a woman, I was torn myself between TEAM VANNI and TEAM GRAHAM.

Despite this, I am very happy with the way that it ended and think it's a much stronger story because of his presence and triangle that resulted.

And I'll even tell you this: this wasn't the first or even second or third ending that I crafted for the book. When I realized the story would have to go on past the end of this book, I tried to cheat a sorta HEA ending. My early readers (editors, consultants, friends AND husband) let me know that kind of ending fell flat and rang inauthentic... which proves once again that if I can't sell it to myself I just can't sell it to anyone else either.

So I wrote the ending that made sense to me. The characters all stayed true to their character and made their decisions accordingly, especially Andy. She made conscious choices based on the integrity of her character rather than her need to be in a relationship. This kept all the strong, wonderful qualities that attracted Vanni to her in the first place intact.

Because of this, it makes any possible HEA from upcoming books starring these characters pack a stronger, more organic emotional punch.

Bottom line, I knew when I published GROUPIE that I'd make a lot of enemies from those who prize the HEA as part of their romance reading experience. It's your payoff, and I realize that depriving you of it doesn't make you happy with me. I accept the consequences of that. All I can really do is ask that you trust your storyteller, even if you aren't crazy about some of the twists and turns I may take you on.

I'll repeat Vanni's melodic plea, "Don't give up on me yet."

I have a plan. This isn't the ending... just a new beginning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Confessions of a "Groupie" - Author Backstory

For anyone who knows me even remotely, especially my work within some celebrity fan circles, you really don't have to wonder what prompted me to write the romantic, sexy, fantasy-filled backstage romp I affectionately and appropriately named "GROUPIE."

Truthfully, this is a book that has been in the making since roughly 1979, when I first had my first celebrity crush. I was about nine years old when Cupid’s arrow hit from a console television set. That was when one of the local stations in Abilene, Texas fortuitously began playing reruns of The Monkees.

Of course, I didn’t understand the concept of a rerun back then. I wasn’t even convinced that singers weren’t actually showing up in the radio station to sing songs throughout the day. All I knew was that the guys in the band were cute and made me laugh.

One in particular looked especially young, and in my nine year old brain that meant he was accessible. (I've always had lofty aspirations.) He had a baby face and deep, brown eyes and an accent completely foreign to my West Texas ears.

I had fallen like a brick for Davy Jones.

Imagine my devastation when I learned that he was actually about twenty years older than I originally thought. This, in my mind, meant he was no longer accessible. Not that he was a celebrity, not that he wasn’t anywhere remotely close to Texas, but that he was twenty years older and married.

These were hard and fast rules when I was nine years old. Needless to say, I was crushed.

Eventually I would move on thanks to a timely Christmas gift from my parents. My Bert & Ernie AM/FM radio allowed me the freedom to discover my own music. Because my nearest sibling was a decade older than I was, I spent most of my childhood as an “only child” – one that would have to come up with creative ways to pass the time.

Most of this I did in my bedroom, where the burgeoning storyteller began to take shape courtesy of my Fisher Price Little People and my growing population of Barbie dolls. My constant companion was my radio, and 1979 was probably my favorite year in music. It was new, it was exciting and most of all it was completely different than the Country & Western stuff my parents loved.

I sold my soul to rock and roll.

One of my favorite songs that year was a tune called “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey. I loved the more primal beat, even though I was much too young to understand the overtones of the lyrics. It took me a good decade to understand the barrage of “nah nah nah nah nahs” at the end of the track were virtually the singer saying, “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” to a cheating ex.

At the time I just loved the beat of the song and the pure vocal of the lead singer. I would belt it out with vigor every time it played on the radio.

A couple of years later I was staying up late waiting for my mom to come home from work, and much to my surprise (and delight) I found out Journey would perform said hit on a rerun of “The Midnight Special.” I perched in front of the TV in my jammies and waited with bated breath.

When I first laid eyes on the lead singer, I didn’t know quite what to think. He had long dark hair, something I wasn’t used to seeing around my military town. He had a prominent profile and a face full of character, an ethnicity I found exotic and strange. From the way he dressed to how he sang, I really didn’t know what to make of him. Then he went down into the first row of the crowd and sang directly to one of the girls, which tattooed itself immediately onto my 11-year-old brain and even eventually made its way into “Groupie.”

I still loved the song and couldn’t really get the lead singer out of my head, even though my initial response wasn’t the starry eyed infatuation I felt for Davy Jones.

I continued as a fan of the music mostly, but nothing could prepare me for that one summer night in 1983 when I would fall completely and hopelessly in love with a man I’d never met.

Back in the early 80s my mom was raising me as a single parent, and as such didn’t see much need for things like cable. I may have wanted my MTV like any other self-respecting teen of the decade, but I settled for Friday Night Videos.

When I saw that a Journey video for “Faithfully” was coming on, I remembered with a bit of a rush about the last time I had seen the band perform. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the lead singer’s hair was shorter and he now sported a mustache.

I never cared for mustaches for traumatic personal reasons, so I found the new look a bit jarring. Eventually he ditched the 'stache during the course of the video, and I found myself heave a sigh of relief that he looked more like the guy I remembered.

I listened as he sang about an undying, faithful love and after the second verse he turned to face the camera as he sang. A breeze lifted a tendril of his dark hair away from his face and his potent eyes stared deep into my soul as he sang, “I’m forever yours, faithfully.”

I was a goner. My heart fell down somewhere near my feet and I think for a brief second there I forgot to breathe. Forget getting struck by Cupid’s arrow – I had been leveled by a bolt of lightning. Within a week I had the Frontiers album in my hand and I showed my mom the man I knew I was going to marry.

These were big words for a thirteen year old. Like I said... lofty aspirations.

Over the course of my teen years Steve Perry would come to define my ideal. I was kissing a lot of frogs in those days, so it was just easier to put all my hopelessly romantic fantasies onto a person safely at arm’s length.

He was a safe outlet to love until I met my first husband and fell in love “for real” when I was about 18.

But I can still feel my heart soar whenever I hear Steve sing, and I know down deep that this celebrity crush actually helped get me through some very painful and difficult years as an outcast, with nowhere to belong and no one to choose me.

I’m still a fan, although I’ve given up on the marrying part. (Those who know me did tease me about my second husband being a “Steve” though.)

(Steve did, however, heavily influence a short story/novella called San Francisco Serenade. I guess I still have those lofty aspirations, I just leave them to my fictional characters these days.)

Many years later I would meet another celebrity who would have the same sort of impact in a more significant way. It started rather innocently while watching VH1 in 2002, when I caught a series that featured various celebrities waxing nostalgic about the 1980s. Some of the celebrities I knew, but one in particular, the one that stood out the most, I had never seen before.

To my surprise, I found his comments were the funniest. It seemed like my best friend of 20-something years and my second husband were all rolled up into one cute, comedic - dare I say - accessible package.

I found myself looking forward to comments from actor/comedian Hal Sparks the most, and over the course of the next few years (and several “I Love the” series) I became sort of what you would call a semi-fan. I was pleasantly surprised when he showed up in Spider-man 2, and I never purposely sought out "Dude, Where's My Car" or "Queer as Folk." But it was undeniable... each time I saw him I liked him a little bit more. It took me a year or so to get on the computer and find information about him. At this time I was still fairly content to keep celebrities behind the velvet rope. In 1998 I had attempted to meet a couple of my teen idols and was treated very poorly by one of the members of a band I had loved throughout my adolescent years. This rejection was directly due to my larger size, and this individual made sure I knew that he wanted nothing to do with me because of it.

When my friend tried to get a picture of me and this person, he made sure he grabbed a random stranger passing by to put right in the middle of us so he wouldn’t have stand next to me. (Look for me to get even with this individual in the next book. I think I shall name him.... NEAL.*)

(*Edited 2012 to clarify, I ended up naming him Leo. He's a dickhead based on a douche bag with absolutely no redeeming value. Kind of like the fucko who inspired him. But I'm not bitter. *Anymore.* Muahaha.)

Needless to say I was ready to keep all the celebrities I *really* liked under glass so I wouldn’t risk this type of painful rejection in the future. I never went to see Davy Jones in concert, I didn't stalk Steve Perry (much) and I was content just to catch Hal's appearances on random VH1 specials.

The more I read about Hal, however, the more I thought about going to one of his comedy shows. Everyone who had gone to see him had nothing but glowing comments about how wonderfully he treated his fans. Still, I was unsure and stayed mainly on the fringe of the fandom. I didn’t even get involved with individuals on the message boards because whenever I tried that in the past it always ended poorly.

I had yet to learn that some groupies and fans are a breed all their own.

So I missed out on things like Hal’s Sparksvision, where about 80 of his fans convened on Los Angeles to enjoy a movie premiere, a comedy show and a chance to see his band play live.

I was way too gun-shy to even think about participating in such an event in September of 2004.

But a mere few months later I would get another big surprise. In November, just days before my birthday, I opened up my email inbox to find an email from Hal himself. Initially I thought it was an auto-reply to let me know I had successfully joined the mailing list for his website. But when I opened it, it read, “A little birdy, and by little birdy I mean that big birdy you’re married to, said that it was your birthday!” He wished me a happy birthday and a great year and I sat thunderstruck at my computer desk that this person I hadn’t even tried to meet could reach out to contact me, this (figuratively speaking) little nobody from small town Texas.

I would come later to learn that was just the kind of guy Hal was. Even at his Sparksvision event he would go seek out those fans too shy to meet him so he could connect with them in some way.

I met Hal for the first time eight months later, when I made sort of a pilgrimage to see one of his comedy shows in San Francisco. I was still nervous that I would be rejected, especially since Hal is a good looking guy who makes no bones about appreciating good looking women. This is an equation that has NEVER really worked out in my favor. So I even shied away from going up to meet him in between the two comedy shows because I thought just seeing him perform in person was enough to make me happy.

Eventually, thanks mostly to the two-drink minimum (times 2,) I was able to go up and meet him for the first time. When he looked at me I didn’t feel rejected, if anything I felt completely “seen” for the first time ever. He has these dark, soulful eyes that reach right down into your core and immediately put you at ease. I nervously teased that I had driven through a tornado to meet him (true story) and therefore I deserved a hug. He gave me one freely, and not one of those wimpy side hugs but a full body head-to-toe hug.

Then he pulled me close for a picture, where he smiled big as though he were happy to do it, and made sure to give me another hug before I left.

I was hooked from that moment on. He didn't just treat me well as a fan, he made me feel valued as a person. There is NO ONE I've ever seen that has this much consideration for his fans, who will stand in line for two hours straight and still be as genuine with the last of the group as he was with the first.

This affirmation came at a point when I didn't feel that from a lot of people, particularly men, and helped me grow in confidence and self-esteem. It even gave me the courage to chase after yet another idol who had the same kind of impact on me that Steve Perry once did, turning me into a screaming teenager whenever he looked into the camera.

If anyone knew me from those days, you probably get a good idea who inspired Vanni – right down to the similar-sounding nickname.


Imagine that kind of swagger and intensity and you have Vanni, except he's Italian instead of Greek. (And of course Vanni likes those fat bottomed girls, which makes us love him even more. ;) )

Because of how well Hal had treated me I jumped headlong into promoting him and even getting involved in the fandom, which were filled with more normal people than I had found in fandoms previously. I figured that like attracts like, and the people that Hal attracted were just at a more evolved state as human beings.

Of course they weren’t ALL that way, and over the years I’ve spent in Hal’s group of fans I’ve seen quite a cast of characters come through.

And it is through all of these experiences that I finally decided to write a story from the fan point of view of that fantasy relationship with her favorite rock star.

I think this is a common fantasy that many of the women I’ve known have had a time or two. It was fascinating to write it from the perspective as the groupie who gets the star because I myself have never experienced this phenomenon, nor do I think I ever would even if I were single. The fantasy is a fantasy because real life can never creep in with all its disappointments and heartbreak.

The groupie experience from what I’ve seen is quite similar to the experiences I’ve had as the “fat girl,” who had the good looking guy give her attention behind closed doors but never had the opportunity to be the gal on his arm, and it is that emotional integrity I brought to the book.

There may be those who think that this book is about any one person in particular, but this is not the case. Vanni is a mix of what attracted me to my idols, with my own spin on what I would have wanted from them if I had pursued anything. The groupies, including Andy herself, were more a combination of the people I’ve met and known throughout the years, but most of the people present were basically enhanced for effect within the story. This includes Talia, the stalker-groupie, who encompasses all the negative things I’ve seen regarding some of the more aggressive (and questionably unhinged) folks who didn’t quite recognize or understand boundaries.

Essentially I took everything I’ve seen and learned and turned it up to “11.”

Hence the dedication of the book, for anyone who sees themselves in these characters and thinks that I have used them or their likenesses for the story. There are only three people in the book based on real people, and those people were acknowledged with special thanks for all their help both with the story and with research.

That means if I didn’t specifically tell you a character was based on you, it wasn’t. This book wasn’t a tell-all vindictive piece. It was a book of fiction based on fantasy, with a plot crafted for effect.

(But I’m willing to wager I’ll still be on several people’s shit list regardless of this disclaimer, which kind of makes this fantasy world within my book so much fun to twist around for my own purposes. ;) )

Now, for you readers who want to throttle me right now because of how the book ends, all I can say is hold off burning me in effigy until after the trilogy is complete with “Rock Star” and "Mogul." The “journey” is far from over, and could not be summed up in one book.

There’s more sex, love, angst and scandal to come, and then I'll do another blog to tell you what inspired the ultimate direction of this saga. Until then, enjoy the fantasy. I know I sure did.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Dirty Little Secrets" backstory. An author insight.

I conceived the idea for Dirty Little Secrets way back in 2002. It was the second screenplay I endeavored to write and I think I wrote it in about a week; the last 40 pages I wrote in one complete stretch. It changed somewhat over the years, but never more than in the novel version. In 2009 I decided to make it into a book via my annual NaNoWriMo writing marathon, and because I had the room to grow and explore some of the things I didn’t in the script I went into some deeper history to what made my characters tick. I also got to add a ghost, which is always fun. I personally like learning more about the characters and story by digging a little deeper. We writers like to think we can “control” the worlds we create but sometimes characters have a mind of their own.

This was never more true than with Mike, the antagonist of Dirty Little Secrets. Originally the story was going to be a glimpse inside what it would be like to grow up gay in an extremist religious household, and how denying oneself could lead to self-destruction. My protagonist, Grace, was 19 years old and pretty far gone in all kinds of addictive behavior, using her body to get the slow poison meant to kill her.

That’s all I had, really, when I set out to write. These were the pre-outline days when I just couldn’t wait to jump right into a story. I had a vague idea where I was going, but no real “plot” to speak of.

I was ready to let the story reveal itself to me.

A few pages in, Steven told me that she needed someone in her world she could talk to. As the story starts, Grace is fairly isolated, and he felt that giving her someone – a friend or someone she could commiserate with – would be a good thing for her and for the story.

I agreed and I write the introductory scene for Mike, who – the minute I hit the return key to give him his first lines of dialogue – turned sinister within the first few words he spoke. Essentially, Mike becomes the physical embodiment of all the ways she was abusing herself.

That piece of the puzzle connected to the major plot point, where Grace causes the accident that would kill Mike’s pregnant wife – that would literally blow up the small, conservative town of Jonston, Texas with all the dirty little secrets everyone had been keeping.

No one was safe from the literary shrapnel that came from that first, fortuitous meeting of a character I never knew was going to be a part of the story.

I love it when stuff clicks like that.

Eventually I did give Grace a friend, a person I originally meant for her to fall in love with and discover her own personal truth. But as it turns out to write Grace as gay actually didn’t feel authentic to the character. I allowed her to find love, but it was with the person she always needed to love… herself.

I put Grace *through it* in DLS. This is not a light read by any stretch. It tackles pretty much every dark secret one could have in a southern town that prides itself on spiritual superiority. It was a bit of a an odyssey for me as well, given that I grew up the product of sexual abuse at a young age, similar to Grace. There’s an unspoken shame that comes from the condemnation of stout religious fundamentalism. I was bad. I was forsaken by God and thus had no real purpose or worth after being “tainted” or “stained.”

I knew a lot about Grace’s journey, except in place of drugs I used sex and food.

The similarity of her name, Grace McKinney, and my maiden name, Ginger McCandless, struck me only after I wrote it.

And it makes the dramatic ending of the story that much harder for me to read. It’s no wonder I regurgitated it all out in a 40 page writing frenzy. It came from a pretty dark place.

As a matter of fact, the original story was way, way more depressing. But a fellow writer, who told me after he read it that it was an important read even though he’d have to have a fifth of whiskey to read it, immediately pleaded Grace’s cause that I had to change the ending. I had to keep it her story all the way through to the end.

I agreed to a point – but the fact was it wasn’t just her story. The story is equally her father’s, and he, in fact, needed to change the most through the story.

So I kept what I thought was a necessary, albeit sad/shocking/depressing/crushing climax of the story… but I did change direction in certain areas that I hope to be a more satisfactory ending for those who fell in love with Grace throughout her painful journey.

Above all it’s a journey of hope – of rebirth… of salvation and self-realization.

In that way it is very fitting that it is my debut novel.

Enter to win one of five "Dirty Little Secrets" paperbacks through Goodreads, contest ends September 30.