Offended & Bewildered

It’s not the first time I write a blog about the many frustrations of being a romance writer and not be taking seriously. This is one of them.

I recently attended a writing event as a panelist where I was once again reminded of what people (including or especially other writers) think a romance is. They conveniently forget that the great ones of literature such as Jane Austen, The Bronte sisters, and even–gulp–the Great Bard were all romance writers.

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Yes, the genre has gone through some significant changes throughout the years (some good, some bad) and I’ll be the first one to admit that there are a lot of really bad romance novels out there. This, however, can be said about any other genre today. There are excellent high fantasy books just as there are some absolutely awful. Same can be said of mystery, science fiction, and everything in between. Even high-brow literature has its winners and losers. I can think of at least one Pulitzer Prize prize winner who wrote a book that made zero sense whatsoever.

So to bundle up every romance book and label it “porn” is not only offensive but totally incorrect.

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Anyone who knows me well will tell you I abhor porn. To me, porn objectifies people of every gender (but especially women) and trivializes sex. Don’t get me wrong. There is sex in my romances, heat level depending on the plot and the characters. These are love stories and where there is love eventually, and in most cases, there will be a communion of bodies as much as of hearts. But a loving sex scene should not be confused with porn. If you think my love scenes are porn, then you must have led a very sheltered life.

When someone at this writing event insinuated (quite loudly in a  room full of people) that I wrote porn and therefore what I wrote would not make its way to the group online page or anthology, I was extremely offended. It’s been boiling just under the surface since then and I’ve considered posting something to the effect, because I feel that by not defending my writing is admitting that I do indeed write porn. Which I don’t.

This reminds me of when the Harry Potter books were first released. There was such a fuss made by certain religious groups about the evil nature of such stories. They called for boycotts of the books and other extreme reactions to a wonderful fictional world that depicted good against evil. I was shocked to find out that many of the people running their mouths about the books had never read as much as the first chapter. How can you judge something if you’ve never read, or at least sample parts of it?

This person who accused me of writing porn has never read any of my books, so how does she know what my writing is like? Why didn’t she refrain from making assumptions before sampling one of my books? All she did was show how ignorant she is about the genre. One silver lining though: I am now determined to show up to a book open mic event and show everybody that my books are well written and have depth. I want to prove to all who have sneered at my books that romance is not the sex fest they think it is. Not my type of romance and not a lot of romance I read and love. Let’s not judge a whole group of authors and their books by a few.

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What do you think? Are you a reader that believes romance to be a low-form of literature or are you willing to set your assumptions aside and give romance a chance? Or any other genre for that matter.

For those who still think romance is the black sheep of the literary family and a mere venue for pornographic voyeurism, here are some readings that may make you change your mind:

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt

Where Are Romance Novels Headed (Chicago Tribune)

Is Mystery Dead?

My wonderful publisher just opened a new imprint for mysteries and thrillers. That got me thinking. I’ve always loved mystery, even as a child, and quite a few of my favorite TV shows fall–or fell–in that category. I always add an element of mystery or suspense in my romances too. So why am I not reading more of it? Or watching it?

Bones, NCIS, The Closer, Rizzoli and Isles… I watched and loved them all. But more recently I noticed I’m not getting into those shows anymore. Some are off the air but others, including some new ones, have either made it out of my list of preferences or never made it there. For someone who used to devour Agatha Christie’s books, Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfell’s series, even lots of the extremely sexist gumshoe series of the 70s I sure am not paying much attention to the genre.

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In recent years I have read very few mysteries, at least those who fall entirely in that category. I’ve read many books that included mystery in the plot but that’s it. Some of those I read were The Gone Girl (hated it–a story for another time), a couple of Dan Brown’s books (loved it), one or two cozies (fun) and not much more.

A lot of the shows I used to watch faithfully (Criminal Minds, CSI, etc) became more and more gory as if their popularity depended on how gross and despicable the crime scene was. The mystery itself looked like was taking a back seat. I lost interest. I like the puzzle-side of mystery, the putting all the pieces together to solve a conundrum. Some shows quit doing that and began focusing more on the shoot-outs, the car chases, the bizarre ways killers were choosing to murder people. Not that interesting.

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I’m not against a bit of gore if it’s necessary to show the horror of the situation (I’ve written it myself: there’s a torture scene in Lavender Fields for example), but do we really need to see a body shred to pieces by a wood chipper or another literally smashed to smithereens and glued to the tires of a car? Don’t think so.

I’m just sorry that real mysteries seem to be a thing of the past or maybe I’m just reading the wrong ones. On the other hand I have read some excellent books that incorporated good mysteries within the plot such as Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours.

What do you think? Do you know of good mysteries that do not rely on gore, shoot outs, or any other shock-factors? What about cozies? Have you read any good ones lately? I have a couple written by a writer friend on my TBR. I was fortunate enough to read a couple chapters and loved it, so I have high hopes. What do you suggest?

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Ignoring the Impostor Syndrome

We all felt it one time or another, the insidious whisper inside our head that says, “You’re an impostor“. “How dare you stand among the great ones? What right do you have to be here? What makes you qualified to dish out advice?” You know the whispers–or sometimes loud screams in your mind.

Writers are particularly vulnerable to this. How many of us have been part of a book event where you have big names in your genre at a table five feet away from yours? It’s both exhilarating and depressing because on one hand you’re excited you’re breathing the same air as some of your literary idols while at the same time being depressed for feeling you don’t measure up to them.

Measuring up

Recently I was invited to co-present at a local, small writer’s conference. My first reaction was to say yes, but then that nagging feeling came whispering again–what can you possibly say about writing that others would think interesting or helpful? I said yes anyway because I’ve promised myself a long time ago I’d take on more challenges.

I had been part of panels before, but this was different; this was the two of us running an informative session about the writing business, From Spark to Finish (my co-presenter, talented YA author, PM Hernandez, came up with the catchy title). Between the two of us we have thirteen books published and we have both learned quite a lot in our journey through this business. And yet that doubt, that nettling feeling, was still gnawing at the back of my mind.

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Photo Credit: Jan Rayl

In the end it was a great experience. Turns out we both have quite a bit of helpful information to impart with beginning or aspiring authors, and this was the perfect venue to do so. Hernandez and I have different experiences and perspectives but because of that we were the perfect combination; she’s self-published, I’m a hybrid; she’s a semi-pantser, I’m an all-in pantser. I think I speak for both of us when I say, we had a blast as you can tell by this picture.

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PM Hernandez and me – Photo Credit: Jan Rayl

I’m sure that irksome voice will rise again, but for the moment I’m on Cloud 9, feeling accomplished and worthy. Moral of the story is we all need to ignore those whispers and take risks. When you hear that inner voice again, stick a cork in it and move on. You’ll be so glad you did it.

*Many thanks to Jan Rayl, Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt, and Becks Sousa of Write by the Rails for organizing such a great event. And everyone who attended. It was a lot of fun.*

The Big Baddie

This blog post was first published in MM Good Book Reviews

People who know me personally would be very surprised if they knew that I love to write evil characters. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it’s because of how satisfying it is to beat them at the end of the book. Maybe I’m unconsciously taking my revenge on bad people that I either know personally or heard of. After all that’s how a writer fights—with words.

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In Lavender Fields I wrote an evil angel who puts the two MCs through hell before getting defeated by the forces of good. In Infinite Blue I went with a more mortal version of antagonist. Even though not a supernatural being, this character wins the trophy for being the Most Wicked.

When I was a kid I loved watching scary movies, especially those with a paranormal or sci-fi background, but refused to watch movies where the big baddie was someone close to the MC—that scared the crap out of me and meant many sleepless nights. Because of this I have written Shahin’s mother as the antagonist—and not only because she doesn’t approve of his relationship with Cai. Her behavior from the beginning of the book is despicable for a mother. It starts with her refusal to accept Shahin the way he is and develops into something truly malevolent (don’t want to give any spoilers so you have to read the book to find out).

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Is there anything viler than someone who’s supposed to love and take care of you but instead chooses to hurt you? It brings a sense of betrayal along with whatever wicked thing they did. If you were ever betrayed by someone you cared about, you know how it hurts in more ways than one. It hits you right in the heart, burns you from the inside out, and often makes you blame or even hate yourself. That’s why I picked someone close to Shahin to be the big baddie in Infinite Blue.

Who are your favorite types of antagonists and why?

 

 

Location, Location, Location

I tend to locate my stories in imaginary places. In fact, it had never occurred to me to set one of my romances in a real place until I started hearing about all the small-town romances that were becoming so popular. The first time I used a setting that really existed was in my first M/M paranormal, Lavender Fields, which I set in Wiscasset, Maine—a town I vacationed in a few times. With Infinite Blue, I was determined to have it take place in a more local setting. That’s how my characters ended up in Old Town Manassas, just a few miles from where I live and a place I visit often.

Old TownManassas, VA

I was surprised how much fun it was to use real places or those inspired by the real ones. Restaurants, coffeeshops, even the train station are all very real.

A friend’s sister’s place of work became the model and the location for Cai’s graphic studio. I had visited the studio once so I had a good feel for the layout. It’s a small place over a well-known restaurant by the old-fashion train station.

The coffeeshop they both frequent is also a real hub of artistic activity in Manassas. So is the ice cream shop they mention, Jitterbug. Even the hospital was inspired by a real one, not in Manassas but close by.

The most fun I had was “researching” the Mexican Taqueria they all meet one evening. I knew about the place but had never eaten there. I had to check their menu online and I was glad to find out that I had described the place and the food accurately. When I finally ate there, I ordered the same thing my characters did in the book and had the delicious (and not Mexican) zepolle for the first time ever.

One of the most romantic scenes is set in the parking lot of the station which means that now every time I go there (and that’s where I normally park my car) I have visions of Cai and Shahin involved in a kiss.

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Writing a Strong Broken Character

A couple months ago I finished writing a romantic comedy that is close to my heart for a few different reasons. If you have read any of my books you know they are not just about romance and happy endings (even though they definitely have both) but they normally touch on something a bit heavier, sometimes darker.

This one is no exception. I wanted to write a character who is being emotionally blackmailed. This was an important subject for me because it’s something I experienced personally. I had always considered myself a strong woman. Not the most assertive one, but emotionally strong. Until the day I discovered I had been manipulated by someone I considered my best friend at the time. Worse even this had been going on for years. I lived in a state of confusion and hurt without a clue of who or what was making me so miserable.

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Emotional blackmailers use traits of your personality (good qualities more often than not) against you. In my case, she used the fact I would do just about anything to help and/or defend a friend and turned it into a weapon against me. She also used the fact I choose to believe the best about people to make herself believable in my eyes. She was the victim, the one that needed help, everyone was out to get her. And I ate it up even when my conscience and common sense told me there was something wrong with her stories and/or her attitude.

When I began writing this story I wanted my main male character (who in romance are kind of expected to be alpha males) to be a victim of emotional blackmail. As I wrote the story I had the suspicion I was making him look weak, which was not at all my intention. Strength has nothing to do with this. The most put together, emotionally stable person can be the victim of one of these predators. Because make no mistake, these are predators as ruthless as any other.

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I submitted the manuscript thinking that I would get it back with the comment, “he comes across as weak”. I was right. That’s exactly what happened. So now I’m faced with the challenge of portraying someone who has been “broken” by his girlfriend but still seems strong and capable–which he really is. Not an easy task but I have all confidence I’m on the right track. I agonized over it when I was writing it the first time, I’m agonizing over it now as I revise it. I want to be true and fair to my MMC and not make him look like the weakling he is not.

I’m hoping I can make my guy just as strong and awesome as he is broken and confused. Have you ever have to write a character like that? What did you do to balance his state of mind with his personal strengths?

 

The Insidious Impostor Syndrome

On my last blog I wrote about my experience at a book signing recently–an experience colored by many anxieties and doubts. I’m very happy to say that despite my irrational fears, I was indeed invited back for next year’s event.

Today I’d like to talk to you about something related, impostor syndrome. A lot of authors suffer from this condition and I’m no exception. Recently, I was reminded of how much this affects me as a writer and a human being.

As the majority of writers today, I struggle to make myself known and get people to buy my books. I work my butt off and sacrifice a lot to sell a handful of books a month if I’m lucky. One of my books, Desert Jewel, is part of a series I’m very proud of: The Jewel Chronicles, a fantasy with a strong romantic element which I wrote using a world I knew well in my past to create a parallel-type universe as my setting. Some of you know I spent a lot of my childhood and  young adult years in Africa. I used what I knew to create a speculative world where everything was the opposite of the real one. I buried deep personal beliefs about prejudice and superstition in the plot and colored it perhaps with a bit of anger against the power-hungry men who even today keep the people of many African nations poor and helpless.

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As I write the third and last book of the series, I find myself procrastinating, making excuses not to write. Because I very rarely do this, I began wondering why that is. Is it because my story is coming to an end and I want to hold on to it as long as I can? Is it because I’m afraid of not knowing how to further push the story forward? Or is it because I’m discouraged by the extremely low sales of the past two books?

I guess it is a little of all three above, but I also realized something else–I’m suffering from a serious bout of impostor’s syndrome. Let me explain.

In May of this year a young adult fantasy was released to almost instant success and critical acclaim. I didn’t know much about it, other than it was set in an African-like world. Being the African groupie that I am, I was curious and checked out its synopsis. I immediately found several parallels with Desert Jewel–not the same plot but many of the same elements. The story incorporates Afro-Brazilian mythology, the idea of a girl with a special gift who will save a repressed people, and a romantic attachment with someone on the “other side” of the rail tracks, so to speak. Being an expert at self-doubt, my first reaction was, “This was her first book and she sold thousands of copies already and is in every freaking bookstagrammer’s page. I’ve sold a handful of copies of my book in over two years. I suck at writing obviously.”

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Ever since then I’ve carrying this growing doubt with me–am I a good enough writer? Are my stories interesting enough? Am I tricking myself into believing I can write? A doubt that has been hampering the writing progress of my WIP. This, my friends, is what impostor syndrome is all about. I have a publisher that believes in me, a few readers that love my books, good–even if not tons of–reviews and yet I still doubt myself. Frequently.

How many of you suffers from this too? How do you fight this self-defeating feeling? I fight it by writing on, despite that little voice that tells me nobody wants to read what I write. I keep writing even when I’m scared people think I’m an old fool who has nothing interesting to say. I keep on writing because it’s where my voice is, the one thing that gives me wings.

You can read more about impostor syndrome here and here and here.

Heart’s Prey-The Journey

I’ve been an introvert all my life. Sometimes I feel that in spite of all my travelling, my life experiences, my education I’ve never been quite part of the whole. I’ve always felt much like an outcast of sorts, always on the outside looking in. Always afraid of voicing my strong opinions and beliefs, but feeling them deeply within my heart nevertheless.

All my novels reflect that in one form or another. But none so vividly as Heart’s Prey.

The world of Heart’s Prey is a world divided by prejudice, where society is parceled out between castes. When that world is attacked by monsters of their own creation, life as they know is crushed. My characters come from different castes and must somehow ignore the fact that they were brainwashed into hating each other and unite in order to survive.

As the plot develops the reader comes to find out that even within the castes there are divisions, prejudice, and cruelty. Nothing is what it seemed to be.They come to discover that the woman from a privileged caste was not very privileged after all, that she had been subjected to terrible things at the hands of her own people because of flaws in their system. They come to find out that in the end they were all outcasts and that if they are to survive, they must destroy those barriers of suspicion and fear, and learn to build a society that doesn’t judge, divide, or punish  those who are different.

I’m very passionate about this book, my only self-pub so far, and its message. I love the characters and the way they stick together even when faced with the horrors of the genetically-engineered creatures loose in their ravished world.

I’d love to hear from you and find out what you thought of my book.

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Blurb

The world Jia and Cees knew no longer exists. Amidst chaos and terror, they find each other and fall in love—a love that goes against all castes’s rules. As their civilization is ravaged by genetically-altered beasts, the caste system relied upon for ages crumbles. The privileged and wealthy are just as vulnerable to the onslaught as are the disadvantaged.

Faced with impossible odds and unsettling secrets about their society, Jia and Cees must decide which part of their dying world to take with them and what they should leave behind. As they travel in search of a safe haven, they face unspeakable horrors, which shake deep-rooted beliefs and their old way of life.

Will they look past prejudice and centuries-old traditions to join forces against annihilation? Or will they give in to society’s pressure and fight alone?

Buy Links

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BIO

Natalina wrote her first romance at the age of 13 in collaboration with her best friend, Susana. Since then she has ventured into other genres, but romance is first and foremost in almost everything she writes. She’s the author of seven romance novels that reflect the amazing diversity of humankind and the universal power of love.

After earning a degree in tourism and foreign languages, she worked as a tourist guide in her native Portugal for a short time before moving to the United States. She lived in three continents and a few islands, and her knack for languages and linguistics led her to a master’s degree in education. She lives in Virginia where she’s taught English as a Second Language to elementary school children for more years than she cares to admit.

Natalina doesn’t believe you can have too many books or too much coffee. Art and dance make her happy and she is pretty sure she could survive on lobster and bananas alone. When she is not writing or stressing over lesson plans, she shares her life with her husband and two adult sons.

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The Vocabulary of Sex

Caution- This post contains words that may be considered offensive.

As readers and writers we know how powerful words can be. Words can make you happy or extremely miserable. Words can melt your heart or freeze it. As a linguist I may have an even more acute awareness of how powerful words can be and how we all should be more careful about how we use them.

I’m a romance writer, but I must confess I am not exactly in love with most of the romance novels being published today. I have a few favorites and I hope to find a few more as I read through the thousands of romances out there–both indie or traditionally published. For some time I thought the reason why I didn’t like many of the romances–including some written by very popular authors–was because a lot of them center their plot around sex scenes. But recently I came to realize that I was wrong. It is not the often overwhelming quantity of sex the characters in many novels are having, but the words used to express it.

Portrait of shocked pin-up girl

My current read is a dystopian romance written in collaboration between two pretty successful and popular romance writers. I came across it accidentally when I was desperately seeking other adult dystopian romances like my latest, Heart’s Prey (most of them are targeted at young adults). After I read the blurb, I was truly intrigued by the premises for the plot and decided to read it.

But let me back up a little bit. I am from an older generation (and no, I’m not geriatric quite yet) and a different culture. I was brought up to believe that words hold meaning and connotations, and that there are certain words you should never use unless totally necessary. Enter words like fuck, dick, pussy and others that are commonly used in today’s romance novels when describing a sex scene. These are all words I have–as many others of my generation and background–associated with a non-romantic sexual act. Maybe a one-night stand, or having sex just because well, it feels good. Or worse, associated with sexual assault. Being a feminist–no, it’s not a dirty word and I have never burned my bras or hated men because of their gender–I also connect those words with men talking about women as purely sexual objects, a word totally devoid of sentiment.

Let me make it clear that I do not endorse the ridiculous language used in romances twenty years ago or more when describing sex or the parts of the body involved in it. But if you are going to describe a woman’s or man’s genitals I much prefer–as clinical as they may sound–to read the words penis or vagina than pussy or dick. To me those words have nothing to do with love-making and everything to do with reducing the other person to a sex object.

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I have given up on many romances because I just couldn’t stand the way the author used those words. It made me not respect or like the characters, and if I don’t like the characters I lose my interest in the story. In my current read, which is riddled with all of the above words and more, and has sex on almost every chapter, the words are not stopping me from reading and enjoying it. Why? Because so far (I’m about 70% through the book and I hope it doesn’t disappoint me because it’s a great speculative story) the use of such language is totally appropriate; it is part of the world building. In a world where people have sex just to have babies and where love is a thing of the past, it makes perfect sense that words like love-making get replaced with emotionless words.

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I agonize over sex scenes in my own books. Not because I’m a prude, but because I want to describe those moments in a way that shows how the couple feels about each other on a higher level than just the physical. In other words, I want them to make love, not fuck each other.

Have I ever used the above mentioned words? Yes, I have when it was appropriate, when I wanted to emphasize the way a character felt at that moment or when showing disrespect for another. I have used them when I was “building” a character’s personality or wanted to infuse the moment or situation in anger or hate.

I predict, as a linguist, that those words will lose most of their pernicious connotations in a few years. In fact it’s already happening. The twenty-or thirty somethings of today pepper their everyday conversations with them and obviously see nothing wrong with that. I’m not criticizing, just pointing out a fact. Language changes and evolves, with words taking on or losing meanings over time. That’s just the way it goes. However at this moment we are in a sort of overlapping of generations that view these words in very different ways, making it difficult for me to read and enjoy a romance that reeks of unhealthy relationships as I’m sure a younger one will read books like mine and think of them as not romantic, maybe even insipid.

Obviously there isn’t an easy answer for this, but tell me: where do you stand on this subject (no judgement) and do you think this is a generational thing or a passing trend?

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For a good laugh check out this Buzzfeed list of sexual words you probably didn’t know existed.

 

The Not-So Glamorous Life of a Writer

Yesterday I had my second signing at a Barnes & Noble here in Northern Virginia. I have been trying to get them to let me have one at a local branch but the district manager won’t return my emails. A writer friend was able to get three other branches in the area to hold multi-authors signings and I managed to snag two of those.

The first one was kind of a sleepy event. Not many people visiting the gigantic store but somehow we all managed to sell books and interact with many people. The second one was held in a wealthier part of Northern Virginia and the place was teeming with humans. The four of us got pretty excited. If we had a good turnout in a sleepy branch, here we should make a killing, so to speak.

Ashburn BN signing

Here’s how it really went:

  • Several kids came to ask for our candy.
  • Several people refused to accept free swag.
  • One very nice aspiring  author asked us for some guidance in the publishing world.
  • An older lady came and asked each of us if we used the F-word in our books (I use it very sparingly and only because it was pointed out to me that my characters are too proper, lol). Once she found out that pretty much all of us did in one way or another, she asked us why did you use such an offensive word. She didn’t buy anything.
  • When I offered them my FREE postcards, they almost always took the one advertising an event I’ll be participating in but which holds absolutely no information about me or my  books.
  • A very kind older man came to talk to us and had us all laughing with his jokes. He didn’t buy anything but thanked us for all the work we do (he used to  work for one of the Big Five)
  • Lots of people entered the raffle to win books from all of us, but most of them didn’t buy anything.
  • We heard a lot of, “I don’t read romance” (totally understandable. It’s not for everybody, of course).
  • People thought we were the information desk and came to ask us about items in the store.
  • We left the event with about $6 each for one book sold from each one of us.
  • I sold a M/M paranormal romance book to a lady who told me she didn’t read romance at all.

Moral of the story: don’t judge an event by how posh the neighborhood is. Buying power and romance doesn’t always jive, apparently.