Monday, 30 January 2012

Happy February! Heidi and Violetta want to give you a Valentine's gift!

Okay, so it's not quite February yet. Let it never be said that I am not a keener.

Here are a couple things you should know about February:
1. My birthday is on the fourth. I am turning twenty-six! Okay I guess this is really only important to me and my mom, and maybe my husband because he has to remember to buy me a card.
2. My and Violetta's short story "Salting the Earth" has been accepted by Storm Moon Press and will be published as a part of their Like it or Not anthology! For a first-draft taste of the story, check out this WIP Wednesday post: Invitation or Orders.

And so! In the spirit of Valentine's Day, Violetta and I would like to give a special somebody a little gift!

Here's how to play: give us a prompt. You can comment on this post, @ us on twitter (@heidibelleau and @violettavane, find us on Facebook or G+, drop us an email, send us a postcard, carrier pigeon...)

The prompt can be a scenario (high school sweethearts meet up in their mid-thirties), a song ("Pokerface" by Lady Gaga), a photo (sexy or not!), a line of poetry... whatever! We'll choose one prompt to write a FREE short story about, and on Valentine's day, we'll post what we've come up with for everyone to enjoy!

Love is in the air! Happy prompting! :)

Friday, 27 January 2012

Five out of Five Socks Love Your Book! (The Shocking Conclusion!)

Last time, on Violetta Vane's Imaginarium...
Earlier this week, a horde of sock puppets descended like Wagnerian valkyries to lift a certain m/m romance to the top of multiple Goodreads lists. Accounts numbering in the triple digits, all with no friends, only one or two books added, and generic (and sometimes identical!) user icons, came out of the woodwork to lavish praise on a little-known book. Five and four star ratings without reviews crowded out genuine Goodread user reviews and shelves.
Now, this is hardly the first time a wannabe author has pumped up their star rating by rating their own books, asking friends to rate, or making socks. Doing so is ultimately misguided, silly, and ethically questionable, but it doesn’t really hurt anyone: after all, most internet users have been around the block enough times to question unanimous praise of anything, from exercise equipment to computer brands to books.

In reality, even cherished classics get a few two and even one-star reviews: after all, taste is subjective, and contrarians are just a part of the internet experience. The average Goodreads user will look at a book with a high star rating, see a slew of questionable ratings, and hit the backbutton. This kind of game-playing really hurts no one but the author, who quickly (especially in a small genre like m/m) gains a reputation for untrustworthiness.

The original icons weren't much more subtle than this.

However, this last incident sets itself apart because it wasn’t just the book’s own page getting underhandedly tampered with, but popular (and generally helpful!) m/m "best of" lists.

Here’s the issue: seeing who votes on individual books in a list isn’t as immediately visible as its star rating. It’s much more likely the average user will take a book’s ranking at face value without investigating further. The multiple list-tampering meant that newcomers to the genre looking for a quick way to guide their next purchase might decide to buy the book at the top of the list. That book then becomes their determinant to the quality of the entire genre. After all, three hundred people voted it as the best the genre has, twice as many as the second-place entry. It’s gotta be good, right? Right?

As readers, we may not always like the number one listed book. Perhaps it doesn’t fit our personal taste, and sometimes popularity doesn’t always exactly correlate with quality. Just think of the many, many critics of bestsellers like Twilight or The Davinci Code. Taste is subjective, but when a book is at the top of a user-voted list, you know there’s something about it that appeals to a lot of people, and that certain something helps to understand what other books in the genre might also be like. As well, universal appeal is its own praise. Whether or not firefighters are your thing, knowing how much Hot Head has resonated with readers speaks to the talent of its author, the timeliness of the story, etc. So seeing some unknown book angling in for Hot Head’s well-earned top spot on the “Best of 2011” list is shameful.

The puppeting in this case was so blatantly obvious to experienced readers that list maintainers took swift action, booting the book from the lists and reporting the puppeting to Goodreads, which began annihilating sock accounts like a vengeful washing machine. And as a final universal balancing, the book is now rising (the honest way) in another list: the genre’s worst covers. As they say, the truth will out.

However, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and so on. In the future, there may be automatic ways and algorithms invented to discover false reviews. This recent NY Times article mentions a computer science professor named Bing Liu who’s hard at work on a mathematical model that will counter this kind of harmful review inflation. But in the meantime, the best defense against puppeting is a core of watchful and experienced readers, wary of just this kind of tomfoolery. Now, this book’s top reviews are one stars from real goodreads users warning future browsers of the unsavory goings-on.

Which could be bad news for the author. Nothing’s come out to suggest it yet (and Occam’s Razor says it’s much more likely for an unknown author to have an overinflated ego than an obsessed fan or even a hater to concoct such an elaborate con to sully their reputation), but it could still be possible that the author isn’t behind these fake reviews and votes in the first place. In which case, they’re losing credibility and thus readers every day that goes by that they don’t publicly address the problem.

Let this be a warning to us all, though. We can’t all be runaway hits. We can’t all be best-sellers. We can’t all be number one. Success is all the sweeter when it’s honestly earned. Much better for a middling book to slowly gain traction or even to fade away quietly into obscurity than to attempt to manufacture popularity—it might blow up in your face in the worst possible way. Leave the socks on your feet. Respect your readers. If you do well then, you know you deserve it.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

In Defense of Women

I love women.

Okay, I'm bi, so I love love women, if you get my drift. But I also just love women. I love the women who have influenced and raised and nurtured me. I love the women who make up my circle of friends. I love my mother and my sister and my daughter. I love my co-author. I love my woman colleagues, my woman readers, my woman editors. I love disenfranchised women and powerful women and trans women and genderfluid and genderqueer people who honour womanhood by occasionally or frequently presenting or identifying as women. I love queer women and I love asexual women and I love straight women. I love being a woman, even if I don't always love the way I'm treated or represented because of it. I love the experience of womanhood. I'm a big Feminist with a capital F, and there's no "but" dangling on the end of that, either. I own and celebrate my womanhood, while simultaneously respecting (and empathizing with) the right of women to wish they weren't women sometimes, or to use male or gender-neutral pen names to get by in the world.

I love fiction by and for women, and I love romance. In particular I love M/M romance and I love that women make up a big important part of the genre. Is there validity in complaints that M/M by women can be objectifying and hurtful? Yes, absolutely, and that's a conversation we should never stop having, and an issue we should always be mindful of. But let's be honest: when a man makes a "lesbian" porn for men to watch, how many lesbian women does he consult? How many lesbians are involved in the process of creating it? How many lesbians are valued members of that community? M/M has its flaws, but ultimately it's a place that enshrines, values, and welcomes male (and especially gay mens') voices. Personally, I'm absolutely tickled pink if a gay man says "well done" and validates my efforts. That's a measure of respect that says this is something that can be more than bald-faced appropriation.

As a reader and writer in this genre, I read fiction by women and men, and I think I'm pretty representative from that standpoint. M/M stories are nominally about men, but they're also, in their way, about women. About women giving themselves permission to express their sexual desires, their fantasies, their curiosity, and their fetishes. And you know what, that's valid, as long as it's done with respect and due diligence.

Sometimes gay men are used as avatars to express these things in a way that's safe for themselves as women, the same way "bodice-rippers" once allowed women to have female characters expressing their sexuality without appearing "promiscuous". Both of those reasons have problematic aspects, but they're a product of a sexist culture that women are doing their best to navigate. Sometimes authors write gay men because they like the unique narratives and characterization gay men provide, like exploring stories of coming out and brotherhood and masculinity. And that's just two of a million possible explanations or reasons, some good and some troublesome. We're a varied group, so being reductive and saying all women do X for Y reasons is inaccurate at best and offensive at worst.

The reality is, women's fiction has been historically maligned, which is why you're a hundred times more likely to find someone critical of Harlequin category romance vs. Westerns, even though the genres suffer from the same pitfalls. Not that people don't critique literature aimed at men, but there are other things happening when books by and for women are criticized. There's a reason why women in many genres, all throughout history, have adopted male or gender-neutral pseudonyms, and authors in general have tried to disavow themselves of female readers. Why novels and fiction in general were once considered a trash pastime for weak-minded women. Those same issues are at play when female authors and readers of M/M are blanket condemned. That's an entire other blog post, (indeed a whole academic thesis, really) but the following video might illuminate the issue:

The point is, sometimes women are good at portraying gay men and sometimes they aren't. This is an issue of characterization, not gender essentialism. There's nothing inherent to womanhood that says "you don't understand men and never will and you can't write them well no matter how hard you try". If there was, there wouldn't be so many woman authors writing convincingly under male pseudonyms and "getting away with it", as it were. Characterization either works or it doesn't, and that's not an issue of gender -- of the characters or the author. It's an issue of the skill and empathy of the author. There is a difference between men and women: the way we're socialized, the way we're treated, the way we're raised and taught to behave and express ourselves, but that isn't a black and white rule, as any person who defies the expectations of their gender can tell you.

I'm a woman author and I write gay (and bi, and questioning) men. Maybe I do a good job or maybe I don't. I hope I do a good job. I try really hard to do a good job. But if I don't do a good job, it's not because of what I call myself and it's definitely not because of the genitals between my legs (which don't have anything to do with my gender in the first place!). And if I do do a good job, man or woman, you can rest assured it's because I tried my best and have a bit of talent and a good damn editor. Which you can say for anyone writing anything.

So tell me, what are some of your favourite male characters written by women? How about your favourite female characters written by men? In M/M or any other genre you please. I'd love to hear it! And this is a celebratory post, so let's keep this positive, please. We all know there are bad authors and bad characters out there, but let's talk about what's good!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

What's goin' on

Man has it been a busy few weeks! My January has flown by so far.

For starters, we sold our short story/novelette "Cruce de Caminos" to Riptide Publishing, becoming Riptide second wave authors in the process. (See that button on the right hand side of this page? That's me, being super psyched about this development!) We don't have a release date or official back cover copy for it yet, but when we do, you know it'll be on this blog! Hopefully we'll have more info on its release soon. I just wanted to express how excited I am to be working with Riptide, and how proud of myself and Violetta for writing "Cruce de Caminos". It's a dark little misfit of a story, not really romance, but it's got a troubled rent boy main character, a delectable dub-con sex scene, and a paranormal twist that'll put a cold chill up your back. I can't think of a better place for it than Riptide.

We also have an urban fantasy novel in the middle of the contract process with another publisher, whom we obviously can't name at this point, but I can say we're really happy to be working with them, too. We've got absolutely zero info on this book at this point (we're even in the midst of coming up with a new title!), but I can say it's a huge, meaty story with an epic setting, an epic plot, and an epic romance. It's gonna be a doozy! Needless to say, coming up with a title for this monster hasn't been easy. We've listened to song lyrics, gone through the text itself with a fine-tooth comb looking for good images and lines, filled out a HUGE worksheet from our editor... Hopefully we can find something that'll suit!

In actual writing news, we're two thirds of the way through a very sexy short story and we've also got a finished novel out on submissions which we'll hopefully hear back on pretty soon!

How's your January going? Got any projects on the go or upcoming release dates? Writerly or readerly New Years resolutions?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

WIP Wednesday: Invitation or Orders

From a very sexy short we've been working on:
The lord of the mound emerged from a wash of gold.

Ronan blinked the watering out of his eyes and felt it fall as tears. Shameful, he’d chide himself, if he had any room left for shame -- which he didn’t. Not in this place, not with these... things. These capricious old gods. Shame or sanity, he couldn’t have both. He could present himself for sacrifice, let them strip away the most precious parts of him for the night, or he could fight them and be gleefully and forcefully dismantled forever. Ronan didn’t know much about the old stories, but he knew enough.

He knew that the sidhe could be placated, tricked, bargained with, worshipped -- and for his part, he was doing a little bit of each -- but they couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t be denied.

Shutting his eyes again, trying uselessly to black out the glimmering galaxy of visual excess that formed this domain, he let his mouth caress the inside of his lord’s ankle; he was too tiny and worthless to attempt higher without invitation or orders.

Invitation or orders. He wondered which method his lord would favor tonight.
Also, stop by Violetta Vane's Imaginarium for a round-up of news from the release of The Saturnalia Effect, including reviews and interviews!