Dare to Ask — FREE READ for your Valentine Treat

 

The minute they rolled into the fueling bay, Emily knew she never should have brought Sheryn along. But the gas tank hovered near empty, and the two of them were on their way to a showing at the new Springloft apartment complex, and Sheryn needed the training. Emily cursed under her breath as she stopped near the pumps and Sheryn started bobbing and weaving to peer out the windows.

“Oh, shit, I see what you mean,” Sheryn enthused, squinting her eyes as the attendant came toward the car.

“Well, don’t say anything, or I’ll throttle you.”

“Can I pant?”

“Shut up,” she hissed through clenched teeth.

His body moved inside his uniform like a well-oiled machine, all ridges and curves and hard planes of muscle that should be illegal. He leaned down at Emily’s open window and gave one of his most charming smiles. She resisted the urge to say or do something rash.

“What can I help you ladies with today?”

“Oh…” Sheryn began.

“I need gas,” Emily quickly interrupted. “And my windshield keeps streaking.”

“We can take care of that,” he said confidently. “Fill it up?”

“Oh. My. God,” Sheryn whispered.

Emily threw her a hate glare. “Yes, please.”

He held his head at a cocky angle as he walked around to the gas cap. Emily waited, completely distracted. A tapping sound on the back window. He pointed, reminding her to flip the opener.

“Damn,” she muttered.

“You should just ask him,” Sheryn said. “What the hell? Just quit thinking about it and ask him. I sure as hell would. God, look at that.”

He had gathered paper towels and a spray bottle and leaned across the hood to scrub the windshield. Muscle and veins corded his forearms and hands. Emily felt faint.

“I’m going to ask him,” Sheryn continued.

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“Seriously? Do you have some kind of claim?”

“No, but if you’re going to get in the middle of this, it better be when I’m not around.”

“Then ask him. Or I’ll ask him for you.”

“No, absolutely not.” Emily resisted the urge to punch her dear friend.

“I am. Seriously.”

“No.”

“Okay, you asked for it.” Sheryn rolled her window down.

“Sheryn!” she hissed. “Stop!”

“No.”

“Okay, I’ll say something.”

“Not just ‘something,’ ask him out.”

He grinned from the front of the car and it crossed Emily’s mind that somehow he was hearing all this, that maybe the heat vents channeled their voices out through the front and he heard every word. She broke out in a sweat.

“Damn it, Sheryn, I’m never taking you with me again. Anywhere.”

“Am I fired?” Sheryn grinned. “His name is Chris, right?” She leaned her face to the window. “Chris?”

He came around from the pump, wiping his hands.

“Damn you,” Emily cursed, imagining kicking her—literally—out the door.

He leaned into Sheryn’s window. “Did you need something else?”

“Emily wants to ask you something.”

The bitch smirked and gave Emily a thumbs-up as he came around to the driver’s side. Her heart drummed in her ears. All the times she had thought of doing this very thing, all the clever come-ons, flirts, seductive glances, and none of it, absolutely not one shred, remained within the reach of her mind.

“What do you need?” he asked.

Oh fucking damn. “I need…”

“I’ll say it if you don’t,” Sheryl mumbled under her breath.

“I wondered what you were doing after work,” she said in a rush.

He straightened. Emily knew it. This was where he laughed in her face and told her to get a life, lady. Something like that.

“Whatever you’re doing,” he said.

Her head snapped up. Did he really say that? His muddy green eyes watched her like she would say something else. She had nothing to say. Actually couldn’t talk. Since when did she revert to thirteen? She considered just driving off without paying and never coming back.

“Okay,” she managed in a hoarse voice.

“I get off at four,” he said. “And the gas is forty-three dollars.”

She handed him the debit card and watched him walk inside. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so hard it hurt. She didn’t look at Sheryn. “I could kill you.”

“Oh, get over it. You’ve got a date now. How bad is that?”

“You’re a meddling bitch, and not my friend, and when this blows up on me, I’m going to kill myself right after I kill you.”

Sheryn was still laughing hysterically as they drove away.

~~~

Read the entire novelette FREE at Smashwords !

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Writing Advice

The most fascinating writing I’ve ever found are the works of M. John Harrison. He’s a British author, taciturn and enigmatic in the proper style. He’s also a wordsmith of stunning skill. I aspire to write like he does, but I despair I’ll never catch up.

He reached early acclaim with the Centauri Device, his third novel. I actually haven’t read that. What I lust after are his Viriconium series and his later Kefahuchi Tract series. Look him up on Wikipedia.

But aside from ranting about his work, I want to share one of his blog posts where he talks about writing fiction.

1. Don’t write what you don’t want to read, Elmore Leonard says. For me, that would include anything that wastes time establishing “motive”, fauxthenticating a “world”, or assuring the reader of the author’s ideological correctness & general decency; along with those scenes in which the righteous anger of sympathetic characters is vented on unsympathetic ones on behalf of the reader getting her rocks off.
2. All plots are weak, & no-one alive now knows the difference between character & action anyway. Not even Elmore Leonard.
3. But I really agree with his eighth rule.
4. Never give advice to other writers, especially about excluding from their fiction stuff that is “ordinarily found in non-fiction”. (Shortly after performing this exclusion, Elmore recommends Annie Proulx, lately the queen of local history quasi-fiction, see “The Indian Wars Refought”, or “Dump Junk”, in which character is created as much by listing the paper trails, objects & architecture people leave behind, as by “characterisation”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Then there’s William Boyd’s hilarious “Lunch” [Fascination], written as a sequence of expense invoices; & Ballard’s skeletal “Answers to a Questionnaire”, from War Fever.)
5. Always listen to the advice of responsible figures in the publishing industry. That way you will write a book with broad appeal & massive sales potential, & your work will be recognised, bought & published immediately. Like Richard Adams or JK Rowling you will be on your way to celebrity within months. You will not have to self-publish Watership Down, or hawk Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Magic Nice Stone around London for a long time, & be turned down by every fantasy editor in the industry before finding a publisher.
6. Never show the reader a morally unpleasant thing, then remind her it’s a morally unpleasant thing three or four times just in case she doesn’t realise you think it’s morally unpleasant too & writes a blog post saying how misanthropic you are. If you do I am coming with a machete & chopping the left half of your face off before you know what happened. & you know, I won’t care when one of your eyes is looking at the other where it dangles over your cheekbone. Are you ok with that ?
7. Reading is important to the writer. Never read anything good, in case you get the idea that you might want to do something like that too. If you do decide to read something good, here’s a tip: make it Maxim Gorky’s Fragments from My Diary. That will be all you need. Don’t read any of Gorky’s novels because they’re not good.
8. Joseph Campbell turned myth into the fiction of narcissism & self-glorification, enabling Hollywood to swaddle an entire culture in the same triumphalist story over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over &
9. The narrative structure is the story. Don’t think you can change anything by pouring different content into it. If you use the same narrative structure every time, you too will be writing the same story over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & over & & over &
10. You’re responsible for yourself. Get your head together. Write or don’t write.

The above advice should not be taken as advice. If you take anything that appears on this blog as advice, your aspirations may not be met by the publishing industry. This disclaimer was brought to you from the kitchens of the Ambiente Hotel. We don’t have a returns policy on the Squid Surprise, but you can sometimes come to an arrangement with the boy who serves in the back bar.

Amid his blog post cited above is a link to another post with advice from several other writings. This is excellent material, dosed with a rich icing of humor. 

 

Adrian Velasquez — A Short Story (Part 1)

At the sound of his voice, Rachel spun the chair around. Adrian Velasquez. His dark gaze always caught her off guard. He was wearing a gray-black suit, damn him, with a white shirt open at the throat that dazzled against his Latino complexion. Not for the first time in his presence, her stomach quivered.

“Did you ever hear of knocking?”

He eased his suit jacket open and parked himself in the chair nearest her desk. With a half grin and sideways glance, his hazel eyes undressed her. Shit. Nobody should be this good looking. He looked at the ceiling for a second then shook his head.

“One question,” he said.

“The same one?”

He stood up and rested his fists on the desk, his eyes riveting her gaze. “Are you afraid?”

Her breath caught. Hell yes, she was afraid. His whole body emanated tension. Everything about him made her sick with need.

“Not afraid,” she said, feigning boredom. “Same old same old.”

His expression toyed with amusement and something more as his eyes flitted to her breasts and then back to her face. “You have no idea,” he said with a grin.

“I have an idea,” she snapped. “It’s a terrifying vision. Now I have listings to sell and so do you. Work, remember?”

“Soon,” he said. “You’ll answer my question.”

She glared at him until the office door closed behind him. “Shit,” she muttered under her breath. Should she report him for sexual harassment? Was she overreacting to normal male flirtation?

She threw herself into her chair and tugged on her short dark hair so hard it hurt. She’d never met a man who could destroy her as completely as Adrian Velasquez. So why couldn’t she stop playing his game?

~~~

The day dragged by. By four-thirty, she needed a drink so badly she could almost taste the tequila on her tongue. Thank god it was Friday and thank god the Manchester Lounge was only a half block away. She stuffed her water bottle and iPad in her bag and let the office door swing shut behind her. The place had mostly emptied already, typical for a Friday when any and every excuse known to mankind hovered on employees’ lips as they grabbed a head start on the weekend.

A small throng of restless people waited for the elevator. She knew before she looked that Adrian had followed her out. The man didn’t miss anything.

A voice like dark chocolate purred at her ear. “Did I mention how lovely you look today?” he said. “You do the ice princess thing very well.”

Gooseflesh erupted down her arms. “Is that some kind of compliment?” she retorted.

“Of course,” he said, rocking back on his heels with a smug smile. “Also the truth. You are a very attractive woman.”

“Same old?” she said.

A cocked eyebrow was her only answer. The elevator opened and she found herself squeezed between Adrian and the back wall as the conveyance lurched through its descent. His broad shoulders blocked her view, straining the seams of his expensive suit and making her mouth go dry. He purposefully held himself inches away, saving her from the crush of annoyed people packed into the small space.

Well, thank you very much. As if she hadn’t negotiated crowds in elevators all her life. As if she needed him. As if he wasn’t fully aware that his musky scent filled her nostrils and sent waves of need down her belly. Yes, thank you, Adrian.

The elevator spilled its contents into the lobby and people streamed off in all directions. Rachel hurried along without looking back. As she shouldered through the wide door, she slipped on her sunglasses and turned purposefully toward the Manchester.

Christ, tequila. Now. Please.

What was it about him that made her panic like this? That made her body hum and her pulse race and her mind focus like a laser on nothing but him. What he would do next. What he would say.

The cool air of the Manchester, faintly scented with the smell of whiskey and cigar smoke, hit her face in a gust as she pushed the heavy wooden door open. Bits of conversation and familiar strains of Getz-Gilberto met her ears. Her eyes adjusted to the dim room before she spotted an open booth at the back wall.

A moment’s peace. That’s all I ask. She slid into the cool leather seat and briefly rubbed her forehead. Why did she let that man get to her like this?

It wasn’t like she was a trembling virgin straight out of girls’ school. There had been men. There had even been love, enough ‘romance’ to teach her the hard lessons of life. As in, steer clear of players like Adrian Velasquez.

“Ma’am?” A waiter leaned toward her as he slid a napkin onto the table.

“Margarita straight up, easy on the sweet.”

She knew he had a past. How did someone leave behind that kind of history—gangs, drugs, street fights?  He kept his tattoos well covered, but she’d seen him with his sleeves rolled up. Dark curled lines disappeared under the white cuffs. Her nostrils flared as she imagined the rest–the chest, the shoulders, smooth skin stretched like wet silk over straining muscle.

This! This was exactly what she couldn’t do.

Soon after he started working at Compass Realty, she couldn’t keep from asking Christine, the agency owner and sorority sister from college.

“What in the hell is going on?” she had asked, dripping creamer into her coffee.

“He’s amazing,” Christine confided. “Fantastic sales record. Yeah, he’s from the streets, but he knows the business. And you’ve got to admit—he’s got presence.”

“Is that what they call it?”

Christine chuckled. “Keep a lid on it, girlfriend. He sells property, and that’s good for us. The clients want him.”

Unfortunately, so did she. Somehow his dark past only made him more desirable. In her weaker moments, thoughts would take over as she envisioned how his body looked without clothes, working out, gleaming with sweat, all sleek lines and cut muscle.

She imposed her strictest self-discipline. Yeah, like that was working. It was as if she had stepped off the train at some deserted station in the middle of nowhere and Adrian was standing there. Waiting.

A frosted margarita glass slid onto the napkin in front of her. She flashed a ‘thank-you’ smile at the waiter and lifted the salted rim to her lips. The citrusy burn swept over her tongue and scorched an icy path down her throat. Some of the tension in her neck relaxed. She sagged back against the soft upholstery and let her gaze drift over the room.

Typical Friday afternoon crowd, mostly white-collar types glad to have the next two days to themselves. A few men in work clothes, maybe construction. Laughter. She closed her eyes, trying to climb down a few notches.

As if spellbound, she opened her eyes to looked directly into Adrian’s intent stare. Had he followed her? Maybe, maybe not. He could have planned to come here all along. Lots of the people from their building came here.

He stood by the bar with a half smile and a taunting expression on his handsome face, his jacket eased open and the ‘V’ of his open shirt neck drawing her eyes like a magnet. Her blood pressure burst through the top of her head. Heat burned her cheeks.

She couldn’t look away. She had to look away. The longer she stared, the more cocky his grin became.

God, please let me look down. She focused on the drink where she gripped the glass stem so tightly she thought it might snap. How would she know when he stopped staring? How would she turn him away if he showed up at her table?

What now? What the fuck now?

Okay, this was ridiculous. She didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. Adrian wasn’t a magician. He couldn’t force her. She had a mind of her own.

This was about her, not Adrian. Her not admitting the obvious. She was attracted. But that didn’t mean she had to act on it. She had reasons not to indulge in every little fantasy scene her sex-starved brain conjured up. Responsible mature reasons.

Her eyes flicked again to Adrian. He sat on the other side of the room, a spot with a clear line of sight to her table. While she watched, helpless to tear her eyes away, he lit a cigar and sucked, caressing the thickly rolled tobacco with his lips.

He knew exactly what he was doing with that slow sensual motion. Her panties moistened as if he had licked between her legs. She drowned her quiet moan with another gulp of her drink.

A group of people intervened, taking a table and blocking her view. Released from his hypnotic stare, she fiercely stared at the table before digging out her phone, praying for a text, anything that could occupy her attention.

Sanity would be required here. A reasoned plan of action. She would finish the drink then leave.

“Mind if I join you?”

Chills ran down Rachel’s back at the sound of his voice. Her gaze traveled slowly up Adrian’s body. His thighs strained the tailored lines of his expensive slacks. That damn white shirt nearly blinded her. He’d taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Veins laced over the tendons at his wrist and forearms. Tattoos.

Jesus.

“No, by all means, take a seat. I don’t see you enough at work, so why not be annoyed by you in my private time as well?”

He laughed and eased into the booth across from her. The man moved like a fucking panther, languid and taut at the same time. His eyes burned into her as his hands toyed with his short tumbler. He stroked the rim with one long finger as if he touched her. Daring her, his gaze roamed over her breasts.

Sensation ripped down her neck. Her breasts swelled and her nipples hardened to painful knots, pressing the front of her tailored blouse. Moisture pulsed between her thighs. Her heart pounded in her ears as the image formed of him over her in bed.

She must be out of her mind to play a game of chicken with this man. He would win. Was she ready for that? What happened to safe?

She lowered her eyes to her glass and took another drink. The waiter appeared and disappeared before she registered on what had been said. She felt Adrian’s careful gaze, watching her like prey. He’d been stalking, waiting, watching, and here she was, cornered. A smile quirked the corner of his mouth.

“Adrian, Jesus Christ,” she said. “Save that killer seduction thing for your girlfriends. Surely you have a dozen.”

He laughed, sincerely amused. “See? This is what I love about you. Are you jealous? You spit and hiss like a kitten. But I know how to make you purr.”

“Get over yourself.”

“You think I’m only flirting?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. He clearly enjoyed seeing her flustered. Her face was on fire, a combination of his game and the liquor. It infuriated her that he could provoke her so easily. He snapped a lighter to tip of his cigar and mouthed the thick shaft as he inhaled. “Think I’m trying to seduce you?”

“Ha!” she said. “I don’t know what the hell else you would call it. I’m here trying to relax after a hellish week and you show up, uninvited, and start making suggestive comments,” she huffed. “I’ve seen all this before.”

“But not mine,” he said in silken tones.

She gaped at his blatant remark, belatedly remembering to close her mouth and think. Part of her—the sane part—wanted to leap up and run out of the building. The other part, unfortunately the part currently in control, wanted to rip off her blouse and hold her breasts to his mouth. The situation had suddenly changed into something charged and dangerous.

And he knew it, damn him. His smile formed deep dimples in his cheeks. He reached for her hand, covering it with his own and suggestively stroking the inside of her thumb.

Without warning, he leaned up and pulled her toward him over the small table, sliding the tip of his tongue against her lips. She gasped, her mouth parting slightly to give him entry. Her head reeled, wiped clean of every thought, every caution, she had made.

“Oh, god,” she groaned against his mouth.

Her eyes widened as she looked at him. She threw herself backwards into the booth and held the back of her hand against her lips as if she could erase the electric shock of his touch. “Forget that,” she stammered.

Smile gone, his eyes darkened and locked on hers. “We’re going,” he said abruptly, standing up.

A strange paralysis took over, partly residual shock waves from the touch of his mouth, partly the languor of alcohol making its way to her bones.

Say something. Say ‘no,’ say ‘wait.’ Make excuses.

But she didn’t say anything. She let him lift her elbow as she stood. She watched him throw money on the table. Her breath burned out in short gasps as she trotted out of the Manchester, her arm in Adrian’s grip.

On fire. Drunk on need so deep she couldn’t find the bottom. Drowning in everything Adrian.

His stride along the sidewalk forced her to practically run to keep up. She needed to stop before things went any further. Before she did something she would regret.

But she didn’t want to stop. Nothing mattered but Adrian and what he silently promised to do to her. What she wanted so much she could practically taste him.

“Where are we going?”

“To get a room,” he said.

“No.”

He stopped and pushed her against a department store window. Fashionably dressed mannequins stared down. People hurried past. Adrian’s hand slipped behind her and pulled her hips against his groin. “You want me,” he said thickly. “We need a place where I can give you what you want.”

“What I…” Rachel struggled for words. The pressure of his body made her ears roar. She swallowed nervously. “I don’t…”

“Yes, you do,” he said impatiently. “Come on.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

You choose! Lead in to Ending 1 or Lead in to Ending 2

Ending 1

He steered her to the front desk of the downtown Marriott, slid his card across the marble counter, and in moments, escorted her to the elevator where he waited, without speaking, until the doors opened on the eighth floor. She tried to reason with herself, but reason wasn’t what she wanted.

Later, she would think about all the opportunities she had ignored, a chance to walk away, to say no. Later, she would remember the low throb between her legs that said she had no choice.

He led her into the room and put out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. His hands gripped her shoulders as he lowered his mouth to hers. His lips gently brushed hers and her knees weakened.

Chica,” he murmured. “What I will do with you.”

OR

Ending 2

She pulled her elbow out of his grip. “No, Adrian. Maybe someday I’ll be ready for this, but not today.”

As she turned to walk away, the expression on his face burned into her memory. Disappointment, yes. But something else, something that might have been the face of a very young man heartbroken in his first love affair. Briefly, his eyes had conveyed a message of more than desire, more than conquest.

The heels of her pumps beat a sharp rhythm on the sidewalk. Her lips formed a hard straight line. None of that could be real. She was reading into his expression, putting thoughts and feelings there that didn’t exist in reality. It simply wasn’t possible that he had any kind of emotional investment in her.

How could he? Why?

A strong hand grabbed her arm and spun her around. Anger and something else blazed in his eyes.

“You think you know me? You don’t know me, chica,” he said. “What have I ever done to make you afraid? Have I hurt you, threatened you?”

She jerked away. “Yes, Adrian, you’ve threatened me with your lurid suggestions and constant attempts to seduce me. Haven’t I made myself clear?”

“You give me your words, but your body speaks louder. If you’re afraid to admit what you feel, are you also afraid to have dinner?”

She shook her head, discarding retorts as fast as they formed.

“Dinner, Rachel,” he said, his voice softer.

~~~

Coming soon — Part II of Adrian Velasquez

**This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either a product of the author’s imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

David’s Dilemma

 

He’d never been much of a planning type. For one thing, plans pretty much had a habit of blowing up in his face. He’d planned plenty of fabulous mansions he’d build with his music wealth. A ranch in Montana. A Lear jet he’d have painted red to advertise the band’s name. Plenty of parties with the best of the best chumming up to him, J.J., and the rest. Plenty of bullshit ideas that just got farther away the more he planned them.

Like the songs he’d planned. Somewhere back in L.A., probably burned to an ash by now, was the dog-eared list he kept on a yellow legal pad. Song ideas he’d get to as soon as he had time. As soon as the mood struck him. Phrases, chord progressions. The paean to his sister he never could write. Memories of his grandparents.

His love of good whiskey—well, that had made it into a few songs. But never quite enough, or clearly stated enough, to encapsulate the intense pleasure that came with the warm creep of intoxication while more of the fragrant amber fluid gently swirled in his glass. He had a clear memory of the grip of his hand around that small sturdy glass. The sweet aromatic smell filled his nose. His mouth watered.

If he was going to fucking spend the last of his days in this desert, why the fuck couldn’t he at least enjoy drinking?

~~~

This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Refuge in His Arms. The story follows Mackenzie Kilpatrick and David Evans, two strangers caught up in two simultaneous natural disasters. As they escape from Los Angeles in the midst of a massive earthquake, they quickly discover another more devastating event will impact their future for days or even years to come. Making things worse, each of them struggles with personal issues as well as the developing love-hate relationship between them.

In this story, David has to face down his alcoholism. Writing about addiction isn’t something I’ve done before, although I’ve seen addiction in real life more times than I’d like to admit. It’s a horrible illness, and I admit that I still have a hard time seeing it as such. My tendency is to believe that addictive behavior is a choice someone makes, even if it’s a choice not to be responsible for what he/she does.

Whatever my personal take on addiction, the character of David has traveled far down the road in his struggle with alcohol. In the story, he’s faced with a terrible choice, whether to fight for the woman he thought he’d never love or to give in to his deep thirst for a drink.

All of us, at one time or another or even multiple times, want nothing more than to escape from the pain and difficulty we face. Intoxication is one way to make that escape. Inevitably, the intoxication wears off and whatever pain or difficulty we hoped to escape from is still there, sometimes even worse than before. It’s a human dilemma that will never be erased from our common experience, either as an addict ourselves, or as an enabler, or as a grieving bystander.

I don’t delve too deeply into the topic of addiction. That’s not the purpose of the story. But I do hope that I’ve created a character in David who portrays the struggle so many sensitive and creative people experience in facing the acute pain of life.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Looking back on the holidays, I accept the sadness that comes from being around my family. They’re good people—not sick or addicted or belligerent in the ways we normally might think. But they’re fundamentalist Christians and I’m not. So there’s always this huge gap between what we think and feel individually and what we can actually talk about or do when we’re together.

Which, fortunately, only happens one or two times a year. And even then, when we gather at our mom’s house (our dad died back in 2004), there are uncomfortable moments like when they all join hands to pray and I’m standing there thinking how bizarre it is to pray. Or when they start to say something like “Have a blessed day,” and I’m thinking loudly how much I don’t appreciate having them cast their voodoo on me.

It’s a warm fuzzy experience to gather at your parental home with your siblings to enjoy the reliving of Christmases past, to create yet another memory, to see and hear from people you’ve known since they were born. Shared experiences over the years form a strong foundation for deep emotion and poignant moments. We can talk about our early days, where we lived, what happened that summer when we went to California, or various aunts and uncles and their particular weirdness.

Aside from family history, the range of topics thins out drastically. We fuss over the turkey and green beans, substituting meal preparation for understanding and acceptance. Politics is definitely off the table. Absolutely no discussion of religion. Or really even our expectations for what the coming year might bring.

We do occasionally veer off into one or another verboten topic and find ourselves red-faced in the effort to make the other person(s) understand a different point of view. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. After learning that everyone but one sister voted for Donald Trump, I had to completely excuse myself from their company for the entire holiday season of 2016.

I have plenty of friends who share my world view, and three children of my own who, along with me and their father, think and live like modern adults. I wish the same for my siblings and their children, although I’m not deluded enough to think that they’ll give up their hellfire-and-brimstone view of the world. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent trying to understand why any educated (and they are highly educated) and intelligent people could cling to the belief system that brought us things like burning witches at the stake, but there you have it.

Ultimately, family members are not very different from anyone else in the world. We can live alongside them without conflict as long as neither of us try to tell the other what to do. We can share what we have in common and avoid the topics and activities that highlight our differences. It’s a lesson I relearn every year.

Writing is Growth

When I started writing erotic romance, sex was the focus. Glorious uninhibited sex scenes with all the descriptive words that made the action come alive. (Heh–no pun intended) For a person like me emerging from a very conservative, religious family, this was a breakout moment.

Now, looking back, I’m not completely thrilled with the result. Oh, don’t get me wrong—the sex scenes are smokin’. But that’s simply not enough.

Stories of any kind are about people. And people are more than sex. While I managed to create compelling sex scenes, I didn’t manage to create compelling life scenes.

So I’ve decided to dive into revising a couple of my early novels with a greater focus on the personal struggle facing the characters. I’m adding scenes that show how they deal with adversity. I’m showing how they grow in the process of facing difficulties, how they develop more self-confidence or come to grips with challenges both internal and external.

This is a thrilling process, delving into the character with greater willingness to sit at my desk and think about them to let their personalities take full form. Before, although there were strong storylines and situational drama, there wasn’t as much depth to the characters as they needed. I’m letting myself feel them now, where they came from, what they worry about, care about, more than the person with whom they’re having sex.

My previous mindset about all this was that sex was the key motivating element. Sex was the transformative event that broke the character from his/her previous point of view and propelled them into a new paradigm. Yes, this is important.

But it’s not enough to be the main thing. I admit it kind of breaks my heart to say that because I’ve always seen sex as having the potential to do exactly that. It still does have that potential, but it’s like a really lovely slab of chocolate cake. It doesn’t make a meal.

It’s exciting to dig deeper and important enough that I can justify taking the time to go the next mile with revision rather than plunging into yet another new story. This learning process about creating stories with rich character and complex plot lines is an important one for any author.

Writing is a multi-phase, multi-layered endeavor. Creating something meaningful out of thin air isn’t an easy pursuit, and it is as much about looking deeper into oneself as it is about thinking up story details. After all, inside our minds and our life experience is where our stories come from. I’m happy to see where I stand on the long road toward ‘great.’

And yes, ‘great’ is my goal!

Happy writing in the new year, everyone.

The Hell of Romance Book Covers

The right stuff

Another holiday season has come and gone. It’s back to the writing desk. And now here’s a fervent plea to photographers hoping to sell stock photos to self-published authors who desperately need images for book covers.

I know it must be difficult to find attractive men with sexy bodies. And you’re doing a semi-okay job with dark-headed men. But please try really hard to produce some decent stock images of blonde men. They surely exist—Brad Pitt comes to mind.

Currently, searches for ‘sexy blond men’ through Dreamstime, iStockphoto, and Shutterstock yield images like these—not a bicep in sight.

Excuse me while I puke.

If I’m looking for a grown-up blonde man with dom tendencies, there is Nothing Out There.

This is heartbreaking because this guy in my story is deeply blonde and this is one alpha male that I refuse to change over to dark hair. I’ve done that before, you know, in desperation for a suitable male cover image.

Now as far as stock photos of men in general, what’s missing are images of men in poses that might actually work on a book cover. Authors don’t need men grinning inanely toward the camera. We need men with attitude, moody and boiling with pent up emotion. We need men standing at a door waiting to knock, men looking away from the camera absorbed in thought, men turning in surprise. Well, I could go on but hopefully you get the idea. Real life stuff.

Currently, what does a search for “sexy man” yield? This guy, for God’s sake. In what universe is this sexy? Or this one?

Okay, maybe for a story featuring a young guy who doesn’t know he’s gay and the breaking in, so to speak, by an older man. That might be sexy.

But the guy on the bed? Clearly he has no idea where to find his own ass. Who figured out that sexy pose? Give me a break.

Then there’s the inane batch of men with super-developed musculature, veins popping as they pose in front of gym equipment. I get that they’re proud of all the time they’ve dedicated to body building, and I get that photographers may feel so desperate to capture images of ‘muscular’ men that they resort to this bizarre subgroup, but I guarantee you that putting an image like this on the cover of a romance novel is a sure-fire route to zero sales. Gak!

Keep in mind, photographers, that virtually all romance for women readers is written by female authors. We are the ones looking at these images for something that triggers a faintly hot response. Muscle bound males grinning like idiots or, worse, looking at their triceps in adoration takes the female libido in the opposite direction. Read: self-absorbed, dude.

What’s wrong with men in sports jackets? Men sitting at a desk in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up? How about carpenters, electricians, and auto mechanics who epitomize the allure of blue collar men? Cowboys actually on horses?

Oh, and another thing. Please try to tag your images with appropriate descriptions. There’s no reason for this image to show up in a search for “sexy men.” I agree that platforms for stock photo retailers should offer more discriminating search options. Like if I want to search for images of a threesome, why does a photo of a three women show up?

Why can’t I designate that I want to see two males and one female in the image? As it stands now, such a search might yield three women, but more often what shows up is two women with one man. I get that a lot of men have that fantasy, but we’re talking about women’s romance, you know, that market that sells more books than any other genre? Two men!

I appreciate that many photographers and male models may be gay, and maybe it’s that point of view that causes them to label images like this guy as “sexy man.” But in whose feeble imagination, even among gay men, is this ‘sexy’? This is simply embarrassing.

And a turn-off. This and so many other images that turn up in a “sexy man” search feature men who would never garner the description of “sexy” even in the wildest stretch of their own personal fantasies. Elfin, maybe. Jail bait perhaps. Creepy? Goofy?

Why do I have to look through over 170,000 images of idiots like these to find a handful that actually show a truly sexy man with personality, like this one?

Or this one?

The problem with useable images like these is that none of them are blonde, and, more importantly, they’ve been used over and over again by authors desperate for anything that shows a hint of male sexuality. Is it that photographers have no idea what they’re producing photos for?

Yes, I understand that there may be a few uses for sexy male images that are not for romance book covers. What those might be escapes me at the moment, but with romance authors publishing new books at a pace that far exceeds any other genre in the market, and with many of those authors minus the funds required to hire custom images, that leaves a huge opening for photographers/male models to give us what we want!

I think websites like Dreamstime and Shutterstock should set up a ‘want list’ among subscribers  so that there is clear information for photographers on what buyers want. Many photographers obviously go to a lot of trouble trying to meet demand but they’re working in the dark. Why not establish a workable dialogue between the producers and the customers that allows for a better match-up between the two parties?

This is the service retailers should offer instead of just raking in the bucks with a mute line-up of images, poorly sorted by description, and sadly lacking the aspects that made for a salable cover.

And please, for God’s sake, no more crass attempts at humor like this guy in a search for “blonde sexy man”!