Monday, April 14, 2014

And the Survey SAYS...

Last week we posted a poll on cover art preferences for SFR and offered two cover groups, one of uniformed characters and the other featuring bare torsos. Then we asked visitors to choose their favorite cover group.

The poll is closed and the readers have spoken. We very much appreciate everyone's enthusiasm in contributing to this hot topic.

Here are the results from the "Should We Put a Shirt on It" poll:

THIS Cover Group (in uniform)
THAT Cover Group (out of uniform)
I don't have a preference
I prefer particular covers from both groups

From the poll results, the preferences of the majority seems clear, but it may not be quite as cut and dried as it appears. Many of the commenters had some valid points to offer in the discussion. Among them:

Lizzie Newell said:
"Topless is fine if the story has a lot of sexual content but I prefer some tenderness between the characters, not sale of beefcake."

Monica Stoner said:
"I think the nekkid chest covers should indicate a level of sexual heat."

Cathryn Cade said:
"I agree the cover should indicate the level of heat in the book, whether sci fi or other genre (of romance)...It's a signal to readers to expect another CC romance, an adventure yes, but with heat."

Pippa Jay said:
"I'm not a fan of a shirtless chest particularly. Or I feel they should be on erotica or hot romance to indicate the heat level rather than on just any romance cover."

Linnea Sinclair said:
"Interesting timing on your question/poll as I recently regained my rights to my THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES and my agent was emphatic we return to the more SF-y covers (and less romance-y covers) because the move to the latter hurt my sales when Bantam did the switch (little did we know...)"

Heather Massey said:
"I do love a heroine or hero in uniform, but frankly we've done well advocating for covers that represent SFR *at all.* Our efforts have definitely paid off."

Donna S. Frelick said:
"I think it's interesting that the best covers of both groups featured couples--either dressed or semi-dressed. One of the salient features of great SFR is the balance between hero and heroine, and I think the cover should reflect that...As for heat level, yes, I do want some indication of that in the way the couple is portrayed. I don't want them looking away from each other, not touching, completely separate, as some of these covers show."

Marva Dasef said:
"Bare bodies are a trite carry over from Regency romances. I think SFR is better than that. Our stories are about SF, not just R."

Karin Shah said:
"I don't care which kind of cover is on an SFR, I'll read it!"

Maria said:
"...I think that the fact I liked certain covers from each group really reflects that it's more than just the image itself - there is a whole image, color, font thing going on for me when I look at covers."

PaulaL said:
"I like illustrative cover, which tell me about the -story- and the setting in time and space and culture. Nude bodies don't tell me about the setting and the story, they tell me that there are bodies with clothes off perhaps about to commence docking moves--which is NOT something characteristic to the particular story as opposed to any other time/space locus where people might take clothes off to have sex.."

There were a few comments on why we may not often see cover art with characters in uniform:

Greta van der Rol said:
"I would LOVE to be able to use pictures of men in uniform on my covers. But stock photo sites just don't have them. I've resorted to male torsos (not headless) to signal there is some romance in them, but I'm trending away from that."

Heather Massey said:
"Probably because the photographers would have to pay for renting/making costumes. Even if they did, the financial risk is probably fairly high. No guarantee of return on the investment...A good cover designer can probably find ways to work with the limits of available images."

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"It's not like there aren't costumes out there. I see them at the cons. Now we need someone with vision and a camera to set up shop..."

We also had some viewpoints about what should/should not be pictured on a cover:

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"When I went indie, I went back to covers w/o people. (wry grin)"

Cathryn Cade said:
"I must admit if I see a sci fi book with no people on the cover, I will pass it over UNLESS I know the author, because I assume there is little or no romance. I love sci fi, but I want the romance too."

Lizzie Newell said:
"I have a strong objection to decapitated male torso, the ones with the man's head cropped out. I view it as objectification of men. I suppose turn about is fair play, but I'd rather read about interesting characters than male mannequins."

And a few shared personal cover art experiences:

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"My last publisher used a corset shot for Steamrolled. I got a comment at an event about the reader being glad to see some "erotic steampunk."...And my books was totally not erotic. So obviously the book sent a message to that reader that was bound to be disappointed."

Lynda Alexander said:
"I know my SFR first proposed cover was exactly that-- a naked man's torso....and the whole point of the story was that my hero was a shapeshifter of the REPTILE kind. Why would I want a man on the cover??? Oy... (fortunately, my editor also went to bat for me, and we ended up with a dressed woman on the front instead)."

Pippa Jay said:
"I've just sent in cover art forms for a SciFi romance novella where I specified no naked torsos - will be interesting to see if I get it."

Cathryn Cade said:
"Since my books are hot sci fi romance, my heroes will no doubt continue to appear missing part of their clothing. It's a signal to readers to expect another CC romance, an adventure yes, but with heat."

Thanks to everyone who joined in on the discussion.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Four lads from Liverpool--and the man who believed in them.

As writers, we’re all familiar with the struggle to find that one person who believes in us enough to take us on as agent, the wider search to find the editor who loves the book as much as we do, to find the right people to present that book in just the right way to give it wings.  That constant quest for support, for faith, can be at times exhilarating, at times heartbreaking.  It can yield fabulous results—book deals, sales, great reviews, even fame and fortune.  Or it can yield nothing for months, even years, leading to frustration, discouragement and self-doubt.

Anyone who aims to perform an art at a high level—musician or painter, chef or dancer—plods along this uphill road marked by pleasant detours and washed out bridges, smooth pavement and potholes, dizzying peaks and dismal valleys.  The longer she perseveres, the fewer companions she’ll have.  Not everyone has the guts to stick it out, to see what’s around the next bend.  Talent is not enough to propel someone along this road.  You need determination and stubborn will and a kind of blindness to the steep drop-off on either side of you.  

I’m waxing lyrical today not only because I’m feeling lucky, having reached a little resting place along the way, with the prospect of publication of my first book Unchained Memory a reality now (by Ink’d Press, in February, 2015).  I also just finished reading over 800 densely packed pages of Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: All These Years, Vol.1, Tune In.  (Yes, that’s 800 pages, and it only covers the Beatles from birth to early 1963, just as they are about to make it big.) The message I came away with was how close we came to never hearing that life-altering sound, how close the world was to losing something phenomenal, because “the powers that be” in music in London just could not perceive what was in front of them.

All of the young men who would become the Beatles knew, practically from the time they first picked up their guitars (or drumsticks), they would become something special.  They felt it, though the circumstances of their birth and education certainly gave them no reason to believe it.  Liverpool was desperately poor after the war, with few jobs to be had and few municipal resources to provide housing or clean up the bombed-out areas.  Only John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him, could be said to approach the middle class; for the others, remaining in the working class was a struggle.  

Richard Starkey (Ringo to the rest of us) was so sick as a child and young teenager, he eventually gave up on schooling.  The others barely made it through what we would consider high school.  But the music?  Yeah, that they knew everything about.  Rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country/western, blues, Elvis, Little Richard, the Shirelles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil and Don Everly—they knew them all, every chord, every note, every nuance of voice.  And when they began to play together as a group—first John, Paul and George with a lesser drummer named Pete Best, then the three of them with the “metronome” that was Ringo, they had a playlist that could last them through the brutal marathon six-hour sets at the sleazy Hamburg nightclubs where they honed their art.

Fans back in Liverpool noticed the difference in them when they returned from Germany the first time.  When they returned the second time, and the third, they were so far above the local competition, it was as if they were playing in another league.  They had changed their hairstyle, giving up the greased-up Fifities look for something more . . . well, the only way Liverpudlians could describe it was “Continental”.  They wore black leather.  Chicks dug it.  They had a regular gig lunchtimes and nights at the Cavern, a converted underground warehouse that dripped sweat off the walls when packed with fans of the group, which was anytime they played now.

That’s where Brian Epstein saw them.  Brian was owner of NEMS Enterprises, a business consisting of two large record stores that had grown out of his family’s traditional furniture business.  He was the restless type, always looking for some new challenge for his energy and his intellect, and the record stores, although hugely successful, had just about run their course for him.  They did serve a singular, wonderful purpose, however.

Brian had a policy that if anyone requested a particular record, he would order not just a copy for the requester, but several more as well, thinking that anyone who requested a record was a kind of harbinger of sales.  Someone had come in requesting a copy of “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys.  He duly ordered it—and sold out.  He ordered more.  And sold those, too.  When informed that the “Beat Boys” were in fact the Beatles, a group really pulling them in down at the Cavern, he went to see for himself what the fuss was all about.

It was love at first sight.  Here was what he’d been looking for, the outlet for all his creative energy.  He was going to make these boys bigger than Elvis.  That suited the Beatles just fine, since they had always believed they’d one day be as big as Elvis (even John Lennon wouldn’t presume to be bigger). Within weeks they’d signed a contract for Brian to manage the Beatles, and he went to work.

This is where the story began to resonate with me.  Things were going great for the boys and for Brian until Brian hit a wall trying to get anyone in the music industry to listen to him.  I have this terrific band—they even write their own songs!—have a listen! Everywhere he went, the doors slammed in his face, not because the Beatles weren’t good—in most cases, the A&R men wouldn’t even give them a chance to audition—but because they were from Liverpool, or because they played electric guitars (“guitar groups aren’t popular!”), or simply because their name was odd (“Beatles? What kind of name is that???”)  The prevailing paradigm was for solo singers (this was the day of “teen heartthrobs” like Paul Anka or Neil Sedaka, remember), not groups (only Motown and Tamla in the U.S. were selling that kind of music).  The answer was no, no, NO!

So, even though Brian’s Beatles were getting plenty of gigs in the North of England for more money than ever before, even though they had a huge fanbase in their own hometown, he couldn’t get the establishment to get behind them.  (Does any of this sound familiar?) 

It would be nice to say at this point that George Martin at Parlephone Records heard the demo tape and instantly got on board, signing the Beatles to a recording contract, producing their first hit, “Love Me Do”, and becoming another huge fan of “the boys”.  It is true that George did eventually do all of that, but it wasn’t his first thought, or his idea.  He wasn’t impressed with them at first hearing, and initially said no.  Only some behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the recording giant EMI, having to do with internal politics, forced George to make the move that would forever tie him to the Beatles’ fortunes.  It may have been a marriage of convenience, but the two parties (and Brian, too) quickly grew to love each other.  Fate?  Or just plain stubborn will?

The lesson to be learned here is that everyone, no matter how talented, no matter how far they will eventually go, no matter what huge impact they will eventually have on the world, will meet obstacles on the way, potholes, bridges washed out, detours.  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein refused to give up and drop off the road, no matter how many times they heard “No!”.  Likewise, J.K Rowling, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jayne Ann Krentz didn’t give up when people told them no, even though it must have seemed no one would ever say yes. 

Maybe they’re just stubborn.  And, no doubt about it, that’s a good thing.

*A special word of thanks to my own personal “Brian”, my agent, Michelle Johnson, founder of Inklings Literary Agency, who has stubbornly endured her share of slammed doors on my behalf!  Thank you for believing in me, Michelle!

Cheers, Donna

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Should We Put a Shirt on It?

Are Readers Growing Disenchanted With Shirtless Heroes on SFR Book Covers?

It's long been the norm in Romance genres. That strapping duke baring his rippling abs on the cover of a Regency Romance. Mancake abounds in Western Romances about cowboys or sheriffs or rodeo heroes. Paranormal Romance offers its share of topless vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters and demons.

And erotica of any flavor?...fahgettaboutit! Often more than just the male leads' chest is bared.

Contemporary Romance probably accounts for the least amount of muscle-bound chests, because, well...hmmm. Why? Maybe because it's the closest romance we have to our own reality? A professional businessman or FBI agent or SEAL operative is not likely to be cavorting around shirtless while on the job.

And therein lies my question. Does half-naked imagery work for SFR? We've been debating this over on the SFR Brigade discussion group. The big question is: What really works for SFR?

Let's look at a few SFR cultural icons.

Han Solo is super sexy in those gamble-striped pants and utilitarian un-uniform shirt. Does he need to bare skin to render females into a state of awe? Heh. It appears not.

Captain Mal Reynolds often strode about the decks of Serenity in his space western gear covered in a full length brown duster (hence the nick, "Browncoat"). Female fans ate up his full-dressed, wise-cracking swagger. But what about his totally nude scene in the episode where the camera zooms in on a naked Mal seated on a rock muttering, "Yep....that went well." "Trash" is arguably one of the most popular Firefly episodes.

Let's go back to what many consider the root of SFR fans everywhere. We got an occasional glimpse of Captain James T. Kirk's manly manchest in some of the episodes of Star Trek: TOS but what image most often comes to mind when we hear the name? Is it him in his iconic gold uniform with the Starfleet emblem emblazoned on the chest, or shirtless and sweaty after a rough-and-tumble brawl on some nameless rock?

Captain Jean Luc Picard? Commander Will Riker? Worf? Do we ever picture them in our heads sans their uniform (or half of it, at least) or is the image we summon of the officers in full uniform?

And it doesn't always have to be a uniform, does it?

There are many occupations in the SFR universe--space pirate, transport fleet manager, interstellar corporate manager, asteroid miner, independent pilot, genius scientist, used spaceship salesmen--that doesn't require a uniform. Maybe they wear business attire. An environment suit. Jeans and polo shirt, or the futuristic equivalent. Do such heroes look unprofessional when pictured in locker room mode?

Let's put it to a vote!

Choose your favorite group of SFR/SF covers from the two groups below. Which do you think BEST represents the SFR genre? Do you prefer "THIS" Cover Group or "THAT" Cover Group for your SFR imagery? I'm not going to make this easy for you. These are some great covers! Be totally honest. There is no right or wrong answer. We're being scientific here.



Friday, April 4, 2014


Remember, feedback can be, um, subjective.

The romance world has its own form of March Madness, which blows in with the annual announcement of the RWA® Golden Heart® and RITA® awards for excellence in romance writing.  This year’s announcement of the finalists (and congratulations to all of you!) brought the usual windstorm of excitement.  But it also whipped up a gale of controversy over new rules for judging the contests for unpublished manuscripts (Golden Heart®) and published works (RITA®). Few members of RWA were happy with the results of the new process.

Starting with this contest year, scores for these contests gave a much heavier weight to the romantic component of the story.  Of a possible 50 points awarded an entry, 20 were given for the romance (how it was presented and developed); 10 for the plot/story; 10 for the characters; and 10 for the writing (mechanics, style, etc.).  In order to reach the final round (ie. to be named a “finalist”), an entry had to earn 90 percent of the possible points (or at least 45).  Let me tell you, that’s a high bar.

The controversy began when these rules were first announced a year ago.  Now that we’ve seen them in action, a few grumbles have become a roar of protest within the organization. In two categories of the RITA (Romantic Suspense and Inspirational), finalists were astonishingly few.  In others (Historical, Contemporary), they were unbelievably numerous. Even if you’re willing to give the rules the benefit of the doubt, the outcomes are enough to make you wonder.  Can there really be that much difference in quality between categories?*

Those who object the loudest see the contest rules as only one symptom of a growing tendency of the organization to narrow its focus unnecessarily, excluding everyone not engaged in a very strict form of romance writing.  Letters and emails are flying toward the RWA Board; the Board is answering, alas, not that they hear the concerns and will take them into consideration, but by digging in its heels.
**sigh** Can’t we all just get along?
The problem is not so much that the new rules for judging are causing problems, though they obviously are.  The problem is one that has carried over from the previous system and affects judging of contests not only at the RWA National level, but also at the local chapter level.  Who trains the judges?
I’ve been to five national conferences now and studied the workshop offerings thoroughly, and I’ve yet to see a workshop offered on How To Judge a Writing Contest, much less How To Judge the Golden Heart® or RITA®.  The first time I volunteered to judge my local chapter contest, I was given a three-page handout as a guide and told to have at it.  I was (and still am—until next year) an unpublished writer with no credentials.  I just happened to be an editor by past experience, but a lot of my fellow judges had nothing of the sort to offer.
To be a judge, even at the national level, even for something as important as GH, all you have to do is be an RWA member and volunteer.  To judge for RITA, you just have to be a member of PAN, and willing to do it.  

 Most newbie judges think they’re qualified to judge because they’re readers.  After all, if it’s good, it’s good, right?  If it’s bad, it’ll be obvious.  But recognizing why something works is not so easy, and analyzing why something is not working is even harder.  The subtleties of scoring can drive you out of your mind—is this plot hole worth a three-point deduction? Or just two?  Did the author ace the character development for a ten, or just miss it for a nine?  AAAGGHH!  (Just thinking about it stresses me out—Fool For Love, Virginia Romance Writers’ contest is coming up!)
And newbies are not the only problem.  The longer a judge has been at it, the more individual prejudices come into play.  This is the infamous “East German judge” problem—the judge who just doesn’t seem to get anything about the entry and scores it really low for no apparent reason.  Or doesn’t like independent females, so will score the entry low in the character section if it includes a spunky gal.  Or, and this seems to be a huge problem this year, has misinterpreted the rules not about what romance consists of, but about what a romance (novel) is.
You see, I don’t think the rule about giving the romance extra weight in the score is necessarily a bad thing.  Romance has its conventions, just as SF does.  Thus, readers expect for the hero and heroine to meet up within the first couple of chapters, to interact frequently, to show some chemistry, to follow a well-defined path through the romantic arc to the black moment, resolution and HEA/HFN.  Contest judges have a right to expect the entries for a romance writing contest to demonstrate these things, too, and to score them based on how well they do them.  If the entry is only part of the manuscript (like Golden Heart® is), then a lot of this has to be hinted at in the first 50 pages.  That’s just the reality of the GH.
The problem comes with judges who are too used to seeing this romantic arc within the context of stories in which the external arc (or plot) deals almost purely with relationships—contemporaries or historicals.  In those kinds of stories, the romance plays out within a very confined external “universe”—friends, family, the town—that revolves around the couple and involves them in almost every scene.  There may be a mystery to solve, or a family crisis or obstacle to overcome, but the external plot has less scope than in other subgenres (paranormal/SFR, romantic suspense, even inspirational).  The best writers in contemporary and historical spend just as much of their “time” on worldbuilding, but it’s such a “familiar” world to their readers, that work often goes unnoticed, particularly by untrained observers.
In paranormal and, of course, SFR, worldbuilding is fundamental to any understanding of the story.  The most heart-wrenching romance must be set within a believable, detailed world populated with creatures and ideas that may be completely new to the reader.  That takes a bit of introduction.  Any judge encountering this for the first time—with no training—might think the worldbuilding is taking precedence over the romance.  Not so (at least, not so if the writer is doing her job right).  If the romantic arc is still intact—from Boy Meets Girl to HEA/HFN—and the romance touches the heart as it should, then that romance should score well, regardless of where the romance is set.
So we go back to training the judges so they are using at least minimally objective criteria rather than just their instincts as readers/writers.  
Believe me, I’m aware there may be resistance to this idea.  I’m involved in a parallel effort right now to upgrade the training for tournament judges and referees in Isshinryu karate.  Imagine telling a sixth-degree black belt that his kata (form) judging could use some improvement!  Still, better that he get on board with some standardized criteria for judging than for everyone to continue to leave the tournaments complaining about the unfairness of the judging.
And better for the RWA national leadership to insist on training for its judges than to allow this controversy to fester in its ranks.

*The good news is that the RITA Paranormal category was neither too small nor too large, with several SFR finalists!
Cheers, Donna