On Sunday, April 22, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Part 1 of my report on the festival
Part 2 of my festival recap
And now for Part 3:
Fiction: Love, Actually
My friend Bettie and I left the Anne Rice panel while Anne Rice was taking questions from the audience and snuck into the only romance genre panel at the festival, “Fiction: Love, Actually.” The moderator was Dee J. Adams and the panelists were Tessa Dare, Jill Sorenson and Deanna Cameron. For those among our readers who may not have heard of them, here are their festival guide bios:
Cameron writes romantic historical fiction. Before turning to fiction, she worked as a journalist, writing and editing for several Southern California newspapers and magazines. Her novels include “The Belly Dancer” and “Dancing at the Chance.”
Dare is a librarian, mother and writer. She is the author of “A Night to Surrender,” “Once Upon a Winter’s Eve,” and most recently, “A Week to be Wicked.” She lives in Southern California.
Sorenson writes sexy romantic suspense for Harlequin and Bantam dell. Two of her novels, “Crash Into Me” and “Set the Dark on Fire,” have been excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine. Her most recent title is “Caught in the Act.”
Born and raised in Texas, Adams is the author of “Danger Zone,” “Danger Races” and the upcoming “Dangerously Close,” which will be published in July. She is a former actor.
After introducing the panelists, Adams kicked off the questions with one for Cameron, asking what drew her to write a book set in turn of the century New York when vaudeville was losing its luster.
Cameron replied that her previous book, “The Belly Dancer” had been set during the 1893 World’s Fair. She wanted to follow one of the characters from that book in her next book, and the historical fact was that most of those dancers went to vaudeville. Cameron said her research revealed that there were class tensions in this time period, and that interested her. Because of the rise of the movie industry, vaudeville, which had previously appealed to the middle class, began sliding.
Adams then asked Dare a question about Minerva Highwood, the nerdy heroine of her most recent book, A Week to Be Wicked, and whether it was a challenge to make readers believe that the hero would find a nerdy heroine attractive. Dare said that Minerva was based on her own nerdiness and then joked that she didn’t worry about how the hero would find her attractive because everyone knows librarians are hot. The audience laughed.
Adams asked Sorenson about her plots and Sorenson said she is a bigger plotter now than she used to be – her editor has made her into one. She mentioned that she had to rewrite the ending of her last book.
This brought up the topic of plotting vs. pantsing and Adams asked the others which they were. Dare said she was halfway in between being a plotter and being a pantser and Cameron said she was a plotter.
Adams asked about the changes in the romance industry in the years since Dare was first published and Dare said there had been a lot of changes due to digital publishing.
Sorenson added that her Harlequin categories only stay on brick and mortar bookstore shelves for one month while her single titles stay on shelves anywhere from a couple of months to maybe six months or more. But now, thanks to digital publishing, the books are always available. The problem is (said jokingly) that everyone else’s books are also always available. So there is so much to choose from.
Cameron said that publishers are looking more toward niche books and unusual settings like those of her books due to digital publishing.
Adams then asked Cameron about her writing influences. Cameron said she was influenced by Anne Rice’s historical novel The Feast of All Saints and the historical details in that book made her want to write in a historical setting.
Sorenson was asked when she knew she wanted to write. She replied that she started reading romance at age eleven – category romances which she loved – and also read a lot of Stephen King. She knew early on that she wanted to write but not what she wanted to write. While briefly working as an English teacher she read a book by Lori Foster which made her realize that romantic suspense was the genre she wanted to write in.
Adams asked all three panelists what was the hardest part of writing.
Cameron said “Knowing when to stop revising.” Dare said “Sitting with the blank page.” Sorenson said “Twitter and the internet,” and added that she wastes a lot of time lurking on the internet. Cameron said she thinks social media is so exciting and so much fun.
Dare said that if it isn’t social media, there are times when cleaning the keyboard is the most exciting thing in the world. So if it wasn’t social media, it would be something else.
Sorenson said she is a stay at home mom and writing can be isolating so she loves meeting readers.
Adams’ next question was about writer’s block and what they do to counter it. Sorenson said she doesn’t get writer’s block but she went to a workshop with Christie Ridgeway and got a technique she uses, called a “character read.” She reads all the scenes from just one character’s POV and she believes that helps keep her from getting stuck.
Cameron said that when she’s stuck, she’ll figure out what to write next when away from the computer, “in the shower or something.” What blocks her is a problem with character motivation.
Dare said writer’s block means she has to go back a few scenes and fix the problem that is causing the block.
Adams asked the other authors about their tools for writing and mentioned three tools that help her, “discipline, drive and desire.”
Sorenson said the question had made her think of actual physical tools, like the notebook and pen she takes everywhere with her to jot down ideas, and her laptop.
Dare said that her tools were her support network, writers who can celebrate her successes or commiserate with her.
The next question was about the authors’ typical writing day. Dare said that the mystique of being a writer is that the writing “all comes in this pretty package” (she held up her novel as she said it) “and you don’t see the pajamas and dust bunnies.”
Sorenson said “Wasting time” was her typical writing day and Dare countered that, saying: “It’s not wasting time. Sometimes you have to go on walk or do the dishes and that gets your imagination going so it’s not wasted time.”
Sorenson added that she loves 4:00 AM. She is a morning writer and gets up early and writes for as many hours as she can.
Cameron said she gets up at 4:30 AM since it’s the only time her baby isn’t up to distract her. She writes in the morning for two hours and also during naptime. She can do research and other writing related activities during the rest of the day, but not writing.
Adams asked Sorenson if any true stories were the basis of her work and Sorenson replied that she has recently been working on a book called Aftershock, about a group of people trapped in a subway collapse, which was inspired by a subway collapse that happened in California.
When asked what advice she would give to writers who are starting out, Sorenson said she wrote six books before she got her first publishing offer. Finishing a book is a great accomplishment but you need to be able to start the next one.
Dare said that was good advice and that she would also advise joining a writer’s group. Cameron said “Definitely stick with it – if you stick with it, it will happen.”
Constantly trying to improve also came up, and then Sorenson said she still gets projects rejected by her editor. Getting rejected is such an important lesson and unfortunately lost with self-publishing. You can learn a lot from the feedback you get after self-publishing too, but there is a lot to be learned from the rejection process.
The next question was, “What is the strangest thing you’ve done in the name of research?”
Dare shared a hilarious story about a time she visited England for research, took a country path on foot, and ended up walking through a barley field (it turns out “country path” means something different in England than what it means in the US). The barley made snake-like hissing sounds with every step she took, and then, after a long time she finally arrived at sheep pastures. She then got to a field in which a sign was posted, “Caution, bull in field.” She was faced with a choice of either walking all the way back or walking through the field with the bull, and ended up choosing the bull over the long walk back.
Sorenson talked about going on a ride with a gang unit in San Diego as research for The Edge of Night. For Crash Into Me she interviewed surfers and one male surfer started changing out of his wet suit during an interview. He kept a towel around his waist as he changed, but it was still a little uncomfortable.
Cameron said she had a lot of belly dancing in The Belly Dancer but since she has been belly dancing for years herself she didn’t need to do a lot of research on that. Because she dances in a troupe but her character danced solo, she interviewed solo dancers to learn more about what that was like. In addition, she has also visited Northern Louisiana to do research on a French colony there.
The next question was “How old were you when you read your first romance?”
Cameron said that in seventh grade she read V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic which was passed around at her school. The book is based on a romantic relationship between brother and sister. She wouldn’t want her daughter to read it at that age, “But look how well I turned out.”
Dare said she can’t say that her books are appropriate for teens but she knows she read much worse as a teenager.
Sorenson said she was contacted by a young girl who wanted to read her books. Sorenson suggested to the girl that she have her parents read the book first and decide if it was appropriate for their daughter to read it.
Adams asked which was each author’s favorite book from among the ones they had written. For Dare it was A Week to be Wicked. “It was a joy to write the characters.” She added that her favorite is always the one that is on sale at the time. For Sorenson, it is “The one I just finished” and at this time that is Aftershock. Cameron also likes the one she finished writing most recently best.
The next question was about changes anticipated in the industry in the future. Sorenson suggested that in romance digital would continue to grow and books for a small audience might come out in digital first.
After that came a question, “If you could do something differently, what would it be?”
Sorenson said she had one book that didn’t work and that she had a feeling couldn’t be made to work, but she tried to rewrite it to show her editor she could turn it into gold. She rewrote it and it still didn’t work, so if she had to do it over again she would trust her gut instinct that the book wasn’t going to work. She needed to move on sooner than she had.
Somewhere in here (I’m not exactly sure where since my notes don’t say) the questions were opened up to the audience. Someone asked Sorenson if any of the five books she wrote before her sixth book was published were eventually published later and the answer was yes.
A woman got up to point out that this was the only panel on romance at the festival and ask why it was so hard to get legitimacy for the romance genre.
Dare said that it is often said that the genre is written for women by women and that’s the reason why, but she also thinks it’s also because the genre deals with female sexuality which some people like to make into a joke and some people feel uncomfortable with.
Cameron said that the 1970s bodice ripper image persists and for this reason, some people haven’t tried the modern romance.
Dare said “I’m over apologizing for that,” and added that romance readers aren’t ashamed, it is just others who like to embarrass or shame them.
Cameron said that chick lit was denigrated because it was for young women and by young women as well, and it is a shame that that persists.
The next question was about the covers and Cameron shared a story of how the original cover for her first book was of a woman looking into a mirror. She was happy with it until her husband looked at it and said “Why are there two women kissing on the cover of your book?” She waited until 5 AM in the morning – 8 AM in New York – to call her editor and luckily, the cover was changed.
Dare said that the original cover for Goddess of the Hunt used curvy typography that made the H look like a C. Needless to say, the font was changed.
Sorenson said that her latest Harlequin has a Latina heroine who looks light skinned. She spoke to Harlequin about it and they apologized to her but the cover remained the same and it’s the only one of her covers that she feels she should apologize to readers for.
I didn’t record what the next question was but it must have been something about classic literature because Cameron said her favorite literary classics were books by Lily Bart, Kate Chopin, The House of Mirth and other books by Victorian women, but she felt there were a lot of tragic endings to Victorian women’s lives in classic books.
Sorenson mentioned a French Lit class she took and how in every book, the female characters died. She said she loves that the romance genre celebrates romance and female sexuality and we get a happy ending.
Dare said she loves Jane Austen, where Regency society views and manners work against the characters. The historical genre is influenced by Austen and a great fit for her because there aren’t many kidnappers and killers which she is not good at writing.
Another reader said she read a lot of bodice rippers and missed those sweeping sagas but they were not PC. She asked if the authors felt constrained by having to be more feminist in today’s books. Dare said she got into the romance genre with Julie Garwood’s books, which came after the bodice rippers and so she doesn’t feel constrained. Sorenson said she’s all for bodice rippers and a variety of books but does not feel constrained by writing the books she writes.
At this point my notes on this panel ran out. When we tried to take a picture of the panelists for this post, we were told the room was needed for the next event, so we followed them outside to their signings and Bettie snapped a photo there.
Young Adult: Future Tense
Then it was off to the YA stage for a panel called Young Adult: Future Tense. This panel was comprised of three authors of dystopian or futuristic YA, Marie Lu, Lissa Price and Cecil Castellucci. The YA stage emcee was Aaron Hartzler. Here are their bios from the festival guide.
Castellucci is a writer, filmmaker, actress and singer-songwriter and engages in many other creative pursuits. She is the author of many young adult novels. Castellucci’s latest titles are “First Day on Earth” and the forthcoming “The Year of the Beasts.”
Lu writes young adult novels and has a special love for dystopian books. She was born near Shanghai and attended college at USC. Lu is the author of “Legend.”
Price’s debut novel is “Starters.” She is a member of the Apocalypsies, a group of 2012 debut young adult and middle-grade authors. Price resides in the Southern California foothills with her husband.
Hartzler, formerly the creative director of the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators, redesigned the look and feel of the SCBWI presence in all print, online, and mobile media platforms. He is currently working on several books that will be published in the near future.
It took us a little while to locate the YA Stage and as we arrived there, Marie Lu was talking about high school being “kind of dystopic” and saying that was why the dystopian genre was a good fit for teens. Price mentioned that her novel Starters was about “starters” vs. “enders.” She said she had thought the theme would work because “teens have a lot to carry on their shoulders.” Castellucci said that her book was about alien abduction, which serves as a good metaphor for the teen years when “You feel like your body is being taken over.”
Lu mentioned that she was really stressed about the SATs as a teen and so when she wrote Legend she invented “The Trial,” a test ten year olds are required to take. She also talked about living in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and said that even though she was only five years old at the time, she was affected by that.
Castellucci said that her novel, First Day on Earth deals with psychic trauma and originally had a female narrator, but when she was a few pages into writing it, she realized her character was actually a boy.
Lu said that of the two first person narrators in Legend, the boy’s character and narration came to her more easily because that character had been with her since high school and “feels like an old friend.”
Price said that flu shot restrictions had made her hypothesize what the world would be like if everyone who hadn’t been given a flu shot died and only the very young and the elderly survived. That’s when she came up with the idea of teens renting out their bodies to seniors who wanted to experience what it was like to be young again.
Hartzler asked the authors about some of their favorite books. Lu said she was a fan of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, Lois Lowery’s The Giver and fantasy masters like Tolkien and Robert Jordan. Price mentioned The Hobbit and Castellucci gave another mention to Ender’s Game as well as listing John Christopher’s The Tripods Trilogy and SF authors Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury among her favorites.
Lu was asked how she came up with the dystopian, futuristic downtown Los Angeles in Legend and said that LA was a little dystopic to begin with, but added that she saw an online map simulation of what the world would like if the water rose 100 meters. In the map, California had “a ginormous lake from LA to San Francisco” and Lu incorporated that into her book.
Lu also said that one of the challenges with Legend was to make the voices distinct enough because the book is written in alternating first person POVs. To help with that, she made the girl a Sherlock Holmesian kind of character who notices small details while the boy is more emotional and casual.
Castellucci said her new book coming out this May will be her first in third person. She usually writes in first person.
Hartzler asked Castellucci to talk about her experience writing for comic books and she said that she had art directed her first one, but now she just does loose scripts with dialogue and collaborates with the artist on the art direction, and that’s much better. She said that what’s great about writing for comic books is that you don’t have to describe everything, you can just throw out words. “It’s fun.”
The next question from Hartzler was about whether the books they write are targeted to teens or whether they write for all ages.
Price said that she loved the way The Hunger Games doesn’t talk down to readers. Instead the story is told straight out and the character just happens to be sixteen. Lu said she wrote YA for years without realizing that it was YA, and Castellucci said that before there was a YA genre, teens turned to science fiction and fantasy because their bodies had become alien to them.
Lu said that her agent had taught her that YA was defined by the characters’ coming of age while Castellucci said that in YA the characters don’t nostalgically look back on events of the story with greater knowledge but that instead there is much more immediacy.
Hartzler opened up the discussion to audience questions and I got up and asked one. My question was “Why are so many adults reading YA?” Price replied that she has a theory that the most creative writing is allowable in YA. Castellucci said “It’s really exciting because it’s the Wild West now.” Price concurred, saying, “They’re allowing us to do what we want,” and Lu added that in the YA section of the bookstore all genres are shelved together and therefore genre-benders are easier to sell and market.
Price said that her own book was originally marketed not as SF but as a “futuristic thriller” because the dystopian genre was thought to be going away, but now, with the success of the Hunger Games movie, the SF label had become trendy again and the book was being marketed as SF.
The authors were asked if they read while writing and Lu said she doesn’t read anything similar to her writing when she is writing. Price said that her publication schedule was so tight right now that she had no time to read, and Castellucci replied that she does read while writing, but chooses different genres from the one she is writes in.
The stress of writing on deadline came up next and Lu quipped that “Baths, chocolate and alcohol all help.” Castellucci said it was kind of ironic that she hated homework all through high school but now she’s in a profession where she constantly has to do homework.
The next question was about naming characters. Lu said she named the male protagonist of her book Day because it reflected his philosophy that every day everything is possible. Price said she chose the name Callie for her protagonist by combining the names of Katniss from The Hunger Games and Tally from The Uglies. Castellucci said the narrator of her book started out with the name Molly but when she realized the voice belonged to a boy, Molly became Mal.
One of the audience member asked what the authors do to get into the world of their books. Castellucci said she had a playlist that she listened to which helped her access that world. Price said she was working on the book nonstop and therefore constantly felt immersed in that world. Lu said she had used sketches of the world in which Legend was set to help her envision it.
Castelluci, Price and Lu were then asked about how long it took them to get published. Castellucci said she had heard a theory that it takes ten years to get from when you get serious about writing to get published and that’s how long it took her. Price said it had taken her nine years, and she had had an agent who didn’t believe in Starters and didn’t want to sell it, so she emphasized the importance of getting a good agent. Lu said she started writing seriously at age fifteen and sold twelve years later.
The next topic was revisions, and Lu said Legend had had three major revisions with her agent before her editor got it, while after it sold, only one round of fairly minor revision was needed. Her second book, which was just an idea in her head at that time, had required a lot more revision after selling than the first.
Price said that Starters was very close to being ready to publish when her editor got it. The second book in the series was much more difficult to write because she had to write it from scratch on deadline while promoting the first book.
Castellucci said that she was writing her first series now and that she planned to write the second book before the first book came out in order to avoid the problem of having to write while promoting book one. “That way madness could lie.”