Women (and Girls) and Music ~ Part Three

Finalizing line edits on a manuscript of mine about a musician recently, I thought of my first, serious studio music lessons with my cello professor. I started with him when I was twelve, after three years working with one of his students. I ended lessons with him when I was eighteen, not long before he died at eighty-seven. I studied with other cello professors in college, but what I learned in those studios was much more about music than myself.

He lived in a massive, early Victorian on an older side street near a huge state university. His music studio was the lower level of the back wing – it had a separate entrance that opened onto a wraparound porch where I often waited, listening to the lesson before me finish, always nervous, always exhilarated, too. One fall evening when I was sixteen, the clarity and warmth of light from the setting sun through his persimmon trees, combined with the last few bars of a Bach concerto another student was perfecting behind the door, made me so uncomplicatedly happy that I felt that my entire life would be happy. I would live a happy life, with love and music and light.

I started the cello when I was eight, after a demonstration made at our school by the stringed instrument teacher and a local rental company. I had been taking piano lessons, which I adored, and my piano teacher had talked to the strings teacher to give me extra attention. I felt important, watching the strings teacher demonstrate all the instruments, and fascinated as the rental representative lifted each one from the velvet-lined cases. I wanted. I loved all the colors of the shiny woods, the latches on the cases, the small cakes of amber-y rosin. When they started pulling the cellos out, I loved how big they were, how unwieldy, how if I carried one down the street, into my school bus, onto a stage, there would be no question I knew some magic no one else knew.

The worst lesson I ever had with my professor was on a hot spring day, before a state competition. Months before, I had chosen, with terrible bravado, a difficult concerto movement, allegro, clogged with arpeggios. I had been determined to prove my technical prowess when what everyone agreed I had instead was a singular talent for expressive sound. After months of practice, my fingers only just knew what to do, and my brain partially froze every time I played it, braced for the moment I’d fumble and screech. I had nothing to express with this competition piece but fear held barely in check and several decibels of self-doubt.

His studio had been hotter than the weather, and the carved wood paneling and vast, red Turkish rug that were usually so cultured and cozy, just made the room seem hotter. Oppressive. Memorizing pieces had never been hard for me, so there were no music stands between me and his sharp blue eyes. As always, he was wearing a suit, seersucker, because it was May.unnamed-31

I didn’t want to. Hundreds and hundreds of hours in on a single movement, and that afternoon in his studio, I met my wall. I hated how the ribs on my cello were sticking to the insides of my bare legs, I hated the bite against the side of my thumb on the strings as I brought my hand past third position, I hated the smell of carpet dust and wood oil. I hated his metronome, an old German one with a huge brass pendulum that kept time with a thunk that was tightening the vessels in my brain. I was running the most difficult bars for him, over and over, and over and over, and half the time they were wrong.

I started imagining playing for the judges, who were always blank-faced and seemed to receive music like boulders received waves—unmoving. Stony. As soon as I did, I started making more mistakes. I had always struggled with stage fright, which I managed by preparation. Over preparation. This time, all the hours and practice didn’t prepare me. I started to cry, then the fear sluiced over me all at once, and I barely rested my cello on its side and got to the bathroom in time before I was sick, heaving with my nose clogged from tears.

When I slouched back into the studio, his cello had been put aside, too. He leaned back, and crossed his legs, pulled his wire glasses from the dents where they lived on his nose.

You could still hear, even after fifty years in this country, his German accent, which got a little stronger when he reminisced, or when he was feeling something very strongly, or when he spoke with his wife. He told me to pick up my cello and play an elegy I had mastered a long time ago, and was my favorite, and his voice was tired, and accented. It took me a long time for my hands to stop shaking so I could start, but then I did, and he told me to play it again, and somewhere in the middle, I remembered who I was and what I did and what I loved. He told me to put my cello away until the competition.

He was very kind to a twelve-year-old overly serious girl, mostly because he took twelve-year-old girls seriously. He expected me to practice, and to make progress. He expected me to listen to the music I was learning, and to go to chamber concerts and the symphony, if I could. He expected me to be able to talk about the composters who wrote the music I was learning, and to think and to have opinions about the music that they had written. He expected opinions. He expected to hear my voice, every week, and to think about what I wanted to say with my instrument. He expected me to be an artist, and even at twelve, he expected me to be a professional, believed that I could be a professional. He expected me to do things that were difficult, and things I didn’t even know if I could do at all.

I still want to do things I don’t know if I can do. I still want to do difficult things, and expect myself to learn everything I can and have opinions. Practice and practice and practice. Some things I prepare to do for the world will be beautiful, and show the very best of me, and some things, no matter how much I prepare, will make me cry. The hardest thing I do, though, is to start. To try. To stop waiting for permission. To use the voice I thought I had already been given, but somewhere along the way, was told I didn’t have.

We often expect so much from girls, and girls learn to do hard things. They learn to use their voice, and are smart and funny and big. They express their opinions, are expressive and interested. They make things. They try things—identities, subjects, music, science, books. We don’t stop being those girls. We don’t stop. We are the girls we have always been. We are big, and inept, and professional, ignorant. Interesting and opinionated and practiced. We want to make things, and we want to try. We don’t know if we can do this.

We’re doing it anyway.

Posted in Formative Wonk, Music, Thinky | 8 Comments

yet another post about my forthcoming kinky book

So, um, I’ve still got a kinky book coming out on the 1st of June.

You’ll notice there’s a kind of a theme to my Wonko posts lately but this stuff is kind of on my mind at the moment.

Something I’ve noticed when reading people’s responses to BDSM-themed romances and erotica is that a lot of readers get very put off a text if they feel that the dominant character is insufficiently dommy. “[X] doesn’t work for me a dom(me)” is a phrase I’ve seen a lot. And, obviously, it’s fine for people to like what they like and if something doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for you. Nevertheless I am, and I know I say this a lot, troubled by the implication that a dom(me) has to be a particular sort of person or behave in a particular sort of way.

At the risk of over-generalising, there’s a strong tendency for romdoms to replicate their sexual proclivities in all areas of their life. Even the ones who aren’t billionaires are usually highly conventionally successful: if they’re not running their own company, they’re pursuing some other archetypically forceful and masculine career, usually in some branch of law enforcement or the military. They’re reserved, yet dynamic, and in control of everything, from the boardroom to the bedroom.

And while this perfectly understandable as a fantasy, it’s fantasy that only works if you take as read that you’re not expected to identify with this character in any way, shape or form. That they only exist as a catalyst for the desires of the viewpoint character—who, by contrast, tends to be aggressively normal. It presents dominance as the natural mode of a certain, very special type of person and submission as the natural mode of reaction to that person. In so doing, it tacitly denies that dominance and submission can exist within a dynamic between two perfectly ordinary people, simply because that’s what they’re into.

A big part of what I’ve tried to do with my forthcoming kinky book (FOR REAL, by the way, I should really get used to calling it by its name) is to … and I acknowledge this isn’t a word, nor should it be because it sounds awful … de-exclusive-ify the role of the dominant.  A quick recap for those who aren’t as familiar with my work as, well, me: FOR REAL is a story about Laurie, a jaded 37-year-old sub and Toby, an inexperienced 19-year-old dom.  It was really important to me to show that doms, like subs, like everybody else, can basically be anyone. That sexual dominance isn’t something you can only be into if you’re 39 and rich. And that submission is a choice based on who you want to submit to, not a validation of another person’s superiority.

Toby spends a large part of the book internally wrangling his own uncertainties and he never shows the absolute poise and control that romdoms are supposed to have. He’s excitable and passionate and occasionally quite overwhelmed by the things Laurie allows him to do. But—to my mind and, perhaps most importantly, to Laurie’s—none of that makes him less of a dom. I’d even go so far as to say that, to me at least, there’s something pretty fragile about the notion that dominance can admit no uncertainty, humanity or passion.

But, don’t get me wrong, there will always be room for tenaciously self-controlled billionaires with bespoke sex dungeons. I just like to think there’s room for the rest of us as well.

Posted in Shameless Self-Promotion, Talking Wonkomance, Thinky | 10 Comments

Just Slightly… A Guest Post by Noelle Adams

Noelle Adams PhotoI interviewed Noelle Adams (in her Claire Kent persona) in one of my first-ever Wonkomance posts. At the time, I’d never read any of her books, but I read Escorted for the purposes of the interview and couldn’t put it down.

Since then, I have devoured and adored many more of Noelle/Claire’s books. I love her voice, which is lovely and unpretentious and stark; the way her books submerge me emotionally; and the fact that she writes sex the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.

I remembered that Noelle had mentioned to me that she never tried to write in any particular way, that any wonkinessshe exhibited was unintentional, and I was curious to hear more about whether she’d ever tried to be less wonky and what that experience was like for her. Here is her guest post in reply:

The first romance I submitted to a publisher was a Regency. I was sixteen years old.

I’d been reading Regency romances for a couple of years, since my mother was a fan. She’d devour them and pass on to me the ones she thought wouldn’t sully my mind. When she wasn’t around, I’d dig through the big laundry basket she collected them in and find the sexier ones to read too.

I’d been writing novels since I was twelve, but I decided I was born to write a Regency romance. This was before the internet was available for copious research on publishers and submission requirements, but I knew, even back then, that I would have to follow the formula that publishers wanted. So that’s what I wrote. Feisty, virginal heroine. Dashing, slightly jaded hero. A tangle of conflict intensified by the social restrictions. Some sort of minor adventure plot to move things along. I worked all of it in. I spent a couple of summer months completing it, and then I went to the library to consult the literary market guides to find appropriate publishers to submit to.

I was sure I’d followed the formula perfectly. I was sure it would be published.

I never heard anything back—not even a form rejection letter. I reread the book recently, and it’s really not as bad as I imagined. Clearly, it was written by a sixteen-year-old, and no one but me should ever read it. But what I noticed was, even as a teenager, I couldn’t get the formula right. I had all the items on the checklist ticked off, but they didn’t come together the way they were supposed to. For instance, I had a minor misunderstanding in the first chapter, and instead of letting it grow and fester and intensify the main conflict, I made the couple have a conversation in the second chapter that completely resolved it. I know why I did it that way. It just felt like something two real people would do. But it made me realize that, from the beginning, I was writing books that were just slightly off.

My long history of failed attempts to get published only confirms this reality. My books are always just slightly off.

The first book I shopped that was actually good enough to be published was when I was twenty-one. I got an agent and had an editor really want the book, but it never got picked up because it was so unmarketable. I learned my lesson. Write for the market. So I wrote a book with the market in mind.

And another book. And another. In each one, I carefully followed what was popular and used the formulas publishers seemed to expect. I didn’t want to write a ground-breaking work of literature. I just wanted to get published. But, no matter how hard I tried to follow the rules, I couldn’t seem to do it.

I could get an agent. I could also get editors who really loved my writing and sometimes wanted to take on my books. But every attempt ended the same way. The book was “not the right fit for us.”

Just slightly off.

Eventually, I gave up and wrote books I wanted to write, assuming they’d never be published. So I ended up with a large number of completed, unpublished romances—some close to formula, some totally wonky.

I wrote Seducing the Enemy, trying desperately to follow a formula, as my last ditch effort toSeducing the Enemy cover get published. But that book was rejected numerous times before it was finally picked up, and even then it took several complete overhauls and eighteen months before it was in a state to be published.

That was when I decided to self-publish. I’d thought about the possibility and dismissed it several times in the past because I never really wanted to do my own thing. I was always trying to be a fit. But it seemed clear that the only way I was ever going to find an audience for my slightly-off books was to publish them myself.

At first, I tried to follow the romance rules, since I wanted my books to sell. But, by the third one (One Night with her Bodyguard), I just gave it up. That story features a heroine with intense social anxiety and a hero with all kinds of insecurities, and it has a weird, rambling plot structure. But it sold better and had better reviews than the previous two. Maybe that was just because I was slowly finding an audience, but it encouraged me.

Then I put Escorted—a book I thought could never be a fit for any market or niche—on the free promotion days on Amazon, and people started to read it and like it. Even with the bald hero, the non-passionate sex scenes at the beginning, and the odd absence of secondary characters and world-building.

So I figured I might as well publish what I want, since I couldn’t get the formulas right anyway, and maybe there were people who wanted to read what I write. So I threw all the odd stuff out there—detailed, realistic pregnancy sex, the dying seventeen-year-old’s bucket-list marriage, the sweet hero who is so in love he has a problem with coming prematurely, the m/f romance that starts in the context of a threesome. Some of it worked with readers, and some of it didn’t. But one thing is clear.

There is no correlation between the popularity of my books and their level of weirdness.

A Negotiated MarriageI don’t really think I take a lot of risks in my books—not really. A Negotiated Marriage has sold the most of all my books, and it’s a billionaire marriage-of-convenience story. Nothing risky about that. It is slightly off, though. The conflict is very understated, and the powerful, CEO hero gets nervous before business meetings so he takes his shoes off to prepare.

Maybe the riskiest thing I’ve done is the Willow Park books, romances about genuinely devout Christians that are intended for the mainstream audience and include sex and language. I guess there’s something wonky about that. It’s certainly almost never done. But the books themselves are really quiet, so it seems to me that they’re just slightly off, like everything else I write.

I did an interview with Wonkomance a couple of years ago, after Escorted took off, and Serena asked me why I wrote wonky books. My answer then is what it is now. I never wanted to write wonky romance.

From the time I was sixteen, I was trying to follow all the rules and write in the established, marketable formulas. I just couldn’t do it.

A lot has changed since then, but my books are still just slightly off.

Noelle handwrote her first romance novel in a spiral-bound notebook when she was twelve, and she hasn’t stopped writing since. She has lived in eight different states and currently resides in Virginia, where she reads any book she can get her hands on and offers tribute to a very spoiled cocker spaniel.

She loves travel, art, history, and ice cream. After spending far too many years of her life in graduate school, she has decided to reorient her priorities and focus on writing contemporary romances.

You can find her at:



Posted in Writing Wonkomance | Comments Off