The L-Word Literature – Interview by Lynne Jamneck

Karin Kallmaker 18th and Castro, Craft of Writing, Events and Appearances, In Every Port, Maybe Next Time, Substitute for Love, Touchwood


When did you first start writing? Have you kept everything you’ve ever put down on paper?
My first clear memory of writing fiction is in the fifth grade, so I was probably 10 or 11. I wrote a short story about a young peasant girl who helps the queen run away from her husband, whom the queen “abhors.” I remember having to look up “abhor.” I wish I kept things because I’d like to find that short story. My recollection is that it was quite earnest and had a happy ending. Not to mention that whole adoring young girl sitting at the knee of her queen — baby dyke, anyone?

But I don’t have a lot of my early ‘work.’ College-age work and rejected manuscripts? I kept some. But I’m not the type to go back to old work and edit it. If anything I read the old work, find something in it that inspires and write all fresh.

What was the first piece you ever sold?
I believe it was called “One-Time Special Offer” which was published by the Natomas News. It was an essay about junk mail and new home ownership.

My first fiction piece published was my first lesbian novel, In Every Port. Before that I had three manuscripts rejected by Harlequin (I read Harlequins at the rate of one a day in my teens). Given how mainstream publishing of serial romance has changed, I’m glad I never made it there. I can’t imagine not owning my own work, or my pen name. I’m very grateful for whatever fate led Barbara Grier to accept IEP.

Which authors, past and present, would you consider to have had the biggest influence on your own writing?
Without question the biggest influence is Katherine Forrest. Curious Wine was the universe to me for at least my first five novels. It set the boundaries, tone and texture of my writing in a liberating, encouraging way. Katherine herself—classy, soft-spoken, respectful and thoughtful—she has been and continues to be a role model to me. I am hoping that the last time we spoke I wasn’t as tongue-tied as usual. I was swilling wine and gobbling up smoked salmon at a reception in her honor and it still feels as surreal to be casually chatting with “Kathy” as the first time we met did and I couldn’t say boo about boo.

Add to that—she edited In Every Port and taught me so much about craft in the process. She was instrumental in the rewrite of Touchwood, my second book, making it actually a good book. Otherwise I might have produced a weak second effort and been dismissed thereafter as a one-hit wonder. She took the time to improve me and there just aren’t words to honor that. So I have tried to make good on her investment in me by improving myself, with every book.

I am influenced, too, by fantasy and sci-fi writers who are imagery and wordsmiths. CJ Cherryh, Guy Gavriel Kay, Gael Baudino—I love the flow and language of epics. I always feel as if I’ve had a refresher course in vocabulary and sentence structure.

I get very little time to read these days, so lean heavily toward books I know will make me think or laugh. I have a probably unfounded fear of writing something derivative, so I actually avoid writers who are similar to my own style. I struggle with character voice; self-doubt will often have me discard a voice thinking I’ve heard it somewhere else.

How long did it take you to write your first novel-length book?
Two years-IBM Selectric with a changeable font ball (the cutting edge!). Then I retyped it on my Mac Plus. PCs came along at exactly the right time for me. I can barely type fast enough to keep up with my brain—there was no way I could write fast enough and still read it. Even when I’m trying to be neat I can’t read my own handwriting. I also edit on the fly most of the time, and I found handwritten and typewritten editing to be incredibly frustrating. Likely, I could use the discipline that process would enforce but I’m grateful I don’t have to. I can easily say that most of my work has been intensely edited by me 80-100 times before it goes to the editor.

Tell us a bit about your new book, 18th & Castro.
I’ve been on a bit of a crusade for several years about the trends in lesbian erotica beginning five to seven years ago. I listened to my readers and talked to friends and it seemed like the more we read of “ultimate” and “best” erotica for lesbians the more we felt we might have a different definition of “lesbian” sex. We weren’t shy, nor prudes, but we weren’t into domination, pain and humiliation. And, mostly because we were all lesbians, we liked stories about women exploring their lesbian sexuality. Ergo, gender-bending wasn’t a big turn on either. Also, there wasn’t a lot being written about sex within long-term relationships until Bella, Bold Strokes and others began publishing anthologies.

So in 18th & Castro I wanted good blend of erotic experiences that a range of lesbian readers would enjoy. It’s a collection of short stories—some call it an anthology, but technically that’s incorrect as it’s a single author’s work. Anyway, the collection includes a little bit of kink, some bondage, a modicum of dress up, a dash of heartbreak, a dose of shivers and a whole lot of love and respect. I wasn’t going so much for “something for everyone” as I was arranging a variety of voices and experiences that my readers could find in some way familiar. If it’s not something she herself does or tries, it’s still good fodder for fantasy. I also wanted to validate that sometimes we’re just too tired to get out all the accessories for a wild romp—a cuddle, a vibrator and familiarity can put a smile on everyone’s face. It’s the communication that works the biggest nerves we’ve got. At least I think so, and so most of the stories feature a lot of talking.

It’s not exactly a novel, but it felt like some of the same creative work was involved. It was fun to create all those voices and hear them talking. Some good things happened, like the narrator of “Tick, Tock.” She started writing a love letter and I just typed what she said…I didn’t suspect it was a ghost story until a few paragraphs in. Experiences like that keep me absolutely certain that I have a great gig.

What’s next for you, writing wise?
I’m just finishing up Finders Keepers, which is due out late this year. I really like to focus on internal journeys and both women in this novel have a lot of issues. They’re still strong, still competent and confident, but they’re far from perfect. As soon as that’s off to edit I turn to my contribution to Stake through the Heart: New Exploits of Twilight Lesbians. This anthology effort is so much fun because we pick a theme and the four of us then do completely different things, it seems, when we create. Just finding out what the others did with the theme makes the effort worth it. It’s fun. Finally, then, I turn all of my attention, for 4-5 months, to Forge of Virgins, the third in Laura Adams’ Tunnel of Light trilogy.

Do you have a preference for writing either short fiction or longer works?
Not generally, no. I prefer one or the other depending on how I’m feeling creatively and what I want to provide to my publisher. That sounds sort of “well, duh” doesn’t it? I didn’t write much short fiction for years, though I enjoyed it, because my publisher at the time (Naiad) didn’t have a venue for it. Other publishers at the time weren’t interested in the work of a “romance” writer, an attitude I still run into now and again. But things change, the publishing world has changed, I’ve changed. Now I’ll toss off a short story when I’m frustrated with other efforts. It gets the creative juices flowing, so to speak.

And I said “toss off” just to make the Brits laugh.

Do you try to keep to a strict writing routine or do you find that it stifles your creativity?
I work my writing around my family’s needs, which means I write primarily when there’s nobody home or everyone else is asleep. I balk at too much structure, but try to maximize my time. The older I get the more difficult I find it to create new text when I anticipate being interrupted. I can edit nearly anywhere. Given my commitments and that I get probably 16-20 “alone” hours a week, a case of writer’s block can be a real schedule-buster. All it takes is 3-4 weeks of nonproductivity on new text to put me behind the proverbial Eight ball. Sometimes I thrive under the added pressure, other times my brain freezes up. Every time I meet up with Linda Hill, my publisher, I expect her to smack me by way of “hello.”

What is your creative atmosphere like?
When I’m writing new text it’s very quiet. I might have a little new age or light trance music on, but usually…quiet. Editing I don’t care as long as no one is looking over my shoulder. That gives me the heebie-jeebies.

How do you handle rejection slips?
Fate has been very kind to me and I’m not sure why—I’ve only had a few. The Harlequin rejections were hard as I think I wrote decent enough work. The last manuscript I submitted was very good—better than some of what I’d sampled before submitting it. That was some time ago, though. So I was never quite sure why they turned it down and I would have liked to have known so I could learn from it. A few short stories have been rejected along the way. If there’s any feedback at all I listen closely and try to learn from it. There is very little unbiased feedback available out there, as I’m sure you know. Our community is small to the point of No Degrees of Separation.

When you start off with a new story, do you usually approach from the plot point of view or do you consider yourself a more character-orientated writer?
It’s a mix, but heavy emphasis on character. For Finders Keepers I wanted a shipwreck. I wanted a life-threatening challenge. I wanted a woman who wasn’t sure she would survive…which put me into the character and who that woman was. After that first impulse about a plot point or a theme, it’s all character. I develop her voice, her reactions, what goes on in her head when things happen to her. She interacts with other people and their characters start to develop. If I’m lucky the voice will click in a big way. Faith in Wild Things and Brandy in All the Wrong Places both wrote their own material. I was just the typist. Both were first-person narrative, a point not lost on me either. But many readers don’t care a lot for first person and it’s also limiting as the character can’t know anything she doesn’t directly experience. It’s a challenge to have a character witness an event, interpret it one way and yet the reader knows something else is what really happened, but I love doing that.

Do you have a favorite amongst all the books you’ve written so far?
My sentimental favorite is still Touchwood, my second novel. After it was released I got my first independent print review and the reviewer (who was known to savage others) liked it. It was the first time I felt like a real writer. After that it’s like picking between children. Substitute for Love is my favorite plot. Sleight of Hand is think is my best epic writing to date. Maybe Next Time is my favorite internal development novel. And so on…

How much rewriting do you usually do?
I’ve only rewritten one book, Touchwood. As in I took it apart, kept about half and wrote whole new sections, changed the setting, the plot…and so forth.

But if you mean how much editing, tweaking, fiddling and general mucking about with a book, I do a ton. I write linear (usually) and pick up the thread of where I last stopped by re-reading at least the two previous chapters. I edit those as I re-read them. Get new ideas. Have moments like,

“What happened to the dog!? There’s a dog in this book!” and “The photos! She would have received the photos by now!” and that was a plot point I meant to include so I fix all that and by then it’s time to get the kids from school and there was no new text written that day.

Except there was, paragraphs and sentences woven throughout the previous pages. While editing chapters they can double in length. I often discover I started in Chapter 2 and need to write a Chapter 1 or that Chapter 3 was really the short version of Chapters 3-5.

What works about this is that when I see I’m making no real forward progress I know what I’ve done so far isn’t quite right as a foundation for the rest of the book. So I fix that, and fix it, and fix it until I finally read through, make nearly no changes, and surge into the next several chapters, almost without stopping. Lather, rinse, repeat, almost ad nauseum. By the time I finish a book I am so sick of Chapter 1 I’d rather have a sharp stick in my eye than read it again.

How do you think you are still improving yourself as a writer?
Well, the first thing I thought was how I’m not improving—I don’t read for pleasure enough. Reading inspires writing and I sometimes feel my language gets stale. Most of the time when I read it’s for “work” and I have a mental red-pencil in my head if not my hand.

Editing other writers is definitely one thing that improves my own work. If I can explain coherently to someone else how something ought to be, I can apply it to my own work.

I think by creating new characters for virtually every book I do keep my creative muscles limber. On my final edits, and in working with editors and studying other writers (which isn’t the same as reading…it’s work) I try hard to say more with less. Over time my style has definitely become more spare.

For the last several years I’ve been working specifically on living without exposition. That inspiration came from CJ Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur. She writes a tale about space-faring felines in a universe completely alien to our own and uses not a single word of exposition and yet…everything is perfectly clear. We know Meetpoint Station is cold because our heroine winces and growls when the pads of her feet touch the decking.

I’d like for my writing to be that rich and simple without wasting time telling the reader about body temperatures and the metallic chemistry of the decking. Those details add nothing to the story I’m interested in. What matters is that our heroine is cold and grumpy about it. I recommend Pride to any writer as a primer. Oh, and it’s a good read, too!

Tell us something about Karin Kallmaker no-one else knows…
There’s little that nobody else knows and what there is I’m not telling! But not many know I had a huge crush on Bobby Sherman as a young teen. It is my only crush ever on a boy.

What kind of submissions are you interested in at the moment/near future – any particular genres you’d still like to tackle?
I’d like to write more fantasy and dust off my “Laura Adams” persona. The work I’m doing in the New Exploits series is the closest I get to Laura’s work. When I finish Forge of Virgins I’m not entirely sure Laura will write again. But I’d like her to.

What excites you about a piece of writing?
That I forget about the red pencil in my head. When I completely lose myself in the story that is truly exciting.

What turns you off?
The reverse of what excites me. No matter how earnest and lovely a writer is and how heartfelt her tale, if I’m getting the urge to red pencil something on every page it annoys.

What do you think are some of the most common mistakes new writers make?
Point of view. Head hopping. Unless a writer really knows how to work omniscient, being inside any head but the main protagonists’ is jarring to me. Every time a new point of view is introduced the reader gives it significance. If a character POV is used only once or twice, I really feel the POV should be eliminated and the writer instead concentrate on bringing that character’s essential thoughts or reactions in through dialogue or actions that our main protagonists relate to us. It takes work but the writing is better for it and the reader has a smoother experience. The main protagonists can even be enriched through the effort.

Another is a little harder to describe, but it’s a narrative viewpoint similar to a television camera. I’m thinking of one passage where I literally thought “and now the camera is panning down” because the style so closely resembled a screenplay with exposition and actions added. We don’t read the same way we watch images and I find an author’s “camera-view” intrusive to letting the characters come alive. I never lose the sense that I am watching the characters from a distance instead of living the story with them through their own points of view.

Stage direction is the other common thing I see. A character can be reading in her armchair, then standing in front of the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat without us seeing her put down her book, stand up, walk, turn, stop and fold her arms. A simple, “A few minutes later, arms folded in resignation as she stared into the nearly empty icebox,” suffices. Readers can figure out that she must have put down her book, stood up, walked…etc.

A happy writer is…
…one with time.

© 2006 Karin Kallmaker, Lynne Jamneck

Copyrighted material.

Got copyrights? Then make a Will!

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books

Happy smiling blonde

My partner and I recently updated our wills; the previous versions were older than our children.

The process got me to thinking about what I planned to do with my copyrights. And that got me to thinking about friends I know who are writers and who probably don’t have wills in place that cover their copyrights.

So think about it – do you want your mother, father, or siblings to inherit the control over your work? Do you want any of them to get the money that may result from it? Do you want your publisher to have to deal with them? If not – make a will, and do it ASAP!

There are inexpensive books and do-it-yourself software programs. The yellow pages and/or local bar listings will have attorneys offering final papers for flat fees, all the way to estate planning attorneys who can handle complicated matters and will bill you accordingly.

Think of all your hard work, sweat and tears and don’t leave their future – should Bad Things happen to you – in uncertain hands.

Copyrighted material.

GCLS 2006

Karin Kallmaker Awards and Reviews, Events and Appearances

cover Just Like That by Karin Kallmaker

The second annual convention in Altanta was fabulously fun! There’s nothing like the laughter of women to put me in a great, creative mood.

Time spent chatting with readers is always well-spent, and I love signing books. Equally energizing is the chance to meet and talk to other writers, because we all share the same passion for lesbian literature.

The mayhem and madness of charades, jeopardy and panel readings was a terrific contrast with the studied and serious presentation of writing techniques. I was honored to pick up my second Goldie for Just Like That! Ann Bannon was the keynote speaker this year, and her intimate look at the publishing of pulp fiction was fascinating. This one will be hard to top!

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Why Erotica? The Answer isn’t Easy

Karin Kallmaker 18th and Castro, All the Wrong Places, Craft of Writing, Finders Keepers

Why erotica? Why all the explicit activities and accessories? As I prepare for the panel on “True Lust” for GCLS 2006, I find myself confronted with that question and the many layers of the answer.

My first novel was written in 1986, and the sensuality and sexual expression in it, and my subsequent work for at least the next decade, reflected self-imposed boundaries that I drew up when looking at what the writers I admired were doing. A great influence was Katherine V. Forrest’s Curious Wine, an extremely sensual, highly erotic novel that used no explicit language at all. In my romance novels, I still believe in those boundaries.

Romance is about Emotion

In romance, the character’s emotions come first, and the sex scenes must be Read More

golen pens and ink on notebook

When It’s Not About You

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Readers and Libraries


Question posed by another writer who was berated by a reader for portraying lesbians in her novel as violent: What do you do about e-mail from a judgmental or passive-aggressive reader whose issues don’t seem relevant to your work?

I mean to stir the reader’s emotions with my work and sometimes I hit nerves I did not intend and are simply not about me at all.

The best example I have is a flat-out nasty email I got from a reader who insisted that Maybe Next Time promoted incest and an atmosphere of shame and silence. Sadly, I was quite sure that response was not about my book.

More often than not, abrasive emails are from readers whose experience of lesbians, lesbianism and community are different from my own and they question what world I live in. They contain sentences that begin “No real lesbian would ever _____.” They remind me that I don’t see the whole lesbian world, which, fine, is a point I can take now and again. But it could perhaps be made more kindly.

Whether I answer or not depends on if it’ll make me feel better. Most of the time ignoring it (after a good vent to a friend) is the better choice for me. Life is both too short and too long to get bogged down in an anonymous stranger’s issues.

wood desk with typewriter vinyl record scrabble tiles paint and music

Q Syndicate – Interview by Joy Parks

Karin Kallmaker Bella Books, Castle Wrath, Cowboys and Kisses, Events and Appearances

Joy Parks of Q Syndicate asked me a lot of great questions. Here’s a sampling:

You’ve been extremely successful creatively and sales-wise with your romance novels and also writing as Laura Adams. There’s a certain recipe for success with readers that you’ve apparently tapped into. Do you feel there’s a big difference in how you approach a book or a story that’s going to be published in the BAD [Bella After Dark] line?

I start every project with whatever flash of inspiration motivates me. Then I think about how best to tell that story, usually looking at the genres I am most comfortable with, which would be romance and now erotica. I feel a kind of freedom with BAD titles because I know if I keep the erotic content high, and meet the reader’s expectation, I can probably tell any story I want to in any manner that works. I can be unconventional, address ideas that might be outside the comfort zone of most romance-genre fans. The New Exploits series is especially liberating – I can’t wait to write the Western.

I didn’t expect that BAD stories would turn into sex education for shy lesbians. But part of my goal for writing erotica was to decriminalize lesbian sex for lesbians, especially those in committed couples and those who don’t live in an urban Mecca with an out-and-proud sex-positive attitude. Yes, lube is truly wonderful stuff, toys can be great for those who like them, and no, edgy fun doesn’t mean you have to torture your lover into the hospital to make it “real” or “true” lesbian sex.

Great sex can be down, dirty, hot and sweaty and still be wholesome and loving. Candle wax and whips are not necessary to Top, pain is not synonymous with Bottom, Butches can be touched “down there,” Femmes can do anything, and you don’t have to identify with any of those roles to play. Okay, that bit about Femmes is just my bias since I am one.

Was there ever any fear of alienating readers who simply weren’t expecting you to write in a more erotic way?

Big time. I thought about using another pseudonym, or branding them with my own “BAD” type of label so the readers who didn’t want that kind of erotica could avoid it. So when Linda Hill proposed the BAD imprint I was really pleased, and more comfortable putting Karin Kallmaker on the cover. There have been a few readers who were still caught off-guard, a couple who wrote to express their displeasure, the occasional negative review insisting a story wasn’t romantic if it had graphic sex. But the overwhelming response has been, “Please write more. Quickly.”

What do you see in the future for you and your relationship with BAD?

Nothing but blue skies. I am having way too much fun and the research is exhausting in such a good way.

By way of projects? Even though it’ll be a year or more until I start writing it, my next BAD novel (the first was All the Wrong Places) is Lessons in Lipstick*, about a garden-variety butch writer who manages to sell a straight romance under a pseudo-identity, and after a few titles finds “Fiona Rococo” suddenly a best-selling het author. Trouble is, she kind of wasn’t completely, um, forthcoming with who she was when she got that first contract and in the interim has never fessed up. So when her publisher wants to put her on tour she hires a femme to be Fiona. Screwball comedy, dash of farce, heaps of sex, but also hopefully spending some time on what sexual identity means, not to mention the ethical issues—yes, headlines in the industry of late inspired some of my ideas. All of that subject to change, but I drop notes into the file on a regular basis.

I mentioned earlier the planned Western quartet of novellas in the New Exploits series, as soon as we get Stake through the Heart put to bed. The Western-themed volume is tentatively titled Tall in the Saddle.

Do you see erotica as a specific genre on its own or merely a way of telling a story, be it literary fiction or a romance or whatever in a way that puts greater emphasis on the sexual aspects?

It is a way of telling a story, no doubt about that. Sex is universal, and how a character experiences it can be a powerful way to strengthen a narrative and deepen inner conflict and monologue. But mostly I think of erotica as a genre of its own, and I guess I feel that way because readers do. I write to please myself and entertain, and whatever label connects me to the lesbians who’ll enjoy my work is what I’m happy with.

Readers expect a difference between “sexy romance” and “erotica.” Since a lot of people write pure erotica, my niche is to adding the romance to erotica, giving readers characters they identify with both in and out of bed. Hopefully, double the pleasure. All puns intended.

© 2006 Karin Kallmaker, Joy Parks
*1/4/2008: This project has been shelved but not forgotten.

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Should You? Using Song Lyrics in Fiction

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing


Song lyrics, combined with music, have the power to move our booties, exorcise demons, uplift our spirit and add poetry into any moment of our daily lives.

It’s a natural inclination to refer to, quote from and honor words of others that move us. Frequently, then, the question comes up: can I quote song lyrics in my story? This question is usually spurred by concerns over legalities, but to me the legal issues are secondary to the artistic concerns.

Not CAN You, But SHOULD You

The real question is not can you, but should you quote song lyrics in your story. My opinion is no, but with acknowledgment that there are exceptions. I’ll address those at the end of this article.

Saying that the legal issues are secondary isn’t meant to imply they don’t matter. Nearly all modern song lyrics are copyrighted. As someone else’s copyrighted material, they cannot be copied into another work without the legal right to do so. I’m a pragmatist and all the time and energy I could spend getting permission to use someone else’s work is time and energy I’d much rather spend writing.

There are fabulous lyrics out there, but it’s far simpler to let them inspire my own creative muses. Ultimately, given that permissions are a royal pain in the hinder, I think living without lyrics is simply a better use of my time. Add that a license to reproduce a song lyric can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars — heck, I can evoke that mood myself for free.

Rationalizations for Copyright Infringement

What if I really love a song and want to honor the songwriter by quoting those lyrics in my work? What if I won’t make any money from my work? What if I’m only posting it online?
You still must get permission or risk having to deal with legal complications — copyright infringement is not about making money off another’s work, but about making use of it. For a general introduction to the legal aspects of copyright — both protecting your own and not violating other people’s — search for these articles about intellectual property by Lori Lake:

  1. Intellectual Property and Its Uses,
  2. Part Two: Copyright and Intellectual Property and Its Uses,
  3. Part Three: Lyric Reprint Permissions.

In addition, you might want to understand the legal meanings of words like plagiarism, copyright and permission. A plain-English glossary of legal terms is available at and using their “Search Glossary” feature makes looking up particular issues simple.

This Stuff is Complex!

No matter how thorough a web site or how learned any layperson may be, these issues can be extremely complex; none of these resources is a substitute for legal advice tailored to your specific situation. I prefer to leave legal issues to lawyers, and focus my energy on writing. There are critical artistic elements that, in my experience, are truly compelling reasons to avoid song lyrics in fiction.

First, Consider the Reader

When I’m zooming along in a good story, it can stop me cold to be required to absorb a new cadence from an outside source. I wonder if I know the song or the performers. If I don’t, I’m frustrated and the lyrics become unwelcome noise in my reading experience. I skip them. I expect the writer to provide all the information, imagery and mood anyway. If she doesn’t, I’m even more at a loss.

If I do know the song, I think about the words. I hear the music. I struggle to read the lyrics at the pace to match the music. Maybe I go get the CD.

Whatever the result, I’m no longer reading the writer’s wonderfully paced work, that’s for sure. I’m now confronted with yet another person’s world, not that of the author. The bond between the author, the characters and the reader is snapped.

Second, Consider the Shortcut You Want to Take

When a writer says she wants to use a few lines form a song, what she usually wants to evoke is the entire song – music, performance and all. The lyrics alone don’t substitute for Janis Joplin’s grinding energy, the curl of Elvis’s lip or the melting rip in k.d. lang’s voice. They can’t replace a smoke-filled dive, a sweaty mosh pit or the cool refinement of a piano bar.

To fully realize the song’s impact, the writer has to invest energy in describing the music, performers, setting, style, rhythm, volume and so forth. If that effort isn’t put into the story, then the lyrics are being used not to augment but to substitute for what the writer isn’t evoking with her own words.

To say that another way, if song lyrics are vital to the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment, then in my opinion the writer isn’t doing her job as completely as she ought: someone else’s creativity is being used instead of her own.

If the writer has done her job with mood, setting, character reactions and imagery, the reader will feel the essence of the song without more than a passing reference to the lyrics. The song inspired the writer, and the reader no longer needs someone else’s verbatim words to bond with the story as the writer intends.

Last Reason for “No, You Shouldn’t use Lyrics”

While it’s harder to capture the mood and impact of a song without citing the lyrics, I think describing music is an excellent skill for any writer to fine tune. Using words to capture one of the five senses in its pure form is definitely challenging. Bringing a reader to appreciate a song’s meaning, musical qualities and emotional content without citing the lyrics is a creative workout that strengthens a writer’s skills.

To me, the harder I work as a writer, the easier my work will be for the reader to enjoy and absorb. So while I may want to quote the words from “Fields of Gold” because thirty of them do what is going to take me three paragraphs, I put my effort into making those three paragraphs as meaningful and powerful as I find the song to be. A scene that began with a reference to the lyrical Sting ballad eventually needed no reference to the song at all; I felt I had captured its melting sensuality, warmth and simplicity. The scene was definitely the better for the inspiration and so were my descriptive skills.

None of the above means that referring to a performer, a song or the lyrics isn’t possible and even enjoyable for the reader.

Done with precision and care, a reference can resonate with the reader and not distract. For example,

A spaghetti strap of Jane’s cocktail dress slipped off her shoulder. Eyes sparkling, she leaned forward to accept Nancy’s kiss
It was too chaste for Nancy’s liking. Inside her head she could hear sultry encouragement from Bonnie Raitt, so Nancy decided to go for it. Whispering suggestively against Jane’s lips, she said, “Let’s give them everything to talk about.”

Those who know Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” will glide over the reference with a little extra zing. But those who don’t know the song get every piece of information they need to go right on with the story. In both cases, the reader builds an impression of Nancy: she likes Bonnie Raitt, she’d like to make out with Jane and doesn’t care who’s watching. A nuance here or there could paint Nancy as a shy suitor or an aggressive Don Juana. Instead of Bonnie Raitt, change the example to a reference to the Sex Pistols. What would the reader know about Nancy then?

Certainly, when penning a story set within a community — say, the lesbian community — or appealing to certain kinds of readers — say, lesbians — an author’s well-chosen references to “our own” performers and songs can both illuminate and celebrate by creating a familiar, welcome bond.

These kinds of references can enrich characterization and background, but they need to be done for conscious and deliberate effect. A character that has stated she doesn’t like country music, for example, wouldn’t be likely to refer to Johnny Cash lyrics. A character that adores opera might often refer to themes or motifs in specific operas as she confronts issues in her life.

Of Course There is an Exception

Quoting something unprotected by copyright, that is in the public domain means that copyright cautions don’t apply. In that case, while one may be free to quote the lyrics in question, the real test is still whether that’s truly necessary. Do these lyrics add to characterization and mood? Sometimes the answer is yes, in particular when the lyrics may be unknown to the reader.

As an example, in my Tunnel of Light series, the characters are deeply influenced by the religious music of Hildegard von Bingen, who died in the twelfth century. Her repeated imagery of blooming flowers, verdant gardens, dripping honeycombs, sacrificial blood, sacred love, unbearable yearning for another, and the uplifted voices of fervent virgins have all influenced the series. In a few cases I’ve quoted the original Latin and provided my translation. The actual quotations are sparing; I tried to live with the bare minimum and used what I did to evoke the medieval phrasing of that time period.

The themes of sacrifice, higher love and women in community I’ve used heavily, as well as the imagery of flowers, blood and unrequited desire. In some cases I wrote new lyrics for my pre- and re-incarnations of “Hildegard” that emphasize the mythic lesbian subtext I find in her work. I share that information as proof that every rule was meant to be reflected on and, perhaps, carefully and consciously broken. I’ve tried not to use more of my own “Hildegard” lyrics than I have of the real ones.

I still want the reader deeply bonded with the characters and not a handful of phrases that could break the mood. The lyrics are just a small part of a larger background canvas on which my story is painted.

As authors, we’re free to write our own song lyrics and put them in the mouths of our characters. In those situations, the same concerns (distraction to the reader, broken pacing and substituting only lyrics when an entire performance is what’s needed) should be considered.

Ultimately, Less is More

My own inclination remains that less is more.There can be circumstances where either legal issues may be moot or the motif of a song you can get permission to quote from is so tied to the story that presenting the lyrics would actually help the reader. If either of these instances is the case, be prepared to stand your ground with documented proof of your right to use the work. Publishers do not want to print a work only to have to destroy it because it contains copyrighted material used without permission. Frankly, the presence of lyrics in your manuscript may make a publisher reject it out of hand — why begin your quest to publish your work with a significant strike against it?

Fertile Creative Sources are All Around Us

The glory of sunrise on a grove of goldenrods, the sensual softness of a freshly washed baby or the passion of a ballad that rips our hearts to bits. Songs, or any work by someone else, for that matter, can be creativity-provoking. Why be distracted by legalities when channeling that inspiration into our own words is far more rewarding? Delighting, intriguing and ensnaring the reader into our stories is the point of our hard work, isn’t it?

Allowing inspiration from all sources to blossom in our work is worth the creative struggle; it’s where a writer’s focus belongs.

Follow-up Blog: Asked and Answered

© 2006 Karin Kallmaker
Appeared at May 2006
Copyrighted material.

Based on Actual Events or People – Are There Issues?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Just Like That

cover Just Like That by Karin Kallmaker

Question from a New Writer

How careful does a writer have to be when using real people or events in their lives in a story?

There are, I’m quite sure, legal realities that answer this question, but it’s easier to wrap my mind around the ethical issues. I am usually upfront with people over small stuff, e.g. “That’s a great line, I’m going to steal it” or “gorgeous photo of an alpine meadow–I think I’d like to set a scene some place like that so tell me all about where this is, how you got there…”

Over something larger, like a significant life event, I guess I’d first say I don’t think anything I’ve ever written wasn’t inspired by true events as my usual genre (romance) is grounded in reality.

When I hear a moving personal account of something in someone’s life I can’t help it – it gets sucked into the creative soup. The story (abuse, grief, guilt, survival challenge, whatever) gets mixed around with everything else that ends up in there. It may or may not surface again.

If it does, then I try to match the issue with the character I’d like to write about–to match up two creative impulses into a single character, and a single story.

Stirring the Creative Soup

For example, stories I’d read about the drought and struggling grape crops in Europe and the casual comment about the state of business from a guy who poured wine tastes in Napa, met up with wanting to tell a tale about a woman whose business is failing because of her adorable but absolutely feckless parent. Scraping hard, parts of the novel are based on actual events (and an homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), but the final result, Just Like That, was a long way from where those impulses began.

There’s Real and then there’s Authentic

That being my creative process, I work hard to make sure none of my characters resemble friends and family except perhaps in the odd trait or quirky pattern of speech. When a friend offers up a habit of dipping her fries into her strawberry shake…you gotta use something like that.

I want my characters to be real to me, as her own person. And while a single event in the life of someone I know might intrigue me, I usually take it from there by generalizing the experience to lesbians, to women, to human beings, and look at whatever those events were in larger contexts.

I research other actual events (never fiction) of a similar nature. I learn more about whatever it is. Shake it up, then pour into my character what makes sense to her life given the background and personality I’ve given her. She is fictional, but she is an authentic representation of a person who could exist.

It’s Still My Own Creation

If I know the original source of inspiration, I will generally let whomever know that they were inspiring, but make it clear that while they might see touches of their experiences here and there it is still fiction, and I’ve taken care so that no one can say “Oh that’s so-and-so.”

Reflecting on my process, I think it’s ethical , but I can’t say I set out to make it so. It just feels right to me. I like to write characters who are both specifically real and universally meaningful, and who are my own creation.

Copyrighted material.

Goldie Finalists Announced for 2006 Awards

Karin Kallmaker Awards and Reviews, Just Like That

Bell Book and Dyke cover
Hurrah! Bell, Book & Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians is among the finalists for the 2006 Goldie awards! The category is Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Speculative/Horror, but BBD also has a decided erotic edge in its quartet of novellas about lesbians and real magic in their lives.

cover Just Like That by Karin KallmakerMy collaborators and I are all thrilled at the reception the series has had so far; last year’s Once Upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians was shortlisted in the Lambda Literary erotica category.

I feel an embarrassment of riches in that my own Just Like That is shortlisted this year in the Goldie romance category. Last year, Sugar was one of the winners, and I even got to hug Radclyffe.

Copyrighted material.

Society of Women

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

Golden Crown Literary Society logo

I hope everyone will pardon a brief commercial for my absolutely most favorite lesbian event ever (okay, event with more than 2 women in the room) and that’s the Golden Crown Literary Society annual convention. This year it is in Atlanta, June 8-11, and already the list of attending writers, publishers and editors is lengthy and star-studded. And we’ve just been informed that Ann Bannon will be speaking!

Check out the list yourself — more names are added every day!

If you love lesbian fiction of all genres, this convention is for you! I’m proud to be a sponsor again this year, and spending time with readers and other writers is great.

Here are links to THE CONVENTION (check out the photos from last year!) and the Golden Crown Literary Society. You don’t have to be a member to attend, of course, but $10/year includes membership on the main discussion list for the Society, where I have learned more about what I do than any writing class I’ve ever taken.

End commercial. Think about it, though. Okay, I’ll stop now. It’s just so fun. Really.

Might I be so bold as to ask how much sex is enough?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

Happy smiling blonde

Every genre has its conventions and the sex should always be about the characters and the plot. I think it is possible, even in these days of explicit romances, to pen a lesbian romance that does not have a “sex scene” per se – but it must have lust and passion or the reader won’t buy that “love and happy ever after” premise you spent several hundred pages selling.

Whether it’s suds in the shower or yahoo-bucking-bronco sex is determined by the plot and characters. I know what doesn’t work, and I see it time-to-time in thrillers and mysteries mostly, both in novels and on screen. Roger Ebert dubbed it the SOLI: semi-obligatory lyrical interlude. That’s when our hero stops all thought and activity relevant to main story and has some soft-focused encounter with a hot babe during which personal thoughts and warm fuzziness are explored.

After which the encounter, personal thoughts and warm fuzzinesses are never referred to or experienced again except, perhaps, at the very end when the hot babe shows up for some epilogue activity (if she didn’t die after the encounter to provide some kind of cliched motivation for our hero’s blood thirsty destruction of everything in her/his path).

Not that the hero can’t have an SOLI – but it needs to tells something about the hero or in some way further the plot. I always think it demonstrates that the hero is easily distracted from the task at hand but it seems very rare that that was what the author meant.

So make it make sense. If none or Energizer Bunny makes sense, then go for it.

Copyrighted material.

About that nasty e-mail from a reader…

Karin Kallmaker Book News, Craft of Writing, Readers and Libraries

Happy smiling blondeOne of the things writers do when we gather is compare not just the good, but the bad side of putting our work into the public marketplace… so this was my answer to the question.

“What do you say when an e-mail is mean or vicious?”

Generally, I don’t argue with someone’s opinion. They’ve a right to it. If they are thoughtful, I draw them out because I want to understand why they feel that way. But it’s not my place to tell them they ought to like something they don’t or that it’s obvious they’ve only recently graduated from See Spot Run.

There are people who want to start a fight and I decline to engage unless for some reason I am cornered. I did not answer an e-mail from someone who accused me of being irresponsible to gay youth by presenting lesbians who had sex outside of relationships. (I suspected I was being baited by some fundie.) Nor did I respond to a hostile accusation that I had portrayed a family culture of incest in one of my books. At a reading someone made a disparaging remark about “trashy romances” which I answered with ever-so-much sweetness, channeling Julia Sugarbaker the whole time. I think I was a southern belle in a previous life.

I have a protective umbrella called “inappropriate boundaries” that opens right up under certain circumstances, and I will not answer some e-mails, regardless of their other content. Outright hostilityand disrespect are two of the triggers. Malice and spite speak for themselves – they deserve no answer.

The other trigger is “uh oh.” I didn’t answer the e-mail from someone who said “she” had read all my books and probably knew me better than my partner, and went on to speculate how I liked sex. I kept it but didn’t answer it and fortunately have never gotten anything like that again. Ewwww. The least someone could do is chat me up for awhile before going to that level.

I’ve never had to deal with a reader being inappropriate in person, thank goodness. And there have been times for no reason I could specifically point to, I felt that the writer was inauthentic. They said they’d read my books and asked a question that didn’t seem quite right if they had indeed read my work. Maybe it was the precision of their questions that seemed to prompt a knee-jerk reaction that if I responded, the exchange would end up in some public forum on the Internet. I realize that sounds paranoid, but I got that “uh oh” feeling and chose not to answer.

One thing I have learned: there is no such thing as privacy on the Internet. Expect anything you say in e-mail or on a list to be forwarded. I know that everyone must have had at least one experience with a real live person who violated their trust and repeated something private, so why would you expect better behavior from strangers, especially those who can wreak havoc in anonymity?

Copyrighted material.