Alisa KwitneyAuthor Biobvv

Alisa Kwitney is the daughter of science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and journalist Ziva Kwitney. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, back when you always carried a bit of spare cash so as not to disappoint the muggers.

At Wesleyan University, Alisa failed to get accepted to various creative writing courses but found a mentor in SF/Fantasy author Kit Reed. Alisa went on to receive the Horgan prize for best short story, but to her eternal regret, she dropped out of Joe Reed’s film course, not realizing that A) she would really need to perfect her visual storytelling skills or that B) one of the TA’s was Joss Whedon, future creator of Buffy and Firefly.

After graduation, Alisa worked as a newspaper reporter in Miami before returning to New York to attend Columbia’s MFA program in fiction, where she continued to supplement the required reading with comics and romance novels. Her MFA thesis, Till the Fat Lady Sings, was published by HarperCollins and reviewed in The Sunday NY Times.

While her classmates went on to work for literary publishers and magazines, Alisa applied for an assistant editor position at Silhouette and DC Comics, where she wound up working for Karen Berger on titles such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Alisa went on to become a full editor at Vertigo, the mature/dark fantasy imprint of DC Comics. For seven years, she enjoyed the luxury of a window office and the indescribable pleasure of being paid to tell other people what she thought.

Then she left it all behind to write full time.

These days, Alisa Kwitney lives in the Hudson River Valley, two hours from her beloved Upper West Side with her husband, son, daughter, two emotionally dependent Burmese cats and a big, extroverted Chinook dog.

Alisa has written some half a dozen novels, two coffee table books, and assorted comics and graphic novels. Her novels, which have been described as “romances laced with satire and a mainstream flair” (Library Journal) have been translated into Russian, German, Japanese, Norwegian and Bahasa Indonesian.

She also writes dark fantasy/paranormal romance and science fiction under the name Alisa Sheckley.

Want to learn more about Alisa and her writing? Read her full interview with Tim O'Shea!
Connect with Alisa on Facebook!

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Photo: copyright Trix Rosen

February 2014

The Insider’s Guide to Sexy Reads: What to Get Yourself For Valentinen’s Day

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and the usual triad of “chocolates, roses, diamonds” is being advertised 24/7. At some point, someone on the evening news is sure to mention 50 Shades of Grey, the book non-romance readers read when theyn’re looking for something sexy. NPR and the New Yorker are sure to deliberately misunderstand what readers want when they google “sexy” and “book” and suggest a number of titles in which people either obsessively think about sex, or else have some and then suffer for it.

Ridiculous. Doesn’t anyone on prime time understand that intelligent women also want to read sexy books? I donn’t care how intellectual you are, that book they made into a film with Jeremy Irons shtupping his daughter-in-law is not exactly a turn-on.

So if it’s passion youn’re looking for, here are some books that deliver.

If You Like Dark Thriller Romances with Brooding, Dangerous Heroes:

Shannon Mckenna: Standing in the Shadows, Extreme Danger. These aren’t the first in the series, but they are my favorites. Later on in the series, some paranormal elements come into play, but these books are straight thriller romances.

Anne Stuart, Ice Series: On Thin Ice, the most recent, is my favorite, because the hero reminds me of a modern day Jaime Lannister type. (If this means nothing to you, go watch Game of Thrones. Really. Itn’s as good as they say.) The fun of Ms. Stuart is you get to go on an exotic adventure (Paris, South America, Japan) with the kind of anti-hero who seems like he is just too dark to be anyonen’s happy ending – and yet, there is a happy ending.

Lisa Marie Rice: Ms. Rice specializes in heroes who are honorable but so overcome with desire they can barely function (unlike Ms. Stuart, who specializes in heroes who might kill you). Midnight Man is the first in this series, which I recall binge-reading one after the other.

Cara McKenna: After Hours. Cara McKenna (no relation to Shannon) writes gritty, blue-collar, working class heroes that you can just about smell. (In a good, hard-working man sweat kind of way.) This selection, set in a mental health facility (hero and heroine are both employees) is about as elegant as a cold beer and bacon cheeseburger, and just as satisfying.

If You Like Your Heroes with a Touch of Quirk and Humor:
Charlotte Stein: Almost Real, Sheltered, Restraint: Think Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones reimagined as erotica. Ms. Stein writes in a variety of different genres, from science fiction to historical to contemporary, and some of her books focus on triads instead of couples. Whatever the subject or the number of players, she manages to convey lust, love, neurotic self-doubt and humor, often all in the same scene. My favorites are Almost Real (science fiction), Sheltered and Restraint (contemporary).

Delphine Dryden: The author’s website lists her genres as erotic romance, steampunk and naughty geekery. The Theory of Attraction, with its socially awkward scientist hero, falls into the latter category.

Meg Maguire: This is actually Cara McKenna’s more romantic alter ego. Thank You For Riding captures her insider knowledge of working class Boston in a romantic tale of commuter woe.

Kylie Scott: This Australian writes love stories (between humans) set during the Zombie Apocalypse. Now, I love zombies and I love romance, but too many authors seem to feel that come the zombie apocalypse, women will be helpless victims. Ms. Scott has a different vision, and her heroes feel like real people. Best of all, she manages to serve up some humor with her walking dead. The aptly titled Flesh and Skin will leave you hungry for a follow up.

What books are you reading this Valentine’s Day?

December 2013

Contrived Conflict vs. Not Enough Conflict in Contemporary Romance

Which is the worse story sin, contrived conflict, or not enough conflict? Stories without enough conflict tend to go limp, usually right around the middle of the story, when all the initial excitement of meeting intriguing characters and learning the story world settles down.

But stories with contrived conflict have a different problem. They have the right shape and hit all the key plot points, but like tofurky, they just donr’t taste like the real thing.

A lot of contemporaries lack the kind of conflict that keeps things jumping in other romance genres. In historicals, heroines face ruin, or a life without physical intimacy or the possibility of children, or both. In suspense, the stakes are life and death. In paranormal, there is usually a Big Bad threatening not just the hero and heroine, but all of humanity.

What contemporaries offer, though, is the resonance of conflicts that are more like the ones readers face in the real world. Some contemporary conflicts I love: Working at a career you love, but which leaves you no time for a personal life; recovering from a long illness and losing a sense of yourself as a sexual being; finding it difficult to trust a new romance after being betrayed by an old love; not recognizing a potential partner because he is younger/older/belongs to a different ethnic or religious group.

When it comes to conflict, perhaps itr’s not the size that matters – itr’s all in how the author uses it. What do you think? Read any great contemporaries lately? Let me know at: https://www.facebook.com/alisa.kwitney.sheckley?ref=hl

September 2012

Just finished my Marvel Avengers novel, and now I'm trying to catch my breath and figure out Scrivener before launching into my next project. I'm also trying to resist the siren call of new fall clothes I don't actually need (schoolboy blazers! Liberty print boyfriend shirts! A choker with a pendant made from Haunted Mansion wallpaper!) Is it just me, or does the slight nip in the air make everyone want to dye their hair auburn? I do realize that this will not transform me into Natasha Romanova, but it's hard to resist the fantasy of becoming a dangerous, glamorous redhead.

I'm also catching up on my reading: Finished Gone, Girl, and am onto Tana French's wonderful In the Woods. I've got a batch of other things I'm dying to dive into, including an old book about everyday life in tsarist Russia, which I ordered off the internet. Oh, and I'm also reading Caitlin Moran's hysterical How to be a Woman and Eric Maisel's book Coaching the Artist Within. My father gave me Maisel's book The Van Gogh Blues in 2005, and I've dipped into it again and again. Now I'm going to Maisel's intensive writing course at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck this October – a reward for managing to complete my Avengers book in three months (not my idea, that's how long they gave me!)

I'm also looking forward to catching up on my TV watching. I'm late to the party for Dr. Who and Game of Thrones, but I'm finally joining. Also want to try Homeland. I just discovered a weird, Secretary-like movie called Girl on a Bridge with Vanessa Paradis as a suicidal waif rescued by a sexy circus knife-thrower. (I was doing research on circus Impalement Arts because the Avengers' Hawkeye was trained in them.)

You can see an over-the-top clip on YouTube.

January 2012: How to Rewrite a Novel without Losing Momentum, Faith, or Your Mind

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a hill, watch it roll back down, and then start all over again. When you begin a rewrite of a novel, you may feel like Sisyphus had it easy. After all, at least he knew exactly what he had to do.

You, on the other hand, have a tangled ball of plots and subplots that aren’t quite working the way you (or an editor or agent) want them to work. You may need to kill some characters and replace them with others. Worst of all, there’s great stuff in there, all mixed up with the not-so-great, and you’re not sure how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In your lowest moments, you may think you would rather throw the whole thing out and write something completely different. You may want to beat your head against the writing desk. You may actually lie down on the rug with the dog and make small whimpering noises until the dog huffs a sigh and gets up and walks away.

How do I know these things? I know these things because I have been there. These are my tricks for getting up off the dog rug of despair and enjoying – yes, that’s right, I said enjoying – the rewriting process.

1) Rewrite your synopsis.

Some writers are “pantsers” and write by the seat of their pants. Some writers are planners and use index cards or virtual index cards to chart every aspect of the book. Most writers, I suspect, fall somewhere in between. For me, a synopsis is like a rough driving plan to get me from New York to Miami, with room to take detours and taking in local color without losing track of my ultimate destination, or forgetting to visit Aunt Ida in Georgia.

Besides, rewriting a synopsis is a lot less scary than tackling the whole book blind. When rewriting your synopsis, you should:

a) Figure out the character arc of your protagonist. Then, ideally, figure out the character arc of your antagonist. How about the foil, (often the protagonist’s best friend?) Does the love interest have a character arc? Is there a mentor in the story, and if so, does she or he get a character arc?

I would say that at the very least, every point of view character requires a clearly defined character arc.

b) Think of the key scenes. Sometimes the key scenes may already exist in the previous draft. (Yeah, that’s right, the book you slaved over for months or years is now a draft.) Sometimes you may need to jettison the old structure in order to take advantage of a new possibility.

For example, in my rewrite of a novel about a woman haunted by the ghost of her ex-boyfriend, I added a character (a perfect on paper living boyfriend) who wants to take my protagonist away on a romantic weekend. For the longest time, I kept thinking I needed to have my protagonist lose the not right boyfriend before the trip took place, because I was still wedded to my old structure. Then I realized how funny it would be if my ghost decided to tag along, uninvited, on the romantic weekend.

One way to think of key scenes is to figure out the pivotal moments of the plot, using the writer’s journey template, or any of the tried-and-true screenplay beats.

Another way is to think of what you want to write. Do you long to write a great comedy set piece, where all your characters come together? Do you want to write a great dramatic scene, where a character is forced to make a wrenching choice? Every story has certain scenes – not always crucial ones, mind – that really stand out. In the movie Enchanted, there is a throwaway scene where the princess, trilling a Snow White style song, enlists the aid of thousands of cockroaches to clean an apartment. In the Hunger Games, one of my favorite scenes is one in which the gruff, no-nonsense huntress heroine meets her tittering crew of makeup and costume people.

c) Think of tests. Think of ways to test your protagonist by playing on his or her weaknesses  -- or on his or her hidden strengths.

d) Don’t forget food. Eating and drinking are a huge part of our daily lives, and sometimes they get left out of stories. It doesn’t take long for hunger or thirst to occupy most of our thoughts, and including food in a story can help ground it and make it feel real. You can use this for scenes where you need to deliver expository information, or want to play with abstract concepts.

2) Okay, now go through your original manuscript and tag pages or phrases that absolutely should be saved. Make a list and check back with it as you embark on your rewrite. (This keeps you from constantly having to reread the old draft, which takes a lot of time.) You may find, as I did, that some of these do wind up getting cut, but by the time you find that out you won’t feel as bad about it.

3) Now you have a plan for moving forward, a set of fun things you want to write, and an easily accessible check list of things from the old draft that you know you want to include. You’re ready to get rewriting. And remember:

“Books aren’t written. They’re re-written.” Michael Crichton.

August 2011

Endings. There’s an old chestnut that says that beginning writers have difficulty with endings, and seasoned authors have trouble with beginnings. The reason: An experienced writer knows the seeds of the ending must be planted in the beginning.

Yet the truth is, experienced writers sometimes have trouble with endings, too. (Yes, I am speaking of myself!) While wrestling with my own ending issues, I came up with the following types of ending problem:

1) Circling the runway. The plot is clearly ready to come in for an ending, but for some reason outside the story (page count requirement, or the desire to create one last twist like the screenplay writing books say is required) the plot decides to make one more revolution, serving up a surprise that isn’t really a surprise, a revelation that isn’t really a revelation, or a complication that just makes the reader want to skip to the resolution.

Fix: Don’t do this. When your plot is ready to end, end it. Or come up with a twist that feels psychologically and emotionally authentic for the characters.

2) Suddenly, right in the final section, the story switches genres (from romance or romantic comedy or women’s fiction) and becomes action/adventure or thriller or farce.

Fix: Maintain the tone and proportion of suspense to humor or quiet emotion. You can go quite dark in some kinds of comedy, but only for very short amounts of time. In the film Crazy, Stupid Love there is a moment where a main character is suspected of doing something both illegal and immoral. In a different kind of story, this could have taken the whole plot to resolve – in this film, it was brief enough not to change the flavor of the story.

3) The final resolution is brought about by a character’s thinking really hard about things and, all on his or her own, coming to an internal epiphany.

Fix: Provide some external conflict or external catalyst (which could be an external memory trigger) that keeps the final moment from becoming too cerebral.

4) The crisis at the end of the story is resolved almost before it has a chance to become a real problem. This is more of a prose writer’s problem than a screenplay writer’s issue, and it is, in a sense, the opposite of #2. It’s the fiction equivalent of flipping your omelet before it’s set.

Fix: If there’s a misunderstanding, let it blossom as far as it can without changing the tone of the story (see #2.) It’s also a good idea to add a little insult to injury. The classic example of this is a sudden rainstorm drenching the protagonist, so if at all possible, avoid using this device. Get creative! Life has so many ways of messing you up. Recently a friend’s car was stolen, and then found and impounded, and she was charged for the time the car was impounded. Now that is insult to injury.

July 2011: Midnight in Paris: A Review (Spoilers Alert!)

Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris” has been celebrated as a joyful, charming, exhilarating romantic comedy, up there with the best of the genre. It’s not. It is however, a charming film, and there is such a lack of charming films these days that I don’t regret the time and money spent watching it.

Yet were “Midnight in Paris” a novel, written under a female name (Wanda Allen, perhaps?) about a protagonist named Jill instead of Gil, this story would be called chick lit and lambasted for its shallow, often clichéd portrayals of ugly rich Americans, bohemian artists and writers and Paris itself.

Since it’s Woody Allen, no one seems to notice that in this Disney version of Paris, no Parisian minds speaking English to the Americans, who don’t bother to learn a word of French. Real, and interesting, cultural differences are ignored, and we are made to understand that the protagonist “gets” Paris because he likes to walk its streets in the rain, as opposed to driving through them in a cab.

His fiancée, who plays “Pragmatic” to Gil’s “Romantic” doesn’t get a fair shake. Since she’s apparently a rich man’s daughter who does not work herself, (something that reeks of old-fashioned sexism) her argument that Gil keep writing screenplays so they can live in Malibu shows her as selfish, greedy and shallow. But what if the fiancée were a working woman? What if she didn’t feel comfortable marrying a man whom she might need to support if his novels didn’t sell?

All other traces of conflict are washed away, as if by rain or magic, and what could be a pivotal meeting with a mentor (wannabe novelist Gil gets Gertrude Stein to read his manuscript) turns flat when Stein (superbly played by Kathy Bates) pronounces Gil’s work wonderful.

Since a central conceit of the film is that the main character needs to learn to let go of his illusions about the past being not just a different but a better country, it would have made dramatic sense to have Gil face disappointment there, and perhaps a critical choice. Instead, the film resolves with such improbable neatness that it is clear that we are not in Paris, past or present, but in the Disney version of Paris, where there is no litter, no cigarette butts, no dissonance and no depth.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment by sending me an email at alisa@alisakwitney.com or on Facebook.

February 2011: Better Than Sex

My pic for best movie to watch on Valentine’s Day, either with or without someone special, is the 2000 Australian romantic comedy Better Than Sex. The plot is neither original nor clever: A couple of thirtysomething singles meet at a party, hook up for what they expect to be a one night stand, and wind up making love for three days. On the third day, the man has a plane ticket home to London, and the two must decide whether the magic was in the brevity…or could last for a lifetime.

What makes this airy popover of a film unusual and affecting is its air of naturalness and honesty – the two qualities which the lovers say they find so appealing in each other. The hero, played by the craggily attractive David Wenham, wonders if he is getting a little fat (he is not, but his firm, athletic body is not so sculpted that the concern seems absurd) and forgets to put the toilet seat down. The heroine, played with very un-Bridget Jones like self-possession by Susie Porter, has a lovely but not Hollywood-perfect body, complete with freckles, a couple of moles and breasts that do not defy the laws of time and gravity.

The sex, too, is portrayed as imperfect as well as passionate. In voice-overs, we are privy to the character’s thoughts as they kiss and caress, and these internal monologues range from the disarmingly frank (“I was so close,”) to the amusing (“a quarter stick of butter…a cup of flour…two tablespoons…ooooh.”) As the couple get to know each other better, their playful passion becomes something more.

In most Hollywood films, passionate sex is depicted as the perfect union of two flawless bodies. In this film, which only opened on seven screens in the States back in ‘01, the hero and heroine are comfortable enough in their own skins to embrace the lusty, generous and sometimes awkward reality of someone else’s body.

August 2010

Am nose down, trying hard to finish the ghost of the dead ex-boyfriend, which now has a working title I really love: The Rules of Haunting. How it came about: At the Romance Writer’s of America convention in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, having coffee with my agent, the wonderful Meg Ruley,  who asked me if I had worked out the way ghosts functioned in my world.

“I’m a science fiction geek,” I said. “Of course I figured out the rules of haunting.” And Meg said, “that, my girl, is your title.” I think she was right.
 
In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve been reading.
 
One Day, by David Nicholls.
 
For once, a cover blurb that means what you hope it will mean – that if you like the books of the blurbler (the clever, emotionally resonant Nick Hornby) you will also like the book in your hands. Like all much-hyped books, this one is about due for a cultural smack down, but I’m not afraid to be part of the mainstream when the mainstream gets it right. Want quibbles? The book (which tracks the events of in the life of Dex (the hero) and Em (the heroine) on July 15 over the course of twenty years) is as cleverly structured as a corset, which can be good, but also a bit confining.
 
Final verdict? Nutritious and Delicious, my highest praise. I’m currently reading one of NIcholl’s earlier novels, The Understudy, and enjoying it.
 
The Day the Falls Stood Still, by Cathy Marie Buchanan
 
This literary novel is, at its heart, a historical romance, and it evokes life for a young girl at the turn of the century in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side) with precisely observed language and exquisite detail. Romance fans will love the innocently sensual courtship between 17-year-old Bess Heath, living in impoverished grandeur (not unlike the heroine of my beloved I Capture the Castle) and Tom Cole, the strong, clever, handsome riverman with a mystical sense of ebbs, tides and watery disasters. The book’s larger themes are similar to those on the now defunct TV series Lost (rationality vs. mysticism, skepticism vs. faith) but there are no smoke monsters, and the depiction of Bess and Tom’s marriage manages to be both realistically rendered and yet passionately true.
 
Note: Literary novel = Poignant Ending. Nothing damns a book to genre perdition faster than a happy ending, unless, of course, it’s a screwball satire. Which brings me to…
 
Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel.
 
Basically a science fictional rendering of a classic screwball comedy, Kessel’s mid nineties novel is a delightful hodge podge of The Lady Eve (except these father and daughter con artists travel through time) and Bringing up Baby (with a handsome, hapless scientist hero who has a rogue AI bodyguard implant in his head, and a dinosaur replacing the tiger at loose in the suburbs). Laced like dark ganache through this feather-light plot is some cutting social satire, as multiple versions of Jesus, Einstein and Shakepeare from as many alternate universes try to figure out how to handle lives stripped of context. Of course, this is a screwball, so the ending is happy.
 
ICE by Linda Howard
 
In this slim haiku of a romance novel, which I read in one long gulp, there are all the right ingredients: Ordinary heroine with extraordinary grit; Big, strong, noble, St. Bernard of a hero, hell-bent on rescue; and the kind of ice storm that flings you back into primitive concerns, like warmth, sustenance, shelter and thigh-quaking sex. There are also a pair of meth addicts who appear to be in better shape than seems probable, given their many resurrections. What’s missing, I suppose, is the careful layering Howard usually supplies in her novels. Subplot? There’s no time for that nonsense here. Mystery? We left that frozen on the side of the road. Nevertheless, minimalist Howard is still delicious, like a single, spare, perfectly cut bit of sushi.
 
And, last but not least:
 
Venetia, by Georgette Heyer, as read by Richard Armitage. It doesn’t get any better than this, even if I have started to imagine the actor (who played the devilish Guy of Gisborne) as ingénue, callow youth, pompous suitor and meddling matron, as well as the rakelicious Lord Damorel.

July 2010: An Ode to the Broodingly Bad Boy of BBC’s Robin Hood Series

I am obsessed with Guy of Gisborne. There. It’s out. It’s July, a time of year when clothing and inhibitions wind up in a puddle near the swimming pool, and all I can think about is Richard Armitage as the tall, dark, broodingly conflicted Guy.

Do I care that he dresses like an 80’s Goth biker boy? Not when he disrobes by firelight, broodingly fitting armor onto his leanly muscled torso. Do I mind that he rides around on his big, black horse like “The Great I Am?” About as much as Meg, the testy wench who coined that phrase. She was stuck in the dungeon cell next to Guy’s, and all it took was a casual “suck on your necklace, it will quench your thirst” to make her realize that she’d rather suck his face. (I know what you’re thinking, but I’m keeping this column PG-13.)

Do I mind that Guy occasionally torches houses and terrorizes peasantry? I do not. Guy is just misunderstood—by his writers. If I were writing Guy, the BBC series would never have ended the way it did.

 (Spoiler alert ahead)

Oh, Guy, why can’t you see that I should be your writer? Those others, they didn’t really appreciate you. That time when you were blackmailing Marian into marriage and she left you at the altar? I would never have permitted that. No, if it had been up to me, Marian would have been in your arms, and all through the nuptial celebrations, she would have cast you furtive glances, half aroused but denying it because she was still deluding herself about fancying that puerile punk, Robin Hood.

And then, as you went up to the marriage bed, she would have been panicked at the knowledge that you would see the wound on her stomach. And that’s where I would have had you learn that she was the mysterious masked vigilante you kept fighting. Oh, Guy, can’t you see how good it would have been? You, hopelessly in love (not to mention in deep, brooding lust) with Marian, finally pulling back her virginal dress to see the wound you had unknowingly inflicted.

You would have been shocked, angered, guilt-ridden – all your favorite emotions. And then, instead of consummating, you would have galloped off – I mean, first you would have gotten on your horse, then galloped off.

Next, and I’m not clear on all of this yet, you would have had to come back to defend your manor, and Marian would have fought by your side. You would have saved her from an arrow and been terribly injured.

 (Spoiler alert ahead)

She would nurse you back and then you would mutter things in your sleep that would reveal to her your true, tragic past, and how you took the blame for Robin Hood’s impulsive actions back when you were boys. Wouldn’t that work much better than finding all this out at the bitter end of the series? I mean, what good did that do, unless you were about to ride off into the sunset with Robin (a plotline I have also considered, mind you).

But whether or not you wound up with Marian or Robin, Guy, I would never have let your wicked sister gag you and leave you tied you down to the bed…without having something interesting happen afterwards. Not with your sister, of course. But did Isabella have to be your sister? She could have been your ward.

But you never even knew I was alive, and so you never found true love in the entire three year run of Robin Hood. In any case, Guy, you live on in my imagination, still balancing on the knife’s edge between head and heart, between evil and redemption, between mullet and grunge.

And in the end, Guy, I will find a way to write you. Under a different name, perhaps, and losing the homicidal tendencies. Maybe your father won’t literally be a leper. And I might tweak your wardrobe, because in real life, men who wear top to toe leather tend not to be terribly introspective.

Did I mention that I would make you more of a reader? I really think you should be more intellectual, which, I grant you, wasn’t easy in the Middle Ages. But you could have picked up a copy of Christine de Pizan’s “The Book of the City of Ladies” on your travels, couldn’t you? Damn right you could, and when I write you, you will.

In the meanwhile, I’ll just go suck my necklace.

June 2010: Ladies’ Choice: The Job of Your Dreams, or The Man

Thought that you might be able to dream of the perfect job and the perfect mate? Dream on. The star of ABC’s new Bachelorette, 25-year old Ali Fedotowsky, has gone on record saying that she is choosing to follow her heart, which means quitting her job in advertising to pursue full-time dating.

Fedotowsky did not always value dating over career. Last season, she was one of the numerous single women competing for one single man on ABC’s show The Bachelor. Considered one of bachelor Jake’s top potential choices for possible girlfriend/fiancée, Fedotowsky reportedly stunned viewers with her choice to leave Jake, and the show, when her bosses back home threatened to fire her.

One has to dig around on ABC’s official website to find an actual description of Fedotowsky’s dream job – account manager in online advertising. Yet while this may not be everyone’s idea of a plum position, it seems a bit strange that the show’s producers have decided to treat it as the job that dare not speak its name.

Apparently, ABC believes that high status jobs such as “pilot” and “doctor” add to a bachelor’s appeal, while a bachelorette’s allure is based on other attributes.

In any case, Fedotowsky has seen the error of her ways. On ABC’s website, readers are told that “Ali surprisingly chose her career - a decision she still regrets. But it's not too late for Ali now. She's left her home, her job, her stability behind - letting go of everything this time -- to really make a life-changing commitment to put her heart first and take a second chance at finding true love.”

Anyone caring to find out more about the perky blonde can click on her bio, which seems to describe the kind of young woman who might have dreamed of all kinds of wonderful careers. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in psychology from Clark University in New England, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa as well as a former high school varsity soccer player.

On the other hand, given the choice between being the star of one’s own television show and an entry level job, few women I know would stick with the cubicle. So perhaps it’s not really a choice between Mr. Right and the Right Job – it’s a choice between Reality TV and Reality.

In which case, ABC should tell all the single ladies not to quit their day jobs. Dating may be hard work, but it’s not a career – unless you’re the next bachelorette.

May 2010

Just back from the Romantic Times Convention in Columbus, Ohio. RT is the kind of con where you pack a second suitcase for your fairy and vampire costumes, but my back had just gone out (the result of some overly enthusiastic dance exercises) and so I decided to pack light and go for the “I’m so cool and laid back, I only need one outfit” look.

In between workshops and panels (I sat on a comic book industry panel, gave a comic book writing workshop and co-led a steampunk talk with my roommate Liz Maverick/Edelstein, author and now digital marketing manager at Macmillan) I tried to find remedies for my crooked spine. At one point, Holly Black and I met for lunch and she actually got down on the carpeted floor in the middle of the hotel to demonstrate a stretch, for which I am eternally grateful. I also got to have dinner with senior Tor editor Melissa Singer, who, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Anne McCaffery’s quirkily sexy SF classic Restoree.

Was thrilled to see posters for Anne Elizabeth’s new graphic novel, Pulse of Power, which I had the pleasure of editing, and was intrigued by the funeral director’s con going on at the same time. (Had fantasies of a romance writer going into a funeral director’s room and getting bitten by an experimentally embalmed corpse, which turns her into a zombie who starts biting all the author authors.)

Last but not least, was stunned to discover an island of impossibly good food at the nearby North Market, where Liz and I discovered Jennie’s ice cream (goat cheese and cherries, lavender, Thai peanut butter and other impossibly strange and delicious flavors) and chicken wings (baked no less) so appealing that we had eight of them for breakfast one day.

Now it’s back to work on the dead ex book during the day, while rehearsing till midnight for My Fair Lady, which opens tomorrow at the Rhinebeck Center for Performing Arts. If you want to learn more about the peculiar pleasures of ensemble, come visit me on my author page on Facebook.

April 2010 — I am Spartacus

Let’s talk trash for a second. When it comes to Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the raunchy, gore-splattered Starz television series, I am a complete addict. Yet I tend to downplay my fondness for the show by saying “it’s deliciously trashy.”

But hang on a moment, Despite its over-the-top plotting and fondness for well-oiled full-frontal nudity and frequent decapitations, Spartacus is a riveting show for reasons that go beyond pulverizing and pulchritude. There is a palpable intelligence to the plot twists, as well as multi-layered characterizations. Like the gladiators themselves, the show is not just a mindless pleasure.

When I spoke to Tamora Pierce at Vassar’s Non-con in February, she admitted with a guilty smile that she, too, loved Spartacus. But should we feel guilty? Can a series – or a book – be considered trashy if it contains scenes of emotional heft as well as sex, violence and over-the-top plot elements? If so, then apologies, as they say on the show, but I am trashicus.

Comments? Thoughts? Join my fan page on Facebook or send me an email and let me know.

March 2010

Spring is here at last, and I am about to go to Miami for a week with my mother and kids. Unfortunately, my plan to whip my body into bikini shape conflicted with my need to whip my True Blood essay and next novel into shape. Now, the essay “Blue Collar Bacchanalia” is off to copy edits (it’s going to appear in an anthology from Smart Pop books) and my new novel is moving ahead at a good clip, but I’m not feeling like baring my abdomen on South Beach.

Fortunately, I had a few options. For years, swimsuits just kept getting smaller and smaller, but then swimmers kept getting bigger and bigger. Now, a woman can choose between monokinis, tankinis, girdle-like one pieces, shirred and ruffled one pieces, swimdresses and, for the ultimate in coverage, modest swimwear.

Modest swimwear even comes in different denominations: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. With names like Aqua Modesta, Sea Secret and Splashgear, these suits are throwbacks to the turn of the century, when just seeing a bare ankle at the beach was pretty heady stuff. There’s also agnostic swimwear for folks who fear skin cancer more than sensual sinning. Solartex is one brand my dermatologist mentioned, and they have a few jaunty scuba style suits I like, but would be embarrassed to wear around a pool unless it had a hammerhead circling in it.

Strangely enough, though, no one has actually come up with a modern version of the 1900’s swimming costume. If they had, I probably would have had to go for it – the thought of strolling down Lincoln Road in an outfit my grandmother would have found old fashioned would be rather delicious.

Instead, I’m opting for a one piece with a very low back. My back, as far as I can tell, still looks pretty decent. If I burn, though, I might regret my decision not to wear a bathing burka.

Valentine's Day

Admit it: Sometimes it’s difficult to forget the kids, the bills, the aches, the dead mouse smell from somewhere under the floorboards. But it’s Valentine’s Day and everyone should try to get a little action – with a partner, a lover, or one’s own imagination.

Of course, it never hurts to read – or reread – a romance novel to get in the mood. But sometimes you just feel like a little audiovisual action. Here are some of my favorite on-screen love scenes:

10. Richard Gere and Debra Winger in an Officer and a Gentleman. Sure, they hated each other in real life, but boy, does their animosity sizzle.

9. Spike and Buffy bringing down the house in Smashed, their season 6 fight/love scene. Jenny Crusie has a brilliant essay on her website about how the writers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer thought they were creating a metaphor of destruction, but viewers saw a different story.

8. True Blood’s Bill coming out of his grave, naked, to ravish Sookie. My favorite line: “Not the neck.”

7. True Blood’s Eric playing vampire mind games with Sookie.

6. The Bull Durham love scene montage: Toenail painting, bathtub sloshing, wild dancing and ropes. What more could anyone want?

5. The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. May they never try to remake it.

4. Secretary, with Maggie Gyllenhall. Quirky, kinky, singularly sexy.

3. The fiercely conflicted Guy of Gisborne in the BBC Robin Hood television series (Richard Armitage, in black leather no less.)

2. The two love scenes, one tender, one desperate, in A History of Violence. (Look for the the fraction of a moment where Viggo pauses and his wife drags him back down.)

1. The unbeatable “You know how to whistle” scene in To Have and Have Not.

February 2010

For my birthday this year, my husband bought me a Kindle. At first, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed. I felt as though I were a carriage driver who had just been given a shiny newfangled automobile as a present.

“I’m sorry,” I told my husband, “but I don’t want to read my books on a little screen.” Reading on screens makes my editing brain kick in. Reading on screens isn’t so great in the bathtub. And if readers like me start going digital, print books will die, and being published won’t result in an actual physical object, and pretty soon there won’t be any bookstores with actual books in them.

For me, that’s like contemplating the death of the sun.

But in the end, I kept the Kindle. Why? Well, first of all, because of Wolf Hall. My mother bought it in hardcover, and the mammoth doorstop of a novel about Henry the Eighth was exactly what I wanted to take on vacation. Except it was too big to lug around England. I’d probably get charged by the airline for going over my weight allowance, and then throw my back out trying to shlep it through the English coutntryside in my handbag.

And then there was my realization that even if I didn’t keep my Kindle, I wasn’t going to stop the barbarians at the gate. I went through this with computers (I clung to my typewriter until I was 23 and actually applied to Columbia’s MFA program by cutting and pasting with scissors and glue). I went through this with cellphones (I was always bumming one, like a smoker who doesn’t buy her own cigs).

So, for once, I’m going to be an early adapter. Or a late early adapter. I’ll be right there, after the innovators, learning to deal with change before the middle majority and the poor laggards who cling to the hope that people will stop listening to ipods because the sound is so crappy.

But I’m hearing that in the music industry, vinyl records are making a comeback. Buy one, and you get the download for free. I hope that’s the model for the book industry, as well.

Because half the fun of reading Wolf Hall is catching the eye of other readers and having them say, “I just read that,” or, “Is that any good?” Reading on the Kindle or some other reading device is like having headphones in your ears: It may be convenient, but it’s also isolating.

And that may be the new marketing tool for paper books. It’s hard to start a conversation with a blank grey metal shield in front of your face.

Have any thoughts about e-readers vs. print books? Send me an email at .

January 2010

For the first time since high school, I’m performing in a play. It’s a humbling experience. I had no idea I was so untalented. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. Back when I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, I did get an inkling of my limitations.

“How did you do?” My acting coach inquired.

“A girl ate me,” I said. “We were told to be animals, and I became a dog, and she became a snake, and she ate me. On stage.”

And in my non-performing high school, I never got a leading role in a play. So I can’t say I was completely ignorant of my lack of talent.

Still, I can carry a tune. I even have a nice voice, so long as nothing happens to shake me off key. And I can dance. To be precise, I can belly dance, having taken lessons after giving birth to my son in an attempt to get my tummy flat.

So when my pilates teacher told me she needed a belly dancer to shimmy in the temple scene in Jesus Christ Superstar, I didn’t think too hard about it. I have always loved JC Superstar, ever since I was nine and wailed “I don’t know how to love him” at my bathroom mirror every night for a year.

And this was regional theater, for crying out loud. So why not say yes? I said yes. A month later, I am a proud member of the Ensemble, joining in three big dance numbers plus the belly dancing, four quick costume changes, a few bouts of choral singing and a finale of discordant wailing, which I am actually quite good at. Along the way, I have learned that I have much less talent than I have ever suspected. But a whole lot of other people have a lot more talent than I could ever have guessed. Special Ed teachers. Postal workers. High school seniors. Seniors.

I may not be bound for thespian glory, but I figure there’s got to be a novel in this someday. Until then, I’m going to keep practicing that damn ball step transition, and trying to hold onto my feeble sense of alto self as I pass by a compelling tenor.

September 2009

I’m not canceling my plans to have a Madmen-themed birthday party in December, but I am beginning to wish I could go up to Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and chief writer, pour us both a couple of stiff Manhattans, and tell him to cut the crap.

Matt, I’d say, it’s terrific that you get all the little details right – cane backed seats on the subway, the sleek, almost pettable look of sixties modernism, so much more charming than the eighties version. But Matt, even though “the past is a different country,” what you did best was remind us that it wasn’t inhabited by aliens. Pre-revolution sixties folks weren’t the quaint, two-dimensional characters we’re used to from old sitcoms. And just because women wore girdles didn’t mean that they didn’t have sex.

So what’s up with Don and Betty’s melodramatically bad parenting? Yeah, I know early sixties child-rearing didn’t involve the degree of kid-centric thinking that it does today. And sure, my mom (pregnant with me) was told to smoke a cigarette to help digestion by her doctor. But in Madmen, you show Don and Betty as completely indifferent to their children’s emotions. I mean, not even a stiff smile and an inadequate “Mommy will buy you a new doll” or “you have to be strong, son”. Hell, no one even smiles at the kids.

And Matt, while you may still give me the ironic pleasure of watching Grandpa let little Sally drive the car (my uncle Paul did this with me, albeit on a country road) I can’t help but feel that I’m being manipulated. You don’t need to hit me over the head, Matt.

As the legendary adman David Ogilvey once said, “the consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”

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Signing books at the Romance Writers of America annual “Readers for Life” booksigning. Above: Washington DC, 2009. Below: New York City, 2003.

Comic Con in Manhattan: I scored a tribble that makes the happy sound and the argh, Klingon angry chirp, but couldn't afford this prototype for a leather Victorian trench.

Friday, October 12, 3:30 p.m.
NY Comic Con
New York, NY
>
Marvel Writers Prose Panel: Come hear about Marvel’s new prose
novels with Alisa Kwitney, Peter David and Stuart Moore.

Letting my hair down at the BEA book signing of The Better to Hold You and Moonburn in Manhattan May 2009.

Me, and the nice gentlemen I bought a steampunk corset from. (It's actually a kind of modest, armor-like model.)

Arisia Convention: Corsets, anyone? By the end of the weekend, nearly every woman at the con seemed to be wearing one.

 

 

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WHO IS ALISA SHECKLEY?

What made you decide to write a paranormal romance?

I actually wrote The Better to Hold You a few years ago, back when chick lit ruled the publishing scene and werewolves were considered a little outré. I was spending a lovely autumn weekend at the Mohunk Mountain House with my mother and kids. Mohunk is this big old Victorian hotel which looks a lot like the hotel in Kubrick's version of The Shining, and I started thinking about the wife in that novel. What if the wife had gotten her own dose of supernatural mojo, so that she’d be empowered to fight her possessed husband? As I continued to think more about the idea, it struck me that lycanthropy could probably be transmitted like an STD.

Why are you using a different name?

My agent and publishers all thought it would be better not to confuse readers, but the truth is, it’s probably a little confusing because I’ve already written dark fantasy as Alisa Kwitney – in comic book and graphic novel form.

How are the Alisa Kwitney novels different than the Alisa Sheckley titles?

The Alisa Kwitney novels are all romances laced with satire, or satires laced with romance. Some of them have vestigial mystery plots, or elements of detective fiction or espionage, but my main focus is always on relationships.

Alisa Sheckley novels still have romance and satire in them, but have a darker flavor. I also get to play with my favorite fantasy, horror and Science Fiction themes. In The Better to Hold You and its sequel, I focus on the therian (shape shifter) community of the town of Northside, but not all the citizens get hairy. The sheriff, Emmet, is a golem, and my heroine’s best friend, Lilliana, is a skilled empath who belongs to a mysterious group called The Discipline.

 

Do your characters always live in Manhattan and why?

Manhattan's kind of inexhaustible, because it contains so many different cities: The sexy city of Mahnolo Blahniks and Cosmopolitans, the kinky city with transgendered prostitutes and bondage clubs; and then there's the Manhattan with ten different flavors of psychologist per city block and the one with grimly amused cops from above one hundred and sixty eighth street. And they all brush up against each other, which makes for a lot of different story possibilities.

Plus, I have two young kids and I don't get to travel much.

How do you research your books?

Well, since I have school age children, I tend to do my research while the kids are at school. How much research I do depends on the book. For The Dominant Blonde, I made a few calls and interviewed some search and rescue divers, and reread my old diving manuals (I used to dive, and was certified in advanced, deep and night diving.) For Does She or Doesn't She, which was all about fantasy, I pretty much just made everything up. On the Couch was the first time I did a considerable amount of research before I began writing, mainly because it was so much fun hanging out with cops instead of sitting at home, typing away.

I've discovered you have to be careful what you research on the internet, though, because ever since looking up some of the kinky stuff for this new book, I get a lot of strange emails with subject lines like Make Your Girl Happy Tonite and frogspawn special cream results guaranteed!

Do you write comic books as well as novels?

I do. And even though it's suddenly become cool for serious writers like Michael Chabon to write comics, I am proud to report that I did it before it was cool, and will probably continue long after all coolness is past.

I used to work as a comic book editor (at Vertigo, the mature imprint of DC comics) and I've written two coffee table books about comics as well as one graphic novel (a dark fantasy/romance set in four different time periods) and some single-issue stories.

It's funny, I think a lot of comics readers look at romance and chick-lit and assume they wouldn't enjoy it, and vice versa. But I'd bet money that anyone who loves Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory's intelligent, richly layered stories would fall for Alan Moore's classic run on Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman's award-winning Sandman series. And then there's Terry Moore, who does great chick-lit from the male point of view in his Strangers in Paradise series.

Since comics have traditionally had a predominantly male audience and romance novels have had a mainly female audience, is your approach to writing comics and romance very different?

I think my comics writing has always informed by romance writing, and vice versa. For example, I always approach love scenes as if they were fight scenes: Whoever starts out on top, metaphorically, rarely winds up that way.

I think that when I’m fresh from writing a comic, I tend to be more visually oriented, which is why I like to go back and forth between writing scripts and writing prose. But I don’t really think about whether I’m writing for men or women. I just try to write the kind of books I’d like to read.

What exactly did you do on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series?

All the things assistant editors do: Log in artwork received, balloon pages and send them out for lettering, send lettered pages out for inking and coloring, check to make sure that the castrated male member in the Orpheus issue is colored so dark that it doesn’t look like what it is, nag the penciler for pages, nag the writer for pages, nag the cover artist for even a scrawled sketch on a paper napkin so as to know what to expect, nag accounting for paychecks. And write the letter column.

Do you write, or draw, or both?

I write. Like most comic book writers, I am capable of three doodles, in case someone requests a doodle at a signing, but that’s about all I can do. The fourth graders all thought I drew a pretty good Betty and Veronica on my daughter’s cast last year, though.

How is writing prose novels different than writing graphic novels?

Well, first of all, writing graphic novels (or comics, which are to graphic novels what short stories are to prose novels) is more like writing a screenplay. At least, that’s the way I was taught to write comics – as a full script, with descriptions of characters and suggestions for panel sizes and angles of shots. There are other methods, but I’m not as familiar with them.

I’m not sure if this is true of screenplay writers, but for me, writing a comic script requires a certain mindset. It’s not a good idea to start off thinking, How can I cram all my brilliant insights and observations into such a tiny space? It’s also not a good idea to give so much specific detail that your artist begins to fantasize about stuffing erasers down your mouth. In general, I think comics writing has a lot in common with poetry; you want to use as few words as possible.

What’s your advice to writers trying to get published?

Keep reading, and write what you enjoy reading. Focus on the story first, and make sure that everything you do is in service of the story. I think I wasted a lot of time – and paper – trying to write beautifully and brilliantly.

Who are your favorite writers?


Ah, this is hard. A very incomplete list of some of my favorite writers, culled from my imperfect memory, with a glance at what happens to be in my bookshelf at the moment.

Fantasy/SF
Peter Beagle, A Fine and Private Place

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

Connie Willis, Passage, To Say Nothing of the Dog

Zenna Henderson, Pilgrimage

Robert Sheckley, Mindswap, Untouched by Human Hands

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife,

Mike Carey, the Felix Castor novels

Comics Series
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

Alan Moore, Swamp Thing

Jamie Delano, Hellblazer

Garth Ennis, Preacher

Terry Moore, Strangers in Paradise

Romance
Jennifer Crusie, Crazy for You, Welcome to Temptation

Rachel Gibson, Lola Carlyle Reveals All

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Fancy Pants, Natural Born Charmer

Lavyrle Spencer, Twice Loved

Suzanne Brockmann, Over the Edge, and the other Troubleshooters novels

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm

Robin Schone, The Lover

Laurell K Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse, Circus of the Damned, The Lunatic Café

Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse series

Mystery/Detective
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

T. Jefferson Parker, Silent Joe

Carl Hiassen, Skinny Dip

Lawrence Block, Hit Man

John D MacDonald, The Travis McGee series

John Burdett, Bangkok 8

Literary
Robert Graves, I Claudius, Claudius the God

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Italo Calvino, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Jane Austen, Persuasion

Patrick Susskind, Perfume

Fay Weldon, Puffball

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Great Writers I Can’t Bear Reading
William Faulkner, and any writers described as Faulkneresque

Got a Question for Alisa? Ask Her!