The only New York Times Best-Selling Author I meet for coffee every Tuesday is Taylor Stevens who writes the Vanessa Michael Munroe "high octane character studies."
Taylor lives in Texas, Stephen Campbell, author of the Reno Hart PI series lives in Florida, and I live in Oregon, so we get together via podcast (which I'm not on, but even if I were, I'd probably have just as much to say). I love listening in.
I mentioned Taylor's newsletter way back in July last year. Her insightful messages on the publishing industry, the writing life, and just life in general convinced Steve to coax her into doing a podcast so that she could communicate with her fans. They started one to talk through everything that went into the release of Taylor's fifth full-length novel, The Mask.
I don't know if Steve had an ulterior motive from the beginning (he's a pantser, so I'm guessing that the idea just evolved), but the podcast that might have run only as long as there were things to say about the new release keeps going like the Energizer Bunny after more than a year.
The show now has a mission:
Now, I've listened to every episode. Taylor and Steve have such fun together that their topics are completely secondary to my enjoyment of the show, but somewhere along the way, Steve recruited Taylor as his personal writing coach. Taylor, being largely self-taught as a writer, has a different, more pragmatic take on a whole host of writing questions that many of us learned the wrong answers to when we were English majors.
One of the topics "The Critical Nature of the Inciting Incident" was absolutely crucial to the development of "The Catalonian Candidate." As I brought various chunks of the manuscript in to my critique group, I had more satirical observations of the political landscape mixed in with plot points. There was nothing awful about these sections. Nobody in the group could put a finger on what wasn't working for them, but there seemed to be a consensus of uncertainty. I finally figured out the common denominator. These sections weren't directly connected to the inciting incident. They were stopping the story instead of moving it along.
In the penultimate section Part Three: The Lady or the Tiger, I hope I put some tips from "How to Ramp up Tension in Your Manuscript" into play. Fingers crossed. If not, you can take points off for unskillfully adding plot thickener.
"How to get Backstory (Not Infodump) into your Book" didn't come along until I was finished. Still, based on my group's reaction, I had been forced to move a lot of backstory from satirical exposition to conflict-driven dialogue. Coming from a playwriting background, I was consciously trying to handle exposition without resorting to dialogue. My group responded better to the dialogue.
Over the past couple weeks we've been exploring what makes a good fight scene. "Punching up the Pacing and Tension in a Weak Fight Scene," is a wonderful practical example of how to make a particular fight moment more lively.
Anyway, it's a big coffee shop that spans from Florida, to Texas, to Oregon. Come join the fun.
If you're currently facing a writing challenge, check these episodes to see if Taylor and Steve have addressed the question. If not, send it to me and I'll pass it along.
If you're already listening, which of Taylor's episodes did you find particularly helpful?
Taylor Stevens Website (More about the Vanessa Michael Monroe Series)
Stephen Campbell's Website (Check out Steve's Reno Hart's story collection)
Last week, I overcame my ambivalence about print books (which greatly disadvantage upcoming authors because short print runs are more expensive than large print runs and margins are tighter) and attended a book launch out of solidarity with Lisa Alber. As an introvert, I understand how energy-sapping book launches can be. Especially the part of explaining to readers how important online reviews are.
Let me share a dirty little secret here.
While none of us would turn down a review in the New York Times and the one-day sales burst it would give us, it doesn't mean much in terms of selling e-books online (an area where upcoming authors can be competitive with bestselling authors). Sure, we can quote the review on our websites so that people who already know us can congratulate us. Sure, we can quote it in the page description on Amazon (the part that new potential readers can see IF they find our book in the first place and IF they click on "Read more.") But as I write this, Lisa's reviews in Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Crimespree Magazine mean less in terms of visibility on Amazon than reviews by Petra, Glückskind, and Giselle Karam. So, a heartfelt Mysterious News THANK YOU to Petra, Glückskind, and Giselle Karam.
Do you feel shy about writing a review? Don't be. Chances are no one will ever read it. Do you feel you don't have the time to write a review? You can write one in less than a minute. How much time did it take you to read the book? Worried about your spellllimg? Read some online reviews. Most reviewers aren't. And again, chances are really good that no one will ever read it. But if you ever want to read another book by the author you've just read, giving a star rating and a one or two sentence review will mean more to that author than you will ever know. Amazon's book recommendations are run by bots, not people. Every review counts whether literate or not.
Please leave a review on Amazon even if you bought the book at an indie local bookseller.
While you're leaving a review, read another review or two and if you think it's on the money, good or bad, vote it "helpful." Sometimes voting "helpful" an objective three-star review is as useful as voting "helpful" a five-star review if it steers away readers who wouldn't like the book.
If you're on Goodreads, please copy and paste the review there as well. Why not? You've already written it.
If you're not already on Goodreads, I'll just offer some friendly advice that Amazon owns Goodreads. By integrating your Facebook friends, you give Amazon access to that data. For a time, they were using this nifty integration to remove all reviews posted by an author's friends.
If you enjoy this newsletter, please share. Growing the list means more eyeballs on your next book release or review. Thanks!
The road to the White House is paved with seduction.
I'm sticking with that tagline for the time being. In determining the genre, so far it's been described as a "sexy thriller" and a "political thriller." If you're not caught up, subscribe for links to Part One: No Good Options and Part Two: The Trojan Horse.
If you still have questions about the "sexy" part, read on.
Note: If you are unfamiliar with the Habanera from Carmen, here's a version.
Previously on The Catalonian Candidate:
Desiree Perez laughed. “I have something to give you.”
She reached down and retrieved her shoulder bag from the ground. Butterfield moved toward Desiree but Kaplan got between them. “I was going to give it to you at the parade, but–”
Desiree took out a beautiful specimen of a large Pink Lady apple. She held it before him as an offering, cradled in her two palms. “From my orchard,” she said, looking him boldly in the eyes.
Morton took it from her hands and bit into it hungrily.
The limo started toward the exit ramp. Edouard leaned out the passenger window. “Hey, Desiree. You don’t chip in for the limo, you find your own way home!” He gave her the finger and the car screeched up the ramp.
Senator Morton looked at the fleeing accomplices and then back at Desiree. She just shrugged.
“Ah, that is Edouard.”
“And who is Edouard to you exactly?” Morton asked.
“Edouard is Edouard. I could say who Edouard is to me, but I do not wish to swear.”
“So how far do you have to go? Can we give you a lift?”
She looked down at first, as if embarrassed, and then off into the distance. Then she turned away from him but not completely enough for him not to notice her reaching into her robe’s pocket to surreptitiously count her money. She turned back to face him. Their eyes met briefly as she said, “You may take me home if you wish.” Then, just as quickly, she averted her eyes and blushed.
She looked him straight in the eye and put her hand over her heart. She was absolutely sincere about this. No question.
“The movements of flamenco are very sensual, and the dance has a sequence to it. It starts out very slowly and with great control. You must think of the sequence as an act of love. When I dance for you, I give myself to you. In the beginning, I disrobe before you. I lift my arms in surrender to you. I invite you to look. I conceal nothing from you. I thrust forward my breasts. Do you like my breasts? I thrust forward my– hips.” She made herself laugh. “I turn. This is my back. This is my ass. Do I shock you when I say such things? Shall I stop?”
He could open either door he pleased; he was subject to no guidance or influence but that of...impartial and incorruptible chance. If he opened the one, there came out of it a hungry tiger, the fiercest and most cruel that could be procured, which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces as a punishment for his guilt...
But, if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the most suitable to his years and station that his majesty could select among his fair subjects.
Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger
“You have my attention,” Senator Morton said.
“My dance proceeds from laying bare my body to foreplay,” said Desiree Perez. “I offer my body up to your caress. I respond to your caress. If I truly feel your touch, you can feel my body as well. As we begin to make love, the tempo increases, the movement hastens, and our temperatures rise. While at first we were in control of ourselves, you and me, now we give way to abandon. To really dance flamenco, I have to give myself over to our passion. I have to really feel your body merge with mine. I must forget all of my discipline, all of my training. If we do not lose our breath, if we do not break a sweat, what way is that to make love? I can practice the movements of flamenco without you. I cannot perform flamenco without you. As we give ourselves to each other, we must give up our control. We are no longer two separate people. We are a couple. And no one is in control. Do you see?”
“This is what separates the great dancers from the ones who are merely proficient,” she said. “This is why I will never be a great flamenco dancer.”
“I’m no expert on flamenco, but you show no lack of confidence.”
“I am completely confident, but I am not confident in myself. I am confident in love.”
She smiled back. “See, I can tell you do not believe me. It is okay. Perhaps it is wiser to be like you, to not believe in love.”
“I didn’t say that,” he said. “My professor said that.”
“It is hard for me to look anyone in the audience in the eye.”
“There I can help you,” he said. “If you’re nervous. You just look past the back row.”
She shook her head. “It is not nerves, Guy. I got over nerves long ago.”
He liked it that she called him Guy.
“You do not think of love when you speak. You think of doing what is right for the people. This is an emotion you can share with many, no? It is a public emotion.”
“When you make eye contact with people, some of these people are women, no?”
“Yes,” he said.
“And some of these women are attractive to you, no?”
He didn’t answer this time.
“And some of these women who are attractive to you, they look upon you with love, do they not?”
Again he didn’t answer.
“The look in the eyes of some of these women who are attractive to you, the look sometimes says,” she leaned in to whisper in his ear, “yes,” then immediately pulled back, “does it not?”
“You can’t pay attention to such things,” he said.
“You cannot ignore such things,” said Desiree. “You are not being honest with me. You cannot fool me. I know there are women out there who find you as attractive as I do.”
She seemed to shock herself with her own words. She put her hand over her mouth, pulled back in her seat, and looked straight ahead. “I cannot believe I said that. I am sorry.”
He could have changed the subject, returned to innocuous small talk.
After a moment, he said, “Don’t be. You’re right. Of course, I notice them. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t notice them. I simply do what other married men do in that situation.”
“Do you have many lovers?”
“No,” he said. “I remember my marriage vows.”
“But you have already broken your marriage vows.”
This topic was sometimes touchy with Morton. There were strict Catholics who viewed his divorce in a negative light.
“Am I wrong?” she asked. “Did you not tell me before that you placed public office above devotion to your wife? Did you not tell me that you chose your wives for reasons other than love?”
“That doesn’t mean I’ve been unfaithful, at least not to Selina.”
“You said that you remembered your marriage vows. Did you write your own marriage vows to exclude the word love?”
He didn’t answer.
“I believe you when you say that you resist these women who look at you with love in their eyes,” she said, “but it must be hard.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t hard.”
“Then you understand me,” she said. “You have seen me dance. This is how I sing.”
With a pure but not perfect mezzo soprano voice, she sang the “Habanera” from Carmen, just enough to give him the idea. “I first sang the ‘Habanera’ at fifteen. Even then I could see the men in the room looked like they’d just bitten into an habanero.”
She looked toward the front seat, smiled, and gave a little wave. Morton looked up to see Agent Butterfield looking back at her through the bulletproof glass. The singing must have been loud enough to arouse his attention. Butterfield noticed Morton. He returned his attention to the road.
“That is why Mama disapproves of karaoke contests,” she said.
“I would be the last person to contradict your mother.”
“Mateo and Edouard, they pressured me to enter. One night I won two hundred dollars for singing a few songs. It takes them many hours to earn as much picking fruit, so they think I am a fool for not entering as many contests as I can.”
“I can see their point, too.”
She smiled. “If you do not become president, you have a future in diplomacy.”
“Do you know why I chose the ‘Habanera’ to sing to you? You think it is because it is Spanish, no? Because it is set in Seville?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” he said.
“I sang it because it is French, monsieur,” she said. “Spanish is my native tongue. We spoke Spanish and English at home, but French to me is like a distant cousin. I used to think in Spanish. Now I think in English. I have never in my life thought in French. I know what the words mean. I hope I can sing them with the right feeling, but as I sing them, I do not think them. I surrender my heart but not my mind. I hold a little bit back.”
“I think all great performers must learn to do that.”
She shook her head. “I think you are wrong.”
“The truly great artists? They really do it. They fall in love every time. They feel it just as deeply every time. They go through all the ecstasy, all the vulnerability, all the pain each and every time.
“When I dance, when I sing, I must feel love. So when I look on the eyes of a man whose gaze returns that love, it is not so easy to resist. Guy, I have no desire to resist. My desire is to yield.”
“I can see where that could cause problems.”
“Mama told me when she knew she loved Papa. She said that the moment their eyes met they both knew. That is why Mama does not want me to perform. She is afraid that if too many men look at me the way that Papa looked at her, I will not be able to recognize when the man who truly loves me comes along. All the time with her it was ‘this actor got married. This actor got divorced. This singer got married. This singer got divorced.’ It happens all the time with celebrities. She says that it is because they can no longer recognize love.”
Though he had not thought about the volatility of celebrity relationships, he believed that her mama might have been on to something.
The Chevy Suburban pulled to a stop at the far side of a dimly lit trailer park. There were no street lamps because there was no street, just a paved strip that allowed residents to access parking beside their units.
“Is this where you live?” he asked.
She sighed and nodded her head as though Cinderella’s coach had just turned into a pumpkin.
“Here’s your robe.”
He handed it to her. She was in his lap. She took his face between her hands and pressed her mouth to his. It was not a short, innocent kiss. It was not a departing kiss. It was a starting kiss. She pressed her breasts to him. He could actually feel her nipples swell as they strained against their latex casing. How like skin that second skin was. And the way she wriggled until she situated herself sent shockwaves through him. He tasted her tongue. His hands cupped her breasts. How she breathed. How she moaned. She kissed more hungrily, greedily. It flickered through his mind that this could be a setup, that a photographer might emerge from the trailer, but he had no will to stop.
As quickly as she had started, she stopped. She looked deeply, searchingly into his eyes.
“Come with me,” she said.
She got out of the vehicle, slipped the robe back on, and receded from the headlights’ beam into the darkness, swaying above her stiletto heels. Butterfield looked back at Morton from the front seat and shook his head. Morton didn’t care. He got out and headed for the trailer. How long would this take? Twenty minutes tops?
Butterfield jumped out of the front seat to stop him.
“I can’t let you do this, sir.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“It’s against Secret Service protocol.”
“Good thing you’re private and don’t have to follow it.”
“I don’t care about the girl. If you like, we can secure the trailer, but it will take a few minutes.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
Morton tried to step around him, but Butterfield grabbed his arms to hold him in place.
“You’re fired,” Morton said.
“I’ll need that in writing, sir.”
Morton knew that he couldn’t overpower Butterfield. He knew that nothing he could say would budge him. He hastily took out his smartphone and typed the agent an email.
“There, you have it in writing. Now go back, kill the engine, and turn off those lights. I don’t want to wake her mother.”
Butterfield said nothing. He returned to the vehicle. It was a breach of protocol to turn off the engine, but off it went. And off went the headlights.
It took time for Morton’s eyes to adjust to the near pitch darkness. He felt his way along the side of the trailer until he found the door. He knocked softly. There was no answer. He knocked more insistently. The door opened about twelve inches. It was a sturdy door secured by a heavy chain, ironic, because you could have pried yourself into the trailer anywhere else with a decent can opener. His eyes could barely make out Desiree’s face.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“May I come in?”
“Mama is asleep.”
“We’ll be quiet.”
“You think you can make love to me quietly?”
How did she come up with these questions that no politician could possibly answer? If one of the networks hired her for a Sunday morning show, all male candidates would be goners.
“Then may I see you again sometime?”
She put her face to the door opening, and he kissed her. He reached inside to touch her. She unzipped the latex costume, took his hand, and guided it inside to touch her naked breast. She was hot to the touch. She reached for his belt and pulled him against the opening. She loosened his belt, opened his pants, and took him in her hands. He lifted his hand to slip the latex suit from her shoulder. She twisted her shoulders to make it easier for him to strip her. Once he had her naked to the waist, she peeled the suit down to the tops of her boots. She grabbed his tie and pulled his face close.
“I want you inside me,” she whispered.
As he reached down to touch her, she withdrew. She precariously shimmied across the trailer to a shelving unit, balancing above her heels, shackled at her calves. She paused a moment to scribble a note. By now, his eyes had adjusted enough that he could make out her original skin: the one the latex had promised but denied. She returned and placed something in his hand. “Now go away.”
“Open the door.”
“Open the door,” he pleaded softly.
“I cannot,” she said.
“If you’re worried about Mama, come back to the car.”
“That is not why.”
He leaned closer, and she whispered. “When I invited you, you hesitated. You do not love me yet.”
The door closed. He stood there for about a minute to weigh his options. It took that long for him to realize that he couldn’t think at all. He didn’t recognize the game she played. If he didn’t know the game, he didn’t know the rules. If he didn’t know the rules, there was no way he could win. He tucked himself in, fastened his pants, and returned to the Chevy Suburban.
Butterfield blocked his entrance. “I heard that you might be in the market for a security detail.”
Morton sighed. He wasn’t in the mood for this now. “Just delete the email.”
Butterfield handed his phone to Morton. “I’ll need you to do that, sir.”
Morton did and handed it back. Butterfield opened the back door, and the senator climbed in. Butterfield got in, the engine started, and the headlights lighted their retreat.
Morton looked at the object Desiree had handed him. It was a pair of castanets. On seeing them, he instantly recalled the climax of her flamenco dance, now with full knowledge of what she had felt in that moment. He remembered when her eyes had opened and locked on his. What had she seen? What had he felt?
A ribbon secured the castanets so that they wouldn’t rattle. He could see the edge of a slip of paper secured between the two clappers. It bore a message in a flowery, girlish script.
“Carry this close to your heart, and call me when you love me.”
Beneath the sentiment: a phone number.
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