Saturday, December 30, 2006

Writing Into The New Year

FYI: This is Jen's post from last Tuesday. Due to technical difficulties, I'm reposting it for her now.

Eli

It's that time of year again, ladies.

Ah, the new year. With the passing of the holidays, comes the promise of new beginnings, excitement and yes, New Year's Resolutions. Why is it so much easier to chuck all of our lousy habits and focus on being good? On bettering ourselves? Perhaps it's a cultural rite that Americans latch onto, or the reminder that time is marching on with or without us.

Whatever the case, I'm never quite as excited about starting something new as I am on January 1. Of course, the average person's resolution goes to the wayside before the first month of the year even ends, but that's neither here nor there. You think: I'm different. My will is stronger than Joe Smith. I can do this!

I thought about the requisite diet and exercise resolution. BORING!!! Here's mine: I resolve to use my elliptical machine for more than a coat rack this year. Of course, in my shifty mind, this leaves a wealth of ambiguity. Maybe I'll do more than look at it, maybe I'll hang streamers and balloons from it. Maybe by the end of 2007, I'll be a trim and firm size 4. (Please excuse me a moment. I'm choking on laughter.)

This year, I'm going to make a resolution from which I will truly benefit and actually have a hope of carrying through.

This year, I resolve to set tiny writing goals each week and....wait for it....wait for it...complete them!

But, wait, you say. I already do this. Jen, for a resolution, this is kind of lame. I was reading my January issue of RWR and caught an article on New Year's writing resolutions. I'm sure many of you know to which article I'm referring. It really struck me. Hey, after all, in 2006, I finished my novel. It may not be The Novel or even The Novel That Gets Published, but this is a huge step. One part of the article mentioned setting small goals, so that when you reached them, you kept setting bigger ones until WHAM! You've completed The Big Goal.

I'm setting my first small goal now: 10 pages a week. That's it. Just 10. If I start to pick up the pace, kudos for me. So, I'm challenging you ladies. For those of you who don't have a set resolution, pick up the writing ball and run with it. And for those who already utilize the "goal" system, perhaps the new year will inspire you anew.

Friday, December 29, 2006

CAST OF CHARACTERS: POV and Focus

This is Alice's post, I'm just intervening to get it up (since we all know about my blog addiction)

Bear with me as I move through a chain that I hope connects in the end:

At the beginning of every Intrigue there is a Cast of Characters where you give a thumbnail sketch of the character and because it's suspense, try to inject some mystery or unanswered question. Example: "Harry Potter--this young boy is about to discover something about himself that will change the course of his life. Will it also lead to his untimely death?"

These are written after the book is completed. You choose eight or nine main characters and write something about each of them, attempting to make them sound like the bad guy or a hapless victim or a part of some large subversive plot--you get the idea.

I'd already sent off my last book when I started this process a week or two ago. For the first time, I found myself struggling with the main two characters--how much to reveal, etc... After dithering around for ages, I decided to take care of the minor characters first and therein lies my tale.

I began with this example:

George Abbot--he's Julia's boss and former lover and will do what it takes to watch her back."

The light bulb in my head began to glow. I couldn't say "former lover" because I'd made it clear they were never lovers. I also couldn't say something like "Never fully recovered from their aborted love affair, George seems to be a friend--but is he?" because I had made it very clear he was way over her and had a new girlfriend he was crazy about.

I had gutted my options early on and most efficiently. And not just for George. I was on a roll, I gutted almost everyone! Oops.

I knew I could fix this in the editing process though it would have been %100 easier to fix it before I sent it. That's when the bulb in my head not only glowed, it started blinking: Wait. Perhaps in the past, I've used the cast list to tweak my characters. Perhaps because I did it before the book was sent, making correction and tweaking a simple matter, I never gave it another thought.

Which got me to thinking. Wouldn't making a cast list as you go along, whether for Chick Lit, straight romance, mystery or humor--whatever--wouldn't it help see the facets of your characters that need to be nurtured and kept? Might it not point out that Grandma's crankiness is integral to her personality and WARNING, WILL ROBINSON, keep it up? Or that the heroine's troubled past should be left up in the air as a possible red herring? Might it not be a useful tool in a writer's arsenal to keep a check and balance on the characters and maybe even suggest aspects that would make them a lot more interesting?

But even more exciting, might it not be very useful when it came to securing that most important of matters, something more integral to your book, to your reader's enjoyment, to the salability of your work than using the proper adverb or aborting a dangling participle or creating lyrical narrative (all very nice things indeed.) I speak of FOCUS (also known as POV though the two are different. I think.) Might not that cast of characters help define each character's focus?

Exercise: Four people are standing around talking. Choose the place and the people. For example, four people are talking about buying a horse. Now give each person a very clear focus. In my example, one person wants desperately to sell this horse because it bites. Another wants to keep the horse, to heck with the biting, there's love involved. The third wants to buy the horse, but at a bargain price though he/she doesn't know about the biting. The fourth wants to get one of the others off alone so she/he can shoot them dead.

Think of how their conversation would go as each angled for what they wanted from the others. There are a million permutations. Might the one who loves the horse try using overt guilt to get the seller to reconsider? Or might they reveal the biting to the buyer to make the horse less appealing? Or might they be so devastated that they barely say a word and the seller ultimately caves in to their quiet desperation? Each take on this one chacarter's POV will influence the other's dialogue and thus it creates a real conversation.

That's my example, yours can be anything you want. You have four days. While the DH watches football, the dogs wail at the moon, or the kid's break their Christmas toys, try this. Create a conversation giving each character a voice that focuses on their unique POV as long or as short as you like. Then create a cast of characters and see how you did keeping true to your focus. Or do it the other way around. It's up to you. And if you hate homework assignments, then just sign in and share something because I'm with Paty, this blog has been way too quiet lately!

Happy New Year, everyone.





Wednesday, December 27, 2006

WHAT DID YOU GIVE YOURSELF FOR CHRISTMAS?

What did you give yourself for Christmas? The gift of time to write? The gift of saying no to tasks that don't help you reach your goals? The gift of doing nothing for an afternoon instead of juggling a dozen different errands?

Most of us have multiple roles and the expectations that go along with those roles: spouse, parent, son or daughter, not to mention grandparent, aunt or uncle, sibling, friend, etc., etc. as well as perhaps another job or two in addition to writing.

I also have a tendency to run late because I over-commit my time and try to do "one more thing" -- usually for someone else -- before I head out the door to a meeting or to work or to an appointment. I end up running behinder and behinder, too frazzled to write or do the things I really want to do. Or to just relax and pamper myself for a few hours.

So I started my New Year's resolutions a week early. Actually, it started when we celebrated Christmas early -- on December 21. That was the best day to gather my sons and all four and a half grandchildren together.

So come Christmas Eve, I had the gift of time. I took out an easel pad and different colored highlighters, then started a chart (there's a name for this process, but I can't remember what it is). With me in the middle, then circles of who/what was important to me, with secondary people/projects/things radiating out from those circles. Hopefully that makes some sense. Then I drew lines to how these things were connected. (It ended up looking like a bunch of amoebas connected by squiggly lines!)

For instance, writing is part of my life's work, but it also can give me the opportunity to travel (to attend conferences or do research), and it also nurtures my mind and spirit. I also draw on my relationships to add emotion to my writing -- and if I'm happy, my relationships work better!

Unintentionally, I came up with a "mission statement" for my life: To do work I love that will provide more money than I ever dreamed possible, that will allow me to play and refill my creative well, and will keep me healthy in body, mind and spirit while nurturing my relationships.

That may sound high-falutin' or pie-in-the-sky, but bear in mind that I'm probably at a very different place in my life than many of you. I'm 50+ years old, I've "retired" from one career and have the freedom to pursue other life's work, my kids are grown and mostly out on their own.

What this "mission" also does is give me a way to measure if a project or request for my time and energy moves me closer to where I really want to be in my life. Does the project/request meet all the criteria of my "mission"? If not, I need to say no thanks. Will I stick with this? Well, I spent a good part of December 25 writing and I did say no thanks to a request that would have side-tracked me for half of the day. If I get off track, I'll just look at my "amoeba chart" and re-focus.

It's still a bit uncomfortable to think of myself before everyone else in my life, but that's also one of the gifts I gave myself. How about you? If you forgot a gift for yourself at Christmas, it's not too late to wrap something up for New Year's!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Do You Control Your Characters...

Or Do They Control You?

William Faulkner said,
"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."

On the other hand, bestselling author, Janet Evanovich, in her new book "How I Write" -- which my sister-in-law was kind enough to give me for Christmas, thank you, Kelly -- has a different viewpoint on the matter. Evanocich's how-to book is written largely in question and answer format. The following excerpt comes from pages 14-15:

Q. Some people say they start writing and the character tells them what's next. In other words, the characters take over for the author. Do your characters ever surprise you like that?

JANET. NO! What does surprise me is that people say this happens. This is fiction! Your character doesn't do anything you don't want him to do!

You have to be very careful never to force a character to do something simply because you think he needs to do it for the sake of the plot or because you think it's funny or because you think it's hot or it's cute or whatever (this is still Janet's answer here). Characters have to do what they are supposed to do according to your creation of them and your plot line. The bottom line is: Writers control the story and the characters. And don't let anyone tell you different -- particularly your main character.


So, do you agree with Falkner or Evanovich?


I hate to buck the Evanovich pony, because Janet is one of my top ten idols, but I have to go with William on this one.

In my first book, when my heroine is laid up in the hospitol, and drugged pretty heavily, she fantasizes about the hot male nurse who tends to her wounds. She also flirts with the police chief when he comes to her hospitol room to interview her, although just before the accident that landed her in the hospital, she realized she had fallen in love with her co-worker, a long time good friend.

I didn't see either the fantasizing or the flirtation coming. They just seemed to happen. But once they did, I liked the elements they added to the story, and it gave me a new twist to work with for a sequel.

In my WIP, any scenes with my heroine and the fortune teller seem to write themselves -- as if the characters are real people taking their own lives by the horns. In my mind, the fortune teller scenes are some of the strongest in the book.

So how do you write? Do you control your characters? Or do they control you?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Creating the Plot Sandwich

Mmm, yummy! Layers of tastey characterization and scrumptious motivation stacked between thick hearty slices of conflict. Doesn't that sound good? A delicious book is like a well-built sandwich, meaty and richly textured with a variety of character plot lines.

Okay, so I like metaphors. Maybe I like them too much, but bear with me. I really do have a point.

People sometimes get sublots and plot layers confused. Subplots are plot lines given to different characters. Plot layers are plot lines given to the same character. Layered plotlines is what gives your story depth and make your characters and their situation more compelling, not to mention satisfying.

When talking about the big plot picture, I can't separate character from plot because one depends so much on the other. Character is story, and that couldn't be more true when it comes to plot layering. So lets take a look at some character "slices" that you'll stack up on your plot sandwich.

A juicy layer of backstory goes a long way. What happened to your character in the past determines his behavior in the present, so readers need to know what past events shaped him into the person they're reading about. You need several layers here to create depth and give your story substance. Each layer will enhance and explain the motivation behind your character's actions as he weaves his way through the plot.

I can explain best by example. Nora Roberts wrote a novel called Carolina Moon about a woman who returns home to face her past and finds love in the process. That's a fairly common story line. What sets this one apart is how Nora creates her heroine Tory beginning with a solid first layer from her childhood when she was savagely and routinely beaten by her fanatic dad. This creates a horrible memory for her, but she plans to go back and face that nastiness to prove to herself she can get past it and be happy.

That's a heck of a layer. But there's more. Add to this the day when she was only 8 and planned to meet up with her friend Hope for a midnight adventure in the woods, but Tory misses their meeting because her dad intervenes and beats the crap out of her. Little Hope is raped and murdered. The murderer remains at large in the present.

That second layer added to Roberts' plot sandwich is guilt and mystery, but she doesn't stop there. Enter layer three, a gift of second site that enabled Tory to witness her friend's murder as it happened. She was helpless to stop it and shared her friend's horror. But she wasn't able to identify the man who killed little Hope.

Layer four is that Tory's second sight continues to plague her in the present. She must cope with it and the psychological pain that comes as she witnesses events that reveals the killer now has Tory in his crosshairs.

This is how a plot sandwich is made. These layers are stacked together for a hearty meal of a story. Can you identify the layers in your WIP's plot sandwich? Can you identify where you could deepen you character's motivations and up the stakes with more layers?

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dialogue Is Delightful!

cute


I love writing dialogue. This following information for this post was written by Author Millie Criswell. (It didn't have a copywrite on it so I figured it could be used on the blog; besides, I'm giving her proper credit so she won't be upset. LOL)

Sorry I didn't come up with something brilliant of my own, but I'm not that good, or that organized in my life, or my thoughts. LOL Thanks for understanding.


Avoiding Dialogue Pitfalls
By Millie Criswell

I adore writing dialogue. This could be because I'm a control freak and love putting words into other peoples' mouths, or the fact that dialogue flows easily and tends to quicken the pace of a book much more effectively than narrative. It's also a great way to hook a reader. That first spoken line says a lot about what the reader can expect.

"Jake Steele, you son of a bitch! You sneakin', connivin' dirty bastard!"

Immediately, the reader is plunged into the story and learns that Jake's in big trouble. Hopefully, they'll be curious enough to keep reading to find out why.

Without good dialogue a book and its characters fall flat. No matter how brilliant your plot, if the reader doesn't care about your characters, your book is going nowhere, except, perhaps, in the trash.

So how do we characterize our fictional people to make them seem real and make readers care?

First, we give these characters great dialogue. And I'm not talking about conversation, because conversation is not dialogue, it's an exchange of information.

Dialogue is dramatic. It makes a point and moves the story forward. It can be used to create tension when illustrating an argument between two people, set a mood or establish a setting, as in a love scene — breathless, sexy and romantic.

Dialogue gives substance and dimension to characters; it makes them realistic — flesh and blood people that readers can like and identify with. The way a character speaks is a reflection of his personality. His choice of words, tempo and modulation of voice are all indicators of the type of person he is and will serve to convey the emotional state he's in at the time.

When writing a novel, how you say something is as important as what you say. When a character speaks it should reflect the sum parts of who that character is — his socioeconomic background, where he was raised, his level of sophistication, et cetera. An affluent character raised in New York City is going to talk much differently than a cowboy from Texas, for example. I'm sure many of you have read a historical romance where the dialogue sounds too contemporary for the time period. This jars the reader and makes her take pause.

Of course, characters often change and evolve from the beginning to the end of a book. They can become kinder, meaner, self-indulgent or violent, and these changes must be reflected in their dialogue. Through the use of dialogue, the writer can foreshadow what might occur or give hints that the character isn't at all what he seems, thus creating even more tension.

Dialogue tags are often used at the end of sentences to indicate who is speaking. "I love chocolate," Millie said, her mouth stuffed with Milk Duds. However, the writer should strive to make the characters so unique and different that those differences are reflected in the speech patterns they use, so they are instantly recognizable without the tags.

"Really, Mr. Arthur, your language is atrocious."
"Sorry, ma'am. I weren't raised like you and I don't talk too fancy."

In this example, it's not difficult to tell who is speaking because what they say and how they say it reflects their status in life, upbringing, educational level, etc.

A good trick to see if your dialogue is effective is to read it aloud. Oftentimes, the ear is better at picking out inconsistencies than the eye. When you hear good dialogue you know it immediately. An example is the book/ movie, Steel Magnolias. The author knows his subjects well and that in-depth knowledge comes across brilliantly in their speech. When an exasperated Louisa yells at her neighbor, "You're a boil on the butt of humanity!" that pretty much sums up her feelings on the matter, and we, the reader/viewer, know it.

When creating dialogue, vary how your characters talk. Keep the sentences short and punchy, not long and drawn out, unless that speech pattern typifies the individual. And not every question asked requires an answer. In fact, you can ratchet up the tension by what's not being said. Or you can have a third character butt in and answer the first character's question, which can be an effective way to introduce a new character.

Dialogue can also be used to provide background information or bring the reader up to date. By having your characters speak, you can show instead of tell. And you can provide information about other characters by having them discussed in conversation.

Dialogue is a good way to break up long paragraphs of narrative and keep the pace of the book moving. If your plot bogs down, you can perk it back up by having your characters ask a few pertinent questions that can get things rolling again.

For me, writing dialogue has always been much easier than writing narrative. But there are several things to avoid:

Repetition: Having your characters rehash the same information over and over again is boring. Say it right the first time, and then let it go. Readers don't need to be hit over the head countless times when you're trying to make a point.

Idle chitchat: Dialogue should move the story forward. If your characters are standing around shooting the breeze about nothing in particular, then nothing is happening in your story. It's stagnant, boring, and that's the kiss of death.

Inappropriate speech patterns: Having your character speak in a way that is totally…well, out of character for him is a no-no. I once read a book where a real macho blue-collar kind of guy called his girlfriend "darling." Well, every time I read that, it jarred me. I thought, no way; this guy would never say that.

Stilted conversation: Have your character speak in a way that is natural and convincing. Use contractions to make your speech patterns more realistic or slang expressions when appropriate. Very rarely do we speak in complete sentences, and your characters shouldn't either.

Writing dialogue is fun. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it. Listen to the dialogue going on around you, the inflections of voice, the speech patterns, and then let your characters speak for themselves. You'll be surprised at how much they have to say.

Okay, Piper here, again...

Do you like writing dialogue or do you hate it? Is it hard for you, or does it help move you through your story easier?

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I love writing dialogue. It's so much easier for me than any other part of writing. Whether it's internal or external dialogue doesn't matter to me, as long as someone's talking. Narrative is so much harder for me. It comes a lot slower to my brain, but dialogue shouts out at me.

Merry Christmas to all of you, or Happy Winter if you don't celebrate Christmas. :)


Snoopy and Woodstock

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Researching Your Story

FYI: Paty's not yet on beta-blogger, so she sent me her blog to post.

No matter what genre you write there requires some form of research. Whether it's names, location, an occupation, or what I am usually digging for, historical accuracy. Anything you write requires a smidgen of research if not a ton.

Names: we pretty much went over in Alice's blog. You can use baby books, the internet, newspapers, books, magazines or people or things around you. I've found the internet the best and quickest source when looking for a specific ethnic name.

Locations: research needed for a location can be found by visiting the area, reading books and magazines or through the internet. I prefer visiting the area. I like to see, smell and FEEL the area. I usually take along an Audubon book on plants and try to figure out at least half a dozen of the plants in the area to use in the story. I feel them, sniff them, and look them over good. I make sure I see the area in the eyes of my characters. In some instances, I read books, letters, and newspapers about the area and glean any information on what the area looked like at the time I am writing about.

Occupations: If you have a character with an occupation you know nothing about, you better know something about it when you start writing, because there is someone out there who will read your book who has that occupation or knows someone in that occupation. For contemporary, you have a lot more occupations to deal with, but you also have people in those professions you can talk to or interview as well has find information online. For historicals it comes down to finding as much information about it as you can and reading, reading, reading. Once in a while you’ll find some good stuff on the internet, but sometimes that doesn't really get what you want. I am currently researching the Pinkertons for a book and each site I go to has the same information. My next avenue for information will be going through the volumes of The American West, True West, Old West, and Frontier Times magazines I have and see what stories I can find on the Pinkertons. Periodicals are a great source of finding information you seek.

Historical accuracy: Researching historical information can be daunting in that you can usually find several sources that will tell the event differently. If I can't find two sources with the same information, I will use the information that fits my story. For historical accuracy, I use the encyclopedia, books, magazines, and micro fiche film of newspapers in the area and time of my story. In fact when I go to Baker City this weekend to spend Christmas with my daughter and her family I will visit the library to read up on the area in the times I need for my latest WIP.

When I am researching I write down or photocopy every piece of information I think might be of interest or needed for the story. And usually after all the in-depth research, I'll use a line or paragraph here or there. BUT even though I don't use every morsel I found, I know what I did use made the story come to life and breathed believability into my characters.

What are your usual means of researching? Do you find yourself filling a notebook with information and using only a small part or do you use everything you find and then some?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Writing Sexy

Writing sexy seems to be the big thing lately. At Nationals, all the editors were talking about "sexy" books being hot and in demand. Like all trends in writing, this will come and go, but in romance, sexy seems to be in and here to stay. The erotica genre is booming, but even within other genres - historicals, romantic suspense, paranormals - sexy books are all the rage. The question then becomes, how sexy is sexy enough for you?

If you write category books, you can figure out the sexiness factor of a particular line by reading the submission requirements and guidelines for that publisher. You can also read extensively in that line to get the tone and feeling for a particular series. If you write single title, however, the sky's the limit.

As a romantic suspense writer, there's a huge span across the genre regarding how sexy a book can be. All romantic suspense books include some kind of romance, but they can range from 90% suspense/10% romance with the emphasis on the mystery, to the flip side - 25% suspense/75% romance, with the focus more centrally spotlighted on the developing romance and relationship. I've read recently published books that were so sexy they made my fingers burn, and ones that were so scary (and thus, not super-sexy) where I had to keep the light on at night because they wigged me out. There is a market for both, so if writing sexy isn't your thing, you'll still be okay. But if you enjoy sexier books, now is the time to try your hand at writing them.

Now, sexy doesn't necessarily mean lots of gratuitous sex. I read one book recently that was super steamy, but it only had one "official" sex scene. You don't have to write x-number of sex scenes to write a sexy book, you just have to keep the sexual tension high through the entire read and not let it drop off anywhere significant - even after a love scene. My critique partner calls it that "low level hum" you get when you're reading, the one you probably remember from the first time you met your significant other - the one most people experience when they meet someone they're insanely attracted to. A well written sex scene causes more conflict and electricity than it should alleviate, so remember to up your tension after a love scene to keep that hum going.

If there doesn't have to be lots and lots of sex in a sexy book, does that means oodles of sloppy kissing instead? Nope. Characters don't even have to touch all that much in a sexy book. It's all about the charge in the air when the two are in the same room together. A look, the way one reacts when the other brushes by them, how their heart rate quickens or the blood rushes through their veins. The sex scenes are bonus - they aren't the root of a sexy book.

The key - in my opinion - to writing a sexy book is finding your comfort level regarding the sexiness factor. And then push it. You might be surprised at what you can do. The last book I wrote was definitely more sexy than any of my other books, and while it was a lot more work because of that reason, I really liked the way it turned out. Was there a lot of sex? No - two near misses and two hits. (And the first sex scene is really short compared to others I've read - but still sexy.) It was the book I landed my agent with, the one that I won a contest with, the one that's gotten the most attention of any of my work. Was it because I upped the sexiness factor? I think so. My writing had improved with this last book, as the more writing we do, the better we get, but I do think the sexiness factor played a big role in the attention this book has gotten.

So on this foggy Monday morning, how do you feel about sexy books? Do you like them, hate them, write them, avoid them? And just out of curiosity...what's the sexiest book you've read lately (not counting erotica)?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Deck The Halls with Holiday Stories


Two years ago, my mother the librarian decided that it would be "fun" to give me a stack of Christmas themed books for Christmas. But, because she has access to the donation box, the book sale, and library discards, last year the "stack" became a "box" and this year the box came before Christmas. End result: I now have a collection of over 30 holiday books spanning all genres of romance.

I'm making it a mini-tradition to get out my holiday books on Dec. 1, decorate for Christmas and settle in for a month of holiday reads. But, since undertaking this immersion in red and green books, I've discovered something important: Not all holiday stories are created equal.

So let's take a look at who's been naughty, who's been nice, and how your holiday book can hit Santa's best seller list. (All examples are taken from actual stories in my collection, but I'm giving the naughty stories the gift of anonymity. You can give the nice stories as a gift by clicking the link to Amazon).

Naughty: Just stick a holiday theme in an otherwise okay story.

The holiday details should feel real, and the plot should feel natural, not contrived.

Bad example #1: Non-seasonal mainstory. Gratitous Holiday epilogue. Feels forced, like a bad editorial/agent suggestion to sell the story.

Bad example #2: Plot has absolutely no tie to the holiday, and in fact, feels like it should be set around Valentine's day. Christmas seems stuck in, and forces the characters to act in ways they otherwise wouldn't.

Think about how your characters would relate to the holiday. Give them a motivation for their actions--don't just randomly seperate them from the their family or give them scads of extra time--why isn't he/she wrapping/shopping/baking/attending parties? If the holiday only appears in the Prologue/Epilogue--why? Make it significant in some way.
Nice: Use the holiday as the jumping off point for your story.

A great example of this is "The Two Marys" by Katherine Hall Page in "Mistletoe and Mayhem"--the holiday has to do with why the MC is in the setting and has a bit to do with the plot, but the plot is orginal and inventive. Likewise, Suzanne Brockmann's "It came upon a Midnight Clear," uses the holidays as a plot point, and a nice framing device, but the meat of the story stands alone. The "Behind The Red Doors" collection is another example where the holidays play a role, but the stories have depth beyond a holiday theme.

Naughty: Recycle the same tired themes.

Baby on doorstep Christmas morning? Yawn. Stranded by snow? Snooze. Hero as Scrooge? Returning to hometown? Rags to Riches? Done. Done. Done.

Bad example #3: MC have just met. They hate each other on site. She's scrooge, he's the Grinch. Stranded by snow. She gets wet/cold. Hero has to warm her up. Cue mad passionate love and declaration of everlasting love and devotion 24 hours later.

Bad example #4: MC have just met. He's scrooge, she's tiny tim. He's about to crush her financially. The holiday spirit (and no other motivation) moves him to offer her help, she's showered with money/gifts, all financial problems solved, he's a better person, she's able to keep doing good works with all his money.

Nice: Put a new spin on old themes.

Baby on the doorstep? Cliche when your young, sexy MC discovers the baby, gets help from the other MC, and everyone has a happy Christmas. But what if the baby is left in a barn with a bunch of goats? And the baby is discovered by a 47 year old virgin? And the baby's actual mother is a complex character with a mystery of her own? This spin works beautifully in "The Two Marys."

Trapped together in the snow? Return to Hometown? Both are cliche, but "Baby It's Cold Outside" by Donna Kauffmann in "Jingle Bell Rock," works for several reasons: the characters have a convincing backstory--their sexual tension is created by more than just circumstances, and the story keeps moving fast with great little details that set the story apart.

Home for the holiday? Fall in love with old friend? Cliche, but "Mistletoe and Holly"by Liz Ireland in "This Christmas," puts a fun spin on an old theme--MC returns home but nothing's as it is every other year--this juxtaposition really makes the story. Backstory puts a neat spin on the old friend theme, and the characters make this one a winner.

Bottom line: If you're going to use a cliche, everything else has to be fresh--put unexpected characters in the situation, give them unique motivation for being there, make the characters so compelling that the reader doesn't notice the cliche.

Naughty: Suspend Reality on account of the holiday.

Less than 24 hours from first meeting to happily ever-after, complete with proposal/wedding? Not going to fit that under most trees. Gaping plot holes explained with "holiday magic"? Holiday cheer can do wonderful things, but it can't: catch a bad guy, produce a baby out of thin air for your MC to discover, transform your MC into a completely different person.

Nice: Use holiday magic in unexpected ways.

"The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus" by Carly Alexander is the best example of this. The holiday magic is in the Mrs. Claus costume which makes each wearer lucky. What makes this work is: the heroine/hero pairing is one that would have worked without the magic, the characters still make choices/actions on their own, and the characters act in consistent ways. The reader is willing to believe that holiday magic helped bring two people together because you believe that they belong together--instead of believing that holiday magic made them belong to each other.

If you're going to use a little magic, go all out. "The Twelve Frogs of Christmas" by Judi McCoy in "Mistletoe and Mayhem" is another believable pairing, and the heroine/hero have enough of a backstory to add realism, but the frogs are just pure fun--the perfect kind of holiday magic.

I love how Susan Donovan gives a fabulous spin on the 24-hours to love tale in "Turning Up the Heat," in "Jingle Bell Rock"--you get magic and realism in a two-for-one special.

Naughty: Drink too much eggnog before sitting down to write.

NYT Bestsellers, Santa's looking straight at YOU. If your readers have come to expect edgy, fast-paced, well-plotted books from you, don't bake cookies instead of editing your entry.

Bad Example #5: NYT Bestseller. Known for fast-paced, complex plots. Christmas story is loaded with info-dumping, poor character development, and predictable plot.

Bad Example #6 NYT Bestseller. Known for compelling stories and intriguing plots. Christmas story is almost entirely backstory.

Bad Example #7 NYT Bestseller. Known for fun chick-lit voice. Christmas story: Tense problems are so bad, story is almost unreadable by a reader who's loved her other works. Voice keeps changing.

Nice: Put as much effort into a holiday story as you would any other piece of work with your name on it.

There are several authors whom I won't read after reading their holiday stories, but several others who's backlist I can't wait to explore. Don't assume that your readers will forgive you, or that the holiday wrapping forgives your mistakes.

Kudos to Lori Foster in "He Sees You When You're Sleeping" in "Jingle Bell Rock" for giving readers a classic Lori Foster tale--rich characters, alpha male, great banter, hot love scenes.

"Out on a Limb" in "Mistletoe and Mayhem" by Christie Ridgway has me chomping at the bit to read more of this bestseller--I discovered her in this book, and wow--what a find. Great characters, excellent dialog and an inventive plot.
Naughty or Nice? Do you like holiday stories? What's your favorite holiday book? Have you been disapointed by holiday books by your favorite author(s)? Have you ever written a holiday story? Any plans to do so? What do you think makes a great holiday story?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Names.

I figure what with the books I have written needing at least 12 names apiece, the short stories, 6 names, the false starts a few, the unsold proposals, a few more, I have named well over 600 people in the last several years.

Don't get me started on pets. They have names, too. If you have a book set on a ranch with many animals, you then have additional names. One for the hero's favorite horse, one for the palomino mare, another for her foal, the pet cow, the two finches, the dog(s), the cat(s). Nope, we'll stick with people.

And while you may not have been writing long enough to have needed that many names yourself, I'll bet your numbers are creeping up there.

And not just any names. Names have to fit the character they represent. When you have a baby in real life, you name a blank slate. Your name choice may represent a beloved member of your family or your hopes for your child's future. But the child herself is as yet an unknown. Somehow that name choice almost seems to guide the child, doesn't it?

However, when you name a character, you are naming a done deal. This person has worn his or her name for lo those many years before you "discovered" them and cast them in your book. Their name choice now reflects their personality, their goals, their careers, their masculinity or feminity, their independence or lack of it, their financial status, their ethnicity, their age, even their life expectancy within your pages.

Whew, big responsibility. How do we do it?

This is how it works in my mind. I would be very interested in hearing how it works in yours.

Names to me have groupings and within the groupings, are almost interchangeable. Brandy, Tiffany, Amber, Candy--these are all the same names to me. Carol, Alice, Mary, Donna--all the same. Stone, Jack, Joe, Chase--same. Gerald, Jason, Kevin --same. Michael, Steven, John, David--you get my drift. These are arbitrary distinctions that make sense to me if I don't think about it too long. I've never known anyone else to understand my method (or lack of it) but before you make fun of me, don't you do something similar? No? Then how do you do it?

For the hero, the fewer syllables the better. Makes him stronger. Never (for me) a name ending in the "ie" sound like Jimmy or Tommy or Billie. Too diminutive. Of course, rules are meant to be broken and for every "Never" there is a corresponding "Except--"

For the heroine? Is she sweet and kind? I'd end her name with a soft vowel. Sassy? Something short, maybe a nickname. Is she a force to be reckoned with? A hard consonant ending.

On the other hand, think of the characters you've written or read about with names that defy expectation and thus define the character even more clearly. Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes readily to mind. Her name comes as a lovely surprise and perfectly defines a carefree California teenager/vampire killer. And don't we know by that name choice there will be humor involved? And attitude?

Where to find all these hundreds of names? "Name The Baby" books are helpful. The internet. Book indexes and the phone book are always handy and have the added benefit of last names. Then there are the spines of books, the guy you met at a party, television characters that inspire you, a first name here, a last name there--

So I have a character and he or she needs a name. I know the general sound I want. If I decide on Sam, I might focus on a last name starting with a C. I don't know why. I will search the "Cs" in the phone book and eventually come up with something. Sam Connors, maybe. Makes an okay cop, a plumber, the neighbor. Wouldn't be a good drug lord or candy shop owner. Why? I don't know. Do you?

Or I'll take a well known Sam like Sam Sheppard, for instance, and if I like the sound of the two "s" together, look for something similar. Sam Sheen. Sam Simmons. Whatever. But where did the Sam show up? I'm not sure. But it could have been Ralph or Frank. Hm--

Ever notice how some names pop into your head ready made and raring to go, bless their little hearts! Others get changed so many times you have to actually do a word search when you are finished to weed out the orphans. Or have you ever finished a book only to discover every character in there had a name that starts with, say, a "R"? Richard. Renee. Riley. Rhonda. Ray. Ronnie. What happened that every name you plucked from the ether started with the same letter? Is that cosmic humor?

So, how do you do it? Where do your names come from? Do you struggle or snatch them out of thin air? Do you change them often? Do you have favorite places to find them? Do you write down interesting names for future use? Does a name ever inspire a whole book? Do you like to throw in an unusual name or a name that doesn't fit character type? Can you write about a character without first settling on a name (I can't though I have been known to change my mind.)

Tell all! I'm starting another book right now which means that by the end of the month, I will have come up with twelve more names. If I go with horses, make that twenty or thirty. I could use some hints!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

PR tips from a PRo

He he. Like the title? I thought it was clever.

Disclaimer: This post was supposed to appear two weeks ago but after toiling over it for quite a while, blogger decided to eat it. Learned my lesson about saving drafts...Well I didn't have the energy or dampened temper to try it again. But now I did. Here 'tis!


My day job is in public relations and I have learned some things along the way that may help you in your quest for book publicity. Did you feel the universal cringe just now? That was nearly every PR person across the globe shuddering at that 9-letter P word I used. Most of the PR people I've encountered don't like the word publicity. We feel that PR is more strategic, publicity is more gimmicky.

The term publicity is generally reserved that for the entertainment industry. Authors and books are kind of in between. So in case you get a PR person and she sighs at the word "publicity," you'll know why.

Getting a calendar mention or a brief in the arts section of your hometown newspaper is exciting. It's even more exciting to have a feature story about you and your book. You know you've imagined it. Tad, the high school quarterback you made out with under the bleachers who promptly ignored you the next day sees the article. He still lives in town, as you know. You've seen him around (stalked) from time to time. You have a feature in the arts section of the paper and get a phone call the next day. Now that you're a succesful hot-shot writer he wants to rekindle that long ago flame. But being the proud woman that you are, you string him along then break his heart. Yes, a feature story can be that exciting.

Ok, I need to be realistic for a moment. Getting media coverage is very difficult. Not as difficult as getting an agent or publishing contract, but somewhat close to that. The average newsroom for a daily newspaper, in a mid-sized city (like Salem, Oregon) probably gets 100-300 press releases, news tips and story ideas per day. Granted, a lot of them are quickly discarded because they detail UFO capturings and anal probes. But many of them are interesting items. The reporters and editors have to choose what to cover.

Odds are you aren't the only author sending a press release about your newest book or signing party. Unfortunately, as a romance writer you've got a bit of an uphill battle in the "news slush pile." But we're all used to that by now.

These are some tips that will give you a fighting chance to winning a reporter's favor and possibly a piece in the newspaper.

  • Target the media outlets you want coverage in (newspapers, radio, tv, internet, magazine). If you live in Oregon , you really have no reason to send a press release to the L.A. Times. Unless you have a connection to L.A. You don't want to waste a reporter's time. When trying to figure out which outlets, you'd be wise to start with your home town. Then if your book takes place somewhere interesting for an interesting reason, try there. Maybe a neighboring city if you live in a smaller town. Just be realistic about who may care that you've published a book.
  • Many people assume that using the "submit news" form on the media outlet's Web site or picking some random person will work. It may, but it's worth spending a little time investigating the right people to send to. You can do that by watching the newspaper to see who writes stories like the one you want about you, call the newspaper and ask, or pay a PR person to create you a media list using a subscription-based database. Reporters are busy enough that they most likely aren't going to give your press release to the right person so you need to do the legwork.
  • When you send the press release, never, ever, ever put it as an attachment unless the reporter requests it that way. They don't trust files like the rest of us. So insert it into the body of your e-mail. And include an opening "pitch" paragraph, MAKE IT BRIEF! Include who you are, why you're sending the release, why you're awesome and what you want (in a nice, non-demanding way). Then put your contact info, then news release.
  • If you are pitching a book signing event to a reporter, give them at least two weeks notice. That will improve your chances of being picked up for news, and they may include you in the calendar section.
  • You need to write a good press release. Believe me, it ain't easy. Up there with the likes of a synopsis. I've been writing them for years and still have a hard time sometimes. I wish there was a super secret formula I could share. Sorry, I'm not allowed tell. I took a blood oath upon graduation day with my PR degree. Just kidding! There's no formula (wink, wink). A press release is more than a bio of you and a bit about your book. It has to hook the reporter and tell them why they should give a rat's ass. What about you is interesting? Been writing for 10 years? Have another career that relates to your books? Does your book have a unique local hook? Think outside the box or you'll never interest them.
  • One of the problems we face as romance writers is being taken seriously. With so many publishers out there, a reporter doesn't know whether or not they should take your book seriously. A good tip would be to include in your pitch e-mail message a few popular book titles also by your publisher. Something they may recognize to help them take you seriously.
  • And definitely don't pester the reporter. Don't call them the day after sending the release or e-mail them day after day asking if they're interested. Wait nearly a week before following-up. You know all those press releases I mentioned they get each day? Imagine if they got calls about each one too. Not a happy reporter.

I'll be frequenting the comments if you have any questions about PR, press releases, the media, why I'm such a slacker, anything! And I'd love to hear about other people's experiences. I know some of you have worked as reporter's, what's your advice?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A BALANCING ACT

I recently read an interview in the RWR about an author who moved to New York to learn all she could about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the book industry. Among other jobs, she worked her way up to assistant editor at a large publishing house and then wrote a series of books for that publisher, with several of her former colleagues becoming her editors at one time or another. I had two contradictory reactions to this interview: "Unfair advantage!" And, "How smart!" (As I read the rest of the interview, of course there was much more to how this particular author researched the markets and used her experiences to write the best books she could and position them to sell.)

This struck me as a very different avenue to getting to know an editor than I will take, as most of my contact with my editor will probably be via e-mail. Because of my personality and many years in state government where even a box of candy could be interpreted as "bribery," I tend to separate my personal and professional relationships. So I will approach this "getting to know you" phase with business basics:

-- Don't say something, do something or write something in an e-mail that I would be embarrassed to see printed on the front page of a large daily newspaper (or passed from editor to editor to editor).

-- Dress professionally when out in public. Just because I sometimes write in my pajamas doesn't mean it's appropriate attire for attending a conference or meeting an editor for the first time.

-- No gruesome descriptions of Aunt Martha's most recent gall bladder surgery during lunch. (Unless it features prominently in my latest manuscript!)

-- I still have to do the work and turn it in by the deadline, even if -- or maybe especially if -- the editor is my friend.

-- Respect the fact that sometimes a project just isn't right for an editor or their publisher. Accept "no thanks" graciously and try again on my next appropriate project.

Seems pretty basic, huh? Though I know every editor/author relationship is different, I'm looking for suggestions on how to loosen my straight-laced business attitude to include socializing without endangering a professional relationship with an editor. And maybe those suggestions will help other chapter members trying to catch an editor's attention. How do you balance a social and professional relationship with an editor or with someone you want to become your editor? Or do you maintain a strictly professional relationship with your editor?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Writing and the Other Woman

Writing is my first love.

It has been a constant in my life even when I spurned it. Which I did. Often. It was waiting patiently in the recesses of my mind, knowing that one day, I would come to my senses and sit back down at the computer. Which I did. And spurned it again. I won't bore you with this seemingly endless process that has marked my twenties. Let's just say the last time I sat back down, I kept my butt on the chair and finished something for the first time in my life.

Before I had a chance to enjoy the success, however, reality intruded. Or rather, reality in the form of: "MOMMY!!!!!"

Need I say more?

How about: "Honey, what's for dinner? Where are my socks? Can you wash my work jacket? When are you going grocery shopping? I need to go out into the shop for the next five years. See you when I'm forty."

And then there's: "Why haven't you been returning my calls? I e-mailed you three times? Are you dead? All you ever do is write!"

Once I overcame the dilema of my own neuroses (i.e. laziness, fear of success/failure, an underwater basketweaving class to take), I realized that I had a whole slew of others to contend with. For the last ten years, I have devoted myself to my family and friends. This has, by no means, been a hardship. I love my family. I love my friends. That goes without saying. But, now, my first love, that other woman, has come back into my life, this time to stay (I hope). How in the world do I juggle this? I spent the first two weeks of November hunched over my keyboard, pounding out 160 pages of my novel. I finished it in a fervor, red-eyed and hissing at my family when approached for things like OJ, snacks, and dinner. I resented every moment that took me away from my computer. When the dust settled and I came up for air, I realized that this approach doesn't work. Not for me and certainly not for my family.

I came up with a pretty good working plan: I write M-W-F for two hours while my daughter is in preschool (provided that the baby isn't scaling the walls and/or poking his stubby little fingers into the dog's eye sockets) and after the wee beasts go to bed in the evening. It's all good in theory. But, as I walk by my desk, a laundry basket glued to my hip, I stare longingly at the square, flat screen. At the boxy keys that sound like heaven as I run my fingers over them, tapping out a melody my heart and soul recognizes. I begin to pant. A flush creeps its way up my throat. I can literally feel the power that sings through my fingers as I pour my soul out onto the page.

Come on, it taunts. Just for a minute. Nobody will notice. Barney is on. The kids are fine. You know you want to.

I have no self-control. I smoke, I eat things that I know I'm not supposed to. I drink too much coffee. How can I possibly resist the power of this machine who holds me captive? I sit down, running my fingers laschivously across the screen. Stop! a part of me screams. Once you start, the world will cease to exist! And this is a bad thing?

In the end, the temptation passes. Why? One word: REVISIONS. Sure, it's easy to pass the computer by when I only have to reread and read again my MS. Of course, I've just completed the outline to my second MS. Hopefully, I'll get it together by then.

So, my question to you is this: All of you have other responsibilities. For some, it's a day job and for others it's young children. There are families, husbands, other hobbies and organizations to which we belong. How do you strike the balance between writing and your other responsibilities?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Little about Voice, Character, and the Plucking of a Bright Beginning from the Sea of Nothingness


And to Think, that Came Out of Me

"Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I supect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page." __ Eudora Welty


Here's a blog about nothing. And everything. And how to -- hopefully -- start with the former and end up with the latter. It's all about beginnings, and voice, and creating that perfect character, and staying true to that voice and that character throughout the body of work, and ... .

But let's move forward, shall we?

I'm going to start by talking about beginnings. Again. Forgive me, but I love a great beginning. A good writer makes them seem so easy. And yet writing one is so very, very hard. A strong beginning is so important. It anchors the book, and ultimately sells it. First to an editor, then to the readers.

So let's take a look at the process. I'll use my own trial and error struggles as examples. Besides trying to nail voice and character, I am also trying to decide between first and third person, past or present tense for my WIP. Please bear with me.

Here's the first stab in the dark:

A strange foreboding of homesickness washes over me as I juggle to pull the front door of my apartment closed. I ignore the feeling. It makes no sense -- I'll be back home in a couple hours.

Let me introduce myself. My name's Dianne Harris and I'm twenty four. Since my husband died in a car crash 16 months ago, and I became a single mother, I'm juggling more than just what I'm carrying ... .

Yawn. No voice here to speak of. Dry and booorrring.

Let's try again:

From the moment my pregnancy test stick turned blue, my goal was to give my baby something I didn't have growing up -- parents. Real parents -- a biological mother and father living under the same roof. I thought that's what I was giving her when I married Matt. But the accident snatched away my dream before it got started. Matt didn't even get a chance to lay a hand on my stomach and feel Megan kick and roll inside. He lived and drove too fast, and died behind the wheel of his beefed up 1970 Chevelle when I was only two months pregnant.

Better. A little more voice. But no hint of the supernatural elements yet to come, and sort of whiny. Still not what I'm hoping for.

Okay, take a deep breath, relax, and give 'er another shot:

Dianne Harris woke on a drizzly Saturday morning in November, not knowing her life was soon to change forever. She greeted the day with smiles for her three-month-old baby girl, and adjusted to the grieving acceptance settling like lava rock in the pit of her stomach. Neither her inner discomfort, nor the gray pallor of the Oregon coastal sky felt like a premonition of things to come. Dianne didn't believe in supernatural feelings. She was well-grounded in reality and firmly rooted in her life as a young, widowed mother, so she casually shoved the blunt edges of sleep and uneasiness to the dark recesses of her subconscious and went about her day.

This is okay. But a little too slow for the story I want to tell. And in third person, past tense, feels too stiff and formal -- too literary-ish. (Not that there's anything wrong with writing literary-ish. It's just not my intention with this story).

Can you say try again?

This time I want something new, different, exciting. I'll turn my own voice off, and write from some chasm deep within. Uh-huh, yeah. That's just what I'll do:

When I open my eyes it's drizzling outside. Little tip taps of raindrops hit my roof, like they do every November. But this morning, something don't seem right about it. Like something big and changing about to happen, something I can't do nothin' to stop. I feels my body. Runs my hands all over myself. I'm jus' the same. A little too big through the hips, a little poochie in the tummy area. Woman's always got a poochie tummy after she give birf though. You'd be poochie too, girl, you gots a baby only three months old.

Okay. Wow. Where did that come from? It does have a little Eudora Welty flavor going on there. (Lord, please forgive me for being so egotistical as to compare my writing-- even a single paragraph -- to Eudora Welty's).

Now this voice I like. It's unique, interesting. I don't know for sure how I got it, though, and I'm afraid I couldn't sustain it for a whole book. But it's a snippet I'll transfer to another file, and play with another day -- a fun short story voice, full of southern possibilities.

I'm getting closer.

You go, girl! Hit it again:

The only supernatural thing about Roseland, Oregon, is the crazy lady on Center Street who claims she can predict the future. So, when I whip into a parking space at the convenience store, almost hit a black dog roughly the size of Idaho, and its eyes glow red as it looks at me, I say to myself, "Ridiculous, Dianne. You must be seeing things." When the huge dog disappears into the mist, I say, "Good riddance," unload Megan from her car seat, try to forget about the dog, and go on inside the Coast Town Speedy Mart. I need a Diet Coke to lubricate my courage; my next stop is the newspaper office to drop off Grandma Austin's obituary. Facing her death, in black and white print, scares me more than I'd like to admit. So, basically, I'm procrastinating.

Inside the market, in front of the soda machine, I'm jiggling baby Megan up and down to keep her happy when I smell Kevin -- that same clean, fresh aftershave he's always worn. The scent of spice and forest and gentle breezes rustling through clothes hung on a line floods my memory, whisking me back to simpler days. Which, at the time, didn't seem simple at all.

This I can live with. Sentences tend to run on the long side, but I kind of like it anyway. Sets up the story, tone, place, supernatural elements, and the romance. Even gives a scene goal.

Of course, who knows how many more tweaks this will get before I'm done ... .


How many times do you rewrite your beginnings? Do you ever write something, look at it later and think, "Wow! That came out of me? Cool." How do you get yourself into the zone to do that? I can only write really inspired things in the morning. Afternoons I can edit and dink here and there, but my real creativity is shot by then. How about you?

Larger than life Characters

You hear this all the time, right? Your characters must be "larger than life" to be memorable and worth reading about. Why? If you're writing about people you want readers to care about, shouldn't you make characters more like regular people, people readers can relate to?

That's the odd thing about literature. Characters written on the page will typically appear fairly ordinary to most readers without a huge amount of embellishment. That's because readers "see" characters through this gauzy barrier often referred to as the mind's eye.

Of course the mind doesn't actually have an eye, but we interpret a story through our imagination, which is like an imaginary eye. And that interpretation isn't only for what we see, but it includes what we hear, smell, touch and taste as we accompany characters through the fascinating events in their lives. You've heard that expression about the devil being in the details? Those little devils are your characters. And it's strong details I'm talking about, not the boring minutiae of day-to-day monotonous life for the average Joe and Jane. We want strong. Extraordinary. In your face. Larger than life. The details about our characters have to be or they won't be memorable.

So what's so wonderful about John Smith, the steel worker who's married and has two kids, one car, a hamster, and lives in urban Chicago? Eh. Not so special. What would make John larger than life? Maybe he's a – what's the politically correct word for midget? Dwarf? Little person? That little detail (pun intended) may not make him physically large, but it sure as hell makes him memorable. How many dwarf steel workers do you know? Do you want to know more about John the steel worker now? I do. I'm intrigued because this powerful detail raises lots of questions and you have to wonder about the challenges this guy faces in his job every day. I want to know why he chose this occupation. What does his wife think about it? Is she vertically challenged as well? What about the kids? Do they get teased at school? Do John's co-workers give him a hard time, or have they accepted him as one of the best in his field? How does this detail about John affect the story's plot? And what if John is also a spy for the CIA? Well… that may be overkill, but hey, it's interesting. Memorable. And larger than real life.

What unique detail makes your hero or heroine larger than life? It could be something in their backstory; they appear perfectly normal on the outside, but man-oh-man, they've had their lives turned inside out because... Or they have fascinating occupations. Or their personalities are over the top (in either a good or bad way). Maybe certain quirks or habits make them stand out in a crowd. For an exaggeration of the exaggerations I'm talking about, just watch one episode of Heroes (Monday nights at 9 on NBC). This show is an amazing example of characters faced with extraordinary challenges because they're ordinary people with extraordinary abilities. And of course they're all tasked with saving the world. Now that's extra large.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

We Interrupt This Blog For A Special Announcement...

Bethany turned 30 on Monday and we missed it!!!!!



Okay, that was a lie. But now you're reading, right? And don't you feel awful? (See, Bethany??? It could be sooo much worse.)

This part's really true: Bethany DID have a birthday on Monday, and we DID all miss it. So belated birthday wishes to Bethany who is younger than dirt and making me feel like an old fart.

(And no, Bethany's not really 30. She's much much younger. I'm just a bitter old - jealous - woman.)

Hope it was great, Bethany. I'd come up with a birthday ditty for you, but since my last ditty was R-rated, I'd better stop while I'm behind. :)

Why You Should Support Your Local RWA Chapter

The Mid-Willamette Valley Romance Writers had their annual Christmas Party last night and it was a doozy!

We had so much fun as we laughed ourselves silly and got to know each other better. We talked about writing, publishing, editing; we shared stories about our families, friendships, heartaches, and just generally bonded. The food was potluck, and of course, it was delish! We have some very talented people in our chapter and it was inspiring just hanging out with them.

There are many reasons to belong to and support your local RWA chapter. Some of the most important reasons, at least for me, on the writing side of belonging to this chapter, are the people you meet and become friends with. They have so much to teach and give, and they "get" you. They get the reasons why you write and love words and ideas. They offer help and support when you're frustrated or down. They are there as mentors/teachers, friends, and cheerleaders. If you need to brainstorm, you can find someone in the chapter who will be willing to help you. If you need a critique partner and don't want to search all over the net for a stranger to critique with, you'll find one in your local chapter.

If you want to be a published author, the best way is to be an active, participating member of your local RWA chapter. I say this because of all the classes and teaching tools that are offered by a chapter. You have access to many helps and people who actually know what they are doing. So get active! If you're shy, or on the quiet side, step out of your comfort zone and do something different. Try reading the chapter blog and commenting once in a while. Chime in on the chapter email loop. Attend a chapter writing retreat, or see if you can hook up with someone in the chapter and begin a critique relationship with them. If you don't put forth the effort, how can your chapter benefit from your expertise and talents? Your chapter needs you. You're important and have great, viable ideas. You know who you are, don't you. Now get off your butts and participate! You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Titles

Today's blog is short and there's no assignment. Not because I don't like the assignments - I love seeing what everyone comes up with. But my topic just didn't lend itself well to an assignment. Unless of course you all want to throw out ideas for me! :)

Usually when an idea for a story or a character is conjured up, within a few days I have the title. Sometimes I have a title before I have characters. I have to have a title that says something to me about the book or I have a hard time getting into the book. I can't just name it the hero and heroine's names or "the boat book". It has to have meaning to the story. I guess I just have to be truly invested in the story. So much so, that I have given it a name. Like a baby or a new pet. There isn't true bonding until it has a name. Just like you don't name animals you plan to eat. Though, we have been known to call a calf hamburger or steak and a hog pork chop or sausage.:)

And here I sit - I have my characters thought out and my hook written. I know some of the things I have to put in this book and deal with, but I can't come up with a title that (as a dear friend would say) sings to my heart. I'm working on the second book in the Halsey brother series. (The sequel books to Marshal in Petticoats).

With this being a sequel, is it necessary to keep the title in the same vein as the first book? Or, can I make it different and just have a banner on the book saying the second book of the Halsey brother series?

How do you get your titles? Before or after the story is written? Can you write a whole book and never give it a title? Does it really matter in the scheme of things? For me "Yes". It does matter, but am I the only weird writer who has to have a title to make the thing real?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Manly Men

There's nothing I hate more in a book than a hero who sounds like a woman. You all know what I'm talking about - those heroes female authors come up with, the ones who sound like "us"; who say the things "we" would say; who act like, well, "we" do. Come on, men are not women - Thank God, or the world would be really boring - and they don't think the way we do. They don't notice details like women do, they don't spend hours worrying about what others think of them, they speak plainly and don't play games, and sex for them is just that - sex. Sure, they fall in love, they feel deep emotions, but they don't spend hours analyzing those emotions like women tend to do.

So how do you know if you're writing a real man or your ideal-womanly-image of a man? The first thing you need to do is read your hero's internals and ask yourself if his thinking sounds like something a guy would say. Would Indiana Jones say it? What about Fox Mulder, or Ray Barone or James Bond or Jack Bauer or Han Solo or John McClane? All are manly men who were involved in one (or more) romances in their day. Even though it's an internal, you have to put yourself in a guy's shoes. Here's a good example. A few weeks ago I put on a pair of low-rise, flare, faded blue jeans and a ribbed, V-neck, olive green, button down sweater. I then asked my DH to describe what I was wearing. He came back with - tight jeans that show off your belly button and a green cleavage-shot sweater. See the difference? Men don't notice the little details women pick up on. When describing setting or characters in the male POV, err on the side of less-is-more. A guy might notice a woman's sparkling green eyes, but he wouldn't call them aquamarine or chartreuse or malachite (unless he's big into minerals). He'll relate things he sees to things he knows - for example, he might say her sparkling green eyes were the exact shade of the Green Monster in Fenway park, or (if he's rich) the deep green of a dollar bill or an exotic emerald. Keep your descriptions to a minimum when writing from the guy's POV.

The second thing to do is read your hero's dialogue outloud. Could you see your DH saying those same things? Your brother? If you're not sure, ask a guy to read it for you. He'll immediately tell you if you're on base or if you've totally missed the mark. Men get their point across in about half the amount of words women use to say the same thing. So when writing a guy, cut about fifty percent of the words you would use and you're on the right track. If you're inclined to have your guy say something like, "The situation is too dangerous. The sun's setting, your stalker's still out there somewhere, and you haven't slept in a week. It's just too risky to step outside even for a breath of fresh air." Instead try, "No way. You're not going anywhere on my watch." A man generally won't elaborate or give away information unless prodded.

Real men don't profess their love unless they're pretty sure they're going to get the same in return. I hate reading books where the hero's head-over-heels in love with the heroine and tells her right up front. Generally, men are cautious, keep things inside, don't say too much unless they absolutely have to. I've read some great books where the hero has come out and said they were going to marry the heroine right away, often in a comedic or overwhelming attraction sort of way, but the real emotions, the real words don't come until much much later. When they know the other person and are pretty sure the same will be returned, or unless for some reason they're desperate to get through to the other person and they think that's an acceptable risk. Be cautious about where you put that profession of love - too early and it won't be believable from a real guy.

Guys think about sex. There's no other way to say it. The first time they're with a woman, they aren't thinking about tomorrow or next week or forever by any means. They're thinking about right now and what happens as soon as they can get the woman's clothes off. I think this is one of the reasons you need to have more than one love scene in your books. The first is exploration - and let's say it plainly - generally it's all about sex, about touching and feeling and new sensations. The second should show the growth of the relationship, the building of emotions, the moment when one (or both) realize this other person is "the one". If it happens right away - no matter how emotional your hero is on the inside - it's not realistic for a guy. At least not any guy I know.

Of course, there are exceptions to these points, and it all depends on what kind of male you're writing. Betas are going to be more in-tune to their emotions, but really, how many beta males are there in romance novels? Do most women want a man who sounds and acts and thinks like a woman? Judging from the amount of Alpha male romances out there, I'd guess the answer to that question is no. Likewise, some men are talkers. I happen to be married to one. He can talk for hours about sports or work or politics. And that's okay. But he doesn't go on for hours about emotions, he doesn't analyze his feelings, and I can't get him to expand his horizons and gab about topics that are of no interest to him. So when writing a guy, figure out where his interests lie, and develop his character from there. He might be able to talk about college football for hours and hours even if all the heroine does is nod her head now and then and pretend to listen. In that instance, the whole 'men use less words than women' rule doesn't apply.

So here's the question(s) of the day: How do you write believable men? What tricks do you use to keep your guys from sounding like girls?

And here's the exercise for Monday: The hero and heroine from your current wip walk into a strip club. Write a paragraph describing what your heroine sees. Write another paragraph describing what your hero sees. Share with the rest of us. Looking forward to reading what you all come up with!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Look! Over here! Something Shiny!

When I teach basic writing classes, one of my favorite topics always description. See, all five paragraph essays start to sound alike after awhile--and grading stacks of papers (which I'm strangely missing right now) made me realize the true value of description. Good descriptions set apart even the simplest of stories.

"I went to the park with my friend. Then we got an ice cream."

Versus

"My childhood friend Ben and I fried like eggs that July day. Even the shade in the park wasn't enough to cool us down, so we joined the long line at the ice cream cart."

Even simple actions benefit from descriptions:

"She set the book on the counter."

Versus

"She set the medical textbook on the chipped counter."

But, even veteran writers benefit from practicing layering details, from free writing prompts.

In Pen on Fire, she mentions that you'd never describe your husband as "tall dark and handsome." So, as romance writers why do we so often resort to cliches to describe our heroes (and heroines)? One of the things I love about Suzanne Brockmann's writing is how she incorporates little details into each character--a balding hero, a guy who's a bit on the short and wiry side, the way this one holds a gaze, the way this one doesn't. It's all in the details and description.

"I love my husband's ponytail."

Versus:

"My husband has hair that teenage girls and horses alike would envy. It's long and thick, and and this shade of brown that changes from chestnut to reddish to bronze with a shake of the head or a flicker of light. It was one of the first things I noticed about him. I saw his picture and said, "Yes. I want to meet this one." I think I brushed and braided his hair hours before we kissed. These days, he's too stressed out to tolerate much hair playing, but I still love to watch his hair crackle and dance."

What do you know about our relationship just from the details? About him? About me?

The neat thing about details is how many different stories can be derived from the same set of descriptive words:

Blue. Bug. Poster.

The blue ocean looked nothing like the poster. The bug crawling up her leg cemented it.

She saw the poster of the new VW bug and smiled. "I'll take one in blue," she thought as she fingered the lottery ticket.

The blue bug was unlike anything she'd seen before. Even the posters peppering the clinic's walls were no help.

The poster with the creepy blue man bugged her. "We're definitely skipping that movie," she lectured her roommate.

What do you know about each character just from the surrounding details? The type of story? The genre? What sort of hero would each need? See how much you know already--just from the details?

Now, your turn. What authors do detail well? Do you incorporate detail on the first draft or do you layer it in later? I do a little of both, but a lot of my polishing involves getting the details right. Do you struggle with details/descriptions or do you share my problem of too many adjectives, too little sentence?

Finally, an exercise. Describe your partner, a child, a friend. Make a single detail--"His blue eyes," "His ponytail," "Her crooked smile" into a paragraph of details that build upon that prompt.