Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Mind Wanders

There have been so many helpful posts on this blog site over the months. I've learned so much and gleaned such wonderful information from everyone; whether they offered advice through a blog post or left a valuable comment, it's all been bits and pieces of what I've needed.

One thing I've been pondering since Karen blogged on Jan 19th about "Minding My Business" is her question, "Where do you think you are right now in your career?" This really got me thinking. Where the heck am I in this writing career? Know what I found out? This...

My goal isn't to be published. Wham! It hit me just like that (Piper snaps her fingers) the other day. Right now, I just don't care about publication. Now don't gasp and fall over in a faint or anything. Truly, I don't want or need a "career" in anything. In fact, I didn't start writing with the intent to get published. Nope, I started writing to express my creative energy and because it's fun; but, somewhere along this path, I got derailed and skipped tracks; and I've realized something - I've not accomplished anything because I wasn't working toward a goal that I wanted for me, I was working on a goal I thought I was supposed to want for me.

How dumb was that?!!

What a waste of energy, worry and time. But no more! I'm going to be true to my inner self, the one that's reminding me that writing used to be fun and I used to look forward to it until it became a chore. A chore because I thought I had to have the same goals as all my best friends, the goal of publication. But that's just silly. So I smacked myself upside the head and knocked myself back onto the track of writing because, 1. It gives me pleasure, 2. I increase my knowledge, and 3. I accomplish what I want for me and not for someone else when I write just for myself. Before, when I was trying to make myself accomplish other people's goals that they set for themselves, I felt such utter disappointment and frustration, but then BLAMO, it all became clear. Write because you want to, not because you feel you HAVE TO! What a concept! (I know, I scare me too.)

The pressure is off now, and I love it. My goals are to write when the fancy strikes and not a word until it does. Write what's in my heart and head at the time whether it makes sense or not, is good or not, and finish it if I want, or NOT!

Right now, I would be an editor's/publisher's nightmare. Deadlines are not something I want to deal with at this time in my life. I have too many other things I want to do to be tied down to a deadline. I'd rather be free and broke than rich (or a little better off) and in a prison that I created for myself. And that's what I was doing, creating a prison for myself.

The plan I have is to live up to my expectations and mine only. Not what I'm assuming everyone thinks I should be living up to. Does this make sense? I pushed myself in the wrong direction for too long and now, I'm pulling back. It's been 100% my fault for not listening to my gut's reaction; but, I'm listening now! ;)

I've been listening to an audiobook called, "As A Man Thinketh" and it's been very empowering. Finally, I'm realizing that I'm the one holding me back from all that I want to do, and I'm pushing myself to do what I have no true heart for right now. So watch out self! There's a new girl in charge and she's ready to kick ass and choose her own destiny! (Ouch! Stop pulling my hair! You're not in charge anymore!)

Maybe someday I'll want the goal of being published, but for now, with my attitude and life the way it is, I just want to have fun and enjoy the ride of learning how to become a great writer and I want to continue to hang with my best girlfriends in the whole world and watch them achieve their own true-hearts goals.

May your muse be kept happy and chatty, may the words flow out your fingertips like Niagara Falls, may the publishing faeries whack you on the head with their "get published now" wands if that's your career goal!

Thanks for all the tremendous support you all give freely, and thanks for sharing your wisdom and experiences on this public forum. The women in this chapter are the best friends and writer pals a girl could ask for! And that's sayin' something! *BIG OL' HUG*

Genres Outside of Romance

I've been trying to read more, thanks to Wavy, who made me feel inadequate as a reader and a writer because I'd only read about 5 books last year. :)

The problem - Finding a book that holds my attention. I don't have the time to waste on a book that doesn't draw me in and keep me. Life is too short to wait for a book to get interesting. I started a Harlequin Contemporary and gave it 30 pages. I didn't feel a thing for either of the main characters and the setting and plot did nothing for me, so I put it to the side. I was given a mainstream book for Christmas. I thought, what the heck, it would do me some good to go outside the romance genre. That book was so confusing! I don’t know how the author could have made any bestseller list! When she did stay in one POV it was hard to decide if it was present or backstory and then there were half pages in other people's POV and I just didn’t come to feel anything for anyone. So I ditched it as well. As I get back into my Native American spirit trilogy I find myself reading non-fiction books and myths and legends. Some of these are fiction and don't start out with a bang, but they are keeping my attention because I am gleaning information for what I am working on.

I recently attended a local writer's group(and joined). It is made up of poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers, who write novel length, short stories, and magazine articles. While it is a wide range of writers, they all have the same things in common - a need to know the craft of writing and how to be productive. So in essence, all writers need to have the same skills.

However, this is a timely blog. I started this topic about other genres and then had a conversation with a writer who has been struggling with wondering if she wants to write romance. She is a writer, a darn good one, but she felt romance had too many rules, and she wasn't into writing romance. I suggested she try mainstream. There are a whole lot of categories a writer can write for. They don’t have to stay within one if they don't feel it is a fit. I decided to check and see what all I could find. Here's the list:

Romance (of course) and all it's subgenres.

Then there are these which may have a smattering of romance, but it isn't the crux of the story.

Literature

Mystery

Thriller

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Historical

Westerns

Inspirational

Mainstream

Most of these are self explanatory. Mainstream is anything that doesn't fit into the above mentioned categories. Like the book I was reading and put down. It was about two girls from two different social classes and how they became friends and about their relationships growing up.

I was with a mystery writers group briefly years ago when I was going to be the next Sue Grafton. They too had somewhat of a formula for their books. But they were not nearly as kind to upcoming writers as Romance writers. I ditched them and the rest is history.

The main thing with writing is to find what you want to write, then research the area to make sure you know what that particular industry is looking for, and put your best words forward.

Do you as a romance writer find it hard to read mainstream fiction because they don't seem to follow any rules on POV or even a kind of structure to their books? It's been a while since I read a mainstream book, so this may be an exception, but I’m thinking not.

Monday, January 29, 2007

How Honest Is Too Honest?

I love apple pie.

Mmm...correction. I love my mother's homemade apple pie.

Yesterday was Gremlin #3's second birthday. We had a family party complete with too much food, lots of presents, cake and ice cream and balloons (he loved the balloons!). What did my mother bring? You guessed it, apple pie.

It's no secret my husband doesn't think my mother can cook. He grew up with the type of mother who slaved in the kitchen from morning to night and made everything from scratch - rolls, cookies, cakes, refried beans, tortillas, French sauces...everything. I will never live up to my MIL's cooking. Which is okay, I don't want to spend hours in the kitchen, I have other things to do. My mother, however, cooks less than I do, and my husband has never been thrilled with her entree choices. So when she walked in the door and said, "I brought pie!", his first reaction was a roll of his eyes toward me that meant, "Oh great, she went to Costco. Why did she get a pie when she knows we're having cake?" But - of course - he was wrong. She made the pie from scratch, and cooked it with love and care for her kids and grandkids.

After the party was over, after everyone went home and DH went scrounging for food, he decided to go for a piece of her homemade pie. He scooped it up, sat down on the couch with the bowl, and after two bites, turned to me with surprise in his eyes and said, "This is really good." Now, he's complimented my mother's cooking before - but only when she's in the room and it's the right thing to do - but I can honestly say I don't think I've ever heard him compliment her cooking when it wasn't out of sheer politeness.

The moment made me think about critique partners and crits and what we hear from our writing peers on a daily basis. How honest are they really being? Critique relationships are hard. A lot of times you develop strong friendships with your critique partners, and those friendships can sometimes cause you to be less-than-honest than you might otherwise be with a stranger.

Case in point...about a year and a half ago, one of my critique partners was working on a book. She'd sent me the first six chapter or so to crit. I love her writing. She's very talented. And this particular premise was unique and interesting. The hook was so catching, I couldn't stop reading. I wanted more. I told her as much, but there was something about the story that kept throwing me off, and I couldn't put my finger on what it was. So I didn't bring it up. I decided to focus on the good even though I knew there was something wrong.

Then I went to Nationals in Reno, and I sat in on a workshop about plot braiding the romantic suspense given by Roxanne St.Claire and Gail Wilson. BAM! Lightbulb moment. What was bothering me was her two threads - the romance and the suspense - seemed to be separate strands - not connected. Without the romance, the suspense could have kept going. Without the supsense, the romance could have kept going...and in a romantic suspense, that just can't happen. They have to be woven together, one dependent on the other. So I came home from Nationals, completely excited to share this information with my CP. I finally knew what was bothering me about her book, and I was sure it would help. I sat down and wrote out a long email describing what I had learned and how it hit home. And then I sent it.

I didn't hear from her for two days. I got worried. When she finally IM'd, she admitted that she'd been absent because she'd spent the last two days crying about her book. I ... Felt ... Like ... Crap. Here, I thought I'd done the supportive CP thing - I'd given honest feedback about something I thought would help her book. Because I LOVED that book. I loved the characters and where the suspense plot was going. And I'd told her that as well. I learned a long time ago that even when you're giving constructive criticism, an "I love this!" and a "Great Line" go a long way in softening the blow. Plus, everyone loves to hear what they're doing well - even me. I never give compliments unless I really mean them, so everyone who knows me knows when I'm telling the truth. But in this case - in the end - being honest only created a huge mess.

There were other things going on for my CP then - things I didn't know about - but I happened to be the straw that broke the camel's back. She ended up taking some time off from writing and is only now recently back, stronger than ever. I'm happy for her - she finally finished that book over Christmas and is working on the next one - but we aren't critique partners anymore. We're friends, we chat about life and writing now and then, but we don't crit each others work. Since this happened, she hasn't asked me to crit anything else, and she hasn't offered to crit anything for me. And for a very long time, that situation caused me to questioned my critique abilities. How honest was too honest? Did I cross a line? Should I have kept my mouth shut about my honest opinion and not said anything?

This situation has stayed with me long after the fact. Everytime I send a critique, I cringe. Not because I don't believe in the comments I've put forth, but in how they will be received. I don't know everything, but then, what critique partner does? The definition of "critique" is a serious examination and judgment of something. How can you give a critique if you aren't being completely honest about your opinion?

It's true, I also cringe every time I open a crit from one of my CP's, and sometimes I get upset and close the document and think they're out of their minds, but I always come back to it, and nine times out of ten the comments they've given make my book stronger. I WANT my critique partners to be honest with me. If I'm not doing something right, if my plot points are confusing, if my characters are unsympathetic, if my RS isn't woven...I want to know. Critique partners aren't doing me any favors if they're pulling punches and telling me what I want to hear. I'll never improve unless they're completely honest.

There are instances when being polite is the way to go - like when my hubby tells my mother her cooking is great even when it isn't. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised, as my hubby was tonight. But when it comes to critiques, I don't want polite. I want honest and open, and I want my CP's to rip the thing to shreds and show me where my weak spots are.

How about you? How honest are you when you give critiques? Do you go all out? Or do you pull punches because you're afraid of hurting feelings?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Rejection: Or What Comes Next

(Apologies for the late post! How long can I keep blaming pregnancy for being a spaz?)

On Monday, I finally heard back from Harlequin about WIP #1, which I submitted a query letter/synopsis for back in October. Not surprisingly, the answer was no. However, because this book did well in Contests, I had hoped for at least a chance to send in a partial of some length.

This particular rejection hurts more than all YA agent rejections because a)this was my first book, b) this book was specifically written for this line, and c) there's not a lot of other markets for this length of book, and d) I started the connected book before I began the YA and had planned to finish that book after the WIP.

So my problem right now is deciding what comes next for this particular book:
  • Shelve it. Most first books live under the bed anyway.
  • Rewrite it later (like, oh, say September when drafting something new isn't going to be a possibility)
  • Enter it in more contests hoping to catch a category editor's eye anyway (afterall all they saw was the synopsis)
  • Submit to the few smaller houses that do category length books
What happened to your first book? Is it still circulating? Will it live under the bed forever or do you have plans to rewrite it? What's your opinion on rewriting versus starting something new? Have you written the second connected book in a series after getting rejected on the first? Any opinions on that?

And finally, how in the heck do you deal with the sting of a particularly hard rejection? Chocolate? Shopping? How do you recommit to your end goal????

Discuss and have a happy weekend!!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Time For Sharing

Let's laugh.

I'll tell you an amusing (I hope) anecdote and you tell me one. We’ll laugh together. We can play catch-up, too. Check in with what's going on. I'll start--

It's been an intense few weeks trying to get the proposal out of here on time. I missed my deadline by a week and had to ask my editor for an extension of ten days. I hate to do that even though she was very nice about it, but for me writing is my profession and if I tell someone on my "team" I am going to do something, then I try hard to do it. So, now two days after mailing the proposal, I have emerged from my bat cave slightly bleary eyed and brain dead, getting ready for a driving trip to Mexico where I hope to do the research that will make my WIP spring to life and perhaps inspire additional story ideas to be excited about (like Lisa is.)

Now for my story:

1. Picture it. Husband's boss. Smart man, ladies man. Always telling me we should write a book together. He has grand ideas and I am published. He knows a lot about writing and I MUST have connections (Right. Sure.) and can do the grunt work (that last part is me extrapolating what he said.) I pass. Then he asks the dh if he thinks I will look over a story he's written. Dh asks me, says do whatever you want, I say sure, but remember I am just a confession writer (at that point.) Boss sends home story. I do for and with it what I do for and with my cohorts work. I change this. I take out that. I rewrite most of it and scratch out the rest. It wasn't very good and though I tried to be encouraging, let's just say there was a lot of red ink on those black and white pages when I was done. I spent many hours on it, aware he was the boss, aware he had an ego roughly the size of Texas, aware I didn't want to hurt him, but also painfully honest. It's a character flaw. Why else would he want me to look at it if not for my honest opinion? And I covered it with disclaimers…

Still I'd given him some new ideas to think about and corrected some pretty silly mistakes, so I felt good. In retrospect, dh kind of smirked when I gave it to him to return to boss. Didn't think much of it at the time. Dh hands it to boss who beams, opens the folder, takes one look at it and walks out the door.

Folder later seen lurking in waste basket. As boss wasn't popular with many of the folks who worked with him, I attain cult status. Wielding my mighty red pen, I had brought the tyrant to his knees (which was never my intention.)

Boss never mentions writing to me again. Not once in six more years of Christmas parties and get togethers. My dh still giggles when he thinks of the expression on boss' face. I suspect it may be why I still get flowers for no reason umpteen years later.

Now it's your turn. Go on, you know you've done something stupid or said something wild or been annoyed with some well meaning friend who acts like your writing is on the same par as their scrap booking (all insults to scrap bookers are not intended and hereby apologized for.) I think we all have at least one writing story. At least I'm hoping we do or this is going to be one boring blog!

Go on, let's laugh!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Do You Smell Smoke?

If you do, it's because I've had an idea. Yup, a shiny, new, sparkly, magnificent idea. A series idea as a matter of fact and if done right I think it could be great. You know the feeling. It's so small - has to be nurtured, fed, cared for and loved. That's where I am. Trying to nurture the damn idea so it will grow into a full-grown being. Well, I don't think my fertilizer works because it ain't bloomin'. Damn horse manure.

What do you do when you have the start of a great idea? Do you plot, brainstorm characters, make collages, bubble chart? Usually I get a plot idea that I run with, then secondary I have to spend time creating the characters. I know it's the opposite for many people. I will sometimes do character sheets to try and brainstorm plot points or twists. But for some reason this process isn't working for me this time. I have this cool concept for a series and the general characters, but no idea for the plot of the first individual book.

I try to figure out the overal conflict of the book as a starting point. For example, she needs the Fountain of Youth to save her mother, he needs it to destroy his enemy. Big conflict, can sustain a book. Good starting point. Then you can break it down into smaller pieces of the story, little obstacles and achievements. Well, that's what I usually do anyway. But as I said, I haven't been able to determine the "big conflict" of the book specificially. Just the overarching conflict of the series.

I went so far as to play music I liked, light a gardenia scented candle and turn off the television. It didn't help. Maybe I should gorge myself on Dove Milk Chocolate pieces and Diety Coke. Mmmmm sounds good already. I can feel the ideas coming forward.

Please share your process with us of how the kernel of an idea develops into a full story. Anything you've learned along the way?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Writing and Reading Romances in the Age of Relationships

So, this post isn’t exactly related to the craft, but it does have to do with how reading and writing romance affects our relationships, an issue that I have always wondered about.

Like many of you, romance has been a part of my heart and soul for as long as I can remember. All of the stories I created, whether in my head or on paper, had some romantic element to them. It was the uumph, the glue, the substance of my story. Sure, I could write a mystery or a horror tale, but why not throw together a couple who yearns for each other to make things interesting.

When I first started reading romances, I was a newlywed. I can still remember going to the bookstore, glancing around to make sure no was looking and then sneaking into the romance aisle like a wraith. I blushed like a school girl when I saw the bodice-ripping covers and half-naked men gracing some of the covers.

Eventually, I got over my self-consciousness (obviously). Now, I stand proudly in the romance aisle, giving whomever dares challenge me the big ol’ hairy eyeball. Usually it’s all in my head, but it makes me feel tough anyway.

What I noticed, when I began reading and writing romances, was that I started comparing the heroes in the stories to my own husband. My hubby is my center; he’s my rock. But, his idea of a romantic evening includes watching NASCAR. Sitting in my big armchair, my heart went pitter-pat as the hero professed his undying love to the heroine, all the while reciting a laundry list of all of the cute, wonderful things he loved about her. Then, I would turn to look at my husband, lying sprawled out on the couch, barely conscious, dirty from the garage, scratching himself. .l

There were so many times I almost brained him with the book. Or lamp. Whatever.

It got to the point that when we argued, I would think, “Well, John Q. Hero wouldn’t say that to me!” Which is asinine and ridiculous, I know, but, hey, I was twenty. Cut me some slack.

In my naivety, I considered ceasing the genre altogether. Of course, I couldn’t do that anymore than I could stop breathing. I mean, come on. Really?

In the end, I came to this glaringly obvious realization: romance novels are, largely, written by women. Women who, largely, want their men to understand them in a profound way, to talk to them on a deep level, and last but certainly not least, knock their proverbial socks off in bed.

I’m long since past the newlywed phase and I have come to an understanding and acceptance with my husband. When I write now, I can appreciate the differences and similarities between my heroes and my sweet hubby, bless his unromantic heart.
So, I wonder, how has writing romances affected any of your significant relationships, if at all?

Idea and Intent

Original idea. Premise. Theme. Intent.

Whatever you want to call it, it all boils down to describing your story in as few words as possible.

And then describing it in even fewer words.

Try three.

Now one.

Impossible, you say?

Difficult, yes. But not impossible. It can be done. It should be done. Jotting down a single sentence describing the thrust of your story can help keep you on track as you move through the pages and drafts of your literary work of art.

I don't know if any of you are following the free online workshop by Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayor, but their first two lessons were titled "The One Sentence Idea".

I found their advice insightful and interesting. It made me take a good hard look at my own work in progress, and pushed me to write that single sentence.

Those three words.

That one word.

Here's how my one-sentence idea turned out:

A non-superstitious young widow, determined to raise her baby without assistance, must turn to an old flame and a fortune teller to save the infant from a pack of evil dogs.

My three words: Love conquers fear.

My single word: Recovery.

If you're having trouble, you're not alone. To troubleshoot, Mayor suggests thinking back to the original idea that sparked you into writing your novel in the first place. It can be anything: Character; a situation; a setting; a premise; a theme; a 'what if'.

If the idea was exciting enough to stir you into toiling on the same project for weeks, months, possibly years, it's exciting enough to boil down into one sentence.

Mayor likes to write his single sentence idea before he begins writing draft number one. Cruisie, on the other hand, prefers to push through her first draft before she nails down her short summary.

Cruisie says, "The One Sentence Idea sums up your story, it tells you the thing that made you go 'Oh, goody' when you thought of it and made you want to write it."

"Intent/theme," Cruisie says, "is what the story means."

I'm thinking intent or theme is where that one word, and those three words come into action.

So, here we go, ready or not. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and take a quiet mind voyage back to whence the idea spores blew into your gray matter and took root -- otherwise known as brain fungi. Ha! -- Sorry for the quiet journey interruption. Where were we? Ah, yes. Breathe in. Now breathe out, because if you hold your breath too long you'll pass out. Say "Om" -- ryhmes with home -- with me...."Om....Om"...and go peacefully, breathfully to your happy place, where you were contemplating the meaning of life, and the meaning of your book, before the rude attack of the brain fungus.
Are you there yet? Okay, quick! Scribble down whatever flies into your head. Idea spores are fragile -- they blow about on every breeze. You gotta catch 'em when you can.

If you're still having trouble, here's a couple questions Mayor poses that may help: Why did you write this book? (Or if it isn't written yet, why are you going to write it?) And what is the climactic scene? The answers to these questions may very well be your single-sentence idea.

Because I'm an overachiever (as Alice recently called me, and several of my teachers labeled me in grammar school and which I translate to mean: She ain't all that bright, but golly, she sure do work hard -- no worries, Alice. No offense taken. And none meant. Really. I’m serious. I mean it. Truly) I also wrote a pitch, which I'll share, because...well...because I wrote it. Because it was harder than it seems...and because I only want to be appreciated by my peers… .
So, here goes:

"The Vanishing" is a book about grief and recovery.
Widowed photographer Dianne Harris doesn't believe in the supernatural. Dianne's old flame, Detective Kevin McCoffey believes in her. Together, with the help of an insightful fortune teller, and the voice of Dianne's dead grandmother, the two must save Dianne’s infant -- and themselves -- from a pack of evil dogs and the grief that threatens to swallow an entire town.



Do you have a single sentence written for your book yet? Three words? One word? A short pitch? Share with us. Believe me, we know how flippin' hard it is. We appreciate you. And we'd love to read what you've got.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Minding My Business


I've been thinking a lot lately about my "career," such as it is, and my career goals. Where is this writing thing going? I love it and am happiest while I'm doing it, but I have a fair way to go in honing my voice, style and craft before I'll feel comfortable getting on board with one of the Big Six. Until I'm prolific enough to write at least a book a year, I'll continue to get my feet wet in the smaller pool of publishers, learn the business, and have fun creating new ways to promote my small press books.

Obviously, not everyone views their careers in the same way I do. I frequently see fresh-out-of-the-gate writers with their eyes on the NYT Best Seller prize. I was that way once. I had big dreams of big books and tours and signings and television interviews and quitting my job to live on the millions I'd make from my books. Hee hee! It didn't take long for reality to hit. It took me quite some time before I was finally able to view my work objectively enough to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses. I had to learn enough about the craft to understand the mistakes I was making and how to fix them.

But I'm not blogging about craft today. I want to talk about the business side, which is indirectly connected to craft because, after all, it's the well-crafted book that will get agent representation. It's the well-crafted and original book that will land that juicy contract with one of the Big Six and be the possible first step toward that NYT Best Seller dream.

Do you need a literary agent? If trying to sell to one of the Big Six, you absolutely do. Not that you have to have one, since there are ways to get work directly to editors without having an agent. Requests through contest wins and conferences is the most common method for bypassing the rule of agent represented material only. And then your manuscript ends up in the slush pile. Some writers may argue that if it's requested, it's not slush. Most of the time, however, it's still slush. And for good reason. Editors trust that what comes from an agent has been screened and the agent knows the editor well enough to know what he or she is looking for. A manuscript submitted by someone an editor doesn't know from Adam could be the worst dreck he's ever read. Why waste time taking the risk of reading crap? The editor's job is on the line, his livelyhood, and stuff that comes direct from an author without virtue of a good screening must get relegated to the slush pile. The agented stuff always gets read first.

Many writers are impatient. They'll plow through any barrier to get their hands on that golden ring and believe it's their magical amulet to publication stardom. Could be. We all know that persistence pays off. But are these writers shooting themselves in the foot? Once they've submitted to every editor in New York, what next? Trying to find an agent at that point would be futile. Agents don't want to represent a book that's already been seen by every prospective editor in town.

Let's say one of these writers hits the jack pot. Woo hoo! Our hypothetical author landed a one-book deal with a big New York publishing house after harrassing an editor over the course of two years. She's made the big time now, baby. There's no where else to go but up. She get's a tiny advance, which is okay with her because she accomplished her goal. Her book's going to be in Barnes & Noble! The print run is small, about 10,000 books. Reviews are bad. Her sell-through is 20%. She didn't even sell enough to earn out her advance. The publisher rejects her next three proposals. Her track record sucks. What profit-minded agent or editor will want anything to do with her now?

It's important to be confident in the quality of your work and your ability to write more than one book every few years. Are you ready? Where do you think you are right now in your career? What's your next step and how will you take it?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I've learned to say NO, and mean it.

As of the first of this new year I decided to start taking time for me. To sort of "set my house in order" and all that great crap.

Let me tell you, it's been a treat that's better than smooth dark chocolate.

I've eliminated several things from my life that kept me so wrapped up I thought for sure I'd blow up if I continued slaving over them.

So now I'm a free woman. Giving myself permission to say NO has been the biggest hurdle I've ever cleared. It's funny how people nag you and try to make you feel guilty for changing things in your life and having the gall to tell them no. I'd like to have smacked a few of them, but I didn't. Instead, I said it nicely and decided to never put the pressure on someone else to do what they really don't want to do. It shouldn't matter what it is you want to say no to, others should never try to guilt you into feeling bad for learning how to say no and sticking to it. And let me tell ya that little word has been so liberating!

I've been doing more free writing than ever before because I now have the time. I've been working on character sheets, a "dreaded" synopsis, and reading writing basics and helps for the last few weeks.

This is my year. I'm clearing my plate, my head and my heart all at the same time; and it only took a two letter word.

What do you need to say NO to so you can be free to write, read, study writing basics, and generally spend time doing things to improve yourself and your life, instead of cluttering it up with what everyone else thinks you should be doing? You don't even have to make a list here. Perhaps you'd like to make it at home and tape it to the wall by your desk instead. You don't have to share your list, but take a minute to ponder if there are some things you'd like to put on it, then you go for baby! More power to ya!

Do you have the courage to JUST SAY NO?!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Theme

I had another post all written and ready to post, but it didn't seem nearly as relevant to the act of writing as this post, so I dumped it and here you go. You get to be my guinea pigs as I explore a facet of writing I've been in denial about.

Danita read my spirit book after much arm twisting on my part. I wanted another person's perspective on it. As we all know, we get pretty wrapped up in our own work and sometimes can't look at it with an unbiased eye. She said, "You need a theme. Then make it happen throughout the book." Her other profound words were, "A theme is something that keeps the book lasting in the reader's mind after they've read the last page." I liked that! And I want that!

Okay, anyone who has been around me a while knows, I'm a theme phobic. I can't think of themes. How many times have you heard me say that! Well, I took Danita's words to heart and have started analyzing my stories and deciding what the themes are. Or what I want to say with these books.

But I have also looked up what other people had to say about theme. Janet Burroway in her book "Writing Fiction" says - "First of all, theme is what a story is about." Not a person or a place or a thing, but an abstract. It is about love, death, hate, revenge. Usually it also deals with Idea and Morality.

John Garner describes the theme process in "The Art of Fiction" as this, "...it should not be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it..."

Donald Maas in "Writing the Breakout Novel" says "A great romance novel makes love matter more than anything else in the world. It does that with the depth of development..."

To create the depth of development you use the "theme" you have come up with for the book and sprinkle the hint of that theme throughout the book without hitting the reader over the head with the theme.

For example: My contemporary theme is- Forgiveness begins within. The hero and heroine both have losses they need to deal with before they can move on and both feel the loss was their fault. So as the story progresses they make little moves toward that forgiveness of themselves.
The spirit book theme is - Love heals. Its simple, kind of basic, but in this story has a huge impact on the hero and the heroine.

Do you come up with a theme for your stories as soon as you start thinking about it, or are you like me and fight the thing tooth and nail only to really see it is needed? Also what are some of your themes and how do they play into the story you wrote or are writing?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Can We Revisit The Whole Beginning Thing Again?

Yes, yes, yes, I know. I'm late posting today. Many apologies. I blame the weather. (Since everyone's all giddy about the weather anyway).

I'm going to backtrack from Bethany's post yesterday....waaaaay back...all the way to the beginning. I know we've spent a lot of time talking about beginnings, specifically hooks, but I want to take a different look at your opening. Not so much the hook itself, but where your story really starts.

This is a biggie for me. I struggle over openings, not so much hooks. I can come up with a clever first line to get the reader engaged. What I agonize over is the right place to open my book. The scene, the inciting incident, the point where the story really opens with a bang.

If any of you have read Vogler's Writer's Journey, you know he suggests starting with the "ordinary world" then transitioning into the problem. The issue I see with this - and what seems to come up more these days in fiction - is that readers don't want to see a whole lot of that "ordinary world". They want the bing-bang-boom opening that sucks you in. Drops you smack dab in the middle of the problem. Is it because of the fast-paced TV world we live in these days? Probably. Readers want action right off the bat. Too much "ordinary world" to get through and they get bored. However, in my opinion, you have to have enough ordinary world in your opening to ground the reader in the scene.

Confused yet? Heck, I am.

So where do you start?

My last book opened with my heroine - an archaeologist - in a cave. Doesn't sound very ordinary, but that's her ordinary world. The problem? She's looking for something she can't find. I have about a page of her searching one part of the cave before the real problem - the cave caving in on her - occurs. Could I have started with the cave falling in right off the bat? Sure, but then the reader wouldn't have been grounded in the scene. So in this instance, taking a tiny step back - just a few moments in time - worked to my advantage. And it fits Vogler's model. I actually agonized over this scene because I was worried it wasn't starting in enough of the problem. No one who's read it (agent included) have had a problem with it. Of course, it still hasn't sold yet, so take this whole post for what it's worth. ;)

My WIP starts in a similar situation. My heroine's breaking into a famous auction house, moments before a special collection is about to be auctioned off. Her ordinary world is filled with secrets and shadows, which is evident in the first page. The problem, which starts on page two, are the roadblocks she encounters as she's breaking in.

I think both of these stories start in the right place, but starting points are something I really stress over. The last book I worked on - the one I shelved - kept giving me fits because I couldn't find the right starting place. I tried lots of different ones and finally realized until I work it through in my head, writing it isn't doing me any good. It was only frustrating me. Sometimes my brain has to work through all the starting point options before I can go with one.

When I judge contests or give critiques, the biggest thing I see from new writers is not starting in the right place. I'm not talking about opening hooks here, but the real opening of the story. Great writing is good, but if you open in the wrong place, no one's going to want to read more. Slow openings, pages and pages of descriptions or "ordinary world" don't pull readers in. They want the problem, they want action, and they want to get to know your characters as they work through that first main obstacle.

I have a book I finished last year that I absolutely love. I was talking to my agent about it the other day and she said if it was as good as my last book, to send it on to her. I adore the characters in this story, love the plot (which is one we story magicked at Paty's a long time ago). The writing is good, and the emotions are deep, but right now, I'm not sending it. Why? It doesn't open in the right place. It's bugged me for a very long time, and it wasn't until recently that I figured out just what was bothering me about this book. If the opening isn't right, no one's going to read to chapter seven and care about what happens to these characters. You can't "wait" to get to the meat of the book and hope readers will hang with you that long.

So on this snowy morning, I challenge you to look at your wip and ask yourself, "Where does my story really start?" Divorce yourself from the opening you've already written. Odds are pretty good that's not the real start to your story. Even the big-wig published authors will tell you they go back and rework their openings. And if you're having trouble with your opening (like I always do), tell us where you've started and what options you've thought about as alternate openings. And if not...then please, share your wisdom about where to start a story. I'd love to hear how you craft that "opening".

Monday, January 15, 2007

Resolution


My high school English Teacher used a similar diagram to explain the narrative arc to us. I remember thinking that after getting to the climax, everything was gravy. Many of my early stories reflected this arc in its most basic sense: Climax, fast resolution in a few paragraphs.

Novels, however, offer a wider range of approaches. Some authors do a last chapter climax, quick proposal, and "the end" in 20 pages or less. Romantic suspense, category, and novellas often demand these types of endings.

Some authors however, do a more growth based approach to climax and resolution--this is where you get to watch the characters struggle to make sense of the climatic moment and rebuild towards their happy ending. Longer ST, women's fiction, chic lit, and historicals often seem to lend themselves to this format. My current WIP demands this format which means Climax followed by a few chapters of resolution before the happily-ever-after moment.

And GARRRRRRAAAAAGGGH! I'm struggling. I've seen these characters through almost 400 pages now, and now they have to change in ways that are true to them. And they have to suffer. For me it's a struggle to balance realism (don't want everything too neat and tidy) with the needs of the readers (no loose ends) with the tone of the book (slightly humorous). Trying to keep the humor through the resolution is a struggle right now, and one that may not fully resolve until editing. The other issue is with tension--it's called falling action for a reason, but there has to be enough conflict/tension remaining to keep the reader interest.

So I'm going to toss it out to you: How do you approach climax/resolution? Is it all one scene? Spilt into several chapters? How do you keep the momentum/tension high enough for reader interest during the resolution? Do you often stagnant during this part of the writing? Or is this where your fingers fly? Any tips to help me say goodbye to these characters sometime this month? I swear part of me is dragging my feet because I don't want to a)have to start editing and make sense of what I've got and b) say goodbye. So spill it!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

To Outline Or Not To Outline. Is That The Question?

I'm new to the "biz."

Well, I'm new to the business side of writing, that is, the support groups, critiquing partners, publishers, query letters, ahem, finishing my novel. I've been crafting love stories in my brain since I could figure out how to get Barbie to catch Ken's attention. But, in all of those years, in all of seemingly endless hours I've spent pouring my words into story form, I can honestly say that I've never completed anything.

Each one of my stories ended mid-way. I'm gangbusters on beginnings. I love to start projects. I'm a habitual list maker. The more grandious and complex the list, the happier I get. Of course, nine times out of ten, I don't get past number two, but hey, I had fun creating the list.

When I first joined RWA, a scant eleven months ago, I began hearing different writers talk about the use of outlines. I'd come to realize that there are two schools of thought on the subject: the "fly by the seaters" who just sit down and go and the "planners" who map everything from eye color to the minutie of plot.

Oh, how I wanted to be one of those '"fly by the seaters." In fact, I had been one for my entire writing career, such as it was. I have a manuscript (my first official novel) that is still unfinished. It's approximately 650 pages long and I've still got a quarter left to write. This is what happens when I try to be spontaneous.

When I started the second official novel, mind you, I had actually decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and try the novelty of an outline on for size (oh, how I love my clichés). My outline was thirty-five pages of narrative, but it went from start to (gasp) finish. And, while my story line changed slightly, I found I was able to move from Point A to Point B and eventually to Point C.
Now, I am a big advocate of The Outline.

Of course, this doesn't work for everyone. Some say that it takes away from the creative process, which I can respect. Thankfully, this isn't the case for me. It works like a roadmap, a veritable guide, that helps me actually complete what I set out to do.

When I started the third official novel, I decided that I wanted a more concise outline, a bare bones roadmap. I recently purchased "Your First Novel" by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb. In Chapter Two, there is a section devoted to creating an outline. I'm sure that this isn't an original idea, but it seemed damned clever to me.

The gist of it is that you have all of these ideas worked out in your head, whether they're just bits and pieces or a full-blown scene. Taking a stack of index cards, you write down each scene or idea in your story. Then, take the cards and place them in chronological order. There you have your barebones. If something seems amiss, you can switch it around or figure out another scene to tie it together.

I have to admit, I hemmed and hawed for the better part of a month on this outline. Finally, I sat my butt down and performed the exercise. To my astonishment, I pumped out the entire outline to my third official novel in less than thirty minutes. It flows better than the second and everything makes damned good sense.

So, how many of you ladies use outlines? How many are "fly by the seaters?"

Friday, January 12, 2007

What I Learned From Watching TV

I got to thinking the other day about how art begets art.

Consider this string: a beautiful garden inspires a painting. The painting inspires a song. The lyrics of the song inspire a book. The book inspires a motion picture which in turn inspires another song which this time inspires a ballet. And so on. Interesting, isn't it?

Now on to MY BLOG:
During the last week, I have found many ways to avoid writing my synopsis which is due in three days. The editor knows it's going to be late. Seeking diversion, I have watched more TV than usual and these are the things I have gleaned presented in no particular order:

1. Spiderman 2: Okay, you know the set up. Spiderman has lost faith in himself. He's lost faith in his mission. He's lost the love of his fans. He can't make those web things shoot out of his hands to save his life. He recovers his own direction, he casts away his doubts--the people start rooting for him again, even the woman of his dreams is finally his and he can shoot webs like nobody's business. Conclusion: The power is inside of him. The power is inside of us. Embrace your destiny; doubt will suck the strength right out of you.

2. Character in an ad: "Dreams are not delicate flowers. Dreams are power." (Ain't that the truth?)

3. Star Trek, The Next Generation: What I notice in this show time after time are the decisions about WHEN to divulge information. I think the reason it shows up to me is that the writers tend to reveal things earlier than I would. You make a million decisions in your work about when to reveal things. For instance, a man thought to be a good guy but actually inhabited by an alien creature is shown opening a briefcase revealing another alien creature which he is going to introduce to an unsuspecting crew member. Thus we know the guy is not a good guy, but a bad guy. Knowing this, we watch as he goes about his evil plan, rooting for the good guys to catch on soon enough to save themselves and stop him.

He didn't have to open that briefcase. He could have come aboard a good guy. They could have accepted him. We could have been kept wondering if he was good or bad and hey, wait a sec, what's in the briefcase? The writer made the decision to show some of his/her cards. We all do it. I don't know about you guys, but I struggle with this many times over in a book, more so now that I write suspense, but it's a running issue. When to show something, how much to show, who should show it?

Now wait, I didn't promise you everything would have an answer. How do you do it?

4. Beauty and the Geek: Can you say stereotypes? Set up for those of you too sophisticated (and/or busy) to watch such garbage: the show consists of several geeky guys (physic whizzes, MIT grads, Rubik cube wonders, etc…) with bad hair, bad eyes (why do they always wear glasses?) bad clothes, and no social skills. They are paired up with very attractive ladies with perfect bodies, hair, clothes (and in my humble opinion, even fewer people skills than the guys, but that's not the premise.) The girls, by and large, are dumb. No brainiacs need apply. As a team, each man and woman are given challenging chores to complete. The woman needs to do something that requires using her brains, the man to do something that requires interaction with other people. Hilarity ensues. One team wins. Show's over.

The stereotypes are absolutely fascinating to me. I can see the producers screening people and then warning each geek to stop cutting his hair and play up his geekiness and each beauty to be sure to shave, shine and polish every square inch of her body and please, bring along sluttish clothes. And I wonder, do I ever fall in the trap of doing this to my characters?
And I also wonder, why would some guy with a degree from MIT be so intimidated by some pretty twit whose ambition is to sell lip gloss? SEX. Never underestimate the power of an attractive woman to get what she wants. If your characters have it, let them use it sometimes.

5. Paula's Party (Food TV): This woman is bigger than life. She's fun, she's energetic and you have to hand it to any woman over sixty who ogles young men and acts like a sex kitten on national television. I used to watch her original show and I thought she was adorable and loveable. On this show, she is so over the top I can't stand it. She's lost me. I don't know if she's trying too hard or there's just so much more time for silliness in the current format, but it does remind me of all those wonderful TV shows with characters we adored. Klinger on MASH. Kramer on Seinfeld (before he became a raving racist in real life). Both those characters (and so many others) were given their own shows after the original show stopped and both failed because it was too much of a good thing, too crazy for the audience, too much chocolate pie and not enough meat and potato. Subsidiary characters in our books bring fun and color. They can say and do the outrageous things our main characters can't. But a little of them can go a long way.

6. Speaking of MASH: Has any show done a better job casting? Not just main characters, but everyone who came onto that set was pitch perfect. Makes me stop for a second to consider the fact that we also cast our books. Think about it.

7. Devil Wears Prada: This one I rented. I have a writing friend who thought it was brilliant.

I didn't. It was okay. But take away the fashion industry and the pretty clothes and you have a story there that's been told and retold a million times. Ingénue. Workplace. Mean spirited boss. Sells soul. Finds heart. Quits before it's too late. Conquers all.

It was an enjoyable ride but brilliant? It was a reminder, however, that some stories satisfy an audience on a basic level and that familiarity with a format or a concept isn't the kiss of death, it's actually a helping hand.

8. I don't get Donald Trump. The man is icky. That smirk. That comb-over. That attitude. Ick, ick, ick. I can think of no way to relate him to writing and yet, once again, I am compelled to mutter, "Ick." Wait, wait, I can connect it. If I were to create a smug, egotistical mogul, I would make him look, think, talk, and live like Donald Trump. The man is a cliché waiting to happen. Damn, I'm clever.

9. The Last Starfighter: I remember taking my son to see this way back when. The characters were fun and "hip", the special effects were okay, the "now" feeling of it (video arcade game, clothes, hair, etc…) placed it squarely in the present (which at the time was the 80's), we enjoyed ourselves.

I saw it the other day on TV for the first time since the original viewing. The special effects are terrible. The hair and clothes look dated. When was the last time a teenager played an arcade video game? Everything about it set it squarely in the past.

My point: For those of you who are a.) old enough to have been writing for several years--say, over ten and b.) are not writing historicals, make sure your work isn't peppered with outdated scenarios, motives, and paraphernalia. It's easier for this stuff to sneak in than you might think. It can linger in past drafts. It can be part of an old carry-over plot-- a character's goals and means of going about attaining them might actually seem passé. I have a much younger friend whose work is wonderful, but it always reads to me like an old gothic because I think that's what she loves to read. Well, old gothics are pretty dated now, the new kind aren't called that anymore and they don't feel the same.

I will conclude with another Star Trek reference, this one where they are supposedly quoting Mark Twain. The captain says to the Mark Twain character he wishes circumstances had been different, he would have liked to have had the opportunity to get to know the writer better.

Mark Twain says, "Read my books. What I am is pretty much there."

Who knew TV had so much to offer?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tips to get back in the game

As many of you know I've been rather removed from the "writing" life for a little while now. Family stuff, flu, work. You name it. Well, I'm trying to get back in the game and am having difficulty getting motivated, as I'm sure we've all faced a time or two.

So I'm scrambling to find something that gets me going again. I'm not feeling as excited about the story, I want to work on other ideas, I'd rather just read... ;) So I've reread what I have and it's just reminded me of the amount of editing I have. I did a little brainstorming for the next book I want to work on and it just made me less excited about this one. I've been playing poker (my book has a lot of poker in it) and that hasn't helped.

I need other ideas. I have a feeling that our RWA meeting next week will be a huge help. What have you done to get out of your writing slump and back in the swing of things? Read books by favorite authors? Write a short story? Light your favorite gardenia scented candle? Each some Dove milk chocolate (or dark chocolate for you dangerous people)?

Let's see what kind of list we can come up with. And thank you for indulging me and giving me ideas to get out of the rut. I'm sure there are lots of us out there right now going through this after the holidays.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Those Bloody Manuscript Stages

FYI: Since we're without a blog post today, I thought I'd entertain you all (aren't you thrilled???). Actually, this is a repost from my personal blog - a topic I covered back in October. (If you happened to have already read it, just skip to the bottom and answer the darn question...you, who know who you are.)

Elisabeth's Manuscript Stages

Stage One - The Set Up
Chapter One -This sucks. First chapters are the worst. Hook? Hook? Gah! I hate hooks. I'm clearly hook-illiterate.
Chapter Two - Okay, maybe this isn't quite so bad. New POV, the setting works, I'm getting into the story. And wow, I sorta like my characters.
Chapter Three - What was I thinking??? This is the most contrived piece of crap ever. And melodramatic? Argh. Sounds like a bad version of Days Of Our Lives. I'll probably get sued.
Chapter Four - Push through, push through, just keep pushing.
Chapter Five - Getting into the groove. I actually like this. Okay, not so bad. This story might just work.
Chapter Six - I am the best writer on the planet! This is going to be a NY Times Best Seller! Maybe I should take a break and think about writing my RITA speech.

Stage Two - The Middle
Chapter Seven - (Right around the 125 pg mark). OMG. What was I thinking?! This is the biggest piece of drivel that was ever written! My CPs are going to laugh at me! No one's ever going to want to buy this! I'll have to PAY people to read it. Might as well take a break and go back to rework that sucky hook. I hate hooks. I suck at hooks. Argh. This book is so not going to sell.
Chapter Eight - I'm too far in to give up. I will not give up. I will NOT! Keep going. Just keep going.
Chapters Nine through Eleven - Okay, if nothing else, I like my characters. I don't have a clue where the plot is going, but the characters are strong. That's something at least.
Chapter Twelve - The hero's getting on my nerves. The man obviously needs sex. Going to have to think about where that big ol' scene fits in so he quits pestering me.
Chapter Thirteen - Oh, crap. I've passed the halfway mark and I STILL have all these plot points to get through. I'm going over my target word count, there's no way I'll get all this in here in 100K words. No way. I'm doomed.
Chapter Fourteen - Need chocolate. Must. Have. Chocolate. These two are driving me nuts. No editor's going to care if they get together or not. And the plot? How will I ever tie this all together?
Chapter Fifteen - Building to the climax. And still so much to get through. *big sigh* Okay, refocus. Time to get serious. I can do this. Really, I can. I might lose all my eyebrows in the process, but I can do this.

Part Three - The Beginning of the End
Chapter Sixteen - Tension, angst, black moment foreshadowing (and that's mostly for me, not the book).
Chapter Seventeen - Here it comes. Climax build up. Black Moment. Yes, hero, I know you hate me. Hang on with me. I won't leave you out to dry, I promise.
Chapter Eighteen - BAM. Black Moment. UGH. I'm emotionally drained. I need coffee. Or chocolate. Or coconut cream pie. Mmm...wonder if Shari's is still open...
Chapter Nineteen - Climax. My shoulders are tight. I feel like crawling out of my skin. Maybe I should write in a murder somewhere just for the fun of it to ease all this stress?
Chapter Twenty - Resolution. Wrap up all the loose ends. Surprisingly, I did it! Kissy-face moment. Slobber, slobber, pant, drool all over each other. Man, I write pure sap. But it's not half-bad sap. ;)

Type T-H-E E-N-D. I should get a medal or something. Too bad no one in the house will care that I finally finished.

*sigh*

On to the next book...

Currently I'm smack-dab in the middle of stage one with the wip - wafting between loving it and hating it (leaning towards hating it most days). So share with us...what are your manuscript stages?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Words of Wisdom

What are the Words You Write By?

We all have them. Words of writer wisdom. Pinned into corkboard, taped to walls, saved in a file. Mine are taped to my monitor. I'll share them now.

Trimmed from a TV guide (at least I think that's where it came from) a quote by Glenn Close in the movie "More":
"All great art comes from a sense of outrage."

The next two are both from writer's magazines and may be a bit outdated, although I hope not:

Best bets in fiction: The most reliable fiction area these days, where most of the long-range multiple-book deals get made, is that of genre fiction. That catagory includes romance (often with a "chick lit" flavor), science fiction/fantasy and, in particular, mystery and suspense series, preferably built around a protagonist (female just as often as male -- a comparatively recent change) with an unusual job, and done with a humorous twist, if possible.

"It is a truth imperfectly acknowledged that a certain type of book buyer is primarily interested in reading about herself. Slake the thirst of such readers for heroines who are spunky but not overconfident, wisecracking but not cynical, beleaguered but not downtrodden, and you may soon find yourself in possession of a good fortune all your own. That's the thinking (for publishers at least) behind the contemporary genre known as chick lit."

From a fortune cookie:
Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.

A snippet from Writers Digest:
"What's the writing that makes you happy?" Rosenthal asks. "That's the writing to do."

A quote from I-don't-know-who out of the RWA mag:
"When I wrote that book, I hadn't read a Blaze. I simply sat down, put "the rules" out of my head and wrote the book that I wanted to write, and that was the one that finally ushered me into Harlequin."

And a bookmark, taped to the side of my monitor that a writer friend made on her computer with words borrowed from The Writer's Handbook:
The Writer's Creed
Character endures longer than plot in your stories.
Action intigues the reader more than passive language.
Scenes excite the reader more than narration.
Dialogue interest the reader more than expostion.
Nouns and verbs trump adjectives and adverbs.

So what words do you write by? Please share some of your favorite bits of inspiration.



Sunday, January 07, 2007

Once Upon A Time...


...there was a hero and heroine who had a life before their story started. They were born, had parents, siblings, went to school, got jobs, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Backstory. A necessary evil. As authors, we need backstory on our characters for us to understand what makes them tick, what motivates them. Our book needs these characters' backstories to provide them with motivation to behave as they do. But how much should an author use? When? Where? And how much is too much? Or not enough?

Boy, for me this is the most challenging part of starting a new story. It's a balancing act of getting just the right amount of backstory in the beginning to shed some light on who the characters are, what they want, and connect them to the obstacles that stand in their way. It's so very, very important, yet you have to measure it out in bite-size portions that fit the scene and situation. If you dump it in all at once, you get: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. The last thing you want is to put your readers to sleep.

So what's a writer to do?

Dialogue can be a great way to disclose backstory without stopping the story completely. As long as you don't fall into the trap of "As you know, Bob..." That's the kiss of death. Never have characters talk to each other about stuff they already know. "As you know, Bob, we both dated Kathy last year and she picked me, so you're a loser." Duh.

But dialogue can reveal relevent backstory significant to the plot. I contemplated this in a story I'm just starting. As an example, here is how I reveal significant backstory that I hope doesn't slow down the story too much.

Staring at his untied shoe, she said, “The money should have gone to my mother.”

Henry slipped a pen from his breast pocket. “Your father knew you’d take care of her and your sister.”

Claire tightened her grip on the letter in her lap and felt the paper tear. “Kind of late for that.”

“Neither of us knew about the accident.”

She shrugged. “Nothing can be done for Celleste, but my mom’s still breathing.” Not that breathing always meant living, at least in her mother’s case. After the car hit the median and rolled, her mother’s injuries left her in a coma and left her sister, Celleste, without a pulse. The pickled state of Mom’s inebriated brain might have been responsible. Or the leaky breaklines. Whichever, the result was the same.


This is only an example of how backstory is "weaved" into the present narrative and dialogue. But it also serves to create tension. Backstory sets the stage for more to come, thereby raising questions, which also heightens tension. Backstory can be used to hint at secrets with the promise of revelations to come.

So how do you balance your backstory with your story's narrative? Do you have any tricks to share on how to use backstory to help readers care about your characters from the get-go? It's easy to torture a character from page one, maybe even kill off him or her, but how do you make a reader care before they even know who that character is? Do you have a method for creating sympathetic characters on the first page? Please share!

Karen

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Brand New Year

***Note: We seem to be having problems with people posting to blogger. I'm posting this for Piper. If you're having problems, please let me know and I'll try to get things fixed for all of us.***

It's January 2007 and we have a brand new year ahead of us. I look at it as a clean slate for all of my life. A time to renew old goals that haven't been accomplished, and a time to make new ones. A time to reclaim life and let go of things that have bogged life down for the past year. Usually I'm pretty pessimistic about the new year when it rolls around. I think of all the things I didn't accomplish and I generally beat myself up and feel all sorts of guilt. But this year is different for some reason and I'm feeling quite positive I tell you! No, really, I am. But, like a muscle, I need to exercise this whole positive notion thing to make it stronger so it can withstand the negative that tends to want to creep slowly back around to quash all this positive thinking. Kind of like eating too many sugary treats after building up the muscle a little and thinking it's going to be there forever now that you've got it. Does this make sense?

This year I'm looking forward to writing. Not just writing a novel either, but all sorts of writing. Keeping up my personal blog, contributing to this chapter blog, writing down goals to keep with my family and making sure to take time to write my ideas and dreams down for myself. Writing clears ones head, as I'm sure you already know.I've had some wicked awesome dreams lately, and I've been writing bits and pieces of them down to add into a novel that's been spinning in my head. Over the last few weeks I've had many of you tell me that my voice lends itself to YA; I've taken this into consideration as I've been writing down ideas and figuring out where I want to go with this whole writing gig. It's very exciting to have my head whirling with thoughts in such a different direction than I've ever dared ponder.

(I'm also thinking that writing YA will make it so I don't have to write the dreaded love scenes. They make me panic just thinking I may have to write them someday. Love scenes are not my forte, heck, I don't even enjoy reading them most of the time. They have to be done really well to suck me in, otherwise I skip them and get back to the meat of the story. It's like yeah, yeah, been there, done that, let's move on people. LOL Okay, getting off track, which seems to be quite easy for me to do, unfortunately.)

It was suggested to me that I take an idea from a dream I had and turn it into a YA. Thanks Danita. :) Now my brain won't stop whirling with this idea and I've got a great start. But I'm scared. I'm a total chicken shit writer, and it's no fun either. (Piper folds her arms, sticks out a pouty lip and stomps her foot. Yes, she's very mature.) This, however, is the year to overcome all this feathery poopness. I will conquer the demons who tell me I suck and I should run in the opposite direction of my hearts desire. This year I will slay those evil dragons! It's funny how powerful our minds are and how much we can accomplish or avoid because we either shut out or embrace those doubt mongers that scream at us. ("Please tell me I'm not alone," Piper pleads as she struggles to free herself from the straight jacket.)

So, do any of you have doubt mongers that whisper or scream in your ears about your writing abilities? Or, do you feel confident and like you're headed in the right direction with this writing thing? (lucky) Have you ever been overwhelmed by fear, doubt, guilt, etc., and it's paralyzing effects, thus making you stifled in your writing? What are your best weapons for slaying the doubt mongers and their hateful fears they put in your way? How do you keep from being trodden down? How do you stay positive in this competitive field of writing and getting published? ("Wow," you're thinking, "What the hell is wrong with Piper? She's really screwed up." LOL) But seriously, share your weaponry with me and others who may feel this way. Help us overcome these fears and doubts in our abilities by telling us how you've conquered and won. I'll even say the magic words. Please and Thank You. :)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Words do Count

In the words of one of our wise chapter members, "Make every word count".

I started to write this blog about two other subjects then the following came through on my e-mail and I had to share and add to it.

7 Rejected Metaphors & Similes
(from an upcoming novel based on the TV show "24")

...The information that Jack Bauer found imbedded on the stolen
computer chip was like an explosive so explosive it could explode,
creating a massive explosion.

...Nina Myers' blazing eyes danced like Astaire and Rogers, but since they were crossed on account of the intense pain she was
experiencing, it was an ocular tango, and Jack's eyes had to foxtrot
just to maintain eye contact.

...Ramon Salazar had a voice so husky it could have pulled a dogsled, and the gun he was holding gave Nina a bad case of barrel envy.

...Sherry's parting words lingered heavily inside David Palmer's gut like last night's Taco Bell.

...The neon sign reflected off Chloe's gun, like the moonlight
reflects off my brother-in-law's bald head after a night of beer
drinking and cow-tipping.

...The killer was a misplaced comma in the jaunty, happy sentence
that made up the party crowd.

...A single drop of sweat slowly inched down Jack's brow -- a tiny,
glistening Times Square New Year's Eve Ball of desperation.

Done laughing?

Sometimes we get so tied up in our words that we can forget to KISS. Keep-It-Simple-Stupid. It's not always the big words or metaphors that hit home with your idea or meaning, but the simple straight to the point words that have more punch.


Julie wanted to put her hands around his beefy neck and make his eyes bulge like the bucking bull at the Stampede last year.

Or

Julie wanted to throttle Mark for his remark.

Just as effective, but more efficient and doesn't pull the reader away from the point.

I'm reading a submission where the writer has given a half-breed woman brought up on a ranch a vocabulary to sophisticated for her upbringing. She doesn't use these words in dialog, but they are in her POV. It is jarring knowing the woman's background and reading her dialog. ( I also don't like having to look words up in the dictionary to see if they are used correctly) It is a case of trying to show a large repertoire of words where plain simple ones would work better.

Have you ever tried so hard to make more out of a sentence that it became this convoluted and hysterical? And did you notice it before a CP? When a writer uses big words does it impress you as a reader?


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Death Of A Good Book

My DH asked me to make a list of things I wanted for Christmas. At the top of that list was a book by one of my favorite authors - a book that was just released in late November. Normally, I'm right on something like that, buying a new release right away, but this time, I didn't. I hadn't picked it up yet simply because I couldn't find it at Wal-Mart or Target or Borders, the few stores I frequent these days. And since the DH asked for this list three days before Christmas (yeah, he's a guy, does his shopping last minute), I was sure I wouldn't find it under my tree.

Turns out, I was wrong, and the book I'd been eagerly anticipating was wrapped up nice and neat on Christmas morning. I was shocked. And the DH - though he was happy he got me something I wanted - was probably less than thrilled. You see, my wonderful hubby learned long ago not to buy books for me for Christmas because the first thing I do with a book is read it. Well, isn't that what you do with a book, you ask? The answer - of course - is yes, but I'm not talking about cracking the thing open and reading a chapter or two between Christmas visits. No, the obsessive-compulsive side of Elisabeth has to read the whole damn thing, start to finish, usually in one sitting if she can manage it. And though this smart man knew this about his wife, still he bought me the book.

It's a sick obsession, really - one my husband is regretfully aware of - my inability to start something and not finish it no matter how good or bad it may be. There are really few books I don't finish, and although I know it's not productive, I can't seem to stop doing this. If it's a good book, I'm dying to see what happens next. If it's a mediocre book, I read and compare my writing to that of some unknown published author (or well-known, in some cases). And if it's a bad book, well, I still read it, usually because inside I'm thinking, this haaaaas to get better. Unfortunately, sometimes that just doesn't happen. In that case, it's like waiting for a a train wreck you know is coming but are unable to stop. To coin a phrase Karen used yesterday, WTF? still doesn't make me stop reading.

So I got this book - one I'd resigned myself to reading later because I was sure I wouldn't get it. I was elated when I opened the package and saw the cover, showered my DH with kisses and was flabergasted he'd found it for me when I couldn't. I immediately cracked it open and started reading. You see, this book is fifth in a series I've been following. Book one was pretty good - I had a few issues with it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Book two drew me right in - loved the characters. Book three was my all-time fav by this author and after reading it, decided she's on my auto buy list from now on. It was that good. Book four was okay - not as great as three, but I liked it regardless, and really, they can't all be classics, right? I know that. But book five? The one I'd been waiting for with bated breath? Sure from talking to this author at Nationals and reading her excerpts and basically stalking her, that it would be similar to book three...the one I loved so much? Gah. Big time let down.

Of course I read it. And of course I finished it (I couldn't NOT finish it, since that's my sick and twisted obsession). And though there were some things I really liked about it (like a great external conflict, a heroine I totally related to, and wonderful descriptions of a country I've never visited), there was a lot of stuff that just bugged me to no end.

When I finished - a day later - and the DH asked me if it was as good as I expected, I couldn't help but think about the books I love and the ones I don't, and what the major differences are between them. For me, it all boils down to characterization. If I love the characters, I can get around anything in the plot, even events or turning points that seem contrived or forced or even lame in some cases. But if there's something about the characters that bug me, odds are I won't like the book, no matter how stellar the plot may be.

I have other pet-peeves when it comes to my fiction, among which are:

  • Juvenile characters. Their actions might be honorable, but if their internals are screwed up, they just don't fly with me.
  • Hooks that go nowhere. Ones that get me invested in the characters and then fizzle out when the real plot starts. Feels like bait-and-switch to me.
  • Characters in an RS who stop to have sex when they're working on a life-and-death timeline or are being chased by the bad guys.
  • Wishy-washy characters who can't make up their minds what they want.
  • Too-Stupid-To-Live (TSTL) heroines who knowingly go out into the dark of night alone, when a stalker is hunting them.

What's interesting when I look back at my pet-peeves list is that all of the things that bother me center around characterization. Even the bait-and-switch hook, because usually, in that case, there's something about the character(s) I love, and for whatever reason, the author changes it to push the plot along.

When I brainstorm with other authors, it seems the major focus is on plot - on creating new and exciting plots with twists and turns unlike those written by other writers. Of course, books need good plots, but with poor characterization, even the best books fall flat.

Book six of this series comes out next summer, and yes, I'll probably buy it, and yes, I'll probably read it in a day or two as is my pattern. But the eager excitement I felt anticipating book five is gone, and I know not to get my hopes up with the next one.

What kills a book for you? What are your pet peeves when reading? And as a writer, how do you avoid those particular follies in your own work?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hook That Book

*Note: Bethany's still having Blogger access problems, so I'm posting this for her today.*
Eli


How many minutes do you get to hook an agent? An editor? A reader?

Five? Three? One? 30 Seconds?

Yes, your mother really was right: First impressions are everything. In the last few weeks, I have realized the immense power held by Query letters and book flaps. All bow before the Goddess of Hook.

In many cases you have a sentence. 10 seconds. A paragraph? 30 seconds. Two paragraphs? A minute. Every sentence must keep the reader moving, and compel them to action: buy the book, request pages, offer a contract. This is as close to advertising copy as we romance writers come. When you write a hook, you're not trying to dazzle someone with your prose, provide them with information, or even move them emotionally--you need to do one thing: Make them want to know more.

I've been following the Crapometer over at Miss Snark's blog . Yes, I read all 682 hooks. Yes, I'm insane. But, I think I have new insight about what makes a powerful hook. I think you can use a lot of this information whether your hook pertains to a proposal, a query letter, or black flap/promotional hooks.
  • The first sentence is everything. It needs power, energy, and a reason to keep reading.
  • Open with a bang. Introduce your main character, tone, and dilemma right off the bat. Don't waste any words on summary or explanation.
  • Each sentence must be tight--no unnecessary words, no bulk, no run-on sentences. Crisp. Clear. Direct. Powerful. No wishy-washy equivocating. No long paragraphs.
  • Your voice needs to be clear from the first sentence. I always thought that synopsis/query was SUPPOSED to be dry. Then I read a 100 bad hooks. I get it now. Your voice MUST ring true for the hook to be a success.
  • Energy. Your hook must have energy.
  • Don't waste time on back story, world building, unnecessary characters, subplots. Boil it down to Heroine, Hero, villain (if you have one), and dilemma.
  • Don't waste time on unnecessary plot points. All you need is enough to convince the reader to take the desired action (buy/request). It's more important that they care about the character.
  • On the other hand, don't make your hook a character sketch--there needs to be some clue about the dilemma/plot.

A few of the formula's Miss Snark has outlined:

  • MC is. Problem is. MC must do something to solve it that will. Consequence of solving it creates a new problem which is.
  • MC discovers X and is morally outraged by Y. Has to overcome Z in order for all L to occur/not occur.
  • X is MC. Y is antagonist. Z happens, all L breaks loose. If MC doesn't solve Q then R starts, if does then L squared happens.
  • X is MC. What dilemma does MC face? What happens if MC solves it? What happens if he or she doesn't?
  • X is the main guy; he wants to do:Y is the bad guy; he wants to do:they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.If they don't resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

The formula for a good hook also comes down to a good plot. Realizing this has helped me to uncover some challenged in my current WIP. Which will be torched upon editing:

  • What does your MC have to do or decide? Why does the reader care? What's at stake?
  • High stakes are crucial. And the stakes need to be both internal and external.
  • An event is not the same thing as a plot.
  • An issue is not the same thing as a plot.
  • But, a hook is more than just a run-down of plot.
  • A premise is not a hook--a hook is a hint of a fully fleshed out story.
  • Tone matters. Don't write a funny hook for a suspense unless the book is meant to be funny. Don't write a dry hook for a funny book.
  • Details matter. Specifics matter. Nameless faceless evil is boring.
  • In this vein, research matters. If your book depends on some technical detail to make it work, make sure that you have done your homework.

My pet peeve: Inaccurate legal/crime plots. I don't believe that you have to go to law school or be a beat detective to write good crime novels (although it certainly helps--see the best seller lists), but a basic understanding of criminal law is not to much to ask. I'm willing to forgive inaccuracies if someone's writing a white collar conspiracy novel and doesn't understand SEC filing requirements. But, criminal law is pretty accessible even for lay people. Community colleges offer basic criminal law classes, there are websites, books for the lay person, and it's fairly easy to find public defenders/cops/DA's to interview.

  • There's no substitute for reading in your genre. And it's impossible to read too much in your genre. Sometimes I feel guilty for how much I read, but after watching the crapometer, I see the benefit of so much reading: I can spot a derivative/knock-off plot really quickly--and I can keep them out of my own work. Also, the more you read, the more you know the conventions of your genre (i.e. having the hero and heroine sleep together in the first scene and fall madly in love is tough sell for a romance--something better blow up in their faces really quickly, having a middle aged hero and a under 18 heroine is another tough sell unless you're Beatrice Small or another historical writer, YA books need a fresh, young voice).
  • A good hook can break ALL the rules except one: It has to make the reader want more. If you do that, and do that well enough to have them salivating, form is irrelevant. Do what you need to do to hook the reader. In most cases though, even if you break with form, the major elements still need to be present. If you're missing both form and elements, the hook has to be that much stronger to convince the reader that a worthwhile story will follow.

Based on all this obsession, what have I learned about my own writing:

  • I overuse cliches.
  • I tend to speak in general terms rather than specifics in the query, but my synopsis is too much of a blow-by-blow plot outline.
  • My synopsis/query don't accurately reflect the high energy, humor and unique voice of my books.
  • The stakes aren't high enough. This is the number one problem I'm seeing with my WIP.
  • My synopsis/query/hook needs to give more reason to care about the MC.
  • Conflict has to be clear right off the bat.
  • Hook writing is damn hard. Back to the drawing board.

If writing YOUR hook seems impossible, try writing one for some of your favorite books--how would you sell THAT book? I tried this a few times and it helped to free me some.

Your turn: Does writing query/marketing hooks come naturally to you? How many revisions does your hook typically undergo? Who vets your hook? Any strategies for a writing a good hook?

Bonus activity: If you need a jumpstart on your query/hook, try this. Miss Snark gave writers 250 words to hook her. (And I can't post examples here (bad blogging etiquette), but I really recommend reading a few of the ones where she says "bingo, yes, this works" etc). You can do the long version, or try a short version that you can build on later. 50 words or less.
My (VERY rough) example: Everything about Genevieve Sullivan is just plain generic. Or so she thinks. Daniel Fair knows that there's nothing ordinary about him. They're both wrong.