Monday, March 31, 2008

Manuscript Makeover with Elizabeth Lyon

Today, multi-published writing teacher and book doctor Elizabeth Lyon joins the Manuscript Mavens to dish about editing and revision. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Elizabeth's latest book: Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, released April 1!

MM: You have been a book editor and writing teacher for 20 years. Can you tell us how you got started on that path and what you enjoy most about editing books and teaching writing?

EL: I was lucky to have a talent for English grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and an eye for detail. I was the nerdette in your high school class who raised her hand when the teacher asked, "What is the symbolism in this novel?" Of course, my ready answers meant I didn't date.

Because editing was not among the choices for a major in college, it is only in hindsight that I see my developmental steppingstones:
* Reading 3-4 books a week from age 9-18 with my coke bottle-thick glasses, until contact lens were invented. Then I could see the boys and my 4.0 GPA dropped.
* Taking and loving humanities' courses for years, in high school and college
* Editing friends' papers and tutoring them on organization and style
* Teaching study skills and speed reading
* Writing throughout my life (experimenting in nearly every genre)
* Studying human psychology (i.e. characterization) in depth through classes, getting a masters in counseling, having five years of belly-button contemplating psychoanalytic therapy, and learning astrology. I wanted to be a Jungian psychiatrist but I had avoided (and hated) math, and didn't like long science labs.
* Writing, editing, compiling, producing, promoting, and distributing a self-published book about my children's midwife-including twenty home-birth stories by other mothers and an interview with one doctor. This first book, published in 1981, got me hooked on writing and publishing.
* Starting a business-writing service.

A dramatic turning point in my career and life happened in June 1988 when a close friend died and bequeathed his editing business, writing classes, and critique groups in a suicide note to me. Two weeks later, I stood before four community college, adult ed writing classes as their new teacher. Six months later, I had begun my own weekly critique group, which grew to two, then three, groups and lasted thirteen years.

Editing work flowed from the students in these groups and classes. As I worked on all types of manuscripts, my skill and understanding grew. I received mentorship from one agent, Natasha Kern. With the Internet and websites, my client base became worldwide, I became acquainted with or friends with scores of agents, and my list of client successes grew. After about ten years, I began to coach and train other editors. I learned that it takes about three years for an editor to become experienced enough to do professional work on nonfiction book proposals and about five years to do a good job editing novels and memoirs.

What I love about editing is that each piece of writing is an original creation. The process uses all of my skills, my experiences in life, and my intuition. I am a literary detective searching for the writer's individuality and coaxing it out. I have to find the story arc and theme and figure out what is illogical or omitted. Often I must intuit what the writer meant to express or thought was on paper but isn't. I'm a tracker in the woods. Sometimes the brush is thick and I worry that I will not find any way through. Other times I can see the highway, and I wish the writer would build a forest, put in a copse of fir trees here, a hundred-year oak there, a family of angry crows, and a coyote making silent footfalls toward a deer munching grass by the creek. Most writers develop first drafts of novels and memoirs intellectually, in their minds. They typically under-develop description, sensory data (taste, sounds, visual detail, temperature, smells, and touch), and other nuances of body language and facial expressions in reaction.

Editing is a challenge every time. Good editing demands risk-taking to dive deeply into someone else's creation, including the writer's mind on paper and emotions-conscious or unconscious. As an editor, I become immersed the writer's emotional and metaphoric world as expressed symbolically in story. I feel as if I become a translator, that I need to be a lightning rod, and I hope to be a catalyst and guide.

Teaching writing is editing out loud. I'm glad I'm extroverted more than introverted because I am energized by teaching. I have a good time-fun-and my goal is always that each person has received a nugget that makes a difference in his or her writing. My teaching style is extemporaneous and I hope more interesting as a result.

MM: You wrote several Writers Digest books on topics ranging from fiction and non-fiction to proposals. What was your impetus to writing Manuscript Makeover and what kind of material did you include?

EL: I've always wanted to write a book on what I've been doing as an editor and teacher, which is very practical instruction for the writer. The books written on revising fiction have been primarily written by teachers of classic literature or in-house editors whose experience is with manuscripts that are nearly ready for publication. I wanted to convey how to fix problems for the beginning novelist and how to finesse writing for the pro or nearly pro. I also wanted the book to show how to write each element of craft, down to the nitty gritty, through examples drawn from the full rainbow of fiction: genre, mainstream, and literary; contemporary and classic, and for adults, young adults, and children. I believe Manuscript Makeover may have 100 excerpts as examples to model.

My goal and I believe hallmark as an author of instruction for writers is organization, clarity, and accessibility of information. Each chapter ends with a revision checklist that is a summary outline of what was in the chapter. My readers will have these checklists for review and for quick reference. I consider this book, my sixth and last, on writing to be my magnum opus on writing and revising fiction.

MM: In your experience as a writing teacher, what are 2 or 3 common mistakes or misunderstandings aspiring authors have about the craft of writing and/or the publishing industry?

EL: A common misunderstanding is that right now is the worst possible time for getting published. I've been hearing that since I first attended conferences nearly 30 years ago. It's always the worst time. Therefore, there is no time like the present.

Another myth is that you are born talented, so if you don't think you are or someone has said your writing sucks, you should stop writing and take up an easy profession like brain surgery. With some 20,000 markets for writing, I assure you that the majority of what is written doesn't show remarkable talent. Because each of us is an original, we all have that originality to lend to our writing. Some people are better able to do this than others, but publishing is as open to talent-challenged but hard-working writers as to the gifted, literary artists. In fact, there are more markets for the talent-challenged.

A mistake that some writers make is thinking "it's easy." After all, don't we all know how to write? Writing well requires that same kind of persistence and openness to learning and criticism as any profession. It also requires a lot of practice to reach a reliable level of skill, and emotional fortitude to turn off the inner gargoyles of perfectionism, distraction, and doubt. The biggest obstacle, ultimately, to any writer's success, is the self. I also believe that writers who "make it" need to cultivate resiliency-trying one thing or another until a connection is made-within and with others-and to develop risk-taking. Committing words on paper is a risk. Creation takes risk. Marketing takes risk.

MM: In your experience as a book editor, what are 2 or 3 mistakes or missed
opportunities writers made with their manuscripts?

EL: There are several key mistakes that are a writer's undoing:
1. Inadequate revision. Nearly everyone thinks a manuscript (of any kind) is finished and ready to sell when it isn't. We can't see our own writing clearly. Revise. Put it aside. Read more about how to revise. Do some more revision. Put it aside. Get constructive criticism. Revise again.
2. Belaboring one piece too long. This mistake seems contrary to my advice above. I have met far too many writers who are still working on their first novel-years or decades later. Part of the learning curve is encountering new problems, overcoming them, and adding to the tool kit. That means gaining more breadth of experience by writing different works. Of course, you want to figure out your weaknesses by reading about craft and learning in workshops so that you don't simply repeat your mistakes.
3. Finishing. Another group of writers begins with gusto but runs out of gas. It's hard to finish . . . anything. Not all works deserve finishing, but if you find that you seldom finish a story, an article, a novel, or memoir, recognize a skill deficit: learning how to finish. How do you do that? You make yourself continue writing, and writing, and then you are done with your rough draft. You finished. It's learning how to fulfill a commitment to yourself when, possibly, interior programming or censorship have been putting up a road block.

MM: In your opinion as a book editor, at what point in the process should a writer consider using one? Are there any warning signs of "scam" book editors a writer should be on the lookout for?

EL: One good use of a professional editor early in the process of writing a novel is to read and respond to a whole book synopsis. The editor should be able to spot problems of logic, mixed genres, unoriginal plot, unclear story theme, and superficial characterization-from a five-page synopsis. The synopsis is a book doctor's MRI. Outside of reading a synopsis or brainstorming alternatives for the novel at an early stage, the primary purpose of a professional book editor should be to alert the writer to later-stage revisions. The catch-22 is that most novelists believe they are at that stage when they are actually an apprentice or even a beginner. We don't know what we don't know. This was the first paradox I had to deal with in writing Manuscript Makeover.

I compiled and was heartened to sell National Directory of Editor & Writers specifically to help writers (and non-writers) go shopping for an editor or ghostwriter. I satisfied a personal curiosity about how other book editors run their businesses. It was no less than illuminating to learn about 530 other colleagues. I advise writers seeking editorial help to do their homework. What I mean is to learn all they can about several editors' background, accomplishments, successful clients, specialties, and fees. I'm a teacher as much as an editor so I believe in lengthy evaluations that teach craft as well as model changes using portions of the writer's work. I also believe in writing comments (positive and instructive) all over the pages, and making corrections, but stopping far short of imposing the editor's ideas or style.

Writers need to be alert to what they expect and need and ask for it-like in any other service. I have seen appalling responses by published (and unpublished) authors who edit works for a living. Some of these, which I consider unacceptable include:
* Handwritten evaluations of a few pages after reading a whole work
* Criticism worded in demeaning ways without specific details supporting the comments
* Criticism absent of direction or modeling to show how to make needed changes
* Manuscripts that have few corrections on them, as if they have only been read, not edited
* Editor personal reactions without explanation of the relationship to the writing
* Absence of knowledge of craft or style that is conveyed to the writer

I admit that I don't like the description of "scam editors" any more than "scam agents." I think that is because I don't see any higher percentage of scammers in this business more than in any other, and my optimistic view of human nature would like to believe that true scammers, rather than less competent editors, are a tiny portion of everyone doing business.

On the other hand, skill will always vary. And the very most skilled, which often but not always corresponds to the highest prices, may not be the best match for an individual writer at a particular time in his or her development. Sometimes, editors in the beginning of their careers give far more coaching and time, for less money, than later in their careers. For writers who really are professional, or nearly so, an editor who can help that writer see and make the last revisions, has to be an editor who is experienced and maybe a specialist in a particular genre. The best thing a writer can do is talk to many editors and many friends who have used editors. Word of mouth reputation is still the best way to find help.

MM: In your opinion as a writing teacher, at what point in the process should an aspiring author consider taking a writing class? Do you have any recommendations on how to determine whether a topic/teacher/level is appropriate for that writer?

EL: In the beginning of learning how to write, aspiring authors should take as many courses and workshops as they have time and the brain cells to absorb. I like conferences for the fact that the workshops are short and nearly always geared to beginners and apprentice-level writers. Conferences offer the smorgasbord. Community college continuing ed (adult ed) classes are usually at a pre-professional level as well. All a writer need do is ask to talk with the teacher, or e-mail, and ask questions about the level of instruction, the topics that will be covered, and that should help greatly.

Word generally gets around about teachers and what they offer and how they teach. A writer can also ask any administrator who sets up classes. Seldom can you go wrong in taking a writing class. However, if you are taking classes that cost mega-bucks, I would ask to speak with or e-mail several other people who have taken that class previously. I have noticed that famous and/or talented writers do not necessarily have the vocabulary, knowledge, or teaching skill to guide others in what they do so apparently naturally.

For writers who cannot, or do not want to, attend classes or conferences, they can find online correspondence courses and critique groups. Always, pay attention to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, 99 times out of 100, there is some good reason. Never stay in a position where you are receiving criticism that is unconstructive or unsupported. Always expect and demand that you receive comments about what you are doing right, so you can build on your strengths.

MM: Is there anything else you would like to share that we didn't cover?

EL: Oh my, there is a universe advice, guidelines, instruction, and stories to share. In fact, I could write a book. . . .

What I continue to learn that I can pass on to every write is this: Life can deal us a lot of tough realities, and despite them, we can go on and write and succeed. I would like to say, "If I could do it, you can do it," but that is simply not true. We can't compare lives or impose expectations. What I will say is that you can confront and banish thoughts of entitlement (I deserve x, y, z). You can overcome fear and anxiety by learning how to stay focused in the moment. You must become forgiving of yourself; you're human not superhuman after all. Celebrate every step, even tiny ones. Gather a group of cheerleaders to encourage you, but also find others who are dedicated to helping you become the best writer you can be-which means they will give you honest, constructive criticism. Compare yourself to no one but learn from everyone. The writer's life is one path of self-realization and self-acceptance is a great reward.

YOUR TURN: What writing classes have you taken or craft books have you read that improved your writing or gave you an ah-ha moment? What are your tips on accepting constructive criticism and revising your baby manuscript? One lucky commenter wins a copy of Elizabeth's new release: Manuscript Makeover!

Elizabeth Lyon, a regular speaker at writing conferences and retreats nationwide, has been a contributor to The Writer and Writer's Digest and is a mentor, professional book editor, and writing teacher. The author of The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, and National Directory of Editors & Writers, she lives in Springfield, Oregon.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Giving Yourself Permission Not to Write

Maven Jacqueline BarbourI was chatting with a writer friend of mine a few weeks ago. She'd plotted out her next book to the tune of 20,000 words of outline, yet found herself stymied when the time came to actually write the book. She didn't know what was stopping her from starting, only that the story just didn't seem to be "there."

A few weeks later, however, she was writing great gangbusters. And what she was writing was great.

What was the difference? She said she'd given herself permission not to write. Taken the pressure off herself to produce or sit at the keyboard for a certain number of hours "writing." And as soon as she stopped forcing it, the story came.

I've been struggling with my current novella, which is "due" on Monday. After writing a little over 13,000 words, I had an epiphany. A not very encouraging one.

The story wasn't working. The hero's actions didn't match his motivations. The heroine's motivation was weak. And there was way too much plot and way too much emphasis on secondary characters for a 22,500 word romance.

I love the opening of the story. I think the first 5,000 words are fabulous. It's everything that comes after that's the problem. So today, I bit the bullet. I deleted the 8,000 words that weren't taking me anywhere. But I reallly don't know what to replace them with. Oh, I have the plot, the GMCs, the arcs. What I don't have is a writable story.

It's frustrating because the first novella in the series fell out of my head over the course of two weeks. I don't know what's making this one so much harder. What I do know is that I can't force it. So even though I have what promises to be a good writing weekend ahead of me, I've determined to give myself permission not to write.

Too bad I don't live close enough to Lacey to go out and do a little "research" with her!

YOUR TURN: What do you do when you're struggling with a story? Any techniques you use to shake the muse loose? Or do you figure writer's block is your muse's way of telling you she needs some time off?

Live or Let Live

Maven Lacey KayeThis post is a combination of Maven Darcy's topic yesterday about making characters feel like real people, Maven Carrie's post about making scenes feel like a real book, and the RWR's recent article on how much first-hand research is enough.

To give a brief history: When I first thought about writing a book, I had one genre in mind -- romance. I did have a choice between contemporary and historical, but at the time it didn't seem like much of a choice. I could either spend a LOT of time doing historical research or I could guess what it's like to be a young hot single struggling to find a date. (My experience with contemporary romance was limited to chick lit.) I knew nothing about the latter, so I delved into studying the former. While meeting my historical muse, however, my life changed. Suddenly facing tons of free time, with no outside restrictions, I decided to carpe diem and find out what the Dark Side had been doing all my life. I knew why I'd never tried being cosmopolitan: I was afraid of the unknown. Sneakers and sofas were as familiar to me as weekends spent planted in front of the tv. But I had a lot of friends with busy, hip, social calendars and I knew they would be more than happy to guide me through the perilous alleys of the social networks I wanted to explore. (Both literally and figuratively...Seattle has some cool clubs with alley entrances.)

Slowly but surely, I did get out of my house. I met people -- and found I liked people -- I otherwise would never have come into contact with. Through them, I discovered having a life is hella fun. But one day I had a tilting realization. For the first time,* my* life was more interesting than reading (or writing) about other people's imaginary lives. And that put a real damper on my motivation to find time to write.

It's a different problem than not having time to write. It's a willful disinterest in *making* time. I'm still adamant about keeping to my weekly schedule, but the shiny hasn't worn off the Friday night lights yet. I wonder if there are others out there experiencing the same problem, especially since my problem isn't limited to pure social activity. I have an alien, burning desire to become adept at snowboarding. I couldn't even tell you why, other than that I'm sick of having to turn down the annual trip to Whistler because it's not cost or time-effective. (And probably my recent foray into becoming more athletic has helped ease away the fear of "too physically difficult.")

This partying thing is a hard life, I'm telling you.

The good news is, all my experiences and experiments will help my geek lit when I finally have the patience to sit still again. No more need to adapt Sex and the City-isms to create my cosmo world...VHM will be first-hand, baby.

YOUR TURN: How do you deal with those days you'd rather be shopping or hanging with girlfriends? What do you tell your pals when they're creeping into your writing time? Do you read books for pleasure or do you always have a writing-related ulterior motive? What do you do when reality is more interesting than fiction?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I'm A People Person

Maven Darcy BurkeFirst, I want to thank everyone for their congratulations! I'm just thrilled to be a Golden Heart finalist!

After I finished Her Wicked Ways, I, gasp, read a book (my overcrowded to be read shelf actually thanked me). With so many to choose from, I wasn't sure what to pick up, but ultimately decided on Betina Krahn's The Book of True Desires, which won the Rita last summer for best short historical. I've never read anything by Ms. Krahn, but was curious about its "Rita-ness."

I loved this book with the fire of a thousand suns.

I'll admit that's it's sometimes hard for me to enjoy books as much as I used to now that I'm a writer. I might pay too much attention to craft or start thinking about my own WIP. (Which is one reason I don't read as much as I used to. While I'm working on my ms I often find reading something else distracting, both from my WIP and the book I want to enjoy.) The Book of True Desires was one of those books that made me sad to finish. I slowed down as I got near The End in order to savor every moment. When I finished, I asked myself, "Why did I love this book?* Why do I love any book that I love?"

I thought about this for awhile. And, for me, it's characters. That's it. Period. Characters. I loved the hero and heroine in this book (yes, with the fire of a thousand suns). They could have read me the Gettysburg address and I probably would have loved it just the same (okay, I might be exaggerating a little bit). But Krahn created such real people - yeah, that's it. The answer isn't characters, it's people. All of the books I love, love, love are populated with people. People I like or dislike, love or hate, people I want to spend time with, people I grow to care about (or want to see brought low), people I want to see happy. And when I hit The End, I feel sad because I want to know what happens to those people beyond the happily ever after.

As I prepare Glorious and Her Wicked Ways for the real world (yikes, my babies!), I find myself really thinking about the characters, er the people. I've been rereading Glorious the past few days and I really do love Leo and Tess like they're my friends. I want to know what happens to them after The End (and I hope an editor out there feels the same way!). So as I put the final polish on Her Wicked Ways, I'm thinking about how Miranda and Fox can lodge their way into your consciousness and maybe even your heart (they're already in mine, of course).

What are one or two of your all-time favorite characters (doesn't have to be romance - I strongly believe the Harry Potter books are so popular because of the characters people)? Is there anything you do for your own WIP to craft memorable/lovable/empathizable characters?

*Note to Maven Erica, this book has machetes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Maven Darcy is a Golden Heart Finalist!

I'm thrilled to share that Glorious is a finalist in the Regency Historical category of the Golden Heart!! I'm just starting to calm down, but wow was that phone call a rush! Mr. Burke listened in and was/is over the moon. He keeps congratulating me. And the Burkettes wanted to know what was wrong after I shrieked (that was after I hung up the phone). Quinn is excited that I'm going to wear a pretty dress. Off to register for the RWA Conference - see you in San Francisco!!

Telling a Good Story

Maven Carrie RyanSo... even though my book isn't out until Spring 2009 (April is the word on the street these days), I just got my first review! Click here to read Melissa Marr's thoughts on The Forest of Hands and Teeth. A huge thanks to Melissa for taking the time to read and comment on a debut book and thanks to my sister who read me the review over the phone because I was off in the mountains without internet access :)

Anyways, recently the Mavens all talked about those ah-ha moments in writing. As I said then, I get these moments all the time. I can have the same conversation about craft, read the same books on craft, have the same day dreams and each time I'll walk away with something new. The other day I had one of these ah-ha moments I wanted to share :)

I was reading a book and realized that while the writing for much of the book is great, some of the writing is just... writing. It's not great, it's not bad, it's not mundane or boring -- it's just words strung together getting points across. Honestly, I doubt anyone reading those particular passages would have thought anything of the way they were written -- like I said, they were written fine. They didn't stand out as gorgeous prose -- they didn't really stand out at all.

And suddenly I had this ah-ha moment! I realized that the purpose of writing a book is to tell a story (yeah, most of my ah-ha moments tend to also be duh! moments). I realized that sometimes we get so focused in on parts of our books that we forget to stand back and take in the big picture -- we forget to look at the story we're telling.

Sometimes I think it can be easy to focus on internal conflict versus external conflict versus raising the stakes versus showing all five senses that we forget that all of these devices serve to help us tell a compelling story. And I think sometimes you can look at individual scenes of a book and they work, but once put together as a cohesive whole suddenly the story feels off.

Here's a rather timely but odd example... it's March Madness, the season where everyone fills out NCAA brackets and joins office pools to see who wins. I love following the tournament but I never have the time to follow the whole season -- so when it comes to filling out my brackets I have NO idea who to pick. I do it all by gut and who sounds good and whose colors I like. JP was reviewing my choices and finally he said "each game you choose is totally plausible, when you look at your brackets on a game by game basis, it's solid. But overall there's no way you're going anywhere."

I've judged some contests recently where I see this happening -- scene by scene everything makes sense, but when you read the synopsis, when you look at those scenes adding up to become the whole, the story just isn't there -- it doesn't hold together.

So, along with all the myriad other things we remember when writing, don't forget that in the end we're all story tellers. How we tell that story (what devices we chose, the tone, the language, the POV) influences that story, but in the end, it's all about telling a good story.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Falling in Love

Maven Jacqueline BarbourI got one of those rejections today that makes you want to scream. Oh, not because it was mean or got my name wrong or was a form letter. No, it made me want to scream because it was nice and complimentary, but ultimately amounted to an "I liked it, but I didn't love it" with no real explanation of why.

But that's just the thing, isn't it? Love is irrational and, when you get right down to it, impossible to truly justify. Oh, you can always cite reasons. But in the end, it comes down to chemistry, to that indefinable quality that one person (or book or movie or work of art) has and another doesn't.

For example, I love House. The show and the character. Passionately. He's sarcastic, self-centered, and manipulative, not to mention a drug addict, yet there's a wit and a vulnerability there that I just can't resist. I've introduced a number of my friends to the show since I discovered it a little over a year ago, and you know what? They don't all love it! Are they mad? Yes. But they're not wrong.

On the flip side of the coin, I have friends who adore the Vincent D'Onofrio character on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. I've watched the show fairly often (it's in reruns almost every night, so there are many times it's the only thing on that I'm remotely interested in watching him), yet I've never understood my friends' fascination with him. I don't dislike the character, but I feel no particular affinity for him, either. Am I mad? Possibly. But I'm not wrong.

For those of us who write romance, I think there's a fascinating duality here. We write about a process that is ultimately inexplicable. Through our writing, we try to engender in our readers the emotions they would have if they were falling in love. At the same time, we're hoping they'll also fall in love with our writing, our stories, our characters--especially if those readers happen to be agents or editors who can help us get published.

But if the magic doesn't happen--if they like our story, but don't love it--we perhaps shouldn't expect a justification for that, nor fall into despair in fear that no one will ever love it. Just remember, "I say Hugh Laurie, and you say Vincent D'Onofrio..." (Okay, so it doesn't fit the meter. You get the idea!)

YOUR TURN: Ever been the victim of a "I like it, but I don't love it" rejection? How did you cope with it? What things do you love that other people don't? And vice versa. Do tell!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How’d You Think of That?

Guest Maven Stephanie Rowe
Welcome Guest Maven and Mave Fave, Angie Fox! I "met"Angie online a couple of years ago through my local chapter, Rose City Romance Writers. Though Angie lives in St. Louis, she's a long-distance member of RCRW after winning our Golden Rose Contest. I look forward to the day when I can meet Angie in person! Here's Angie...

We all want to make our books as unique as possible. It’s about grabbing the attention of that busy agent or harried editor, making it so they absolutely must stop what they’re doing and sit right down with your submission and – of course – ask for more. Through three unsold manuscripts and (yay!) the sale of my series to Dorchester, I’ve developed a few techniques that help me keep my quirky paranormals fresh. Hopefully, they’ll work for you too.

The Character Push

In the beginning of The Accidental Demon Slayer, the heroine’s long-lost grandmother shows up and – whoops – locks the heroine in her bathroom with an ancient demon. I’d pushed the situation, but the grandmother was too nice. My critique partner called me on it and, blast her, she was right. I sat down and brainstormed a few pages of alternate “grandmas” before I hit on an idea I loved – a Harley biker witch grandma who hurls recycled Smuckers jars full of home brewed magic. One character change and the book became a lot more fun to write.

The Mini-brainstorms

Sometimes, the first idea isn’t the best idea. Mini-brainstorms during the writing of a chapter always help me see if where I’m going is where I want to be. Sometimes, I go back to my first idea. Other times, after I’ve forced myself to come up with a page full of alternatives, I find I like a new idea better. It works on big plot points, but just as well on little details. Like when my heroine discovered a werewolf cemetery. It could have looked like a creepy, old cemetery. Or I could push it harder and make graves round, with the inscription “Never backed into a corner.” It’s not a huge detail, but it helps readers experience my heroine’s world.

The “Chill Out – This Doesn’t Have to Count” Brainstorm

Sometimes, when a chapter just isn’t working, I have a hard time making the (often necessary) massive changes, because I don’t know if I’m going to make things better or (gulp) worse. But one day, I borrowed a technique from my days as an advertising writer and lo and behold, it works on fiction too. I made a duplicate copy of the impossible chapter, and then went to town on changes. By letting my brain loose on a “throw away” chapter, I freed it up to stop thinking about “How am I going to get my heroine out of the love scene and ramped up for hell?,” to “Hmm…pillow talk. This is a good time for the hero to admit he wasn’t one hundred percent honest with the heroine at the start of the book. Now the heroine can get so mad that she dumps his boxers in the ice bucket, throws his pants off the balcony and almost goes to hell without him.”

Brainstorming is all about freeing up your mind and your creative energy. You get to surprise yourself, and feel the rush of excitement as you hit upon new ideas and new places to take your story. Because when you’re fully engaged in the story, pushing your characters harder, waiting to see what’s around the next bend – chances are, you’re audience will feel the same way.

Angie Fox is the author of The Accidental Demon Slayer, coming from Dorchester this summer. Right now, she’s hard at work on the sequel.

Note to Keira Soleore: You won Tanya Michaels' signed book when she guested two weeks ago, sorry we didn't post that before now! Email us to get your book!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Support Yourself

Maven Carrie RyanSo, I joined Seventy Days of Sweat and so far I've written... um... nothing. I joined 100x100 (one hundred words a day for one hundred days) last year and um.... it didn't stick. In fact, I think the only writing challenge that's ever worked for me was when on her blog Diana Peterfreund challenged everyone to write -- something, anything -- every day for a month. Her motto was "writers write" and so she said we should all write! This couldn't have come at a more perfect time for me -- I was trying to finish the first draft of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and I was gearing up for a massive trial -- working 80 hour weeks. There were days when the most time I had to write was the 8 minutes it took for my mac 'n' cheese pasta to boil. But I wrote during those 8 minutes because Diana was (and still is) right: writers write.

All of these challenges and all of these goals are very useful and they're great! I'm all for anything that gets people writing (the old motto I learned around the RWA boards: BITHOC -- butt in chair, hands on keyboard). But here's the thing that I have to remind myself: at the end of the day, it's only you and the keyboard. You and that blank piece of paper. At a certain point it can't just be about being accountable to other people -- about sending an email to a loop checking in -- it has to be about being accountable to yourself. In the end, no one else can make you sit down and write except yourself.

Of course I'm not saying to go out and unsubscribe from your loops and disconnect from your support systems. Trust me, I know that at the end of a long day sometimes you just want to steam your face with pasta water rather than sit down and bang out a few paragraphs that you'll end up deleting anyway. And sometimes the only thing that forces you to trudge to your computer is knowing that the next day someone is going to ask you: did you write last night? But I am saying that you also need to find that accountability within yourself. It has to matter to *you* if you wrote or not. You have to answer that question for yourself and be satisfied with the answer.

And here's something that I'm starting to catch a glimpse of now that I have some publisher-set deadlines off in the future. Deadlines don't necessarily force you to write. It may seem reasonable to say "well, once I have a contract and publisher-set deadlines I'll have built in accountability so I won't need to rely on myself any more -- something external will push me to sit down and write." Here's a truth: some published authors miss deadlines (well, except for Nora Roberts). Some published authors misjudge and come close to missing deadlines. My next book is due in roughly six months -- that's at least 10k a month I need to write to get it done (and let's not forget that it took me 4 months to revise the last one). That's over 2k a week. How much did I write this week? Last week? Nothing. See, I have a deadline and it's not making me accountable, because that has to come from me. A contract does not make you write -- the skills, perseverence, dedication, motivation you learned getting to that contract make you write.

I'm all about supporting each other and riding each other to reach farther and write better. Trust me! I love nothing more than celebrating an awesome word count or an awesome chapter or writing The End or submitting -- all of it! And I love it when people celebrate those steps with me (like all the awesome support for my book cover!) At the same time I think that we all have to find that part of ourselves that wants to write -- that needs to write -- and that's what has to drive us. Because in the end, no one else will: it's you and the blank page.

Be sure to drop by tomorrow and visit our Guest Maven, Mave Fave Angie Fox!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Maven Jacqueline BarbourBefore I wax eloquent on the topic at hand, we wanted to take a moment to let you know about a very cool contest--who doesn't like free books?--taking place today over on Barbara Vey's Beyond Her Book blog over on Publishers Weekly. Her blog is a wonderful resource for both writers and readers of the romance genre, and we very much want to support her efforts there. And if you stop by and post your comments, there might even be something in it for you! I know I'll definitely be dropping in.

So, I've been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about whether I'm an optimist or a pessimist. I always used to think of myself as an optimist. I have a fairly sunny disposition, I don't get angry or depressed easily (though I'm at least as neurotic as any other writer I know!), and I generally think of the world as a good and friendly place (although the existence of brussel sprouts and thong underwear has been known to make me wonder on occasion).

But lately, I've come to realize there's a lot to be said for pessimism. Oh, not the down-in-the-dumps, the-world-is-out-to-get-me variety. I'm talking about the "if I don't have any expectations, I can't be disappointed" variety.

I've always approached submitting queries, manuscripts, and contest entries with this philosophy. I don't expect anything but a rejection. I don't expect to final or win. This means that when I am rejected, I don't feel particularly upset or hurt; after all, it was what I expected. Conversely, when a submission meets with something other than rejection, I'm delighted.

This attitude has served me well, up until a couple of weeks ago, when several things happened all at once. First, I received an honorable mention in the Bookends 100 words contest in the erotica category, which I have to admit was pretty cool. But second, I received a request for more information from an editor to whom I'd sent a manuscript. I emailed the requested information and then waited--impatiently--for the offer that seemed, finally, to be within reach.

Of course, I haven't gotten said offer or anything close to it. I haven't gotten a rejection, either, mind you, so it's not over. Buuuuut, I realized I had allowed myself to be a little TOO optimistic. And it made me COMPLETELY crazy. Checking my email every five minutes. Lying awake at night, tossing and turning, etc. And it didn't help that the people I told were all equally excited for me and kept asking me, "Have you heard anything? Have you heard anything?" Their enthusiasm and excitement touch me more than I can say, but I do think the fact that they seemed to think I should hear something within days (not weeks or months) fed into my expectation that the answer would come quickly.

So, I've managed to pull myself back to my more sanity-inducing pessimism. It hasn't improved my patience any (patience may be a virtue, but I am not virtuous!), but it has allowed me to be more philosophical.

YOUR TURN: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Or just a realist?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Good Was Your First Time?

Maven Lacey KayeThey say what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. I say, what doesn't kill us is usually pretty darn funny after you give it enough time.

Where are the good ol' days? I don't think they exist, at least, not as something you can ever go back and define for an entire populace. What makes things interesting are the challenges in life, and those are, in my opinion, the ties that bind -- more than sex (I mean male or female, perv), more than age, more than race or even common background. If you went away to college and you remember it fondly, think back. What made those good ol' days good? (And if they weren't fond, why is that? See my final take-away question.)

One of my clearest I-am-soon-to-be-an-independent-adult milestone memories came the first time I had to register for classes as a freshmen. Alone. As in, not with mommy and daddy at Preview. For some reason, the university didn't send out a bulletin on how to do this. I remember wondering where my tip sheet was (back before I knew the word tip sheet), floundering around trying to navigate the phonebook-sized list of courses myself, and finally, after much hemming and hawing and way, way later than even the "I am a master procrastinator" label allows, giving in and asking my roommate what the holy heck she was doing.

No, we're still not to the actual milestone yet; this was the journey. This was the challenge that later became funny. Mostly just to me, judging by your non-laughing reaction. But that's pretty much my whole point...

The milestone came when I was standing in an enormous wrap-around line waiting to do late registration. I decided to strike up a conversation with the person standing in front of me. I don't have a clue whether this person was male or female. I certainly can't remember what he or she looked like. I just remember that this person, too, was horribly confused as to what was going on, and we were basically three clueless freshmen standing in a line that did, eventually, wind around to getting us registered for classes. Even...the right classes.

Good times.

My aha moment was when I realized I had to reach out and depend on other people if I was going to get past the sheltered timidity of adolescence. I'm thinking about this now because of Maven Darcy and Maven Carrie's fabulous news this week. (If you haven't read it yet, check out the posts below!) Both Mavens have taken a big step up the Live Your Dream ladder & with that added height comes added responsibility. (Not pushing each other off would be a good start.) See, I can no longer advise them as the wise older friend. Not that I can't advise them (as if lack of experience has ever shut me up), but they will have struggles that are best bonded over with people who are in a similar situation. Think about the term "freshman class." It pretty much means "a group of people entering something at the same time who will be newbies together and will one day, after the chaff has been shaken out, be the experts and mentors to a new group of newbies."

Ok, maybe that's not verbatim Webster, but it's close enough.

Anyway, I'm not just thinking about the Mavens and MaveFaves in this. With all this space, why spend it all pondering other people's existence? (And to be sure, we have a really great mix of levels here and we can certainly find someone who's BTDT with nothing more intimidating than a blog post.) Mostly, I've been thinking about me.


At work, I am the newbie in my area. It's a big area, and I tend to forget there are other newbies just like me because they sit so far away. (Internet what?) But last week, at a happy hour (where else?), one of them came up and very discreetly inquired after my well-being. It turns out, she's facing the same challenges I am, and after I confirmed this, she let slip that the other guy is, too. In the time it takes to lift the weight of new responsibility off your shoulders, two people I've almost never talked to in my life suddenly became incredibly meaningful. And suddenly the situation that was causing me so much grief was a hilarious recounting of a "You'll never guess what happened..."

Not too many beers later, I was back to remembering why I took this job in the first place. Just like freshman year. Or if you have children, just like bringing that first baby home from the hospital. Walking out to your car, wondering why on Earth they let you leave with that child, and after suffering a few weeks in silence, realizing your mother/sister/woman who lives 2 houses down you've never spoken to actually has some pretty good advice to share.

What did any of us know about writing before we started this journey? How many of you jumped right into the journey, saying, "I'll figure it out as I go; I have enough experience with starting new things that I know eventually, the answers will come through the connections I make and the research I learn I need to know and the questions I discover I need to ask"?

How many of you said it just like that? :-) And if you didn't, what *did* you think you were going to do? What was your plan? Have you started it? Or are you one of those kids who's afraid to pipe up and ask how the hell you're supposed to figure out how to register for classes if nobody brings the information directly to you? And if you are one of those people, how likely are you to admit it on this blog, I wonder? And did you like striking out on your own for that first intimidating fill-in-the-blank year? But maybe you won't answer that question, either...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Agent Call Story - Mine!

Maven Darcy BurkeHappy Wednesday MavenLand! I'm thrilled to share that as of last week, I am newly agented! Barbara Collins Rosenberg of The Rosenberg Group is representing Glorious and currently looking at Her Wicked Ways, which I just finished last weekend (double squee!). I met Barbara at the Moonlight and Magnolias Conference in Atlanta, a conference I only attended after I finaled in the Maggie contest. Wow, am I glad I did!

So what words of wisdom can I offer? Uh, probably nothing you haven't heard before, but it's always good to hear it again especially when I'm standing here telling you it can happen! It happened to me!

First, write, write, write. The first year I "seriously" wrote, it turns out I wasn't that serious. Meaning, a month would go by where I'd barely write. Now if a day goes by and I don't do something writing-related it's like I forgot to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom. I have to do it.

Read. Read craft books, research books, books in your genre, books out of your genre. Just read. Reading makes good writing. I promise.

Talk to and if possible, hang out with other writers. There's nothing like the energy you get from spending time with other writers, whether at an RWA meeting, a workshop, or just having coffee. Or heck, even here at the blog or any other virtual meeting place.

Write the best book you can. Once you catch the agent's attention you have to deliver. No, it won't be for everyone, but you're looking for that Love Connection. And your best bet for that connection is to make sure your materials match what you promised in your query or pitch.

Query, query, query, and/or pitch, pitch, pitch. I'm not going to talk about querying because this post can only be so long, but let's talk pitching for a sec. If you can get to a conference, pitch as many people as you can. This is not shameless self-promotion, it's sharing your project, which is soooo exciting, with as many people as you can. My first conference was RWA National in Dallas last summer and people would ask about my book. I totally stumbled all over myself. Pitching forced me to talk about it, and the more I talked about my book, the easier pitching became. I did much better talking about my project in Atlanta in September and even better in Seattle in October. If you've never been to a local conference I can't recommend highly enough that you go. Honestly, I'd spend my money on that instead of National this year, but that's just my opinion. Both Moonlight and Magnolias and Emerald City are fabulous, but there are many, many others and likely not too far away. Heck, I flew across the country from Portland to Atlanta and found an agent! What are you waiting for?

So what's next? I'm working on some changes to Glorious (best book possible, MaveFaves!) and doing a second pass on Her Wicked Ways. I will, of course, keep you posted when we start making the publisher rounds. Thank you everyone for your support. "Seeing" you here every day keeps me inspired, which keeps me writing!

Your turn: Do you like to pitch? Why or why not? Any tips to share?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Maven Carrie RyanHello Mavenland! This week I'm ecstatic to be able to show you my cover and introduce you to my protagonist, Mary:

I couldn't be more excited about this cover -- I love the Forest in the background, I love the way her hair is blown out behind her, I love her expression, I love the font (rumor is both my name and the title will be glossy) and I love the colors. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting a person, and especially not a face, on my cover -- first, there just haven't been heads on YA covers recently and second, I don't describe Mary that much (and I don't think I ever describe her clothes which is another reason I'm uber impressed with this cover). So when I first opened the email I was like "Oh!" and then I was like "Oooooohhhhhh!!!!!" I just don't think they could have done a better job on this cover -- I'm totally in love :)

And yes, I've totally been staring at this cover all the time. I have a print out hung next to my desk at work and one propped on my bookcase (my future inlaws actually glued my cover to another book so that it looks like a real book!).

So tell me your thoughts! Do you ever imagine your covers while you're writing your books? Do you create mock covers for your blog or website? What do you like and dislike in a cover?

Friday, March 7, 2008

What do you mean, there has to be a conflict?

Maven Jacqueline BarbourWhen I wrote my first manuscript the first time (and the second, third, and even fouth times), one of the comments I persistently got from my critique partners and from contest judges was that there "wasn't enough conflict to sustain a full 100K-word novel." But since I'd actually written more than 100K to get to The End (the first completed first draft was a whopping 136K and that was after I chopped some stuff), I have admit, I kinda scratched my head over that.

I mean, I'd sustained a 100K novel with the conflict I had. What in the world were they talking about? Obviously, they didn't know what they were talking about and should be shanked with Erica's machete.

It took me two long, excruciating years to "get it." Oh, I talked a good game. I could say I knew what conflict was and admit that my story needed more of it, but the truth is, I wasn't sure what they meant. I mean, the hero's an Irish race horse trainer and the heroine is the daughter of duke with a very stuck-up brother and a complicated trust. That's conflict aplenty--right?

Except, it wasn't. Oh, it was plenty of conflict for a plot! But it wasn't enough conflict for a romance.

One day, it just kinda hit me: plot conflict <> romantic conflict. Um, duh?

See, I wanted my hero and heroine to get along and work together and be happy in one another's presence, because...well...that's how I thought I'd show they were falling in love with each other. And in real life, that's the way it usually happens.

Problem is, real life doesn't make a very good romance. The reader has no emotional investment in the characters achieving their HEA so long as it's obvious they soon as they defeat the bad guys or stupid societal prejudice or whatever external factor is keeping them apart. But if the characters have to change something within themselves to achieve that HEA and that internal change is big and difficult and painful to make...whammo! Now, you have romance!

I know I'm not saying anything we all haven't heard a thousand times before. I know I have. I even pretended to understand and believe it. But until I actually wrote a few stories with next to no external plot problem, I didn't fully understand how to do it.

Now, I have a new dilemma. I've started a story that has quite a bit of external plot (in a short format--about 22,500 words). There's plenty of internal conflict, too, but I'm struggling to keep focused on it. Because, while the external plot is essential to getting the hero and heroine together, it's not the most important element of the story. It's the romance and how they overcome the internal barriers that are keeping them from their HEA that really matter.

YOUR TURN: Do you ever struggle to balance romantic/internal conflict with plot/external conflict? How do you know when you've got "enough" of each?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hey, they have books in there?

Maven Lacey KayeFor the last three weeks, MaveFave Keira and I have met up on the weekend to write. Since many weeks our little write meets are the only time I get to do writing-related things, they're quickly becoming sacred. But last week's write meet was particularly inspiring, as I had an Aha Moment so big it derailed my entire set of plans for the weekend.

The first time we got together, it was at a small library. The no-talking thing was difficult, so when it unexpectedly closed at 5pm (what??) we went to the local Pizza Hut to talk craft. Not the best move, after all: not only was it a bad thing for our waistlines, but it also meant we spent the entire night chatting instead of working.

Which isn't to say it was all bad, since that's the night I had my aha moment about BTL stories. Keira got an impromptu Maven Storyboarding 602 presentation. But no writing occurred.

The next week, we met at a coffee shop. This was better than the previous week because we weren't prohibited from talking, but our table was small and there was still food nearby. However, we did manage to do some writing things, which was awesome. I took my previous week's idea to expand my story and put thoughts into action, writing up a new micro synopsis I then translated into a brand new storyboard the following day. (That weekend, work plans were also derailed in favor of writing stuff. Sensing a theme...)

With my brand-spanking new storyboard, you'd think I spent the next few days furiously banging out new scenes. But I couldn't, because in my case "bigger story" means bigger social and political flavor and for some reason, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get a sense of 18th century British Abolition staring at the walls of my home office. Too broke to go on Amazon until the following paycheck, I let the story sit.

Learning from the previous weeks, Keira suggested the following week we meet at an enormous library in the middle of town. Bigger tables, more privacy if we wanted to talk, and yet still the general no-talking rule -- packing up my new storyboard with the intent of forcing myself to write crap, I thought meeting at the library was a cool idea. Until I got to the library, at which point I went, "Omigod. There are books here!"

Yes, people! Thousands and thousands of books! Many of them non-fiction! Many of them research! And at least twenty of them on 18th century British Abolition! All free to read anytime I want! Who knew?!?

Uh, everybody. Everybody says "Don't forget to go to your local library. It's the best place to get research material." But I never understood. Did I think my subject was too obscure to be stocked locally? Certainly, by now I've found enough obscure stuff on Amazon to know they print books on my subject. Did I think it would be too hard to find the books on the shelves? It only took a few tries to get the hang of the system. Did I think inter-library loan was going to be the only way to get my hands on the books I need? The big central library had almost all the books not only on their shelves, but checked in. No wait list!

In short, I took home about twenty books. Not just books on Abolition, but also books on the history of lace. I've already read 3, devoting every evening and all my breaks to pouring over the books as fast as I can. After all, I can't start writing until I know what I'm writing about. What was I waiting for?

What cool book did you find at the library? Have you gone? Never gone? Why? Did you know how easy it is to get BOOKS there? Are you one of those lucky people who doesn't need to research her stories *cough cough Contemporary*

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Loop-d-Loops on the Emotional Roller Coaster

Guest Maven Stephanie Rowe

Please join us in welcoming three-time RITA finalist and award-winning author Tanya Michaels! A professional split personality, she writes warm-hearted, community-oriented romances for Harlequin that have been translated into nearly a dozen languages and, under her real name, Tanya Michna, poignant women's fiction novels for NAL Accent. She's also the mother of two small children, a frequent speaker at writing conferences and book festivals, and a TV-on-DVD addict of series such as Supernatural, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, Robin Hood and LOST. Welcome Tanya!

My morning started around 6 a.m. with a shot of terror because I had accidentally—one might say idiotically—saved five hours of work to a temporary folder my computer claimed no longer existed. There may also have been some anger on my part, accompanied by Naval Academy worthy swear words. When my husband helped me excavate the Lost Files, I was overcome with relief and love for my real life hero. Then there was exasperation with my four year old (who fights falling asleep every night and then, go figure, fusses in the morning that she’s “too tired” to get up for PreK.) I was touched and proud of my kindergarten son for picking out his own clothes because he saw I had my hands full with his sister…and somewhat mortified that anyone who saw his resulting ensemble might think I deliberately dressed him like that. I experienced a fleeting homicidal impulse when a jerk ran a red light, cutting me off with my kids en route to school, followed by gratitude that no one was hurt and finally guilt in car pool when I realized we were supposed to have brought something that started with S for my daughter’s class Letter Muncher and that I’d failed as a mom.

Not even eight-forty five in the morning, and I’d run a gamut of approximately ten emotions. I needed a drink. (Luckily, the lady at the McDonald’s drive thru closest to the kids’ school knows my minivan by sight and always has the Diet Coke ready and sticking out the window.)

In a perfect world, I could deal with a few less emotions—at least, not such intense ones before noon. But in the WRITING world, emotions are our bread and butter. Not only do all the best romance novels, no matter what subgenre, have a strong, believable emotional arc for the hero and heroine, the books that achieve KEEPER status are the ones that have made a strong emotional connection with the reader. Because my first published novels were short romantic comedies with Harlequin, I didn’t think of myself as a deeply “emotional” writer. But the more I looked at the authors on my own keeper shelf, the more that changed.

You want an emotional reaction from your reader! If you write beautiful but angst-filled books (Anna DeStefano, Catherine Anderson, Karen White), you may literally send your readers sniffling for the tissue box. If you write atmospheric romantic suspense with twisting plots and chilling villains (Gayle Wilson, Lisa Gardner, Rita Herron), the reaction you elicit may be that the reader can’t sleep for a week without leaving her hall light on—and I’m STILL having nightmares, thank you very much. If you write witty dialogue, fast-paced clever narrative and memorably quirky characters (Jane Graves, Jennifer Cruise), your readers will probably remember you for making them laugh. Even if you write romantica/erotic romance, where the physical relationship is obviously a strong draw, the emotion is still crucial! (Two authors that I personally think handle this well are Angela Knight and Sasha White.) And, in my opinion the very best authors, including those already mentioned, are those who combine emotions for a roller coaster of a book and a sigh-worthy ending – Eloisa James, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Teresa Medeiros, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Hoyt.

I write for Harlequin under the name Tanya Michaels (shameless plug—An Unlikely Mommy is out this month!), but in September, 2007 my first trade single title for NAL Accent came out under my less-easy-to-spell-and-pronounce real name Tanya Michna. I was fortunate that Necessary Arrangements got some very nice reviews, but most of them warned that readers might not finish with dry eyes. Some of my writing acquaintances were stunned, wanting to know if I’d “gone over to the Dark Side” and if I’d had to change my craft to write this one.

No—to the second question, anyway. Jury’s still out on the first.

No matter what kind of emotion you’re trying to evoke, there are some tools we can all use to heighten the impact of our books. First of all, and this can’t be stressed enough: CHARACTER! Readers have to find your characters compelling enough to care. Two hundred years after Jane Austen wrote the story, many of us are still reading Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have passed the test of time with flying colors. JD Robb’s In Death books are on my auto-buy list and I’ll be perfectly honest, it has little to do with the homicide investigation plots. It’s more that I worry about Eve, lust after Roarke, and consider Peabody a friend—I miss her if I don’t check in from time to time. Don’t make the newbie writer (or uptight contest judge) mistake of thinking that sympathetic characters have to be perfect, though. Flaws make characters more three-dimensional and stories more compelling. Watch for historical romance novel Private Arrangements (April 2008) by debut novelist Sherry Thomas to see what I mean! Great story about an estranged married couple who have made some very definite and even cruel (although motivated) mistakes. Consider some of the popular television shows in recent years—Grey’s Anatomy, with an entire hospital full of neurotic characters, or cable’s Dexter in which the hero is actually a serial killer. On the lighter side, check out Jane Graves’ Hot Wheels & High Heels. Her heroine may not be all sweetness and light, but it’s tough not to root for her!

Keep in mind that surprises in the plot or even just smaller unexpected moments within scenes jolt the truest emotions from audiences. So try not to be too predictable. Or try to give your scene that added extra touch that makes it YOUR scene. Also remember that emotion DOES NOT EQUAL MELODRAMA. You want your reader to experience the emotion; you don’t want to bludgeon her over the head with it. Not every kiss in the book can be the hottest kiss in the book; you want to avoid obvious set ups like “It was quiet…too quiet.” And you do not want a hero and heroine that whine. Or, if they do, it better be in such an incredibly entertaining fashion that readers can’t put the book down anyway. Emotions work better in contrast than they do endless stretches—even if you like to use punchlines, you don’t want the book to be one big yuk-fest. Similarly, even in a tear jerker book like my Necessary Arrangements, I used liberal moments of humor. I mean, “poignant” is good, but let’s not confuse it with “so bleak I temporarily lost my will to live.”

Finally, even though most of us are writing genre fiction, don’t overlook some literary devices that can really help your stories resonate with readers: theme/motifs, symbols, and symmetry/juxtaposition. Again, you don’t have to beat the reader over the head—she might not even consciously pick up on the fact that the tree in Waverley family garden is symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge, but symbols can be very effective even as a subconscious device. Also, try not to use a symbol in the expected way. Check out the vintage car being restored in Anna DeStefano’s The Prodigal’s Return; it was supposed to be a project that brought together a father and son. Ultimately, it kind of does, but in the opposite way of what the reader would have predicted. Themes can be both powerful and playful and if you pick a Jennifer Crusie novel to re-read a few times, you’ll have a better understanding of motifs. Elizabeth Hoyt did a beautiful job in her “Prince” trilogy (Raven Prince, Leopard Prince, and Serpent Prince) framing her stories with folk tales that were then thematically important throughout the story. I got especially teary-eyed with how she handled the leopard figurine in the second book.

And symmetry is a great way to frame the entire story, ending in the same place you started…but not exactly. Think about the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when they’ve just met and dance to a catchy tropical-sounding tune in Colombia as compared to the end of the movie, when after five or six years of marriage, they’ve finally gotten to KNOW each other and are moving together beautifully as they take out assassins…to the same original tune. In my romantic comedy Not Quite As Advertised, the first line of the book is: Jocelyn McBride was in hell. Who knew it looked so much like an airport? And 180 pages later, the last line of the story is: Joss was in heaven. Who knew it looked so much like an airport? Teresa Medeiros and Julie Garwood both use this on chapter levels, coming full circle in a chapter for comedic (or tender) affect or juxtaposing the last line of a chapter with a dramatically opposed first line of the following chapter.

Really, there are all kinds of ways to build on the emotion in your book! Just remember, you can always layer in the little details later, as you get to know your characters better (that’s the beautiful thing about manuscripts as opposed to real life—you never have to think of the perfect response right that minute) and writing shorter work is no excuse for not going for the emotional jugular. Some of my favorite authors can crack me up in a one paragraph blog post, and I’m STILL traumatized from a few pages of a Stephen King short story that I cannot discuss further on advice of my therapist.

Happy writing and just remember, next time you find yourself hovering on the verge of some kind of emotional breakdown or another, it’s valid character research!
Tanya will be around today to answer your questions about craft, publishing, LOST, or whatever you think to ask! And one lucky commenter will receive a signed copy of Tanya's Trouble in Tennessee!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Aha! You don't have to write everything...

Maven Carrie RyanAs Erica said yesterday, this week we're talking about that advice we hear time and again until one day when it clicks. So funny that this is the topic this week because it's something I was just discussing with my fiance JP (love to drop that in) last week on our drive up to Williamsburg.

I have a terrible memory -- truly horrific at times. And this means that I often forget a lot of writing advice that I read and hear. I think part of that is because I tend to mentally discard any advice that isn't important to what I'm working on then and there. So I read a lot of great tips and advice and think "that's great!" but because it's not what I need at that time it tends to go in one ear and out the other.

Which is kind of cool because I can read the same advice over and over again and still find new nuggets! This is one of the reasons that I love to read (or talk) about craft -- every time I'm in a different place when I read about craft and so I learn a new lesson. And I love to look at things with new angles.

So I have tons of "aha!" moments all the time :) But there's been one in particular that I've been thinking about a lot recently and that's a combination of the advice to skip the boring parts and to make every scene matter. One reason this has been on my mind is because I've been reading a lot of contest entries lately and I see the same thing: writers feeling like they have to show *everything.*

The thing is, as writers we really don't have to show everything. Our readers are smart and they can put stuff together. For example, a lot of the contest entries I've been reading are YA and set in school. We see the character in class, walking out of class, at her locker, changing out books, walking to the cafeteria. This is all stuff that every student does almost every day. But some of these scenes don't pull their weight -- they don't add anything to the scene -- and so they can drag.

When writing these scenes I think it's important to ask ourselves "Why is this here and what does it add?" Maybe there's a note slipped into the protag's locker and so it's important we see her there. Maybe the cafeteria scene sets up the social hierarchy of the school which will play a pivotal role in the book. I'm not saying that you can't write these scenes, I'm just saying that they have to carry their weight. If you're just writing about your protag going to her locker because that's what kids do, then skip it. Or don't linger over it.

This is one of those bits of advice that I felt really comfortably with when writing FHT. I used * * * to skip all over the place! But then, in writing Book 2 I found myself writing a scene that seemed lackluster. It was three people arguing about having to get a first aid kit and what it looked like and where it was and blah blah. Which, in some cases, could be important. But it wasn't important to what I was writing at all. And the characters kept repeating the same arguments and the whole thing was just meh going in circles.

Finally I just decided that I would skip ahead and my first thought was "I can't! I have to explain to the reader everything so they can follow along!" Bah! Such an easy trap to fall into! In that scene the first aid kit wasn't important, what it looked like and even getting it -- none of it was important! What was important was the protag sewing up someone's wound and I didn't have to spend 10 pages getting her the supplies she needed. Going through all the motions just felt like the logical next step but it's like sending your character to her locker because that's what kids do before going to lunch -- if the important scene is the lunch scene, who cares about the lockers!

Maybe a movie example will help... in Independence day Will Smith shoots down that alien and he gets the ship open and punches out the alien. We don't see him struggle with getting it out of the ship, getting it wrapped up in the parachute, starting on the journey -- we don't see any of it even though it had to happen. We just see him walking alone in the desert dragging the thing because that's what's important. The details would drag and it wasn't that kind of movie (it would be a different movie if Will took his time examining the alien, trying to figure it out, etc -- but that wasn't his character).

I'm not saying you should zip merrily through your manuscript hitting only the highlights of the plot. But pay attention when you're writing that stuff that you feel like HAS to be there and ask yourself if it really does. And if it does, make sure the scene pulls its weight.

So that's what I've been pondering. As I said, I LOVE LOVE LOVE writing advice. Tips, craft, thoughts -- all of it! So share some of your own aha moments or just some tips that really resonate with you!

Be sure to drop by tomorrow when Guest Maven Tanya Michaels aka Tanya Michna is in the house. Tanya is a three-time RITA finalist and has authored over twenty-five books. One lucky commenter will receive a signed copy of her book, Trouble in Tennessee!

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