Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Resolutions....

Hey -- this is as lame as it gets. New Year's Eve - it's 10:23 - my son and I are sick, I just watched RENT (oh the guilty pleasures) my husband is at a party and I am blogging. Ugh. I can barely stand it.

But it's been a great holiday - I've been too sick to do much work so I've been doing a lot of thinking. I am a resolution fanatic. Love 'em. And Maureen told our critique group a while ago, something that sounds pretty basic but really made me feel better about my career == my resolutions can't be things I can't control. IE -- be published more. I have no control over that since I am not a buying editor at a publishing house. What I can do is write more publishable books -- but that's not one of my resolutions because that sounds hard. So here are my resolutions - the things I plan to control in the New Year.

1. Figure out what kind of writer I am. I'm not talking about writing romance, or writing fast or even what my voice is or what my themes are. What do I write? What do I want to write? What do I want to accomplish with my writing? What do I want my readers to think when they put down a book of mine? How far can I get writing this way? I am beginning to formulate an answer to this which I think I am going to talk about next week - inspired as I am by ROCKY BALBOA!!! That's right -- I saw it and it really made me think about my career and my writing and why don't I work out more. Anyway - more about that next week.

2. When something is really delicious I am going to stop asking what's in it. It's always butter. Or as I was stunned to find out this year about my Aunt's fantastic orange slice cookies -- LARD. That's right. I honestly didn't think you could buy that anymore.

3. Discipline. I've said this one every year for the past few years after I realized that just saying I was going to lose weight had very little to do with actually losing the weight. But I need to be a lot more disciplined about my writing. I'm not sure if you've noticed but I watch a lot of TV - some of it very bad and that is time better spent writing. So I resolve to be more disciplined about writing at night.

4. Figure out commas. I'm 31. I'm a writer. This nonsense has gone on long enough.

5. Forgive myself the days when I just don't feel like writing. I'm a pretty hedonistic person -- like Maureen I can be talked into just about anything (Sinead, she's a tough nut to crack sometimes - Maureen will always have another drink) But when I decide not to write for a day - because I'm tired or sick or I need to recharge or I need to read or take a break or stop thinking about how to get my hero and heroine in bed - I always feel guilty. That's going to stop this year.

6. Use what I learned this year. Challenge myself. This year was a banner year for craft learning for me. The McKee Seminar was amazing and now I just need to keep that stuff in mind and not be lazy about using it.

That's it for me. Are you resolution people? What are they?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Guilty Pleasures

Hey, We’re lucky enough to have Kim Howe back blogging about Guilty pleasures, a definite theme for us for the past couple of weeks.

I want to remind everyone, Kim’s made it through to the next round of the American Title III, so please go to the Romantic Times website and vote for her.

Guilty Pleasures

Guilty pleasures…we all have them. Sinfully dark chocolate coupled with a glass of Merlot, luxurious baths filled with sensual oils, fries with mayo and ketchup. I could go on, but when it really comes down to it, the guiltiest pleasure of all is free time—something writers desperately need.

Our lives are filled with deadlines and obligations. Most of us race from car pools to local schools, trying to squeeze in all our commitments. We juggle work and family and rarely find time for ourselves. When we have a spare moment, we check our e-mail for urgent messages, and then squeeze in an hour of writing.

Definitely not ideal conditions to welcome the creative muse.

So, how do we change our mindset and set aside free time? Perhaps we can draw insight from one of my other guilty pleasures—traveling. In North America, we have a “work harder, work better” mentality. Maybe this isn’t the right approach?

People in the islands don’t worry if they can’t complete a task today. “No pressure, no problem” is their frustrating reply to our urgent request for service. In Africa, the greatest pleasures are derived from the simple things in life, like watching the sun set over the Mara. Desert dwellers in the Middle East spend hours roaming the sands with their animals. Time is equally precious, but not as frantic.

I know we all have commitments, but maybe canceling a social engagement or booking in personal time is the right approach for writers. Lessons learned from other cultures can help us carve out time to write, allow us to daydream about writing, let boredom set in.

Boredom? That’s right. Our best ideas often come from our subconscious. Consider your experiences for a moment. When do most ideas come to you? Unless you’re really lucky, it’s not when you’re sitting at the computer trying push forward in your plot. It’s usually in bed at night or first thing in the morning, while you are doing a routine activity (like washing those Christmas dishes), or during rhythmic exercise. At those times, you are relaxed and open to exploration. Our right brains aren’t squashed by our left brain’s logical dominance. If we don’t allow ourselves that critical free time, our subconscious can never unleash its incredible powers.

Next time a family member finds you relaxing on the couch, don’t feel guilty. You really are working.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Kim Howe
American Title III Finalist, ONE SHOT, TWO KILLS
Please visit

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Guilty pleasures...

This topic Molly raised made me think, especially because it was in the context of reading. (Now, if we were talking about food and guilty pleasures, or TV, I could blog for days...)

My reading tastes over the years have varied, wildly, but probably for the past 20 years, most of my pleasure reading has been literary fiction, and the biased world being what it is, those books generally aren't thought of as guilty pleasures, per se. Isn't it crazy that any reading should make us feel guilty? I know since I've been writing commercial fiction, I find myself defending the choice--to write books I hope lots of people will read--all the time. Crazy. Great stories simply told with a wide appeal. What could possibly be wrong with that?

I've been thinking back to when I was reading a lot of mainstream fiction, and it was during high school and university. Then, I had lots of school reading to do and therefore really wanted my pleasure reading to be a serious break. I also hadn't discovered movies in a big way yet then, or more accurately didn't have access to them like I do now both because of the cost and the ability to get to them. (Lived in a small town during high school.)

So, books were my main source of entertainment. It's possible that if I were a decade younger, I would have been a voracious romance reader (like Molly and Sinead) but from what I understand, romance publishing didn't take off in a huge way until the 1980's and while I was in University in the 80's... I was in high school in the late 70's and feel like I missed that wave. So, what did I read? Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Andrew Greely... and countless other authors whose names I've forgotten. Basically, anything that read quickly and had some good sex scenes... Given those reading preferences, why didn't I discover romance? Don't know. I expect the covers would have turned me off... but I don't remember making that judgement. I also think some of the heroines in those 1980's romances would have turned me off. But I realize it's not fair to say that, having read none of them. (Actually, I recently read an old Janet Daly I found via a bookcrossings drop and HATED the heroine...)

After I graduated University, I started reading mostly literary fiction and was reading that (with a few exceptions like John Grisham and Anne Rice and a lot of "cross-over" authors like John Irving and Ann Tyler) pretty exclusively until I started writing. Now that I've discovered the romance genre and rediscovered mainstream fiction... I feel like I read mostly for "work" and the books that sweep me up and become "pleasure" instead of work... Well, I don't feel any guilt about those. Recent mainstream authors who've done that for me include Emily Giffen, Sophie Kinsella, Robyn Harding, Gemma Halliday, Diana Peterfreund and of course Molly O'Keefe.

I think what it boils down to, is that for me, reading is not a guilty pleasure at all.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

OH! So guilty and delicious....

We must have stumbled on to guilty pleasures if Sinead is admitting those Johanna Lindsey books on her shelf. Is she even still alive? Or are there a "team" of Johanna Lindsey's pushing out those books. Have they hooked her brain up to a computer somewhere?

And in the dictionary under guilty pleasures isn't it just a picture of the first season Nip/Tuck DVD?

I only mock to deflect any attention to those books on the lowest shelf of my keep case. Yes. It's a case. But since Sinead can be a man about it -- so can I. Elizabeth Lowell - the older the better. Love them. Love the Alpha Male, the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING, those doormat virgin heroines and seriously the very un-pc sex scenes. I love the old series, the old historicals all of it. She lost me recently but I'm not parting with those old ones.

You know about Friday Night Lights but my real secret is So You Think You Can Dance. I PVR it all the time and end up watching each episode at least twice. I know it's a guilty pleasure because I turn it off when the husband walks in the door. But frankly, it's artful and interesting.

I hope you all have gotten your holiday shopping done. I have one stop left and then I am done. Not too shabby.

Friday, December 15, 2006

books, books and more books, please

It’s Friday, I’m behind in my Xmas shopping, writing and housework. I’m largely OK with this, but I’m also behind in my blog writing. So I apologize in advance if this makes if this rambles aimlessly.

One of the things top of mind lately is I want to read a really good romance. I’d settle for just one over the Xmas season.

So I’m looking for recommendations. Any and all, bring ‘em on.

One of the saddest aspects of getting better as a writer, is becoming a far harder to please reader. I no longer have any patience for those scenes where the heroine reviews how her last meeting with the hero went, or the hero contemplates his hard, neglected childhood. I recognize the problems with static scenes like these now, but before, I probably just skipped them, without even blinking and they certainly didn’t interfere with how I felt about the book.

Now they do.

But I think I’m still willing to forgive problems in a book, if overall the book entertains and intrigues me. I’m easier to please in this respect than Molly. (Anne Stuart’s latest is proof positive of this. That hero alone was enough to get me to love the book)

But mostly I’m going back and re-reading old favourites. Anything written by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Laura Kinsale, Iris Johansen’s historicals are high up on my list. I know I’m missing out on some amazing books, because that haven’t hit my radar.. (a subtle plea for recommendations…)

Let’s share.

And did anyone see the Golden Globe noms. Michael C. Hall was deservedly there for Dexter. Nice to see a non-network show get noticed in some way. As was Big Love, which is also a great show and Bill Paxton, but where was Jeannie Tripplehorn, who is the glue holding that show together?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Publishing from the writer's perspective

Okay, first off, an acknowlegement is due to Vanessa Jaye, on whose great blog I found this amazing little penguin clip. Still can't stop laughing...

She has it as a header for her list of links to agents and editors... Too funny. And it really does sum up how the publishing industry can feel to a writer at times. Put yourself out there a bit, take a risk to walk out onto the ice... and whack!

No matter what way you look at it, publishing is a tough business and writers need very thick skins to survive the cold water and ice. And I know from friends that getting published doesn't suddenly make it easier, either... Molly was already published when I first met her nearly five years ago and I hope she won't mind me saying I've seen her go through just as many struggles as the rest of us.

A couple of days ago, Diana Peterfreundalso talked about the myth that things get easier when you get a book contract. From Diana's blog:

"...getting published is like levelling up on a video game.You're the same character as you were before when you were at the top of the last level, you're just playing in a much much harder field that requires skills and weaponry you haven't earned yet."

Love that analogy Diana! (or is it a metaphor?)

If you're a writer, no matter what stage of your career you've hit, you're bound to get slapped down, to have your knees taken out from under you, to suffer a little humiliation in front of others...

And yet we still write.

That doesn't make us masochists, does it? No, I think we do it for the times we are above the water with the sun on our faces, the times when we're sliding giddily on the ice, or swimming at high speeds in water teaming with fishies and not a sea lion in sight.

Why do you write?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Making a Scene

One of the first things I really learned that blew me away after I started writing I learned from Kristin Hannah (and it has nothing to do with commas -- which I know should be in that sentence somewhere). Kristin Hannah said a scene must do three things:

1. Forward Plot
2. Reveal Character
3. Foreshadow or disclose backstory

We call this the Holy Trinity. Well, maybe not we. Just me.

And lately I've been really obsessed with sharp scenes. I think sometimes it's hard in this genre either straight romance or even women's fiction to realize that there is a plot to forward. They are love stories - relationship books people meeting and talking and saying those small things that reveal character and backstory etc... but that is a PLOT. And just because scenes don't have explosions or kidnappings doesn't mean they don't need to be carefully crafted and plotted.

I am beginning to look at all my conversation scenes and decide what needs to be revealed, what small barriers breached and how much closer or further away from getting into the sack or reaching a happily ever after my characters are. Those idle conversations HAVE TO GO SOMEWHERE - I am beginning to think of them like fights almost, even when they don't fight. Who is giving away too much. Who is making the compromise, who has the most at stake?

So, what are scene killers? Well, only have one of the Holy Trinity is one way to kill a scene. (Sinead is a holy terror about this -- don't tell her but I have kept a few of my nice scenes that don't do anything but reveal character.) Having the same things that are at stake at the beginning of a scene at stake at the end. Killing off conflict, making your characters too kind, or too understanding. Another thing is repetition.

I read Anne Stuart's new book - Cold As Ice. I love Anne Stuart - she gets away with stuff with her hero's that most people couldn't DREAM of pulling off. Her black moments are absolutely heart wrenching each and every time I read them. Almost all her historicals are on my keeper shelf. I love her. And I liked this book but I think at the beginning of this book her scenes were not sharp. There was so much dialogue repeated.

"you're going to kill me."
"maybe I will, maybe I won't."

Next scene

"I guess it doesn't matter if you're going to kill me."
"I won't kill you."
"you just said you will."
"maybe I will, maybe I won't."

I am paraphrasing this - but that is the jist. This made the scenes so fuzzy. Killed character and tension -- which she's so so good at. That said of course I'm going to get the next book and go back and buy the first book because she's still one of the best romance writers around.

If you have a scene that doesn't work go back and see what you're missing in terms of the Holy Trinity. Where you are not being clear and where you are simply repeating yourself.

If the scene is working -- don't mess with it. Hear that Maureen? DON'T MESS WITH IT :)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Understand the Rules…. Then break them

One of the amazing benefits to belonging to RWA and our local chapters is, there are wonderful resources and courses for a beginning writer to learn from. I know I’ve benefited and become a much better writer because of it.

But we hear so much about the rules these days. No prologues, start the book with action, no backstory, (Maureen covered how this really well in her last post), chapters should be 20 pages long, and countless others.

These so called ‘rules’ were created for a reason. Too many authors dumped pages upon pages of boring backstory at the beginning of their books. Books started with long, boring conversations that went nowhere.
Not sure how the chapters rule came into being…..

The results of the rules have been positive in most cases. A lot more books start with a bang, literally in some cases… Backstory has been eliminated from the first three chapters, and that is a good thing in most cases.

But, it’s also created something of a homogeneity in books. A lot of books are starting to feel really familiar. The romantic suspense that starts with the heroine in danger, the straight romance that starts with a meeting where the hero and heroine meet and sparks fly, the historical that starts in a ballroom, and the hero and heroine meet and sparks fly.

These books are doing everything right, they are following the ‘rules’ and yet they’ve managed to become boring.

Screw the rules.

Do anything really well and it will be fascinating read.

Create a prologue that opens up all sorts of questions in your reader’s mind. Give us backstory that both answers questions and creates more questions. (Again refer to Maureen’s post, cause she’s way smarter than I am). Start the book with a conversation, as long as the conversation is interesting.

I know it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Break the rules, because you know why they exist, and in the process create a book that feels fresh and different and compelling, because it’s different from 95% of the other books out there.

And if someone chastises you for breaking the rules… well, great storytelling trumps every rule out there. Tell a great story and I’ll be first in line to buy that book.

To finish, FINALLy saw Bond. Two words.. Daniel Craig. Is that man sexy or what……

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Backstory... Just say no! (or yes)

Commonly held wisdom in the commercial fiction writing world is that while it's important to know your characters' back-stories—it's the kiss of death to put any of it in your book, except perhaps in the subtext. In fact, Donald Maass, in his “excruciating tension” workshop, asserts that you shouldn't include any back story—ever. (But he also does a workshop on breaking rules.)

Lately, I've been considering whether this “rule” applies equally to all genres of commercial fiction. My problem is, in women's fiction, relationships between the main characters are paramount (there not generally being a big suspense or mystery or romance or other plot involved) and it’s hard to develop deep, meaningful, believable relationships between characters (with their friends, lovers, family, etc.) without touching on how the characters know each other, or what problems they’ve had in the past.

So, what to do?

Without a doubt, in commercial fiction, what's happening to the characters and their relationships during the actual story (not the past), is the most important aspect of those relationships and should be the focus. I also concede that in well-crafted writing, it’s possible to reveal aspects of how those relationships evolved into what they are. That is, writers can find ways to reveal, in the characters' present, evidence of the baggage and history in their pasts. (without telling us exactly what that baggage and history is.)

But for me as a reader, in many of my favorite stories, tidbits of events which occurred between the characters in their pasts are like golden nuggets. The tasty nuts on top of the story sundae. Hence my dilemma and why the absolutely no back story advice gives me pause...

On a related side-note, my fellow drunk writers and I have spent the better part of the last year discussing why Emily Giffin's books are so dang readable. (Okay, Sinead and I have talked about it once or twice.) And I would assert that Ms. Giffin includes loads of back story about her characters and I think it’s often the back story that makes her books so rich and interesting... (And obviously lots of people think her books work, evidenced by the whole New York Times bestseller list thing…)

So, I've been busy developing my own back story rules and theories to apply to my writing... (Not claiming my rules are original… just that these are the rules I’ve picked out for me.)

Where am I right now? I think I have 2 main rules:

Any time back story is revealed, it should be as detailed yet succinct as possible. (I know, these might seem to contradict--but I don't think they do.) By detailed I mean I think it’s weak to say characters Jen and Kim had a big fight in Jr. High over a boy. I think it’s better to say Jen pulled Kim’s ponytail in the third floor girls room at Rolph Road public school when she learned Kim told Jimmy Fenwick that Jen had a crush on Billy Jones. (Okay, not so succinct, but my point on succinctness is that this shouldn’t be a ten page flashback scene showing the fight. Just some great details to make the reader believe that it happened, and was important enough to one of the characters that she remembers it vividly.)

Back story must come as late in the novel as possible—each back story detail arriving at a point where it has the most impact, where the reader is dying to know what happened between these people, or at a point when it surprises the reader and changes the readers understanding of everything between the characters. (And yes, when used with caution and very sparingly, as late as possible might be in the first few chapters, but the writer should think about this and consciously decide whether it wouldn’t be stronger to hold back that information until later.)

So, that’s what I’m thinking right now… Do you have any back story rules? Do you even care?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fall Break???

Sorry for not posting last week. Like apparently ALL of my favorite TV shows I went on a small Fall Break. What the hell is going on? Fall Break?? Is it because of American Idol starting? Does American Idol need five nights of itself? Luckily Friday Night Lights is sticking around...maybe now, you will all get a chance to see it's brilliance.

I was going to write this post on how writing is like exercise. Not a totally new revelation that's for sure. I know Sinead and Maureen and I have all lamented that once we've gotten out of the habit of writing, like exercise it's SO hard to get back into. I went home for Thanksgiving (had a ridiculously unsuccessful booksigning the day after Thanksgiving because they put me way way back in the computer book section!! The only strangers walking by me were men who could not make eye contact with me -- not exactly the type of folks to pick up a book called His Best Friend's Baby.) and have come back and still can not get into the groove. I have tons of deadlines too -- I actually have work to do. But still can't get involved. Instead I have done all my holiday shopping on line. Which is good - but not terribly productive in terms of those deadlines - one of which is actually MONDAY.

Well, that was before today when suddenly it was quality romance everywhere. And I am INSPIRED. It all started with, believe it or not Waterworld (which got a bad break off the bat and is actually a pretty good movie) the scene when Jean Tripplehorn (or whatever her name is) offers herself up for the life of the kid and Costner says, obviously lying "you have nothing I need." Over the top -- sure. But I loved it. And then because it's Sunday and on any given Sunday you can catch Unforgiven the scene when the blond prostitute who was cut up at the beginning has that great moment with Eastwood and offers him a free one. He declines, she thinks it's because of the scars and he tells her it's not that. She's beautiful, it's because of his wife that he is still faithful to and then painfully and awkwardly he says if he wanted a free one it would be with her. Great scene -- wounded tortured folk. Love it. So I capped all of that womanly offering up with some rereading of the great Anne Stuart historicals. Clearly not very PC of me or even really forward thinking, but it did the trick tonight and I am ready to sit down tomorrow and get a whole lot of work done.

So what stuff inspires you guys when the going gets tough?
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