Monday, August 31, 2009
As you grow older the reasons for the rules change, but rules continue no matter how old you get. The biggest difference is when you become an adult the rules relate to larger choices and issues.
Which brings me to my blog topic - rules and/or guidelines for writers. As I told my niece, rules are part of life. For writers there are guidelines for most genres. Each line has specific requirements that writers must follow in order to get their books to the correct editor and hopefully not be rejected.
We all want to do our own thing. Enjoy life the way we see fit, but that's not always in the cards. As authors we want to tell our stories the way we choose and describe the situations the way we see them. Unfortunately, that's not always possible because most publishers have specific ways they want manuscripts written.
For example, romance novels must have a happy ending. Mysteries need the murder resolved and the killer unmasked, and suspense and thriller must tie all the loose ends together with an interesting ribbon.
If your goal is to get published, request the guidelines for the publishing house you're considering. Study them, treat them like a bible for getting published, and adhere to them. There's no guarantee that you'll get published, but you will be one step closer to your goal.
If you have comments or suggestions, please feel free to contact me. I'm always interested in what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please, don't be a stranger.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
For a long time that was my attitude. Migrating to the US gave me a little more perspective on keeping time, but still getting to events on time was a challenge. Any gains I made on time management quickly dissipated when I landed a job with flexible hours. There is no clock-in time, the work is self driven, and most deadlines are self-imposed.
Then my kid started elementary school and suddenly my laid back world was turned upside down. Now my schedule was restricted by drop off windows, and pick up times, shuttling her back and forth to various extracurricular activities. Then there are the half days and the school closures, and the holidays you didn’t know existed. Just when I thought I had a handle on it, my book gets accepted by Dorchester Publishing and suddenly there are rewrites, edits, deadlines, promos, and of course Novel Spaces blog. I was suddenly drowning in a sea of appointments and deadlines and schedules. Every part of me was screaming HELP I NEED SOME TIME MANAGEMENT TIPS.
Well, here are some tips I’ve learned on time management. It is by no means exhaustive, and I welcome your input because I am still learning and adjusting.
1. Get organized
I never realized how important a planner could be. Indeed I always kept one on my desk, but I’m not at my desk 24/7. My suggestion: get a portable planner. I use my cell phone. I keep all schedules, appointments and locations (yes I’ve been known to show up at the right time at the wrong place) and have it alarm 30 minutes before each appointment. My former method of mentally filing away appointments failed miserably. My brain could only hold so much.
2. Plan ahead
Some of us have a habit of making or changing plans at the last minute and doing things impromptu. That doesn’t work when others are depending on you. That’s why I am so happy that Novel Spaces blog has the scheduling feature. I usually write my blogs at least a week ahead of time and schedule it. Anything that can be done before the deadline is due, do it.
3. Set goals
… and write them down. That goal in your head is easily usurped by the urgency of the immediate. Set long term goals and short term goals, and create a plan of action to achieving each goal. However be flexible. Things rarely occur as we plan it.
4. Have a plan B
… and plan C, D, etc. Since we can’t dictate things beyond our control, we can at least have a back up plan.
There are only 24hrs in a day. You can’t do it all. Examine what’s most important or urgent and do them first. I read "The Road Less Traveled" many years ago. One of the things that stood out in my mind was their recommendation for accomplishing tasks. Do the task you enjoy the least first, then use those you enjoy the most as a reward for completing your least enjoyable task. Most of all, don’t schedule more than you can handle.
6. Delegate responsibility
I know. By the time you’re finished explaining what you need done, you may as well had done it yourself. Reality check: you can’t do it all. Tasks that could be delegated should be delegated. Your delegates may not do it the very same way that you will, but as long as it is done well, it’s OK.
Find some time in your day to relax and recharge your batteries. Reflect on what you have accomplished. Even if you haven’t achieved as much as you intended, don’t obsess about it. You aren’t super human. You will get to it some other time. Meditate. Pray. Do what ever you need to get some quiet “Me time” each day. You need it for your sanity.
I know I haven’t addressed it all. Remember, what works for me, may not work for you. So tell me, how do you manage your time?
Friday, August 28, 2009
A book without an overall theme or meaning doesn’t last in the reader’s mind. Sure, entertainment is fine, but a story without something deeper doesn't matter. How can it serve the reader? Think of Gone With The Wind without the backdrop of the Civil War. How long would anyone remember that book? When a novelist sits down to write a book, he has an idea. It may begin as people doing things, but if it doesn’t have direction or purpose, it falls flat.
A theme is obvious in non-fiction. Can you imagine reading a book that doesn’t have a purpose? Fiction is no difference. Your purpose could be to point out the foibles of the human condition. It could be to dramatize how a mother’s love can push her to give her life for their child. A novel can be a story of good versus evil and shows the power of good. It can show the power of love. It can dramatize that we are not alone, that others share our fears, worries, or sinfulness.
As an author of Christian fiction, my purpose is often focused on a Bible verse that sums up a major idea in the book. For example, Proverbs 16:9 reads: In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. This book would be about someone who has made a life plan—a career, a goal, success, fame, an accomplishment—but things happen, and the character realizes to reach that goal, he may have to give up something else equally important.
While you might not write Christian fiction, you can, writing any genre. Look at your latest work and sum up what the major theme or purpose of your novel seems to be---good wins over evil, love is worth fighting for, a parent will give his life for his child, lies tangle lives, gossip only begets gossip, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and laughter can heal. You can think of many more. These themes work for a romance, a thriller, a western, or any genre.
When you sit down to write a novel, ask yourself what you want the reader to take away when she finishes. If you can’t answer the question, this is the reason your story is not making an impact on an agent or editor. It might be why a reader enjoys it for the moment and can’t remember the title or what it was about two days later. Write so that you make an impact on your readers with a purpose. Create a theme or a message that you want to leave readers with at the end of your novel, and you will have written a memorable story that makes a difference. You’ll know it works when you receive your reader mail. It will astound you and sometimes make you weep. Make a difference in your readers' lives.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Besides the incredibly fascinating metrics that came back from the post (yes, I participated), there are a couple of comments I'd like to make.
One, like Pepper Smith, I was dismayed to find self-published and e-published lumped together. Nathan said that if he'd drilled down into every permutation, the question would have become cumbersome, but he only offered two options for that choice. If he'd put down "self-published / e-published / only non-English rights / only audio rights / micro press", or something like that, then I might have been more convinced. But, to only have two options and then say that splitting them out would have made the question more cumbersome is a bit like showing your Freudian slip.
I know I'm not an NY-published author, but every manuscript of mine that got e-pubbed still had to go through the submission, edit, revision process. I didn't jump the queue by self-publishing. (Having said that, I don't want to make it appear that I'm having a complete downer on self-publishing. Talented writer, Ann Sommerville, for example, has self-published. But, she knew what she was doing. She had her own reasons for taking that particular route which didn't include being afraid to take rejection, as I suspect many of the self-pubbed are. There, that's my Freudian slip this time.)
But another question that came up in the comments was about first novels and someone commented that s/he was working on her/his first novel and was being serious about it and why shouldn't it be the first one that gets published?
This happens. First novels get published, of course they do. But, in thinking on this, I'm starting to come to the realisation that, for the majority of writers (me utterly included), the first novel can only ever be seen as potentially valuable scrap metal for future efforts.
I came to this epiphany via another route; i.e. martial arts, because the exact same thing plays out. In my first year of martial arts, I took part in my very first tournament. And the instructor videotaped all of our performances for later analysis. When I saw myself in the sparring round, I cringed. Oh. My. God. Was that ungainly person hopping around, doing weird things with her hands and legs really me? Aghast, almost in tears, I approached Sifu and asked him if there was any -- any! -- hope for me? He laughed. "Everyone goes through that," he told me. "Before you can really start training, you need to get all the bad influences out of your system."
Mortifying me completely, he sat down with me and we went through the tape again. It didn't feel any better watching myself prance brokenly all over the screen for a second time. Sifu watched with a frown on his face. "I'm thinking ... Kung Fu," he said. "What?" "That TV series, Kung Fu. That's what I'm seeing here."
He was right. Out of all the TV series that I'd watched as a kid, one of my favourites was David Carradine's Kung Fu. And there it was, on the screen during a noisy and busy tournament. I was trying to be, whether I knew it or not, David Carradine, in all his stiff, top-heavy, completely clunky glory.
"You had to get that out," Sifu said. "And, now that you have, we can start the real work."
And that's what I think of most first novels. It's a way of getting things out of your system before you start the real work. But that's just my opinion.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
In my circle, few admit to even reading romance; writing it is beyond the pale. Those who read it don't do so openly, and if caught in the act mumble some shame-faced excuse about having 'confiscated' the book from a student. (Borrowed, more likely!) I've seen that scenario played out countless times.
And what about the overwhelming response to romance novels from the male half of the population? Dismissal, snickers, 'girl porn' comments, and the general opinion that no woman with half a brain would read (or write) the stuff. According to the popular mythology, romance novels are the preserve of:
- The girl behind the counter at the drugstore, twirling a lock of purple hair and snapping her chewing gum, maybe.
- Gauche schoolgirls, definitely.
- The old spinster librarian with parchment skin and wattles, glaring over her glasses at the boys and girls flirting instead of doing their research, and hiding a lurid bodice-ripper under her copy of Dostoevsky.
- The downtrodden wife trapped in a miserable marriage.
- The anti-feminists.
Well, surprise, surprise. We do. And after decades, or centuries rather, of being treated with scorn and ridicule by the literary establishment, the romance genre seems to finally, finally be coming into its own. It's becoming so respectable, in fact, that men are jostling to join the ranks of romance writers and many popular authors, formerly hidden behind their pseudonyms, are coming forward and revealing that they're smart, professional women. Some are young. Some are happily married, and feminist to the core. Some are college professors. Some are all of the above. They read romance - and they write it too.
You don't believe me, do you. Well, take a gander at this USA Today article: Scholarly writers empower the romance genre. It's all about college professors working undercover as romance authors and attending Princeton University conferences on the genre. Smart women have always read and written great stories, including romances. The difference now is that, more and more, they're not ashamed to admit it.
Monday, August 24, 2009
What does a writer do when he puts something off until the last minute and realizes that he has a blog due and no subject? He falls back on the essayist’s standard trope, “how do you fill the blank page?” or, as put another way, “where do you get your ideas?”
This is not addressing my work specifically -- people have stopped asking me where I get the ideas for my stories and novels. I think they’re afraid of what I’ll say. I'm a little afraid myself. No, this is more about the classic situation of having time to write, the desire to write, and nothing to write about.
I am a big believer in the zen art of avoidance. If I am working on something specific and need inspiration to move forward, planning a long day of errands is a sure way to get the juices flowing. Usually the horror doing something constructive drives me to the computer with any idea I can come up with to avoid cleaning, shopping, paying bills, looking for work, or other household chores I’d rather write than do.
If that doesn’t happen, I start my errands.
An important part of the errand ritual is spending the entire time you are out of the house berating yourself for not being home writing. You must look at the clock often as you compulsively add tasks -- “As long as I’m out I might as well..,” -- that prolong the delay before you can get any work done. Evidently the guiltier you feel, the harder your brain works to end the pain.
All along the way my brain is invariably churning through whatever it is I remember about my last work session. What were the characters doing? How far had they gotten? Who said what to who? Scenarios of what can happen next pop in and out of my head as I rush from store to store, regretting that I didn’t bring a cart with me.
Somewhere in the middle of all of the list-checking and thinking ahead to the next stop and remembering what I forgot at the last, that damn THING I was trying to capture pops up out of the blue, clear as a bell, and I suddenly have no problem getting done with my errands and back to the computer to see how it plays out in real time.
It’s never easy, writing, but I have learned that sometimes it’s better to walk way than force it. And that brevity is the soul of wit. So I’ll stop here until I have something more significant to say next time.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Critiquing is at the heart of the Clarion method and the Clarion philosophy, which is that you become a better writer by reading and critiquing the stories of others.
Each morning, for four hours, we critiqued three or four stories written at the workshop. Each student was allowed to speak about each story for as long as three minutes. Afterward, the instructor of the week spoke as long as he or she wanted to, and then the story’s author responded to the critiques.
In the afternoon, we met one-on-one with the instructor, worked on our next story (most people wrote one per week), socialized with other students, went to the nearby cliffs (at right) or ocean to decompress, or napped.
In the late afternoon, we received the stories to be critiqued for the next day. We were often up till the early hours of the morning critiquing because evenings frequently included a talk by the instructor of the week, a trip to a restaurant, a field trip to Mysterious Galaxy (a San Diego bookstore, also online, that specializes in speculative fiction and mysteries) for author talks and shopping, or a wait for stories turned in late.
Did critiquing help me become a better writer? Yes. I learned to look at stories with an eye not to whether they were good, but to how they could be better. I saw mistakes people made and tried to figure out how they could be avoided or fixed. I learned new questions to ask when evaluating stories, whether mine or others: What did this story need to do to succeed? Did the story do that? Could the story accomplish its goals in a more effective way? I saw the risks other students took in their writing and realized I needed to take more risks myself and try new things.
The pressure-cooker atmosphere had pluses and minuses. On the one hand, many people were surprised to learn how quickly they could write a half-decent story when they had to. Everyone produced in a brief time stories they may be able to sell later. On the other hand, sleep deprivation and short deadlines meant that no one wrote the best stories they could, and the critiquing as a result sometimes focused on problems the writer already knew existed but hadn't had time to fix.
Contrary to the Clarion philosophy, I learned more from being critiqued than critiquing. It would seem almost impossible not to. When eighteen brilliant people study your stories and tell you what works, what doesn’t, and why, you learn a lot about your strengths and weaknesses, and you learn it quickly.
Although not everyone can go to Clarion, everyone can learn something from its approach. No matter what your avocation of choice—writing, playing music, dancing, gardening, cooking—you can improve by studying the work of people who do it well, getting feedback on your own work, and trying new things.
I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 7 September, when I’ll talk about what spec fic writers mean by “worldbuilding” and why it's important. I look forward to seeing you again then!
Saturday, August 22, 2009
A while back, there was a story about an NBA player who accused his wife of physical abuse. I wondered about the mindset of a woman who would abuse a man. A woman who'd dare possess the nerve to hit a man. Well, I did a lot of research into the aspect of control that's involved in that psyche. A couple of years later, I wrote Something He Can Feel. I'd also watched makeover shows where women had plastic surgery and it looked as though their new lives would be all they'd ever dreamed of, simply because they had a new nose, or maybe even a boob job. I saw a woman on Oprah who had gastric bypass surgery and lost a ton of weight, but she still looked miserable. I wondered what would happen if things didn't go right afterwards. What if someone's life sucked after the nip-tuck? I wrote Make Me Hot.
Now, not all of my books were fashioned after real life events. I have birthed story ideas that were not sparked in this way, but I think it's funny that no matter how amazing or outrageous of a story we could ever make up, it's probably been done before, or it could be. It's just that most of us would never have the opportunity or misfortune to live it. And so readers turn to us authors to write fiction novels so they can live vicariously through someone else by simply turning the pages.
Yesterday, I heard of a new show on CBS called The Good Wife, about a good woman who had a philandering, famous husband involved in a sex scandal. "Excellent idea producers," I said. My 2011 novel is about escorts and politics, and yes, my ears perk up every time I hear yet another story about some politician who felt entitled, who felt he could get away with, who felt he just had to have it all. The human instinct and human boundaries are very interesting. Greed and temptation and sex and murder and money and power, all make for the types of stories that made Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and so many other shows so successful. And yet, it's happening all over the world, probably down the street, probably in the homes of more people than we think.
I know you can give ten authors the same subject of escorts and they'll come up with ten different stories. Simply having a topic does not make for an easy write. But, I'm wondering where other writers get their story ideas from as well. At times, it's surely a gift that pops into our heads and we write it down, or a title that moves us so we add it to the list. But, what moves us to write "that story" next? It's probably indescribable. But it's a question that readers often ask me. I'm curious as to where my fellow authors get their story ideas, and what makes that story the one.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Just five minutes for a quickie fact check, I tell myself.
Fast-forward two hours and I’ve not only accomplished my goal, but I’m up to date on the latest celebrity news and have two pairs of new shoes on the way.
Damn you, internet! You suck me in every time.
I’ve tried self-control, and it just doesn’t work for me. The ability to cyber-visit anywhere on earth at anytime is simply too seductive.
Shutting down the net at my house is a no-can-do. I’m not the only one who lives here.
Running away is no longer an option, because WiFi is readily available at hotels, coffee shops and libraries. Even McDonald’s (I also have no french fry self-control, but I digress).
My internet solution?
I tell my beloved MacBook good-bye as the hubby wedges it between the leaf blower and the lawnmower in the garage storage room. The whole “spiders in there” thing guarantees I won’t sneak back to retrieve it.
Then I break out my ancient, outdated laptop. It can handle word-processing and little else. The screen isn’t as big or as bright, but after a few moments of beating on that worn keyboard I’m in the writing zone.
Fact-checking? I make a note on a pad and keep writing.
I won’t lie. I miss e-mail, Twitter and popping by my favorite romance novel and beauty blogs. However, the longing subsides as my story takes hold of me and my character’s world becomes my world.
Well, I’ve shared how I battle the lure of the net. How do you balance surfing and writing?
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
A few interesting things happened during GenCon this year.
>The art director for a game publisher apologized to me for the cover of To Ride the Chimera. He had been in the art department of WizKids when it was designed and -- though he was not directly involved -- knew the dull and static composition had nothing to do with the combat, action and intrigue within. He'd known the image was completely wrong for the target market (it is) and would hurt sales (it did); he had felt bad about doing nothing to change it when he had the chance ever since.
>I signed forty or fifty autographs and listened while people explained what they liked and did not like about my work.
>I was part of a group of male writers thanked by young women dressed as Japanese school girls, faeries, or warrior princesses for being the only men at the convention who did not make passes at them.
>I attended freelancers' briefings; meetings at which game developers tell writers interested in pitching stories what it is they're looking for in the coming year. (These usually happen after things wind down in the convention center -- writers jotting notes from 11PM to 2AM.)
>I was on panels for aspiring writers and panels for writers aspiring to write for some of the IPs I sell to.
>I introduced myself to a couple of game developers whose properties I admire.
>I reread two stories I'd written in 2004 and hadn't seen since (discovering several things I would now do differently in the process) because they were in an anthology that received an award and I needed to be able to discuss them intelligently.
None of these things had anything to do with writing as a craft. All of them (from going out of my way to cultivate/learn new markets to helping new writers learn the ropes to conducting myself professionally to the point catgirls notice) had to do with the business of being a writer.
Because writing for a living, publishing, is a business. There's nothing wrong with this, nothing "pure" about writing for art's sake or pursuit of the perfect story. Or sentence. A sculptor can use wood and metal to produce art with the power to affect observers long after they've left the museum for their everyday lives. A furniture maker can use those same materials to produce comfortable chairs and useful tables that people will value as part of their everyday lives. To my mind being a professional writer -- a person who writes for a living -- has more to do with cabinetry than art.
When I teach creative writing -- and I don't yet, but will after I complete my MFA -- my text for teaching the craft of writing will be Jerry Weinberg’s The Fieldstone Method. But I will require my students who intend to write professionally to study Larry Winget's It's Called Work for a Reason as well. This short book (less than 60,000 words) is on business management, not writing, but its subtitle tells the whole story: Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault. I didn't come across this book until last year and wished I'd found it a decade ago. (Which would have been a neat trick; Winget wrote it in 2007.) It would have saved me a few novels' worth of false starts and wasted time. The fundamental concepts that enable an entrepreneur to succeed in business or a manager to succeed within a corporation enable writers who write for a living to actually earn a living writing.
Writers who write -- as opposed to authors who intend to write -- treat their writing like the job it is. They show up on time, stick with the task until it's done, then move on to the next project. When dealing with customers or management or coworkers (readers, editors, and other writers) they are straightforward and honest; keeping their word and doing what they are supposed to do to specs and on time.
Because success as a writer does not rest solely on literary talent. Of course the ability to create and tell a tale is seminal; and the craftsmanship and guile to tell the tale well are vital. Don't want to downplay the importance of any of that. But it's discipline and integrity and courtesy and the willingness to pay it forward -- to help others -- that marks the professional writer.
When I sat down to write the opening scene for my newest work-in-progress, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pictured myself in a crowded locker room after an NFL game. Having an uncle who’s coached in the NFL for nearly 30 years, I’m lucky enough to have visited a few locker rooms and have first hand experience on which to draw on. I shut everything else out of my mind and spent nearly ten minutes concentrating on that experience, remembering the smell, recalling how loud it got with players giving interviews. I tried to remember everything I could.
I then put my characters in that locker room. The entire scene I was about to write played like a movie in my brain. It wasn't until after this exercise that I was able to put fingers to keyboard and type.
You see, I’m a storyteller. It wasn't until a few months ago while attending a workshop given by my fellow Austin RWA members, Tracy Wolff and Shellee Roberts, that I understood exactly what this meant. Their workshop on Storytellers versus Writers opened my eyes to a dichotomy in writing I didn't realize existed. I truly thought all writers “saw” their stories in their head before writing it. But that’s not so.
I learned that some authors, those who are more writers than storytellers, concentrate on constructing the perfect sentence, making sure the words fit. Jane Q. Storyteller, on the other hand, is more concerned with what makes her characters tick.
The presenters offered several strengths and weaknesses of storytellers and writers:
Storytellers are stronger at creating memorable characters, worldbuilding and looking at the big picture. But they can be weaker when it comes to the craft of writing (umm…check out my previous post on my craft book obsession. I guess this is the reason I’m so drawn to them).
Writers are great with language, complex plot lines, and hammering out those nitty gritty details, but when it comes to looking at the big picture or visualizing the long term arc for a series, they’re not as comfortable as storytellers.
Writers are great with language, complex plot lines, and hammering out those nitty gritty details, but when it comes to looking at the big picture or visualizing the long term arc for a series, they’re not as comfortable as storytellers.
Of course, there is a little of both in all of us. There comes a point when I toil over a sentence, making sure I get it just right. It just comes much later in my story creation process. For me, the most important thing is getting the images I see on the movie reel in my head down on paper. I’m a storyteller, through and through.
Tracy and Shellee’s workshop was fabulously presented, and, in my opinion, should be taken on the road. It was so interesting to have the differences spelled out and to hear other writers and storytellers discuss how they go about creating a story. My writing has benefitted from being aware of what both my strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller, and focusing on honing those skills that come naturally to writers.
So, the obvious question is, are you a writer or a storyteller?
Monday, August 17, 2009
I’d like to talk about in-person book signings and why they are important to an author’s career. Not only are you promoting your current book, but you are promoting yourself as sort of a consumable commodity. ;)
Recently I visited Sherrilyn Kenyon during her book tour of Bad Moon Rising. This was the third individual signing for which I personally have been in attendance, and the fifth total I’ve seen her do, counting the two literacy signings at RWA Nationals. Each time I’ve seen more and more fans line up, dress up and put up their hard earned money for one of Sherrilyn’s awesome books – well worth the money, in case you haven’t read one of her masterpieces.
Yes, Sherrilyn writes amazing stories, but the question remains, would her fans be so devoted to her if she didn’t reach out to them in such a personal way? What do you suppose the odds are that a reader picked up one of her books because a fellow reader brought them along to one of Sherrilyn’s signings? I’d say, very likely. With readers, word of mouth beats any kind of advertising a writer could pay for.
Carol Ericson, an author of category romantic suspense, had this to say about book singing exposure: “. . . Book signings are good just to get your name out there . . . and get you picture on a poster in the book store . . .”
Part of Sherrilyn’s successful signings is that she takes time before the actual signing to talk to the crowd. She shares a bit about interesting things that have happened on the tour, she answers questions about what’s up for future characters, and she always has giveaway goodies — buttons, bookmarks, posters, postcards, etc. This time she gave away an ARC (advance reader's copy) of a book coming out in a few months. What a treasure for a devoted fan!
Trish Albright, a romantic adventure novelist, had this to say about what else to bring to your book signing: “ . . .Make sure you have something free to hand them that represents your book.” Skhye Moncrief, who writes fantasy/supernatural romance, likes to bring chocolate to her signings. She says with tongue in cheek: “Food draws them in.”
During my conversation with Sherrilyn, I asked her what her dream book tour would be:
"Anywhere the fans are, because it would suck if I was there by myself."
Still feeling too shy to do a book signing? Here’s something you may not know: Some readers are shy as well. How wonderful it is that the books we write can bring people together that would otherwise not have spoken to one another in a different situation.
I hope I've motivated you to do a signing, whether a single event or multiple city book tour, by yourself, or with a few other authors. And spread the word — market the heck out of the event — which I'm sure will be another blog for another time.
—Genella deGrey writes historical romance. She'd love for you to visit her website: www.genelladegrey.com
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Too much information.
The writers of the article I read on Jada’s, um, sharing, seemed to feel she tends to say too much about topics that ought not be talked about. In other words, we all know you’re married to Big Willie and that the man is fine as all get out. Talented, too. But we don’t need to know the details of your daily showers or what you did on the way to the show.
At least, that’s how I interpreted their reaction. But what about yours? What’s TMI for you? I know a heap of readers who wouldn’t bat an eye at Jada’s blabbering. What’s written in a lot of popular books is far more graphic than what she said (and maybe than what they actually did. . .).
I’m a romance writer and as such, love, intimacy and sex are integral components of my work. But within the romance genre there are degrees of, shall we say, expression, that cater to varied reader preferences. There are those who don’t want to read “all that” in their story. For them, sweet romances – where the loving takes place off page – are probably best.
The scale escalates from there, topping off with Romantica, a hybrid of romance and erotica; graphic sex scenes wrapped in a happily-ever-after story. Some people do like to read “all that.” To each his own.
For me, I never set out to be a romance writer. However, I sold my paranormal story of a relationship to a romance publisher (Where Souls Collide to Dorchester) and I had to catch on to the rules pretty quick. I remember my edits from Monica on that first book and they were few. Namely, move a break up forward several chapters and spice up the relationship.
That took a whole lot of Eric Benet, Maxwell, Luther and an RWA craft class on the twelve steps to intimacy in writing. Simply throwing in sex scenes would have made the relationship feel fake or forced. Dropping them in outside an intimate context might also give the scenes that TMI feel. Like, where did this come from? And then pages later, the reader would wonder how the scenes fit into the overall story, would there be more, or why was the sex there to begin with.
Crafting love scenes in a story takes a lot of work for me. Some of my scenes are off-the-page and with others I elaborate a little more. Most of them get penned after I finish the story. Building the fictional relationship that sustains my stories’ sex scenes requires careful plotting, placement of nuances, and an escalating level of tension. I don’t take this aspect of my characters’ development any less seriously than I do the overall paranormal element. I want people to believe not only in the supernatural I present, but in the twisty happily-ever-after, too.
One of the compliments I received on Where Souls Collide was that Navena and Maxwell’s moments felt well-timed. I appreciated that comment. I worked very hard to make that event seem spontaneous and authentic. Not only were the characters ready, but the reader was ready as well.
Maybe that’s why reading about Jada and Will somewhere in a backseat feels awkward; because it hits you between news of Tiger Woods’ latest win, North Korea’s threats and the best summer hairstyles. Such intimacy so out of context can quickly become too much information.
Friday, August 14, 2009
As we talked about her future and what this decision would truly mean, it became clear to me that she was really worried about this new life and afraid of stepping into a new arena. I'm very direct and honest. Being me, I came right out and told her that she was afraid. I then reassured her that it was fine to be worried, to have fears. I went on to tell her, the first thing she needed to do was acknowledge her fears, draw them into the light, examine them, and finally move past them. I cautioned her against allowing the voice of fear to control and make decisions for her. After offering advice on ways to approach going back to school, courses to take to prepare her for this new venture, including making the most of her local library and offering my support and help, Val now possessed the ammunition needed to tackle the future.
Once we were done talking, I sat back and thought about how fear has the power to influence our lives. Like all emotions, fear has a unique and important role to play. It keeps us safe, alert, and cautious. Unfortunately, there is a down side to this emotion. Sometimes it paralyzes us and keeps us from our goals. It makes us question our abilities and skills, who we are, and what we can accomplish. The spirit of fear has destroyed many an aspiration and promising career.
Val's dilemma was not unique and it made me think about writing and how easy it would be to allow my fears to keep me from doing something I truly enjoy. Like a mist that moves in and showers everything in its path, fear has the ability to seep into each and every part of our life and take over. My philosophy - fight it. Don't allow one emotion to win and keep you from the things you desire or from living the best possible life. We all deserve a good, fulfilling, and rewarding life.
Whether your passion is writing, music, or simply going back to school after a long hiatus, don't allow fear to control or destroy your future. Step up, take charge, and embrace the life you worked for and continue to do what makes you happy. Keep this thought in mind, you only have one life and you owe it to yourself to give it your best.
I always love to hear from writers and readers. Feel free to contact me on this topic or any other. You can reach me at email@example.com.
Remember, don't be a stranger.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I AM HAPPY. I’m living the American dream: the home, the car, 2.5 kids (well more like 2.7 if you consider the length of gestation). We can forget the dog (no way am I leaving my warm bed before dawn in the dead of winter to walk a dog). That’s what many people describe as a state of happiness isn’t it?
Well, what if I didn’t have these things? What if tomorrow the home, the car, my spouse, my kids were taken from me, would I still be happy? The answer is yes. It will definitely hurt beyond measure (especially the family) but I would still be happy.
I didn’t always have these things. There was a time before the marriage, before the home, before the car and before the kids and I was still happy. I grew up in a developing country with my seven siblings dependent on the sole, sometimes unpredictable salary of a self-employed carpenter. Many of my clothes were inherited from two or more of my four older sisters. I often got teased about wearing ‘70s fashion in the ‘80s. There were no toys at Christmas (or birthdays for that matter) and our primary mode of transportation was our feet. Yet I was happy. I look back with fond memories of my childhood: making toys out of coconut shells, bits of old wood and milk cans, cllimbing trees and playing games with my siblings. It didn’t matter if we had much or little, we were happy.
As a young adult struggling to push myself through college in a foreign country (The USA), and later enduring the stress graduate school, I recall being happy. Getting a million and one rejections while trying to publish my novel, I was happy. Even while lying in a hospital bed with complications from childbirth, I recall being happy, thankful that both me and my premature infant were alive. Why? Happiness is a state of mind.
In “A Marriage of Convenience” when Tamara after being jilted, losing her job and is on the verge of losing her home complains to Kwabena that she had very little to be happy about this last year, his response was, “Happiness should be in spite of, not because of.” It is a mantra that I have adopted for most of my life. I don’t know if I coined that phrase or if I heard it from some wise old soul while still in my youth, but it makes sense to me.
We cannot control the circumstances of life. We can’t always control how others would treat us. We can’t always control our employment, our family life or even our health. The only thing we have total control over, is how we react to the circumstances of our life: our attitude… our outlook on life. We can choose (of course there are exceptions) to be happy, in spite of our current situations.
So when you receive that next rejection letter from a publisher (or literary agent) and I know we’ve all received more than we care to mention, or your books don't sell as well as you anticipated, don’t get discouraged or depressed. When we receive that bad news that we were dreading, or our health takes a turn for the worst, we can mourn for a while but still be happy. Choose to be happy in spite of it. Remember, HAPPINESS is intrinsic and only you can decide if you will be happy.
I often hear folks say, "I'll be happy when...(fill in the blank) I get a new job; a get a car; I graduate college; I get married; my thirty-something year old finally leaves home..." Well that day may never come. But we can choose to be happy today. There is an old saying I love, "Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, that's why we simply call it the present." With that said we need not put off happiness (or joy) for when we have accomplished our goal.
I recall my first trip to San Francisco. I was coming straight from New York City where I was accustomed to homeless panhandlers accosting me, then cursing if I ignored them. In San Francisco I met a homeless panhandler who asked me for money. He was smiling and pleasant, and looked genuinely happy. Being a struggling college student with barely enough to pay the train fare back to Palo Alto, I told him I didn't have money. He smiled and said have a nice day, then complimented me on my appearance. That time I thought he must be the happiest homeless man in San Francisco, until I went around the corner and met another with the same demeanour. These people were happy in spite of their situation. I doubt they were waiting until they found a home to be happy.
So the two points I really want to drive home about happiness: 1) it is a choice; 2) we need not put off being happy. So to quote the words of one of my favorite childhood Sunday school songs: "The time to be happy is now, and the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others happy and we'll have a little heaven down here."
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I think that if erotic romance has taught me anything, it's how important the sex scenes are in a book. They might not give away a deep dark plot secret (or maybe they might), but they certainly give a very good insight into the characters involved. In fact, for scenes that are so explicit, so naked, so provocative, the message they send can be very subtle indeed.
Who takes their pleasure first, for example? If all you do with a novel is read one scene where the man pounds the woman into the mattress and then falls asleep, that tells you a lot about him and his character, doesn't it? You can almost imagine how he dresses, what he does when he comes home, and who his priorities revolve around. Depending on how his partner reacts to such treatment, that tells you a lot about her too, and the dynamics of their relationship.
When do the clothes come off? If they're still on by the end of the scene, we could be talking deception (one of the characters has a physical mark or flaw that s/he wants to hide) or impatience (they can't wait to get their hands on each other!). How did the characters feel about that? Guilty, in which case we can surmise that such behaviour is not usually indulged by that person? Excited, so the character may be a bit staid, but is coming to the realisation that there's more to life that crown and country?
What if one of the male characters says all the right things in public and then behaves atrociously towards his partner in the bedroom? Well, we can obviously draw the conclusion that the man is a duplicitous scoundrel, regardless of how much he may have crowed about supporting several charities in the preceding chapters. In essence, stripping the clothes from a character also strips away the masks s/he usually wears in society. Add another person -- or two! -- to the mix and it provides the writer with an opportunity to delve into the character's strengths and weaknesses from a different perspective, helping to round her/him out.
So, to me, sex scenes serve to add another extremely important dimension to the book's characters. And -- and here's the interesting thing -- the characters don't have to say a single word in order to convey any of this. By their actions alone, we are able to add a few more pieces to the puzzle of their personalities. I think that's what's so attractive, and also so challenging, to me when I write sex scenes. They are hard to do (no pun intended!). In fact, I hate writing them, especially when I get caught up in the mechanics of it and wonder how many different ways I can say 'penis' or 'vagina'. But, I also appreciate the challenge of trying to translate a character's personality into their behaviour during sex. Because, in that way, I hope I'm adding a little more depth to the person .... but you're never going to see it if you never read it.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
On Writing by Stephen King:
I learned from King's recounting of his years spent collecting rejection slips that those little forms are not symbols for "Failed Writer". You place the slip in the appropriate file and move on.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
Mr. Pressfield wrote this book for me. He turns a spotlight on writers' block in all its manifestations: fear, resistance, procrastination, obsessiveness, self-dramatization, self-medication, victimhood, self-doubt, toxic relationships, support (yes, you read that right), and rationalization. Then he tells you how to combat it all, and his recommendation is simple: You turn pro. How does a professional approach his work? Apply the same principles to your writing and see the difference.
"A professional shows up every day."
"A professional demystifies."
"A professional acts in the face of fear."
"A professional does not show off."
"A professional self-validates."
There's lots more, and it's all written with the authority that comes only from first-hand experience, aka the school of hard knocks.
Page After Page by Heather Sellers:
Here's another writer who demystifies. She knows that declarations like 'waiting for my muse' are nothing but lame excuses. "It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to paper." No hocus-pocus there.
What else did she teach me? To talk less about writing, and write more. That except for a very few lucky souls, being published (finally!) does not change your life. You won't be rich and famous, loved and admired by everyone, rail-thin and immune to chocolate binges. You'll still have to deal with all your bumps and warts; those don't disappear once you get published.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White:
This book gives great advice on the fine points of usage, common errors, and style. There was little in there I didn't already know after having taught the language for 22 years, but that slim book clarified something vital I had hitherto understood only superficially: the US version of my mother tongue is a very different beast from the UK version I was taught.
I've got two more books on writing lined up: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the title of which has just the sort of new-agey tone I'm a sucker for. (Did someone mention the word demystify?) Next to it on my bedhead bookshelf is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I'll be sure to let you know what I learn from those in a later post.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Recently I’ve been cleaning house, metaphorically and for real. In the process of clearing out the past you have to look at a lot of it, often more than you’d like. As I’ve made my way through tattered memories, I found fragments of a life I’d lived before, a life I grew into in some ways, and in others am just finding my way.
I found old photos of my workspace over the years and almost laughed to see how much it’s grown to dominate my life, into a full wall of my living space. From a few pictures on the wall over a small antique desk, my writing space has grown into an environment, a sort of Stargate into my own head.
What I have today is the luxury of living alone, a rarity in the 21st Century. It affords me a work area that I don’t have to break down at the end of my day, a room of my own. Don’t hate me because I am too set in my ways to let anyone into my life or loft. A few friends manage to make their way past my door. Those that survive are...occasionally welcomed back.
Of course I’m kidding. None of them survive.
But seriously. I like to work at night. It’s past the business hour, and all my friends are asleep, and when I drop into my own little world no one is awake to disturb me. I used to joke that I was feeding off my neighbor’s dreams, and there is an odd truth to that. You see things as you walk up and down your street that sift into your mind and come back up at the oddest times. Moods, anxieties, triumphs, joy...all work their way across your blank page as you stare at it, trying to see enough in your head to put down on the page.
I used to attribute my success to the surroundings. If I just had the right desk, the right pen, the right typewriter, as I bought my Mont Blanc, my IBM Selectric, my first Mac...I wrote on a 19th Century reproduction of a 13th century colonnade table I found in what could generously be called an antique store on Amsterdam Avenue in the 1970s. At $300 it seemed an extravagance at the time, but I still work on it to this day, buried behind an extension for my keyboard and side tables to support printer and hard drives.
The handful of pictures taped to the wall to inspire me has grown into a wall wide collage of any book I am currently working on, soon to be changed now that Blood Pressure has been put to press for release next year. My reference books sit within easy reach to the left in a floor to ceiling bookcase it took me decades to achieve. My chair is comfy and I can sit in it for hours without even realizing I am sitting in a chair, which is the best chair of all.
The black wall came in when I finished the work on the bookcases -- it was a way to suspend the images in front of me in a neutral field that extended to infinity, with no boundaries. I don’t even look at the pictures much once the writing begins -- it’s more like their gestalt presence informs the work, creates a mood that focuses the story each time I sit down.
Sound good? Try explaining to friends who come by and want to plop down in your seat and check their e-mail that they’re farting into your holy of holies, or tell friends who see your growing collages as awfully like the ones they saw in that movie on cable the other night, you know, the one about the serial killer?
It wasn’t me.
There are good sides and bad sides to any working situation, whether your writing space is big or small, temporary or permanent. You don’t find the time to write, you make it, as I am making time now, after a late night party, suddenly realizing the sun is creeping up on me and it’s time to get some sleep before brunch...and you don’t find the space to write, you make it.
The trick is to realize that the real writing space is between your ears. No matter what your luxuries or limitations are (and there’s a cupola on top of an old mansion nearby I would love to go to each day to write, with a warm pot of tea -- no matter how good my space sounds to you, we all have a fantasy of trading up...) what you write is dependent on only one thing -- you.
Not the right time, the right space, the right tool. Just the right headset to make sure that anywhere you are the best damn place in the world to write. Lately, I find pleasure in taking my laptop to the bar of a nearby restaurant and eating brunch while I work. I get to listen in on the people around me, and also use tuning them out to focus better. I love my desk at night, but writing is also about -- well, sometimes getting a little “strange,” as the “guys” would say, taking your work out of your comfort zone physically as well as mentally, and reminding yourself that you can still write without the props -- and without a safety net. It’s scary...
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Q. Susan, thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to answer a few questions for Novel Spaces. Please define for us the qualities a successful fiction manuscript must possess before you will take it on.
A. Whether the manuscript is literary fiction or romance or mystery or any genre in between, the voice has to literally grab me by the throat. The surety of the author, his or her vision, the clarity of conviction in the writing must shine through in the writing. Thus the novel can be about anything at all so long as the author knows clearly the story he or she must tell. If this is so, that the motive for telling the story is clearly driven by the writer's need to write it, everything else falls in place.
Q. If you were asked by a struggling writer to recommend five or more brilliant works of fiction as must-reads, i.e., novels they could really learn something from, which ones would you recommend?
A. I am passionate about writing and thus in answering this question I don't intend to limit or exclude any writer. I have found that there is something to be learned from each writer's work, each piece, and that writers often tell me what they themselves learn from writing or especially in the rewriting of a manuscript. And, my answer is subject to change tonight depending on discovery of the next great work. Therefore in no way does this response exclude any writer or any book. Nor are my choices limited to clients' work. My answer is framed by my answer above, that is, below are novels which clearly exhibit the author's voice, that can be written by no other writer, and without a title page, without any identification, one could say this novel was written by this writer. Good examples but not exclusively these novels come to mind as great, sure, clear, confident writing voices:
Michael Ondaatje - In the Skin of a Lion
Marilynne Robinson - Home or Gilead
David Wroblewski - The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Jonathan Safran Foer - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
John Irving - A Widow for One Year
Janet Evanovich - the Stephanie Plum series
Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth
Friday, August 7, 2009
Boy, was I wrong. When I began to submit, first stories and then queries for novels, I discovered many rules and practices I took for granted did not apply in the fiction world.
Major lesson number 1: Fiction publishing lags behind nonfiction publishing in technology. I was shocked to find that I often needed to send queries, and sometimes even short stories, by snailmail. I hadn't submitted nonfiction on paper since 1994.
Major lesson number 2: Fiction publishers are much pickier about margins, typefaces, spacing, and other formatting matters, sometimes posting on their Web sites long, detailed lists of rules for formatting a manuscript. Nonfiction editors, on the other hand, are usually happy if a manuscript arrives on time, complete, double-spaced, and close to the right length.
Major lesson number 3: Different work environments have created different sets of manners. Fiction book editors and short story magazine editors seem incredibly overworked compared with the editors at the many nonfiction magazines I've written for. Probably as a result, fiction editors sometimes answer emails slowly or not at all, and they tend to discourage phone calls. Unsigned form-letter rejections, complete with typos, are common and not considered rude.
Major lesson number 4: "New and different" doesn't mean "new and different." An editor who says she's looking for a fantasy novel that's "new and different" actually wants yet another dark novel with a Tough-Talking Kick-Butt Vampire Fighter in High Heels, but with a slight twist.
Major lesson number 5: Most short-story venues reject stories rather than ask for edits. In the nonfiction world, writers expect magazines to edit their pieces and ask for changes. Short-story magazines, being understaffed (see lesson number 3), instead often prefer to reject stories that need tweaks in hopes that the next story in the slush pile, or perhaps the one after that, will be perfect.
In no way am I bashing the fiction market. The nonfiction magazine world has its own unspoken conventions that confound newbies. I discover new ones each time a friend asks my advice about submitting a nonfiction article to a magazine and her assumptions surprise me.
Nonfiction writers who want to write fiction should seriously consider joining a professional association (such as Women in Crime or Romance Writers of America) as well as a critique group that contains a more advanced fiction writer. The differences between nonfiction and fiction publishing are sometimes great, sometimes subtle, but they definitely exist, and the best way to learn the conventions and practices of the fiction world is to have someone with more experience as a guide.
My next Novel Spaces post will be August 23. Come back then and learn how the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop creates better writers. See you later!
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Some believe the natural law of sexual intercourse was for purposes of procreation within marriage for formation of the family unit. The male has an orgasm and if all goes well, the woman gets pregnant. Her orgasm (IF she had one) was intended to aid him, and to assist the meeting of the sperm and the egg. Times have changed, though beliefs still linger in our heads that cause much guilt. All and all, the bottom line is, without sex, all else simply isn't. It's how we all got here, yet it's such a hush-hush subject. Though it is, pleasurable.
In November of 2008, I released my first erotica book, Erotic City, under the name Pynk. I knew that I could not simply write a book in the genre of erotica that's just sex, sex, sex - a writer must have well-developed characters, risk, conflict, and all of the pieces of the puzzle that make for a great story. In spite of those who say sex sells, an erotica book won't sell if you don't work hard to develop the story, and make sure that the sex scenes reveal a lot about the characters; how they react to sex, whether or not they talk in bed (or in the backseat), do they take the lead, scream, give, receive, are they repressed, etc. All of these actions should tell a reader about the individuals themselves.
Erotic City revolves around a woman who owns a swingers club, yet I didn't write a book about swinging. I wrote about the lives of swingers. The second book, Sexaholics, is about four women who are addicted to sex. Sex addiction, just like alcohol or gambling, is an illness. Writing the book required a lot of research to develop each character's specific arc. I even attended a few Sexaholics meetings just to learn as much as I could. For me, writing erotica is fun, yet just as challenging and just as much work as my mainstream titles. It still requires adherence to craft.
During my erotica talks, we do discuss my characters, but also, men and women also ask about sex toys, swinging, cyber-sex, oral sex, squirting, etc. The ones who start out looking reserved and shy, eventually tend to let their hair down. I love it when we can talk openly amongst each other about such important, yet still taboo subjects. Especially women, because we've been taught to not embrace our sexuality, that we won't get a husband if we're not "good" girls who save themselves for marriage, even though we desire to enjoy ourselves to the fullest extent, too. After all, bodies are built for pleasure. I try to encourage readers to be sexually confident, and remind them that whether they're alone, married, committed, single, gay, straight, whatever; to be mindful of protecting themselves through safe sex, first and foremost. Healthy sex amongst consenting adults can be a beautiful thing, and it's really no else's business. It basically depends upon one's spiritual and moral beliefs, and one size does not fit all.
I hope that through my erotica writing, I can give readers a peek into what it's like to live lives that are considered risque or erotic. I try to allow folks a voyeuristic view into the daily lives of my characters - living through them even though most times we wouldn't dare, and maybe heat up the libido of a reader or two. I always joke that reading erotica does not equate to freak-hood, :-) any more than writing erotica does. In the meantime, I hope that we women, especially, take time to live our sexy dreams. To me, as a writer, that would be orgasmic!
Here are a few books that Oprah recently recommended about sex. Please feel free to check them out. Smooches!
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
I’d sent off a handful of poems to Seventeen magazine with high hopes and a self-addressed stamped envelope (the good ole SASE as I fondly came to know it.) A couple of months later, I opened the mailbox and saw the familiar dropped-letter type of my dad’s manual typewriter across the front of an envelope: my SASE. Inside was a curt form letter that told me my poems weren’t what the magazine was looking for. Oh, I was so crushed.
My dad happened to catch my distraught expression, asked what was wrong, and cajoled the confession from me. I’d failed, I felt, in my attempt to pursue my heart’s desire. But he smiled and told me that most people never have the nerve to even try. He said he was proud of me just for making the effort.
That planted the seed that got me started because that’s when I got my mind right about this writing thing. From that point on, I tried differently, I believed differently, I hungered differently. After the Seventeen incident, I looked into ways to bring the dream to life. I chose to pursue a journalism degree and circled the world of corporate communications for 15 years dabbling in freelance writing for national publications, newspaper and broadcast reporting, entering poetry contests. I guess you could say I was watering the dream seed.
And now that my seeds of fancy have blossomed and begun to bear fruit – a novel, two novellas and a WIP I absolutely love – I enjoy sharing words of encouragement with those who are still struggling to start, still staggered by rejection, unsure whether they can really do this. If that’s you, today is your chance to join me and Farrah Rochon on Twitter for Ask Romance Writer Day organized by Joanna D’Angelo and Kim Castillo.
All you have to do is login to Twitter and tweet me at www.twitter.com/stefanieworth or Farrah at www.twitter.com/FarrahRochon. Include #askromancewriter in your 140 characters so we can track the day’s flow. Ask us whatever you’d like to know about the craft of writing, fitting your dream into your life, how it feels to be published, whatever. We'll tweet you back. No Twitter account? Feel free to ask us here.