Friday, April 30, 2010

How I bang my head against my fist and a book comes out

When my CP Tawna Fenske asked if I wanted to blog about my writing “process,” I first thought, People really want to know how I bang my head against my fist?

Then it occurred to me that what she actually meant is my map for how to go from the blank page with that taunting cursor to The End.

How I do it is probably not like anybody else does it. Tawna’s way is different. Nelsa Roberto, my CP as well, has another way. Several phenomenally talented authors agreed to share theirs. When you’re done with me, be sure to visit Tawna and Nelsa, along with Sean Ferrell, Linda Grimes, and Kiersten White to learn what works for them.

I am a control freak. I plot everything. That’s not saying the final MS turns out anything like what I originally plotted. That’s just saying I can’t go to the grocery store without plugging it into my GPS. I gotta know where I’m headed.

The Idea Stage: (Nano-second) I hear a song, an anecdote, a news item or experience some random act of life and think, Hmmm, what if …? Since I’m usually knee-deep in another story, I promptly go to my Word document of story ideas and write it down.

The Rolling It Around In My Head Stage: (anywhere from days to years) I figure out a few things, like characters and conflict.

The Movie Synopsis Stage: (An hour max) I write down a short synopsis of what happens. I write it like I’m telling a friend about a movie. Yes, I’m a freak who writes a synop before I write the MS.

The Mall-Map-of-Life Synopsis Stage: (An hour max and proof that I really am a freak) I write another synop, concentrating on the character arc. My heroine starts out HERE (maybe without a backbone), and she ends up OVER YONDER (backbone firmly in place.) I pull out specific plot points to illustrate her growth.

The Write-the-1st-3-Chapters: (a week to a month) This is where I really let the characters breathe and realize, Hey, my heroine has a dog.

The Plot-it-Within-an-Inch-of-its-Life Stage: (an afternoon) I calculate total pages, divide them into chapters, and plot out each chapter in a sentence. And now I can write!

Yes. I am a mutant.

On a good day, I can churn out a chapter a day, which is about 12 pages. I send that to any willing CP who’s not neck deep in a deadline, and I start a new chapter.

Tawna will say, “OK, this is good, but what does your hero look like? Is he hawt? Cuz this is supposed to be, yanno, a romance.”

I remind her that I’m trying to write an inspirational romance, which only marginally shuts her up.

Nelsa will say, “OK, this is good, but what’s your character’s motivation? What makes her want to grow a backbone?” Nelsa is probably the inventor of the old saw about how many shrinks it takes to change a light bulb.*

I go back and rethink my hero's looks and my heroine's motivation, and send my CPs my next chapter.

I revise at the end, unless they tell me I’ve really gone off the rails. The chapter-by-chapter critique helps me stay focused and know when something’s not working. That’s when I scrap the whole thing and say, “Hello, Square One.”

While it’s heavy on plotting, it works for me. I’ve tried pantsering, and I just get lost. And it’s not pretty when I’m lost. Just ask The Husband.

But my way is not the only way. My way may drive you up the wall. Tell me how you do it, and then visit these fine folks!

Tawna Fenske (romantic comedy)
Sean Ferrell (literary fiction)
Linda Grimes (light paranormal mystery)
Nelsa Roberto (young adult)
Kiersten White (young adult)

*The answer to the joke: it depends. Does the light bulb want to change?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I'm shocked, I tell ya!

Shocked at how many good things have happened this week!

1) My new proposal has been with my editor for, lemme see, just over 41 hours (but who's counting?) and she hasn't e-mailed me back with, "You're kidding, right? Send me the real proposal."

2) The Kiddo won Third Place in a regional writing competition (we're talking 40 schools, folks) for an essay about a hero in her life.

3) Turns out, that hero? It's me! (The Husband is pouting about this.)

4) Tomorrow, thanks to my CP Tawna Fenske, we will have an impromptu blog chain about how we write -- and I'm joined by some phenomenally talented writers: Tawna, Sean Ferrell (who is repped by THE Janet Reid and has a book, NUMB, coming out this fall. Go. Preorder. NOW.), Linda Grimes (who is repped by THE Michelle Wolfson), Nelsa Roberto (whose book ILLEGALLY BLONDE is out now. Go. Order. NOW.), and Kiersten White (whose book PARANORMALCY may just make us all say, Stephanie who?? Go. Preorder. NOW.)

We'll all be taking turns on our own blogs, telling you how we do what we do. So stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It never gets any easier

Well, I take that back. Maybe if you're Nora Roberts or Dan Brown. But I can tell you that most, if not all, the published authors that I know fear submitting a proposal as much as they ever did pre-pubbed.

Maybe even more.

I still remember the day that I got a call about my second and third sale. "I'm not a fluke!" I screamed to my sister. "I am NOT a fluke!"

I even confessed that to my editor at the time, and she chuckled. "Nope, you're not a fluke."

Despite all that, sometimes, lots of times, we writers feel like flukes. This next book proposal, that's when the editors will discover it. This next book release, yeah, they gotta figure it out sooner or later.

And when it comes to actually sending those proposals in, oh, my. I, at least, obsess. Is it perfect? Is it as good as I can humanly get it? Will she like it?

My current editor graciously agreed to "edit across the lines" and take a look at my new proposal -- the one that I had ready to go. The line editor, the big cheese, has said she is willing to take a look at a new-old author -- my term for an author who was pubbed in a different line, but is brand new to the line she's hoping to be pubbed in.

So yesterday I got a cheerful e-mail from my very cheerful editor who said, "Send it to me as an attachment, and I'll get it to her as quickly as I can."

Ooooh, but my finger hovered over that send button. The two were like opposing magnetic poles.

What won out? What made me hit that send button?


Hope. The same hope that every writer has, no matter what her publishing status is. Just plain old hope.

I've decided that hope is a true gift to get us over all sorts of obstacles. So hope. Go ahead and hope.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Kenny Chesney taught me about setting

OK, I won't limit it to just Kenny Chesney -- I've learned how to do a better job at setting from a lot of songwriters and performers. But The Kiddo loves Kenny Chesney, and this weekend we were in the car together, which meant that if I didn't want to listen to Hannah Montana, I had to do with Kenny Chesney.

I've always been impressed with really good songs, and how they tell a story in three minutes. A songwriter's job is a hard one --- he has to hook you and build a world in three minutes flat, and there is no such thing as a prologue in a song.

That world building comes from using specific details, details that are at once universal and at the same time rise above the mundane.

Quoting lyrics would be violating all sorts of copyright laws, so I can't do that. But I'll just take one song -- Summertime -- and mention a few details Chesney packs into a chorus. It's not one of my all-time favorite songs by him -- but it's one of the best when it comes to setting.

Chesney takes a few items, bare feet on a dashboard, cheap shades, and Yoo-Hoo, and strings them together into an image. I can see the sand-covered floorboards with that Yoo-Hoo bottle rolling around, a girl's bare feet with pink-painted toenails propped up on the dashboard, the girl herself in big oversized shades.

It's universal in that, since teenagers have been driving, most everyone has either experienced a scene very similar to it or witnessed it. But the Yoo-Hoo brings it up from the mundane, makes it fresh. It still fits ... but it's unexpected. It signals to the listener that the writer has been paying attention to life as it passed him by.

And that's important, paying attention to life. A writer is at first, I think, an observer. We have to boil something complex and big and broad down to its essence, and then we have to figure out how to see it from a different angle.

In addition to writing, I love taking photographs. The Husband would beg to differ, because I hardly ever have a camera in my hand when The Kiddo does something adorable. But in a past life, I was a photographer for a small newspaper chain, and I would go out and take feature pictures to fill "holes" in the pages.

Old barns were a favorite subject of mine. They didn't require any primping, they didn't put their hands in front of my lens and say, "not without my makeup!" They just sat there, moldering away, ready for me to capture them. I had readers tell me that they had never really noticed a particular old barn until I'd run a photo of it in the paper.

I figured out why they had missed the barn that I'd seen. I saw in (literally) a different light than they had -- maybe they passed it by on their morning commute or in dusky twilight. I saw the barn on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive.

That's a secret to setting: don't reach for just the obvious. Dig a little deeper, and find the one detail that lets readers know you have been there, done that. Find the detail that makes it real -- find your Yoo Hoo bottle.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tools Every (Woman) Writer Needs

And, no, it's not your laptop and an internet connection.

My gentlemen followers, you may or may not benefit from this post, but please don't take offense. This is how I see it, at least right now, with three full loads of laundry glowering at me from their baskets.

Let's face it. The woman's lot is not an easy one, even if she's not a writer. If she is a writer, her misery can be multiplied by a factor of ten. First off, she's still expected to tote her weary load (i.e., keep a clean house, her children and her hubby fed, her smile, her sense of humor. Her sanity, apparently, is optional.)

Secondly, writers tend to operate at a disadvantage to the rest of the population. We writers (well, many of us) focus on the neat and tidy homes of our characters (and their not-so-neat-and-tidy lives), blinded to the towers of clutter that sneak up on us. And that's not even counting the travesties that take place during the mad rush to meet an editor's gotta-have-these-revisions-in-two-weeks-you-don't-mind-do-you?

Husbands can get pretty fed up with dinners of cereal and pizza (hey, those olives count toward five servings of veggies!), though why, I don't know. I mean, sheesh, in high school, these same guys wouldn't touch a Brussels sprout, and now they actually demand them?

And children can go through clean clothes at an alarming rate. Then they squint at you in disbelief when their favorite capris are found to be at the bottom of the dirty clothes basket.

Fortunately, there are tools to help even the woman writer cope. They should be considered as essential as a laptop.

A Roomba: a little robotic vacuum that takes three times as long to do the job, but the coolness factor makes The Husband and The Kiddo think it free entertainment. Plus, a vacuumed floor makes the house look ten times neater.

A slow cooker: again, this gadget takes three times as long to do the job, but again, you don't have to stand over it while it's doing it. Plus, the soothing smell of a non-pizza dinner calms the savage beast -- er, I mean, The Husband.

A kitchen timer: somehow this critter doesn't raise my hackles as much as The Husband's, "You DO know what time it is. You DO know that it's a school night. You DO know we haven't eaten, and you DO know we don't want pizza. Again."

A washing machine with a timer delay: if you have it, use it. My favorite trick is to put the load of clothes on in the morning and set it so that it's done when The Husband and The Kiddo get home from work and school. The Husband doesn't mind shifting clothes from washer to dryer; it's the shifting of clothes from laundry hamper to washer that he minds.

Separate bins for laundry loads: It's amazing. People who can't figure out how to sort laundry when it's all in one basket can sort as they go. Saves ten minutes each wash day.

A Steamboy mop: This little gadget is a steam mop, very good for the environment as it uses no chemicals, just steam to clean. No more dragging mop and bucket, and it's about as lightweight as your average sponge mop. Again, the coolness factor will sometimes get The Husband and The Kiddo to pitch in.

Now, if I could just write that best-seller and be the next Dan Brown, I'd hire a housekeeper, and all my troubles would be over. But first I have to go mop the kitchen floor.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Awww

I couldn't have made it through this week without good friends -- consider yourselves hugged, especially Anne, whose birthday was Earth Day, and whose dog is very, very sick, and (not to sound like I'm in middle school) my BFF Tawna, who still talks to me even after I crit her WIP!

Thanks, too, to Medeia, who pinned the lovely award below on me -- may I live up to it!

And yes, BW and the fridge are still on the QT with their grand love affair. Am still stalking!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fingernail biting time

I should dig out the hot pepper sauce. Shoot, I should dig out the Mace and spray my fingernails one good time.

I am about to submit.

To a new editor.

A new editor who, gulp, has never read my work before.

Who, double-gulp, doesn't know me from Adam's housecat.

All those pre-pubbed neuroses are coming back to me. What if she doesn't like my writing? What if she doesn't like my idea? What if, triple-gulp, she doesn't even like the font I'm using? Should I use Courier? Times New Roman?

And then I slap myself.

OK, it didn't take, so I slap myself again.

I've sold four books. They've gotten good reviews. I have fan mail. I even have fan mail from across the big pond, fan mail that someone actually used international postage to mail it to me. And dadgummit, I can fold fitted sheets.*

I can do this.

But my nails may not ever be the same. :-)

*Once I learned how to fold fitted sheets, it's been my mantra whenever I'm faced with something that seems impossible, because, let's face it, fitted sheets seemed pretty impossible for 32 years of my life.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Snails and faith

After a rather rough weekend and start of the week, I managed to get back to my blog reader to catch up on the wonderful blogs I'd been missing. Many of them, for whatever reason, talked about frustrations and self-doubt.

Yes, I know it's tough, this writing business. Yes, I know there are only so many slots for books to be bought, and only so many agents who will take only so many new clients.

But have a little faith. In yourself. In your craft. In your dreams.

One of my absolute favorite quotes (that I'll paraphrase here) is by Charles Spurgeon, who reminds us that perseverance got the snail to the ark.

So true. The snail just kept on going. I don't know whether he ever thought, "Gee, I'll never make it. It's too far, and I'm too slow," but we do know that he didn't let such fears stop him. He just kept chugging along.

Sometimes we writers get all wrapped up in our ultimate goals: writing the best-seller, landing that dream agent, saying adios to the dayjob.

But that leads me to another favorite saying:

Expectations minus reality equals disappointment.

Yep. If you keep your expectations realistic, you'll never be disappointed.

Now that's not saying that you shouldn't dream big. Dream big, as big as the sky. But keep your milestones in sight.

We should redefine our goals, break them into smaller, bite-size chunks, so that we know when we are making progress. Because, let's face it, that ark is a mighty long way away, but the pebble at the top of the hill? We can make that one.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Which end of the elephant?

Remember the old joke about the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant?

One said that an elephant was flat and wide and thin like the leaf of a big plant. Another said, "Oh, no, an elephant is tall and broad and rough, like the side of a hill." And the third laughed and said, "You're both wrong. An elephant is slender and round like a garden hose and really, really stinks."

It all comes down to point of view -- and where you're standing when you're viewing the world.

I'm not going to debate the virtues of first person versus third (but I will say I love writing first person). To me, good writing means that in a single scene, the point of view, regardless of the pronoun the author uses, is limited to one set of eyes, one nose, one pair of hands and one pair of ears -- and the brain that operates all of those.

A term that writers like to throw around is "deep POV." In non-writerese, that's deep point-of-view. That means the perspective is so tightly embedded that even in a third person, shifting POV book, you can instantly tell whose perspective you're in by the first sentence of the scene.

That hinges on one thing: every single person looks at the world just a little differently, and to nail that POV, a writer has to crawl inside that person's head and see the world from the character's shoes.

I'm not talking just about a person who sees her hair long and flowing down her own back (man, that would take the flexibility of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.) I'm talking about authenticity, about knowing only what that character would know and using mental imagery that only that character would use.

I thought about all this as I've been "reading" an audio book, whose title will remain nameless out of respect for the author and every author's job. It's first person, from the perspective of an adult recalling a summer when she was 12 years old. The imagery is fabulous and lush ... but I keep getting yanked out of the story by images that no 12-year-old would use, not even the well-read kid the character is. A kid, especially a kid in decades past, would just not know the terms or descriptions. Yes, I understand that the character is all grown up now and that this isn't a YA book. But when we remember things we did as kids, we tend to go back and bury ourselves in that perspective, recalling things as we actually saw them then. We have the eyes of a child again.

I wish I could pull an example or two out of the book, but it wouldn't be fair to the author for me to pan her book. Maybe I'm just too exacting. Maybe that author would read my books and say, "Gee, your characters' POV isn't all that authentic, either."

What difficulties do you have when you're trying to deepen your characters' POV? And what are your pet peeves when you're reading a book?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life Interruptus

This weekend was a huge deal for me, day-job-wise (is that even a word?). It was the absolute do-or-die, must-pull-off biggest event of the year. I wound up with sore feet, sore arms, sore back, sore everything.

The blog? The Writing? The Kiddo? The Husband? All of the above went neglected while I tried to emulate a good duck: calm above water, paddling like mad underneath.

The weekend is over, and I'm considering getting all the people who helped me pull it off T-shirts that say, "I Survived!"

Tomorrow, I promise, I'll be back with my usual advice about writing. But until then, tell me, when do you think you'll be able to give up your day-job?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Awwww

Sometimes life is so in-your-face, you've just got to surrender to it, like this kitty. Don't you wish life could be as cute as the little chick here?

Alas, this has been the week of unholy terror for me. After Saturday, however, it will be better. Should I survive, that is.

(And yes, I am still stalking the wundercat BW, but he's decided to be more discreet in his love affair with the fridge.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Characters Have to Make a Living, Too!

You know what your main characters look like. You know what makes 'em laugh. You know what ticks them off. You know what makes them swoon.

But do you know what they do for a living? Before you start writing, of course.

Whether you are a pantser or a plotter (I think you're born to be either one, btw), your decision about your characters' career paths can reveal a lot about them.

People don't usually stay in a profession that doesn't suit their personality. It's like that in real life, and it's like that in book-life, too. In fact, readers are sometimes demand that a character's personality and his job match more tightly than it does in real life.

For instance, a shy retiring hero wouldn't make it as a cold-calling traveling salesman. And a boisterous talkative heroine would go stir crazy stuck in a research library.

Now, if part of the conflict of the plot is between the hero and his job, then I go for the disconnect.

If the job is just icing on the cake, I need to match job to personality better than a Garanimals outfit.

Jobs, of course, depend on the setting, and the characters' education levels. I wouldn't ordinarily put a neurosurgeon with a busy practice living in a rural small town.

But a job can ram home a character trait of a person. Is your heroine a helper type person? A people person? Does she empathize with other people? Is she a crusader? She'd pick a career based on the things she's good at.

So as I'm planning a story (oh, yeah, I'm a plotter all the way, baby!), I usually turn to an online career quiz, like the one at Career Path

It's not always foolproof, but quizzes like this help me get to know my characters better. It also helps to know how tied down my characters are during the day - my heroine can't be having picnics on a weekday afternoon with my hero if she's a school teacher.

Unless it's a field day, and the hero is a principal or a parent or the new-to-town single superintendent ...

Blast. I have to go write down another story idea! While I'm gone, why not share how you put your characters to work?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Ones Who Got You There

We writers may not practice our Oscar speeches like this cute little kid, but we do have a spot in each book to thank the ones who got us where we are.

Still, some thank yous are worthy of the Oscar-type speeches we'll most likely never give. I thought about one of them when I read a blog by agent Suzie Townsend. She talked about what to do (and more importantly what not to do) when pitching. It's absolutely spot-on advice.

It brought back memories of chilled pasta salad that I couldn't eat and the sharp edge of a 3x5 index card digging into the palm of my hand. It was my first pitch.

The editor, Jen Green, isn't (I don't think, anyway) in the business anymore, which is a loss, because she was a terrific editor. She had come to do a workshop at our Georgia Romance Writers chapter meeting and to listen to pitches for the now defunct Harlequin Bombshell and NeXt lines (insert funeral dirge here.)

I'd practiced my pitch until I could recite in my sleep. (The Husband has offered corroboration on this point, and swears I actually did recite it in my sleep.) I was psyched. I was ready. And thanks to a wise and wonderful author friend, I had done the wise thing and left my pages at home. (Oh, yes, I was that green.)

Picture all of us at a table, the little circle of hopeful writers. Ms. Green smiled at us and gave the signal for someone to start the round-robin.

My turn came. My heart raced. The pasta salad in my stomach lurched. And my mind went blank.

So I gulped, looked at Ms. Green, then looked down at my card, gulped again, and read straight from the card.

And she said the most beautiful words in the world: "That sounds like it might work. Why don't you send me a partial?"

That book, after two gut-it-like-the-trout-that-it-was revisions, wound up selling -- not to Jen Green, but to the lovely, lovely Laura Shinn (who is now onto greener pastures herself.) It was my first sale.

And it was all because Jen Green didn't mind that I had to read the pitch off my index card.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When You Can't Spell C-T-A, I mean, C-A-T

I have a dirty little secret.

I am a horrid speller. Is it neice or niece? Stilletto or stiletto?

Lots of people ask me how on earth I can be a writer and not be able to spell. More importantly, how can I be a former elementary school spelling teacher and not be able to spell? (So true. I hang my head in shame.) Isn't spelling ... I dunno, required?

No. One does not always get bitten by both the writing bug and the spelling bee. Especially if one is, well, me.

Don't get me wrong. I can spell most things. But my writer's vocabulary too often outstrips my speller's vocabulary. If I just wrote only the words that I knew how to spell ... aack. Sometimes I can't even get through a blog post without thinking, "That doesn't look right."

Spell check is great ... if it can guess what word it is that I'm murdering. But too many times, it can't.

There's the dictionary, of course. If you're like me, though, a former nerdy little kid who passed the time on rainy days by reading the dictionary, Webster's can offer more distractions than all those tempting Facebook games I dare not try. I start looking up one word, and suddenly I find this other juicy word that I've never heard of, and that makes me think of another word ... well, you get the picture. I'm fairly easy to amuse.

Last year, though, a writer friend, Lee Cheek, gifted me with the best little book. Bad spellers everywhere should have a copy.

It's The Word Book, published by Houghton-Mifflin, and it's based on The American Heritage Dictionary. It boasts that it has 40,000 words spelled and divided.

More importantly?

It has no definitions. Just words. I can't get side-tracked by meanings. There are fewer pages, so chances are, I find my word very quickly.

Unfortunately, I believe it is out of print, but it can still be had on-line.

I use my copy daily, much to the delight of my former spelling teachers!

(BTW, the cute little Miss-Speller came via Funny English, which has an amusing Ode To The Spelling Checker.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Should've Demanded No Green M&Ms

My CP Tawna Fenske recently blogged about how she has been asked to speak to writers' groups and readers' groups, and how she's not sure how she'll do. (She'll do fine!) It brought to mind my very first forays into life as a Published Author.

Like my first book-signing "tour."

In Rural, Backwoods, we have, alas, no independent booksellers. We DO have Wal-Mart, which is very good to sell Harlequins. So after I'd swooned over my first actual, real, live copy of my book, I thought, "I should ask the Wal-Mart manager if it's okay if I sign my books."

So off I went to the phone, and my call was first routed to the manager, and then to the regional manager. Turns out, the regional manager's wife was a HUGE fan of romance.

"You've gotta sign in ALL my stores," he insisted. "You've gotta."

So, bemused, I agreed to do so. He said he would get Anderson's (the book supplier for Wal-Mart) to get in touch with me.

They called me a few days later, while I was at my day job. Picture my whiplash when I went from helping one angry and very unsatisfied customer (I was sort of an ombudsman and problem-solver) to the Anderson lady.

"Hi, we need to know what sort of things you'll be requiring for your book-signing," she said.

"Uh ... a table? And my books?" Honestly, I couldn't think of anything else.

There was a long pause. "Of course, we'll have that. But your SPECIAL needs. Do you, er, require a security detail?"

If I'd been drinking coffee, my keyboard would have been a goner.

"No, no. No security detail."

"Okay, then, good, uh, what sort of instrument do you want to autograph your books with?"

"Instrument? I use a Sharpie. But I was planning on bringing one with me."

"Oh, what color?" she asked eagerly. "The fat ones or the skinny ones?"

"Er ... blue. The fat one."

I heard her pen scratching out notes on the other end of the phone line and (maybe I imagined this) her sigh of relief. "Okay, then! I'll have blue Sharpies waiting for you. And refreshments? What can we provide for you?"

"Uh ... water?"

"Water? Sparkling or just plain ... bottled ... water?"

"Water. The plain kind."

By now, I was wondering if maybe I was falling short of this lady's expectations. Maybe what she really wanted was me to ask for a bowl of M&Ms minus the brown or green ones. I was also wondering what other authors asked for and if perhaps I was missing an opportunity or three.

But I couldn't do that. I'm not a high-falutin' kind of gal. I was bowled over by the idea that they would give me a Sharpie! Wow!

We talked a bit longer, and she ended the conversation by saying, "And, er, you're sure that all you want is ... water? And you're sure you don't need a security detail?"

"Yes to water, no to the security detail. But ... thanks!"

Friday, April 09, 2010

I interrupt this program ...

to do a little Snoopy dance! Yeah, yeah, I know I usually blog just Monday through Friday, but I managed to power through the rough draft of my proposal.

Yep. Chapter Three is finito!

This is the proposal that I've started and stopped and scrapped and started and stopped and scrapped. It's been a sheer miracle that my CP (the Talented Tawna) and my beta readers have not come completely unglued about all the incarnations this sucker has had.

But I did it! I hung on, and I listened to all the great input my lovely, lovely readers have had, and now ... ah, now, it's done.

OK, so not done, but ready to revise. And then submit.

Gulp. Not thinking about that, not thinking about that. Not. Thinking. About. That.

Just gonna think about how good I feel RIGHT NOW.

And we now return to your regular programming. :-)


Because a person can never have too many hearts in her life! This comes via a cute website called Crittertastic ... warning: do not go there. Do not follow the link. Failure to heed this warning will result in many, many minutes diverted from what you should be doing!

And I'll end (before you get all tangled up in Crittertastic) with a shout-out and a thanks to Stephanie Thornton, who gave me the sweetest award (see pix below).

You should check her blog out ... her post on the dangers of spellchecking will leave you chuckling!

(You didn't listen to me about Crittertastic, did you? Okay, then, what's your favorite trick to unhook yourself from your Internet addiction?)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

How To Train Your Conflict

Whether you love him or you hate him, Bob Mayer has a jam-up definition of a novel: it's a story about a person with a problem, and how s/he solves it.

Okay, so that's a rough paraphrase that came from a workshop at RWA a few years ago. That being the case, it could be a really bad paraphrase, or he could have scrapped his definition in the years since.

But I like it, because it sums up what a novel is all about: conflict.

I don't care what kind of genre you're talking about, if you don't have conflict, you don't have a story worth reading.

I mean, strip away the symbolism and everything else in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, and you find that the reader hung on to see if the old man would make it back alive, and with his fish. (If you haven't read it, I'm not telling you whether he did or not. Hemingway rocks. Go read him, but don't ever try to write like him.)

Yeah, yeah, I know, we loves us some heroes, and we identify with our heroines, but if they're set in a picture perfect world with everything coming up roses, we'd start to hate 'em pretty fast.

We talk alot about "hooks" and "high concept" and all those nebulous industry buzz words. Me? I think it all boils down to conflict. Oh, and not minding putting your characters in their worst nightmares. We writers are sadistic like that.

I find that animated movies make for great illustrations of conflict. Maybe it's because it has to be fairly clearcut for kids. Maybe animated script writers are just better at it. Maybe I just have a thing for animated movies and I never did grow up. (Hey, you don't have to agree with me!)

Take How To Train Your Dragon for instance. I saw it last weekend, and I love, love, love it! (Okay, you, in the back row, no teasing about me still liking kiddie movies.)

The plot boils down to this: clutzy son of dragon slayer wants to grow up to be like dad, but then, aaack, discovers he likes dragons. How can he be like dad if he doesn't want to kill a dragon? How can he kill a dragon if he likes dragons?

The thing that makes readers keep turning those pages at 2 a.m. when they should be in bed, asleep, ready for that 6 a.m. alarm and work, well, it's conflict. It's the question: how will they EVER solve this?

So conflict has to be ...

Organic: notice that in How To Train Your Dragon, the son was already different -- not a natural at dragon slaying. The conflict came out of his own personality. He didn't suddenly decide he wanted to be an accountant or something (not that there's anything wrong with accountants.)

Sustainable: it has to last and last and last. It has to look unsolvable. In a romance, the best way to do that is to make sure that if the hero wins, the heroine loses and vice versa. Bonus points, too, if the writer can make said couple love each other so much by the end of the book that they can't stand to see the love of their life lose.

Solved by growth: a novel's characters grow and mature and learn during the course of the story -- or they should. So any solution or resolution has to come (again organically) from the story. The clues should be there all along, and please, please, please don't spoil it with a plot device that screams, "Oh, I painted myself into a corner, so, er, don't mind the footprints."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How Cleaning Is Like Rescuing Starfish

A non-writing friend of mine remarked recently, "You writers amaze me. Where do the words come from? Is it like being a compulsive reader or cleaner or quilter – you just gotta do it or be miserable?

Oh, yeah. The Husband would much prefer if I were a compulsive cleaner.

Alas, I am a recovering Messie. My name is Cynthia, and I'm a Messie. There, I've said it.

Before The Kiddo and The Writing, I had tackled my messy house with a good dose of How Not To Be A Messie, a wonderfully lovely book that pegged me like a sheet to a clothesline. I had it going on, chores done every day, menus planned in advance, a well-run house.

Truly. Honestly. It was a miracle. I even learned how to fold a fitted sheet.

But then The Kiddo came along, and one little person can dirty an enormous amount of clothes.

And then The Writing came along, and I got a job that was more than five minutes away from home, and things were harder.

And then The Kiddo hit her school years, and teachers will send tons of papers home, and what am I supposed to do with them, because if The Kiddo finds them in the trash, what does that tell her about the value I place on the work she does from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.??

And then The Kiddo turned out to be a packrat. I tell people that I live in a 1,100 square foot house and that I must have at least 3,300 square feet of junk in it, because, I swear, I feel like I'm manuevering around three feet of junk at all times.

With me, it's incredibly hard to write when the house is a disaster (The Husband would comment here that I shouldn't ever be writing, then). But cleaning my house is like rescuing starfish on a beach, an unending task that gets undone with every high tide.

So of course I try to tackle the problem systematically and research it to death (house going further to pot around me as I crouch over the computer).

Checklists abound on the web, checklists which will do nothing but raise your blood pressure and lower your self-esteem. For instance, Real Simple tells me that I can have a deep-cleaned house in 11 easy steps -- and they provide the checklist to go along with it. They have the nerve to call this a Weekend Cleaning List.

Step 6?
Dust inside drawers. Open furniture doors and drawers and dust the insides with a cloth and cleaner.

Bwhahahaahaaaa! They must think my drawers are empty!

Wait a minute. Maybe they're supposed to be empty. But if that's the case, then why have drawers at all? This is all very confusing. I must go away and think about this quandary.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hello, my name is ...

And I thought I had trouble with character names.

Charles Dickens called the sickly character in A Christmas Carol “Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” before settling on “Tiny Tim.” And until her editors at MacMillan intervened, Margaret Mitchell had been calling the woman we all know as Scarlet by the name of Pansy.


I try to tell myself that I shouldn't worry about the names of a character when the book is in progress. After all, the important thing is the plot and the story and the character. Right?

Uh, no. The wrong name will worry me like a toothache until I get it right. It will stop me dead in my tracks. You'd think, after four pubbed books and untold numbers of "trunk" novels, I'd have a system worked out.

I sort of do, but it's not a fail-proof one.

I'm a stickler for accuracy. One reason I can't watch soaps is because of all the weird names. Back in the 90s there were just way too many Hunters and Chases for guys, and I can't even remember all the strange names for the ladies. Now, of course, Hunter and Chase are perfectly commonplace names for little boys.

So I start first with the age of the character. A 28 year-old woman? My handy-dandy calculator tells me that the woman was born in 1982 (a mere child. An infant almost, but still.)

Then I let my fingers walk right on past all those baby-naming books. My clicking takes me to the absolute best naming website: The Social Security Administration.

Yup. The SSA has on record the most popular baby names, girl and boy, for any year or decade after 1879, and most popular names by state. It appeals to the geeky nerd in me. I just type in the year and pick the name that appeals to me from the top 25 names.

Now sometimes the name will come first, or I'll have a special reason for naming a character a particular name. For instance, I have a women's fiction MS where the woman's name is Glory. I love that name. It's just perfect for the character, and even more perfect for the wacky parents who named her that. And in my first pubbed book, THE BABY WAIT, I named my heroine Sara, after the barren Sarah in the Old Testament.

Or sometimes I'm just so desperate that I take the ultimate shortcut, like I did with WHERE LOVE GROWS. I was beginning the first chapter on my laptop, as I waited for The Kiddo to get out of ballet. Another mom was flipping through a magazine. The name I'd picked (by my aforementioned method) just wasn't working. I couldn't write.

So I turned to the unsuspecting mom. "What's your favorite name for a girl?" I asked her.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, gazing at my very flat (well, it was back then) belly. "Rebecca," she told me.

"Hmmm, Rebecca. Becca." I rolled it around on my tongue to see how it fit. And voila, it worked.

So, the storel of the mory is, if your careful and systematic approach fails you, just ask the mom in the ballet studio's waiting room.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Warning from Easter Bunny Central

Oh, yeah. After this week, I was SO expecting this one to hit my in-box. If I had any illusions about being a good mother, this put the nail in that coffin.

To: Cynthia Reese
From: Easter Bunny Central
Date: April 4, 2010

Mrs. Reese:

It has come to the attention of CEO Peter Cottontail that you have informed your daughter that The Easter Bunny was not real. It has further come to the attention of Mr. Cottontail that you conveyed this information in a less than sensitive manner and that you did not realize the depth of your daughter's belief in The Easter Bunny, thus causing deep and possibly irreparable harm to said child.

Your daughter is to be commended for her unwavering belief and the fact that she was willing to still put a note under her pillow well before the Friday midnight deadline, asking The Easter Bunny to bring her a present. Her selfless nature (unlike her maternal influence) is also to be noted, as she furthermore demonstrated such thoughtfulness by asking for presents for her father, her godfather and her, ahem, non-believing mother.

You will have noted that she indeed did receive her requests, even the chocolate bunny for her, ahem, non-believing mother. Mr. Cottontail wishes to inform you that this was a special circumstance. You are hereby on The Easter Bunny's Naughty List (yes, Easter Bunny Central has one of those, too. In fact, we had one before our round-roly-poly cousin to the North did. It's just not as well known.)

We understand, somewhat, that you never taught your child about the Easter Bunny because you wanted the focus to be on Christ. But Easter Bunny Central is not in competition with Jesus, regardless of what mass merchandisers may think. (We can't help how they've somehow hijacked our original message. It's got something to do with how our cute fluffiness performed in focus groups.)

We instead offer our aforementioned cute fluffiness to help young children get through that awkward time before they understand that all the talk about blood and empty graves and crucifixions and sacrificed lambs is actually happy talk. For instance, your own daughter has a particularly deep phobia about blood and covers her ears at the mention of "the shed blood of Christ." It is our job to help with the transition. You keep telling her about Jesus, and we'll help her via our cute fluffiness.

But remember. Don't ask for anything, I mean anything, next Easter. Because you are on our Naughty List.

Director of Security/Naughty List Coordinator
Special assistant to CEO Peter Cottontail

Friday, April 02, 2010

Friday Awwww Moment

Pix one is the Permed Dachshund at her favorite resting spot. You will note that she is never completely at ease, but always ready to protect us at a moment's notice.

Pix two is when she noticed me taking a pix of her. At that moment, she channeled her inner-German Shepherd and went into full-guard-dog-mode.

Yep, I do know these pix are soft, but I took them with my dinky phone camera, which has no flash. And yes, I do know that red and green throws don't look good together (my sister would be horrified that I put these on the internet), but, while photographing from a languid & relaxed position, I was covered up with the throw that matches the red and white throw. I love being warm much more than I love being fashion-coordinated. That being the case, I stack throws on the end of my sofa to ward off the snowballs when The Husband turns the thermostat down again.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

ARE we April Fools?

Waaaay back when I worked at a newspaper, I decided I would enter the Georgia Press Association's Humorous Column of the Year competition. My editor at the time told me I could, but not to be surprised if I didn't win. The competition was stiff, he warned me.

"It's like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon," were his actual words.

So I entered. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I forgot all about it.

Then, some months later, I got a notice that I had, gasp, won.

My rose petal had landed with a bang.

I got much the same response when I admitted to people that I was trying to get published. They patted me on the arm or the head or whatever socially acceptable body part they could easily get to and said, "That's nice, dear. Don't be disappointed."

For years, longer than some writers' journeys, shorter than others, I secretly nursed the idea that I was a fool. Who was I kidding? Maybe everyone was right.

I found April to be a particularly hard month, because that was the month I added up all my little tax deductions -- my paper, my printer ink, my Tyvek envelopes, my book purchases, my RWA dues, my internet usage. I dreaded the day the IRS would audit me and say, "You can't deduct this! You're not a real writer!"

Yes, I did finally get published, through a combination of luck and learning and pure cussedness.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because it's April. And somewhere out there is a non-writing spouse leaning over Turbo Tax and saying, "Honey, that's a lot of money you spent on your little hobby last year. We could take a vacation with all that money."

Don't give up. Do you hear me? Do not even think about giving up.

This isn't some hobby that can easily be swapped out for snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef. If you're anything like me, your writing is a big, chunk of who you really are. And who you are? Well, that's the last thing you should give up.