Friday, May 28, 2010

Ready, Willing and Able -- well, sort of, anyway

So I have a rare, long, lovely weekend in front of me. And I plan to fill it with a long-overdue date.

With a paint brush.

Sometime in the early fall, I decided that I should tackle my ugly kitchen cabinets and fix them up. They were plain flat doors, and I wanted to make them look Shaker style. The Sister, ever the creative one, suggested that I use screen door molding (big, wide, thin molding) and attach it to the doors and drawers.

It was quite a process for The Husband and me. But I got over my fear of pneumatic stapler/nailers and we conquered it. I felt oh-so-empowered.

You have to understand: I'm so not a DIYer. The Sister will call me up and say, "Turn on your TV! Weekend Warriors is on!" I flip on the tube to see two supposedly sane individuals ripping out their bathroom on a Friday afternoon -- knowing that they've got to show up for work in a reasonably hygenic state on a Monday morning.

While The Husband and I did complete the mechanics of the renovation, we didn't do the cosmetic stuff -- the painting. I bought the paint, but then it turned into the rainiest, coldest winter in Georgia history, and we kept waiting.

Presently, it happened. I forgot all about those lonely cans of paint. (See what happens when you don't OHIO?)

But now, the weather is warm, I have a Monday off, and I'm breaking out the paint.

The excitement I feel now is strangely akin to opening up my Word document list of story ideas that I keep. I have no problem coming up with stories -- it's just the getting 'round to it that causes me grief.

But like my paint cans, each story idea waits patiently for its turn. Once I write them down, they no longer hiss, "Psst! Over here! I'm a much better story than the one you're working on!"

I know other writers who juggle more than one WIP at a time. I can't. It drives me almost to the brink when I have to do revisions on one book in the middle of writing a contracted MS. I manage it, but not without a lot of sputtering.

So how do you manage to resist the siren call of the Next Big Story Idea? And what will you spend Memorial Day Weekend doing?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who ARE those readers of yours, anyway?

The Kiddo allowed earlier this week how she wanted to write a book.

"Mommy," she asked from the back seat of the car, "can you write a book and not have it be, like, you know, your books, and have it just go to people you want it to go to?"

"Sure," I said. I thought about my veritable collection of trunk novels. I surely didn't want anybody but a highly select audience to see those! "I have lots of books like that on my computer. Or do you mean with a cover?"

The Kiddo seemed to consider this. "It doesn't matter. But can I type it?"

I had another question. "Why don't you want everyone to see your book?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Because. You know. I just want FAMILY to read it. Not everybody. Can I do a book like that? And can I type it? On your computer?"

I'll keep you posted on how the WORST DAY IN SIXTH GRADE develops. I'm delighted to say that she has already plotted out the chapter titles and is now figuring out what is going on in each chapter. I have a plotter!

But she's done something else equally important, something I didn't think about until, well, I guess my second serious attempt at this novel writing business.

The Kiddo has thought about who her readers will be. Not just thought about it, but she's picked them out already.

That's powerful proactivism there, folks.

Who exactly will read your books? No, I'm not talking about the agents you query. I'm not talking about the editors you hope will one day see it. That's important, sure, but it's not THE question. The real question is, who will be standing in the bookstore, at the cash register, with your book in hand?

Think about them. Get to know them as well as you know your characters. Are they men? Are they women? Do they like funny jokes? Are they secret foodies? Do they love fashion? Or are they more comfy in jeans and a T-shirt? What (eyebrows waggling here) will they let you get away with? What (very serious here) would be the equivalent of a broken promise?

I'm not talking about writing to a market. I'm talking about finding like-minded people and announcing, "My books may not please everybody, but these folks? Well, it will knock the socks off these folks." Then get to know your new friends. If they like what you like, you may like something else they like. And it may just be something you'd like to write about and they'd like to read.

My CP Tawna Fenske has done this without, I don't think, really realizing how good she is at it. She's married her quirky voice with her blog. If you don't like her blog, you won't like her books. But if you like her blog? Well, her books are gonna knock your socks off.

My books? If you don't like slice-of-life stories that are a roller-coaster of emotions, if you've never laughed because you don't want to cry, then you probably wouldn't be interested in my books.

And you know what? That's okay. I wish you did. But it would be a mighty boring world -- and library and bookstore -- if we all liked the same book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

OHIO, not just the Buckeye State

Apparently my bid to make writers forget all about that mythical critter Balance hasn't quite achieved world domination like I'd hoped.

So here is how I endeavor to show how to do more, not all, but more. Note that I don't advise doing that. The best way is to either win a lottery ticket (my religion frowns on entering) or finding oil under the petunias.

Until one or the other of those miracles happen, I have to remind myself the following strategies to keep things, as Lydia Kang might put it, WNL, or Within Normal Limits.

I did not invent these strategies. I hunted them down and corralled them, then tested them in a regimen that would have put Consumer Reports to shame. The losers I tossed. The winners? They are here for you. They will give you a (reasonable) facsimile of an orderly homelife.

OHIO (Only Handle Item Once): This lovely jewel of an idea came from Rita Emmett and her book PROCRASTINATOR'S HANDBOOK. You know that sock/dirty-dish/book/thingamabob in your hand? Don't let it go until you put it where it belongs. Same thing applies with issues. Handle it and banish it.

Empty the Dishwasher at Night: In this way, you can OHIO all your dirty dishes as you dirty them throughout the day. Kitchen looks clean. The Husband is hopeful that it will produce nourishing food later.

31-Meal-Salute: This will make you tear out your hair, but it's worth it. Brainstorm 31 complete menus and mix them up so you don't have chicken four nights running. Program Outlook (or some desktop calendar) to make each repeat on the first Monday, the second Monday, and so forth. Print it out. Stick it on the fridge. There. No more answering the question, "What's for supper?" Brownie points for making a weekly pre-printed grocery list ahead so that you're just taking inventory and getting the things you don't have.

Have A Responsibilities Schedule: In this I have completely fallen off the wagon, but I'm about to go back to it. On certain days, do certain chores. It is amazing how much quicker it is to vac or mop when you're only taking off one week's layer of grime, and more frequent laundering means, oh, joy, smaller loads to fold and put away. Don't forget -- put writing on that list!

For Writers/Bloggers: Use Blogger's schedule feature and write several blog posts ahead. I swear, it doesn't take as long to write three posts back-to-back as it does to sit down three separate times.

Enlist Help: No, The Fam may not be a fan of everything that you're trying to do. But those kids you're raising? They need to learn how to wash clothes and take off the trash and cook a meal without burning the house down. If they can re-program your cell phone in 30 seconds, they can learn to do basic housekeeping. Your future in-laws will thank you.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sometimes ya gotta get quackin'

We mowed the grass at my mom's this weekend, a bittersweet chore. The Sister and I lost our mom just before Thanksgiving, and the pain is still so deep that I can't breathe at times. And I swear, our pastor and God have this deal going, because every one of the invitation hymns at church are Mama's favorites.

As The Husband unleashed his big zero-radius lawn mower on the grass, and The Sister weed-eated, The Kiddo and I picked up pine cones. I thought about all the times I'd played in that big front yard, all the stories I made up -- multi-character plays with me cast in all the roles. I thought about all the pets that had tramped across Mama's prized centipede grass. I thought about Quack and Amos.

Quack and Amos were a pair of ducklings that Mama and I bought at a feed supply store after she'd let me buy, on the same day, a book about a duck called Amos. We lived out in the country, so the ducklings wandered loose and grew up to be snow-white -- I was rather disappointed that they changed from cute little fluff-balls to sleek white ducks.

We had other pets, too, including a poodle called Puff. Puff nearly drove Mama to distraction by chasing the ducks. Mama worried that one day she wouldn't be around when Puff finally latched onto either Quack or Amos. I don't know that she hedged her bets by looking up duck soup recipes, but I do know that Puff got lots of scoldings.

And then one day, Mama and I heard this awful noise. Some critter was in terrible pain, and it sounded a lot like a muffled duck's quack.

"Quick!" Mama told me, "run around that end of the house, and I'll go this way! Puff's got a duck!"

So off I went, as ordered. I wound up on the wide green expanse of Mama's Centipede, with Mama coming around the corner -- and in between, in a classic run-down formation, were Puff and Quack.

Only ...

It was Quack that had Puff by the ear. Quack was two-stepping it along beside the trotting Puff, who was yelping with all her might. She couldn't run fast, because Quack had a firm hold on the tender poodle ear. The quacking noise? That was Quack, giving Puff the what-for.

Mama and I doubled-over with laughter. We stood and watched, and Mama did absolutely nothing to save Puff. Finally, Quack must have tired of the game, and Puff ran off.

She never chased another duck as long as she lived. In fact, Puff later on adopted some baby chicks.

So what's the takeaway for writers? Sometimes you have to face your worse fears. Waddle right up to that fierce poodle and grab on to any part you can get -- but be smart about it. Hang tight, even amid the yelping and squawking. And your problem may just flee for safety.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Serendipity in the form of a Weird Guy Text

I "sermonized" about how to be a kitten among chicks on Friday, but a life lesson on Saturday really rammed that point home.

I was getting ready for the grocery-run-lunch-with-The-Sister-safari-for-The-Kiddo's-swimsuit on Saturday morning. The Kiddo asked me if it were all right to call The Sister to inquire about hot tub privileges. I said sure.

A moment or so later, The Kiddo came wandering in, my cell phone in hand. "Mommy, some weirdo guy wants you to be his girlfriend," she said, giggling.

That yanked me away from the process of making me presentable for public viewing. "What?!" I asked.

"Yeah, he texted you."

And then she began to read.
Hi! Im a guy randomly txtn numbers lookn 4 a kewl gurl. I Got ur number randomly so we prolly dnt kno each other. If ur a gurl thats interestd txt me bk with ur age and name. If nt im sori 4 bothern u. Thanx
OK, that was disturbing on so many levels. Was the guy a pedophile, looking to snare young, innocent girls? Was he a weirdo scam artist that made a hundred bucks a text when you replied? Or was he just some socially inept guy who actually thought randomly texting girls was the way to get him a girlfriend?

I couldn't help but think of the really weird phone calls and queries that agents and editors get. I'll bet they have similar reactions to the one I had. And I'll bet every one of those queriers thought the letter or phone call was perfectly within the bounds.

The old saying is true: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So whether it's an agent or an editor, really think, "How could this query/phone call/showing up and throwing pebbles at their office window be perceived?"

I haven't yet decided what to do about the Weirdo Text Guy. The Kiddo wanted me to send him back a text that said unequivocally, "I cant be ur kewl gurl b/c u cant spell and Im married."

Me? I'm still thinking that if I replied, I'd get a bill for a hundred bucks for the privilege of telling Weirdo Text Guy to get lost.

Friday, May 21, 2010

How to be a kitten among chicks

I don't know if there's really anything I can say about The Great Agent Hunt that hasn't already been said, a jillion times over, and by wittier folks than me.

But as I looked at this cute pix, it made me think of the tweets I've seen recently by folks like Rachelle Gardner and Janet Reid and Marlene Stringer and Nathan Bransford and Laura Bradford and, oh, gracious, so many more. Periodically, they will tweet something that seems so obvious to me, like how someone queried them with Dear Sir when they are obviously a girl person or the querier will take six months to get the requested manuscript to the agent.

I flippantly replied back to one of them, saying, "Well, that's an easy automatic rejection." Some other author said as well that it made her queries letters look good in comparison.

And that's where the kitty and the chicks come into play. If you follow the rules (oh, yeah, you rebel you, we know how you feel about rules), your query is going to look as different as the cute kitty is in comparison to the chicks.

Say what you will, with as many queries flying at agents these days, there has to be some triage.

Most likely the folks who will read this post aren't doing any of these nitwit errors, but I was green once, oh, so horribly green, and it was Miss Snark who taught me the ins and out of the querying business on her infamous and now dark blog. I shall endeavor to pay it forward.

Be professional: If you were applying for a job, would you apply without knowing who your cover letter was supposed to be addressed to? Would you cold-call companies and ask the first person who answered, "You hiring? Cuz I'm a great worker, and you're gonna be missing out big time if you --"

No, I didn't think so. You'd take great pains to fill out the forms just like they wanted, to write the letter ever so carefully, to make sure there were no typos. You'd ask around and see WHEN they took applications -- is it every day, or just the fourth Monday of every month, and only from 3 to 5?

So query just like that.

Be patient: It was Miss Snark who warned us would-be nitwits to send off our partials and circle a date three months hence on a calendar and not worry our little heads (or most definitely the agent) until the date circled in red approached and then passed.

But patience applies to many other things as well. Writers are like the rest of population: We want it yesterday. And so we'll go off on little rabbit trails that look promising, but aren't. Hold fast. Don't give in to LuLu or any of those other "see your book in print TODAY" deals. You're worth the wait. You are SO worth the wait.

Research: This is of paramount importance, and it ties in with patience. Research agents. Research your genre. Research how to write query letters. Research how to write.

Don't fixate on one dream agent. That's like staring at a picture of Brad Pitt or George Clooney and saying, "That's the only man for me." You're blinding your eyes to the terrific under-the-radar agent who might just be your soul-mate agent.

Now go on. Be that cat among the chicks and let those agents hear you ... er ... yowl.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

OK, so I need a confidence boost

I am by nature a fairly optimistic creature. People don't believe that because I am also by nature a hole-puncher, and all they see is how I poke holes in their wonderful plans.

But in all actuality, my hole punching is a true sign of optimism. I mean, really, the guy who invented the parachute? He was supremely confident in the plane's ability to get off the ground in the first place. That, my friends, takes optimism. He saw a problem, solved it, and moved on. He didn't say, "Hey, flying's dangerous and you shouldn't do it."

My approach to life drives The Husband insane. This isn't a unique reaction, as it also drives The Sister insane and The Co-Workers insane and, well, just about everybody. Except me. In the end, people do grudgingly say, "Well, hey, you were right, and that made all the difference."

I believe, truly, to the depth of my soul, that any problem has a solution. And when my confidence falters, I chant my mantra: I graduated Magna Cum Laude, and I can fold a fitted sheet. I can do anything."

That fitted sheet business is something to be rightly proud of, if I do say so myself. It took me years to figure it out. I kept trying and failing. Finally, I hit upon the solution: I would carefully unpack a new, still-in-the-pack fitted sheet, and see how the factory did it.

It was amazingly, head-bangingly simple. Some years ago, people asked me my method, and I took some pix. I'm sharing my system below. You can tell from the loud, cyanotic cabbage roses that these pix are very old. I can assure you: my bedroom comforter looks far different now -- and, er, the room is messier.

So what is it that powers you through bleak moments? Am I completely alone in relying on pathetic little triumphs to serve as a means to say, "Oh, yeah, I can SO take that mountain!"

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is there a Rosetta lesson for Cat?

Part of me doesn’t even want to mention this, for fear it might jinx something. But BW came home this weekend.

BW is a Sylvester-colored tom-kitty, dapper looking in black with a white chest and white feet. He’s always been a people-kitty, and desperately wanted to be a HIT (Housecat in Training) ever since, as the teensiest kitten, he figured out there was a world beyond the patio door.

He’d slip in, giving new meaning to “silent as cat feet,” and hide away under the dining room table. BW was so quiet and discreet, he was positively invisible.

Pretty soon, we let him have full HIT privileges. He stayed in more than out, lounging around the house, falling in love with our fridge. It was the weirdest thing to see a cat curled up next to our side-by-side, occasionally reaching out a paw and touching the cool metal of the door.

And then one day about a week ago he didn’t come back in. I didn’t worry too much, because tom kitties will roam, and I figured that The Husband had let him in and out without me knowing it.

But when The Husband asked me if I’d seen BW around, I had to admit that I hadn’t. My concern grew and grew as the little fellow didn’t return. The Husband and I would have whispered conversations about it at night, because we didn’t want to upset The Kiddo.

Sunday night, as a storm blew in, I heard this awful yowling. At first I thought it was The Kiddo and The Husband, pretending to be a cat in some weird game called “Let’s-Annoy-Mommy.”

After The Kiddo swore that it was not her, and after I realized the yowling was still carrying on while she was talking (pretty persuasive evidence, there), I opened the front door.

There on the front porch, skinny as a six-o’clock, was BW. He dashed in the house like a pack of Dobermans was after him. He proceeded to eat three bowlfuls of cat food and lap up a small ocean of water.

And then he started yowling again.

I thought maybe he wanted more food. Or more water. Or to go out.

But no. He just wanted to yowl.

Once I decided that he wasn’t sick and he wasn’t hurt and he wasn’t twining his hind legs together in anticipation of a long wait to go outside, I figured it out.

He was telling me all about the privations of being apart from us for a week.

And he told us, all right. Yowl, yowl, yowl, YOWL.

Eventually, after we “listened” to his story, he got settled down, curled up by the fridge, and reached out to touch a paw against the cool metal.

Boy, I sure wish I knew how to speak Cat. The stories BW told me that night – stories that I completely missed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Oasis for Misfits

Quick! Name the best reason to go to a conference.

No, it's not so that you can slip that 1,000 page MS under the bathroom stall to your dream agent.

No, it's not so that you can go to the Harlequin party and dance for two seconds with the Nora Roberts just so you'll have the bragging rights.

No, it's not even so that maybe you can hang out in one of the bars until a punch-drunk-from-exhaustion editor says to heck with it, throws in the towel and decides to let it all hang out -- whereby you can wiggle your way in and maybe tuck your pages in her knapsack.

While all of those are highly entertaining to think about, it's not the reason that I would dearly love to be registered for the RWA conference, late of Nashville and now moved to Orlando.

It's the writers.

True, some writers let being away from the family and the friends go to their heads. They drink too much, they talk too loud, they let the proximity of known celebrity agents and editors tempt them into doing really awful things -- in general, this group of folks can and often do impersonate characters straight out of a Ray Stevens song. (Am I dating myself by alluding to Ray Stevens?)

But for the most part, we writers are just so thrilled to be there that we wouldn't dare act up.

There is something so powerful about being one in several hundred like-minded people. In our normal lives, we writers tend to be the oddball, misfit relative -- and I mean that in the nicest possible way, with no insult intended.

We are known for strange habits like mumbling to ourselves and writing plot points on our hands and walking away mid-conversation, shrieking, "Ah-ha! So that's why my heroine did it!"

Spouses don't understand the love/hate relationship we have with writing. They look at us as we bang our heads on the keyboard and shake their heads. "If it makes you that miserable," they'll say, "why do you do it?"

Yeah, well, ask them the same thing about their golf game, and they sort of get the picture.

Kith and kin don't always understand how our scribbling can take precedent over family reunions and even some holidays -- just try explaining NaNoWriMo to a non-writer. "But that's -- that's during Thanksgiving!" they'll sputter.

We can get dispirited. Discouraged. We think we're the only oddball misfit out there.

Then, once a year, the Lord sends down manna from heaven in the form of a literary conference -- pick your genre, there's sure to be a conference for it.

And suddenly all our eccentricities make sense.

We shove napkins at complete strangers as they scribble down the hook for their chapter three at the luncheon.

We completely, totally understand the need for a roomie's midnight run for chocolate. No questions asked, we get up and go with them.

We get as excited as pre-teens at a Jonas Brothers concert as we're standing in line for that big author to autograph our books -- or that hard-to-get agent pitch session.

We can talk in jargon-shorthand, and we don't have to explain the difference between an editor and an agent, and why you could fire the latter, but you can't the former.

For one brief shining weekend, we are the normal. The average. The run-of-the-mill. And if that doesn't charge you up for the rest of the year, then nothing will.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Salt To Taste

The Sister is a Good Cook. I invite myself to her house early and often, and The Husband even proposed, many years ago, that when we built our house, we should add on an apartment for her.

Yes. She is that good of a cook.

Me, now, I can fix a mean glass of iced tea. Beyond that, and the fried chicken no southern girl is allowed to grow up without knowing how to cook, well, cooking at my house is a big toss of the dice.

How is it, you may ask, that I am not a Good Cook, having grown up in a household with a mother who was a Good Cook and a sister who was a Good Cook, and a grandmother beside us who was a Good Cook?

Easy. With all those Good Cooks, I never had to be anything beyond a Good Scullery Maid. I can wash dishes. I can feed the scraps to the dog. I can set the table. And I so can entertain the Good Cooks.

That's what I did. I'd sit on a stool in the kitchen and tell stories, in between errands like, "Can you get me a bell pepper?" or "Stir that pot of beans," or "I need a plate."

The Poor Husband. He'd eaten The Sister's and Mama's cooking for three years before we married, and he thought that I would be a Good Cook, too.

The secret to being a Good Cook is in the seasoning. No matter what I do to my green beans, they never taste the same way that The Sister's beans do. No matter how tender my pot roast, it never has that rich, dark, melt-in-your mouth flavor that almost rivals chocolate.

The Kiddo is going to be a Good Cook, if she applies herself. She can taste something and tell you, even at age 8, EXACTLY what it needs. And she's right. No, she doesn't say, "Oh, this needs a teaspoon of salt," or "a little wine vinegar and it'll be perfect," but it's coming. Because already? She can taste something and say, "Mommy, that's too sweet," or "Mommy, I think it needs salt."

The skill of seasoning is mostly in-born, but it can be learned. Try-harder-cooks like me, we have to put eagle eyes on Good Cooks, make them slow down, pour that palmful of spices into a measuring spoon and write down the ratios religiously.

I thought of all this as I was reading Margo Berendsen's blog about beginning a novel. Margo was talking about whether to begin with dialogue or description or action -- a thought-provoking question for sure. I began to think about how I start my own novels off -- smack-dab in the middle of conflict, and then follow it with a small slice of backstory.

Then I started thinking about backstory, and how it is like seasoning a rich, bubbling stew. Too much, and it weighs the dish down. Too little, and someone is reaching for the salt shaker, saying, "Dunno if this will help, but something's missing."

My approach to backstory is to put in as little as possible to begin with -- and taste often. I use my CPs to do the tasting, and after that, my editor. If they stop or stumble, then I add more backstory.

It's one of those things that takes a deft hand, just like The Sister and her seasoning. Some rules of thumb I've learned from my editor and my CPs:

1) Trust The Reader: Often, the reader requires very little explanation, and will trust you to provide the details as the story unfolds.

2) A Little Dab Will Do Ya: Start with the absolute minimum when you're adding backstory, a portion of a sentence, a whole sentence, never more than a paragraph or so on a page, and never more than a few paragraphs to a chapter.

3) Begin At The Beginning: If you're finding yourself telling more backstory than you expected, maybe it's because you really want to tell the story of an earlier time in the character's life.

4) You Can Always Add More Later.

This last? Self-explanatory. If your editor or agent needs more than your minimalist approach, she'll let you know -- and she'll let you know exactly where it's needed.

Now if only editors and agents could help me with my cooking ...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Someone To Watch Over You

Somewhere on the web this week, someone said, "An agent works for you. You're THEIR boss."

I can see, in this environment, where good agents have hundreds of queries coming in every week from wanna-be-best-selling authors, how such a statement could be liberating. Writers worry incessantly about landing their dream agents. They slave over query letters, and they polish their partials to as high a brilliance as they can muster. They practically stalk agents on blogs and Twitter and Facebook -- and then in person at conferences. They send out their queries with high hopes and and when they get nothing but rejections, some of that worry and hope blends into acid frustration.

And that's where statements like, "The agent works for YOU" come in.

Sure, technically, you make more money than the agent per deal, and technically, you could tell them where to put that high six-figure deal since lunch with Oprah wasn't included in the fine print. And technically, an agent can't sell anything you don't first produce.

Still, I'm reminded of that brokerage commercial, where the surgeon is giving instructions over the phone to the poor, hapless guy armed with a kitchen knife and a bottle of alcohol. Publishing is like that. You need expert advice. Unless you have a terrific working relationship with your editor (and sometimes EVEN if), D-I-Y representation is not the best option.

Saying that you're the boss of this operation might feel good, but it's like saying you're the boss of the criminal defense lawyer you've paid to get you off of a murder rap. You can bet if I'm ever unlucky enough to find myself in such a position (and I'll be completely innocent, I assure you), I'll not be telling my lawyer what I think he should be doing.

I can understand the frustration. Not only are there scam agents out there, ready to fleece you, but there are ineffectual, down-right sorry agents who aren't your best advocate. There are also agents who are great for some other author, but not you.

And then there are agents that are your match made in heaven. I know they exist, because my CP Tawna Fenske has a great one in Michelle Wolfson. And that's just one of the many happy agent-client relationships I've heard of over the years.

In such a dream match, they are your guides in this strange publishing world. They explain things to you, manage your expectations, submit when they're supposed to and to the editors they're supposed to, editors you may never have heard of, because they know the market and they know who's looking to buy what you might be offering.

They are your fierce protector. They'll go to bat for you when it comes to a crappy clause in a contract, a really gruesome cover on your book, or possibly an are-you-insane deadline.

Sometimes they become your friend. Not always. But sometimes.

But the good ones? Even if they're not your friends, they're your guardian angel.

And I wouldn't even attempt to boss a guardian angel. Here's hoping that all of you meet your very own guardian angel if you haven't yet, so you'll have someone to look over you.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Trip Down Into The Revision Cave

Today, as you read this, I'm turning lobster pink at The Kiddo's Field Day. Yes, I forgot sun block. Yes, I also ('scuse me while I wallop this hawk-sized mosquito) forgot insect repellant. And no, I am not writing, even though I'm not at The Dayjob.

What I should be doing is spelunking into the bowels of The Revision Cave. I've stuck a pinky toe into that vast dark space, I've tightened the ropes and adjusted my lighted hardhat. Now all that's left is for me to get my nerve up, take a deep breath in, and then ... let go and drop.

I'm a great believer in revisions. The first guy who ever took a shine to me and to my writing told me, "Writing is rewriting," and he made me say it until I fell into a deep hynotic trance and actually began to believe it. (OK, I'm stretching it about the hynotic trance, but it's all for a good story.)

Revisions are never easy, mainly because, to do it right, you have to re-ENvision your MS. You have to look at it with the cold, uncharitable eye of the worst agent or editor you could ever query. You have to be willing to rip it to shreds and gut it like the trout that it is.

I am (just a touch) OCD about revisions, at least when I'm doing a total overhaul. Say, for instance, when I was transforming my women's fiction into a Superromance, and I sort of needed to get more romance into the novel. Gee, I wonder why?

I'd found a wonderfully slightly-OCD approach to revisions on a website by Beverly Brandt, an author who seems to love spreadsheets even more than me, if that's possible.

Her approach helps in that awful first step of revisions: before you can revise, you have to really see your novel, warts and all. And that's hard.

So that's what I've been doing with UP FROM ROCK BOTTOM. I wrote it for a series romance, but it's a little too gritty and too dark for category. I want to take advantage of that darkness and expand it into a single-title women's fiction.

First step is a scene-by-scene analysis, a la Beverly. It's easier than it looks, because you're mainly just skimming. But already I have found one glaring continuity problem that at least three people -- myself and two CPs -- overlooked.

No matter how many times I've done this, it's always scary to do it again. I mean, what happens if I take a good, hard look at my MS, and it's beyond salvation?

Still, It's only when you see what you've got that you see what you've not. And sometimes that's a good thing. Revision means playing up the strong parts and overhauling the weak ones until they're strong, too.

Besides, if I didn't do this, my CPs Tawna Fenske and Nelsa Roberto would call me a yellow-bellied coward, and Linda Grimes would never let me live it down.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Being a Writer Spoils Everything

Well, almost everything.

The Kiddo is a passive sort of reader. I am ashamed to admit that. I am ashamed to admit that she prefers me reading to her than to go off in a corner and read by herself. I have to remind myself that she is only eight, and I try to recall, in the dim recesses of my mind, what I was reading on my own at 8.

It's hard for me to ever remember a time I wasn't a voracious reader. But I do have a clear recollection of the time reading became a fantabulous way to while away the hours.

When I was 9, I'd moved to a new and larger school that boasted a larger library than the one at my previous school. I was amazed because at this school, there was no imaginary line down the middle, and no librarian patrolling that line, saying, "You're too little for these books."

I was allowed to check out any book of my heart's desire at this new library. And when my eye fell upon a shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries, that was my heart's desire.

Carolyn Keene, a pseudonym, I know now, was the first author I glommed. I loved Nancy Drew. She was so smart and so with it, and I wanted a blue roadster like hers and strawberry blond hair like hers and to be able to have terrific adventures like she did.

I can credit Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden with a large part of my love for writing and reading. So naturally, I wanted to share that with The Kiddo. It was a proud day when we checked out The Kiddo's very first Nancy Drew mystery for our nightly reading time together.

Imagine my disappointment when I started reading THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK and I encountered hopping heads and adverbitis and passive language.

I've hid it well (I hope) from The Kiddo. But as I'm reading, I find myself thinking, "I liked this? I really enjoyed this?"

Yes, I've moved on and grown more sophisticated. But there are some books that stand the test of time: the Beverly Cleary books, for instance, and even though they weren't around in my childhood, I'll fight you for a Junie B. Jones book.

The Kiddo has finally gotten into THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK -- and I suspect that's more because the chapters are shorter and the writer started using cliffhanger chapterhooks. I make it a point to torture The Kiddo and not allow us to go beyond a chapter. Maybe, just maybe, she'll sneak around and start reading ahead on her own.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My backside is too sore for writing

I knew you used your brain for writing, but I had no idea that your backside was equally important.

The Dayjob took me on a long road-trip on Monday, two hours plus, one-way, to scope out The Flint River Quarium and The Parks at Chehaw for an event we're planning later on in the year. On Saturday, The Kiddo and I'd gone to Savannah to enjoy a mother/daughter tea straight out of Jane Austen at The Isaiah Davenport House. That's another couple of hours on the road.

Needless to say, my backside is molded in the shape of a car seat. And all I can think about is getting up and getting some sort of feeling besides numbness going on in that region of my body.

But, even if I can't concentrate completely on my writing, I had great take-away from both of my trips.

For one thing, the tea has reawakened my love for Jane Austen. It's incredible to have a lady in a gorgeous velvet and brocade dress serve you tea. And gentlemen had to be very skilled to tie a cravat back in 1825. I shall have to go pull out all my Jane Austen books, even Mansfield Park, and reread them again.

The aquarium has also reminded me of how we need unexpected surprises and layers in our writing. The very interesting freshwater "blue hole" exhibit at the aquarium reveals nothing at first, just a picturesque view of a calm pond. But as you go deeper, level upon level, you find things you'd never dream of by just looking at that placid surface. There were really weird gar fish, and then huge bass that looked like they could gobble me up, and even more amazing sturgeon.

The last surprise was what we found when we worked our way up to the top level -- alligators, basking in the afternoon sun, and completely hidden from the front part of the exhibit.

I think that's how writing is supposed to be -- a twist that takes the expected into the realm of the unexpected and makes it fresh and new.

Hopefully I'll be reading and writing again very soon ... when I get over Writer's Butt!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Things I should have told my mom

I have to hand it to Mama. She didn’t quite know what to make of me, but she never discouraged me in my writing unless she was trying to get me to work around the house. Which, as a mom myself now, I completely and totally understand.

I was a funny little kid, one that I’m sure exasperated Mama to no end. The things that she taught me in order to entertain myself turned out to be the very things that she had to overcome later.

No good deed, I guess, goes unpunished.

She’d learned a bunch with The Sister – the first born that she toted on her hip to hang out diapers on the line when it was so cold the diapers froze stiff. Mama taught me to read, most likely, out of sheer desperation for a little peace of mind, that and the fact that she loved to read herself.

I entertained myself, all right. Mama would be turning the house upside down, out of her head with worry when I’d gone MIA. She’d find me lurking in a dark corner, curled up with a book, oblivious to the world around me.

With Mama, you learned early not to utter the words, “I’m bored.” They were an invitation to be put to work. It was as good as plastering a huge sign on yourself proclaiming, “I have nothing to do and am at your beck and call.”

Nope, not me. When I had read every book in the house, I learned how to entertain myself all over again. I put on little one-man plays. I read the dictionary again. I researched Greek and Roman mythology. I researched English royalty. I taught myself to play chess. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Again, I never thanked Mama for not absolutely forbidding me to fill up every single sheet of college rule loose-leaf notebook paper she ever bought me. She carped about it, mind you, and talked about how I never seemed to save paper for class work, but she never “grounded me” from writing. I guess she figured out that telling me not to write was like telling her not to “project.” It was just in us. She worked in lumber and sawdust and nails, and my medium of choice involved words and paper and ink.

I can look back now, with my grown up mother-that-I-am eyes and see that she was at once befuddled with me, a me so different than she was, and proud of me. I know that because I feel the same way about The Kiddo.

The Kiddo loves to write, but reading? It has to be gripping and funny to suck her in and not let her go. For someone like me, someone who can’t resist the print off a milk carton, that blows my mind.

Math and athletics and writing, now, that’s what lights The Kiddo up. I never had much confidence in my math skills, and I was cursed with two left feet. I never could do a cartwheel, but The Kiddo can contort her body in a pretzel without breaking a sweat.

I hope I can follow Mama’s model when it comes to celebrating the difference I find in my unexpected daughter. I hope as The Kiddo grows older, and by necessity more and more into her own individual person, that I can remember the time Mama gave me my most favorite Christmas present: a 500-sheet pack of loose-leaf notebook paper and a package of blue PaperMate pens. Yep, whatever I am today, it is in large part due to the mother that she was.

Somewhere in heaven, Mama’s nodding and laughing and saying, “Uh-huh, I told you so. I told you that you’d wise up and figure that out some day.”

Friday, May 07, 2010

No More Playing It Safe

This sounds like a direct contradiction to my post yesterday, but sometimes you just gotta let the hide go with the hair. (Now what does that expression mean, and where'd it come from?)

I've taken plenty of risks in my time, risks that for the most part have paid off. They were all calculated risks (I'm a natural born plotter of life as well as books, as you may have guessed.) But to the outside world, it looked as though I'd taken leave of my senses.

Let's see. There was the time I decided that I would stencil a border on my pale buttercup yellow walls with dark blue oil stencil paint, though I'd never stenciled so much as a label in my life. My mama nearly had a heart attack. But it turned out beautifully. (I'd watched a This Old House Episode.)

There was the time I took a job with a $5K pay increase, when I had no clue what on earth I'd be doing. But it sounded fun.

There was the time I decided to go round the world to adopt The Kiddo. People kept asking me, "Why don't you get an AMERICAN baby?" I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful blessing of a daughter, a true gift from God.

There was the time I told that editor, "Sure, I can revise this book and change everything from Chapter Three on and have it to you by October." (It was late May.) It wound up being the first book I ever sold.

But even with those risk-taking propensities, I still find myself playing it safe. I'd been following the news of Nashville. I'd heard the call for writers to donate their time and expertise. I kept thinking, "Who'd want to bid on anything from me?"

Then The Husband texted me that the Grand Ol' Opry was six feet under water and that 19 people had lost their lives. It showed me what a cowardly yellow-belly I was being.

I've sent up some smoke signals to the Do The Write Thing organizers, indicating my willingness to donate a critique partial and maybe, a la Michelle Wolfson, a 30 minute phone conversation. Don't know if they still need it, don't know if they even want it, but I'm in.

And I'm praying for both Nashville and those folks who will be suffering because of the oil spill in the Gulf.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Defining The Problem

I have been glomming that old HBO mini-series FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. Maybe it was because I was born in 1969 or that my name "Cynthia" means "moon goddess" (yes, it does, and no, I can't tell anyone that with a straight face.) Or maybe it's that I like how the Nerds won for a change.

Regardless, I am fascinated with how America went from so-far-behind to putting a man on the moon in a decade.

In one episode, a bunch of engineers and scientists gather in a room, and the Big Cheese stands with his pocket pen protector and his overhead projector. He presents a list of problems that have to be conquered before man could land on the moon. Just little things, like, yanno, getting there. And landing. And then getting back.

That impressed me. He'd been able to define the problem, which to me is essential to getting any goal accomplished.

That's how I'd like to think I tackle problems, breaking them down into bite-sized chunks of the elephant that is to be eaten. The Sister and The Husband disagree and tell me that I just say, "No, that won't work." A lot.

But if I can define what has to happen and figure out why it's currently not happening, then my brain will eventually suss out the solution.

My problem-solving approach is not as pretty and elegantly simple as the Big Cheese Engineer/Scientist, but it's based on the same idea.

How does this apply to writing? It's how I figure out things like why characters aren't behaving, or setting isn't working, or why I have a plot-hole the size of Manhattan. It's how I figured out the business of getting published to begin with.

I didn't actually write it down beforehand, but this was kind of my approach:

Goal: To Publish A Book

1) Write a book.
2) Get some non-family member to read it and see if it stinks.
3) If it stinks, either fix it or write another one that doesn't stink.
4) Find out how to sell a book.
5) Sell book.
6) Repeat.

Somewhere in between step 2 and step 5, I discovered that a) I stunk at writing mysteries and b) if I wanted to sell a mystery, I'd have to sell it to an agent who'd have to sell it to a publisher.

Agents terrified me. (I know, what a silly goose I was, to get all terrified of such soft, cuddly critters, but back then I was inhaling every blog post that Miss Snark could put out, and I had the idea that agents wore stiletto heels and drank a bathtub full of gin every day.)

That could have stopped me in my tracks, but no. I researched until I found a work-around solution: Harlequin, which, for the most part, doesn't require agents.

The decision relieved so much of the fear and stress I had about querying agents that I found I could not only finish the book, and then a second one (because, man, the first one stank so bad it needed a full body scrubdown) ... but I could also get the nerve to query agents.

It also led me to a great publisher, which in turn led me to great author friends. I'd say I hit the jackpot. All because I defined the problem. Oh, and had a little bit of luck along the way, too.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Detail (Wo)Man

The Sister is my best friend, a true 2 A.M. buddy who would come running no matter what silly thing I needed her for. And I need her for plenty, as she is also Martha Stewart Jr. The woman can cook, decorate, re-upholster furniture, refinish furniture, garden, build things and do light automotive work. Plus, she can clean like nobody's business.

I know. You're saying of course she's my best friend, if she can do all that. Oh, yeah, I know I've got it good.

But The Sister has to do things her way. And her way will, at times, drive me out of my mind.

A fr'instance (how we southerners say, "for instance") is an event The Sister helped me prep. I asked no small thing of her: take a room that looked like Post-war Beruit Grunge and turn it into Elegant Tropical Wedding. And after we hung yards and yards and yards of tulle and grass skirting, yanno, it DID.

As the deadline drew nigh, though, I found myself saying to The Sister as she fussed over some insignificant detail, "It will do. I promise, nobody will notice. If the Decorating Police appear, I'll bail you out."

The Sister refused to listen. Martha had fully taken over her body, and nothing less than perfection would do. "They'll SEE it," she insisted. "And it will spoil the mood. Then they'll start looking for other things that are wrong."

It occurred to me how that was what I would say about a bad fact or a character behaving illogically in a book.

Writers have as big a job as The Sister did. They have to turn printed words into a believable world. It has to ring true. The faintest false note will start breaking the spell. The suspension of disbelief won't stay suspended for long.

It was a reminder to me to make the extra effort, to really, really know what I write. That doesn't mean to stick with writing what I know (that'd be boring!) But it means that I need to reach out to the resources I have. And chances are, what with the internet, Twitter, Facebook and the connections I've made in life, someone can help me out when I need it. It may well be the person who, if I hadn't asked, would be throwing my book against the wall, saying, "That's all wrong! That could never happen!"

Saying big prayers for the folks in Nashville ... my heart aches for the entire city and everyone who has been affected by these floods. A big prayer, too, for the rescue workers, the medical personnel, the social services folks and the utility company employees -- Lord, keep 'em safe, and help them get a LITTLE bit of sleep when they can.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Kicking and Screaming

I blame it ALL on Tawna Fenske, my CP. That, and I got tired of not being able to reply to all the cool things I saw on Twitter when I was lurking.

But yeah. I'm in. I'm a twit. (The Husband likes the sound of THAT confession!)

And I had no idea just how many Cynthia Reeses there were out there. I had to use a weird username (@cynthiarreese)in order for Twitter to finally accept me.

I knew there was a realtor Cynthia Reese. She was the one who got the .com domain name before I first made the leap to a webpage, and so I had to make do with a .net domain name.

But apparently there are lots and lots of Reeses out there that I had no idea existed. I wonder: do they have more exciting lives than I do? Or do their lives look pretty much like mine?

I'm not one to trust technology or go whole hog for the newest trend. It's not that I'm a Luddite.

Nope. I'm just a coward. Shoot, half my fear of getting on Twitter was that I'd hash up the profile and make some seriously fatal mistake. I almost chucked the whole idea when I couldn't figure out what name to put as my user name.

I could have gone with cynreese. But I mean, really. I've just sent in an inspirational romance proposal to my editor. Somehow I don't think a name that sounds like "sin" would endear me much to her. :-)

The thing that gave me confidence (besides the idea that Tawna would yodel, "Ch-ch-chicken!" if I didn't do it) was you. Your comments. Your loyalty. When I put my heart out there, when I shared the bumps in the road and the tricks that I've learned, you were there. And I found I wanted to know more about you guys -- that I didn't want to have to wait until your next blog posts.

So please. Go find me in Twitterville. Hold my hand. Shoot, put me in a straight jacket so that I don't do something very stupid.

Monday, May 03, 2010

That Mythical Creature Called Balance

You know those magazines by the grocery checkout, the ones promising gourmet dinners in 30 minutes or less, a clean house, solid finances and the design pattern for a tropical fish tank birthday cake? I've noticed a trend in them: they talk a lot about Balance.

What they're really selling is how to have it all: the dayjob, the hobbies, the exquisite house and the made-from-scratch birthday cake.

'T'ain't possible, folks. Balance is as mythical as a unicorn, at least for me. You can't, not with as many irons as I have in the fire, have them all turn out perfectly. You can't -- or at least I can't -- have it all.

Balance brings to mind a deft juggling act on a high wire, with disastrous results if I slip (could also have something to do with my fear of heights).

Instead, I like the medical terminolgy "within normal limits." Doctors have learned that people's enzyme and blood count levels fall within a range, not on exactly the same count or level. As long as it's above the bottom threshold and below the upper threshold, you're "within normal limits."

In other words, keep it between the lines, just like when you're driving.

As I've pursued my writing from the first time I pushed through Chapter Three to finish a book until today, with four books out, I've realized that sometimes I've really shoved against those limits. My house might not always be clean. My dinners might be so bad that Mickey D's appears gourmet in comparison. But my daily wordcount was through the roof.

And then there are other times, when family needs come first, and my daily wordcount bottoms out.

As long as I'm falling between some fairly wide thresholds, it's okay. I'm within normal limits.

Instead of working ourselves up about corralling that mythical, unicorn-like critter Balance, I think we should dispense with it. It's just a guilt-inducing wild goosechase. Set some thresholds -- the absolute worst you'll put up with from yourself and the absolute best.

And keep it between the lines.

The lovely unicorn clip art came via Webweaver, a great place where unicorns hang out.