Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Author! Author!

The KidLit blog (link to the left) posed a great question the other day, one I'm going to borrow right now, and pose here: What 4 Authors, Dead or Alive, Would You Want to Have Lunch With?

Fun! Okay, after much deliberation, here are mine (boy, this is a hard choice!):

I'd have to pick two classic authors, and two modern. The reason for my classic choices would be to pick their brains, ask them questions about their process and their lives - the details I know, and the ones I don't know! My modern choices would be to thank them for being such an amazing influence on me, as a writer - as well as to grill them about their own writing process:

1) Shakespeare - I'd want to know about the Authorship Question, first of all (was it he, or was it Marlowe, or someone else, who wrote his brilliant works?). Then, trusting he'd told me the truth and it really WAS he who wrote them, lol - I'd probably pick his brain about the plot details of Othello, because I know it best. Finally, I'd ask for his help with The Tempest, which I'm forced to teach this coming semester. lol

2) Jane Austen - okay, this is cheating, but I'd like to go BACK IN TIME and spend a day with her - meet her family, her friends, see her beautiful family homes and the Bath countryside. Then, yes, I'd pry and ask her about the rumored love affair with Tom LeFroy as offered in the movie Becoming Jane. I'd love to know the extent of that love story!

3) Anne Tyler - I'd probably just want to sit and listen to her talk all day. The way she strings sentences together in her novels, the way her mind works, is fascinating to me. I think she's brilliant.

4) Elizabeth Berg - I'd love to thank her for writing a book I've assigned in my Creative Writing classes - Escaping Into the Open. Then, I'd ask about her writing process. If there's anyone out there who's able to marry commercial and literary fiction, I think it's her. She takes the interesting plots of commercial fiction and ties them with rich language that belongs in literary fiction. (I just started reading her new book last night, in fact - The Last Time I Saw You)

5) (okay, so I cheated again...5 authors instead of 4) L. M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, which changed my life, as a reader/writer. Emily, a fictional character, might even be the reason I'm a writer at all. I fell in love with her stories as a child - and, Emily herself was a writer, which seemed so artsy, so glamorous and wonderful. I'd love to spend an afternoon with the author, thanking her and asking her how she came up with these unforgettable characters.

Your turn! I'd love to hear your choices!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Perils of Compromise

I write "cozy" women's fiction. That means there's not a great deal of sex, there's hardly any violence, and there's very little cussing. Not that I'm opposed to those things or never read books that contain those elements. But "cozy" fiction just happens to be what I enjoy writing the most. Exploring the intricacies and complexities of relationships. Examining the deeper "life" questions we all struggle with. Looking at the nuances of decisions people have made, decisions people are trying to make...those are the things that interest me most.

And, sure - I realize that leaving those sex/violence/cussing elements out of my work (for the most part) probably lessens my chances for publication. Of course, there are those rare published/successful exceptions: Rosamunde Pilcher, Jan Karon, Debbie Macomber. But, like I said, they're rare. The majority of women's fiction tends to include darker subjects, like child abuse or infidelity or scandal. Or, the "chick lit," which tends to contain quite a bit of promiscuity, cussing, drinking, etc. Which is FINE, but it's just not "me."

So, what about compromise? What about sprinkling in a little more of those "modern" elements, in order to heighten my chances for publication?

Yes, these are questions I've asked myself, and it's a tricky answer. Because I'll never be so staunch and set-in-my-ways as a writer that I won't consider compromise. I am flexible, and I will consider adding certain things. But - I'll also never "sell out" to the point that I don't recognize my own writing anymore. I have to stay true to myself, bottom line.

Here's an example: I wrote a magazine article a few years ago, and the magazine wanted to publish it (yay!). The catch was that they wanted me to add even more personal information to it, information that I wasn't comfortable sharing (my article was about my divorce, and it was already so personal to me that I submitted it under a pseudonym). The editors wanted me to go into GREAT detail about why I divorced -- but, here's the thing. The article wasn't about the details of my marriage. It was about the healing process AFTER divorce. It was MY story, not my ex's story. The details of the marriage really shouldn't have mattered in this particular article. That was not the purpose. That was not the focus. So - I compromised slightly, giving the editors only what I was comfortable giving. A couple of extra sentences. But when the editors kept pushing, and when it became clear that they wanted the details in order to make the article a bit more salacious, I said "NO." And, in the end, they did still publish my article, as it was.

So, I guess my point is this -- as an author, be willing to compromise, but listen to your gut, in the end. Compromise is good. Flexibility is good. But selling out beyond what you're comfortable with - is not good. You must stay true to yourself as a writer, and if people aren't willing to accept the "real you," then maybe it's time to move on.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hook or Gimmick?

I'll be honest - the word "hook" bothers me. Sure, I understand what it means - giving your work that little "extra" punch, that unique story idea, in order to get the reader interested. It's weird, because as a reader, I appreciate a good hook. Just like anyone else, when I pick up a book and read the back cover and get interested in a unique plot, it reels me in. But for some reason, as a writer, the word "hook" puts a bad taste in my mouth. I think because it implies, on one level, a slight manipulation of your reader, whether intended or not. The writer's primary goal, with a hook, is not to write well or have strong characters, but to create instant interest - to reel the reader in. It feels a bit shallow. And beyond that, the writer is in great danger of turning the "hook" into a gimmick. On the other hand, a book without any sort of hook becomes bland.

So, how do we know the difference? And how do we avoid a hook becoming a gimmick?

For me, I like to look at already-produced works as examples. For this post, I'm going with romantic comedies because they often have strong (and sometimes outlandish) "hooks" to lure movie-goers, and most of us have seen or heard of them, so they're easier to talk about (I also realize my selections are entirely subjective -- movies that I wasn't crazy about might be your all-time favorite, or vice versa)...

HOOKS that worked (for the most part):

* The Holiday - two unlucky-in-love women, on different continents, swap houses for the holiday and find love again. (Cute, sweet, charming. Not perfect, but for me, the hook delivered).

* Letters to Juliet - engaged girl travels to Italy and discovers a letter "to Juliet" written 50 years ago, then sets out on a quest to reunite the woman with her "Romeo." (The trailer looked cheesy, and yes, parts of this movie were, but the romantic in me LOVED the idea).

* While You Were Sleeping - woman falls in love with man, who falls into coma, who has a brother, who falls in love with the woman, "while he's sleeping." (I'll admit - when I first saw this movie trailer, I thought the movie would be totally stupid. But it was so charming, so well-written, that it sucked me in, and became one of my all-time favorites).

*honorable mention goes to Return to Me (David Duchovny, Minnie Driver). The "hook" is downright ridiculous, in its over-the-top/uber-coincidental plot - man loses beloved wife; her heart ends up inside a woman who needs a transplant - who also just so "happens" to fall in love with him a year later. But - the execution of this story is nearly flawless. Witty, smart, heartfelt, charming. One of my all-time favorites.

HOOKS that turned into GIMMICKS, or just didn't work (again, just my opinion, here...).

*Sleepless in Seattle - yes, I know I'm risking blasphemy with this choice, lol - this is a HUGE classic, and I adore Meg Ryan. But - for me - the "hook" (two people "meeting" long-distance through a talk radio show) didn't work, because of the ending. We never got to SEE their relationship truly form, and I felt like the movie just began when they laid eyes on each other and walked into the elevator. It left me hungry, unsatisfied. Good hook, weak execution.

* Runaway Bride - she's a runaway bride and he's the reporter covering the story. The dream team, Gere/Roberts, couldn't save this film for me. The hook was clever, but something about the writing fell flat and felt very contrived.

*Kate and Leopold - time-travel "hook" - gorgeous Hugh Jackman, a 19th century duke, is transported to modern day and falls in love with Meg Ryan. I'm on the fence about this one - I wanted to love it - the cast is tremendous - but again, the execution fell a little flat for me.

Just in viewing those examples, I would say that authenticity and execution were what set the good apart from the bad. You can have a FANTASTIC idea for a novel, but if it's not executed well, it won't matter. If the plot doesn't flow and make good sense, or if the characters are doing things, well, out of character, then the hook doesn't matter. It becomes a gimmick.

On the other end, if the hook itself feels contrived or manipulative or totally unrealistic, it probably won't work - no matter HOW well it's executed ("Return to Me" is the exception for me). But if a hook itself feels very natural, feels somewhat plausible, then yes, I think the reader will be happy to go along with it.

What are some other examples you can think of, regarding hooks and a gimmicks? They don't have to be romantic comedies. I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Elements of AWE

Found a fantastic article at Backspace (link). It's penned by literary agent Donald Maass, entitled "The Elements of Awe." It discusses fiction and how to capture your audience. Fascinating!

Part I -- takes a different slant on the "show, don't tell" concept, and talks about the phenomenon of word-of-mouth. Very thought-provoking.

Part II -- discusses what makes a novel so powerful, makes the reader unable to put down the book - it's the "awe" factor. He's made me look at characterization from an entirely different approach. Here's my favorite excerpt, wow:

Answer the following questions and apply the answers in your current manuscript:

*What happens in your story that makes your protagonist the most angry? Anticipate that anger three times in the story before the big event.

*What does your protagonist believe beyond all else? Create a story event that forces him or her to accept the opposite.

*What does your hero or heroine see about people that no one else does? Find three times when he or she will notice that thing at work.

*Why does your protagonist’s life matter? At the moment when that’s most true, allow your protagonist to humbly grasp their importance to someone else or to the great scheme of things.

I hope this has helped you as much as it's helped me. This is what I was talking about the other day, being a perpetual learner. I "thought" I knew all there was to know about show-don't-tell, and about how to make readers connect to characters. But I was wrong. This article has taken things I thought I knew and turned them on their head. Love it when that happens!!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Be a Perpetual Student!

We all know them - (or maybe we were one OF them!) - those perpetual college students who love the college life, the college atmosphere SO much, that they don't want to leave. Ever. They're the ones who take more classes, get another degree, stay in school just "one more semester." Sure, a few do it solely to escape the "real" world of being tied down to a career. But I think most do it for the sheer pleasure of learning - to continue their journey as lifelong learners. As writers, I think we should be, we must be, lifelong learners.

I always tell my writing students that there's no such thing as a "perfect" writer. We're all human, we all make mistakes, and there's never going to be a writer who reaches that place where he/she has to stop trying, stop improving. Serious writers should constantly be broadening their horizons, and have voracious appetites when it comes to anything dealing with writing. It's key, that we never stop learning and growing. That we're EAGER, lifelong students of the entire process.

Here's a great article I found yesterday, at a site called Backspace (link). The article is 10 Ways to be a Better Writer. It goes beyond the craft of writing, and gives excellent tips that will make us better writers, as a whole. My favorites are #1 and #2, which I incorporate into my Creative Writing classes each semester.

I hope always to be a perpetual student of writing. To read writers/agent blogs, to attend conferences, to read and read and read other books in my genre, to improve my grammar, to achieve my personal best through re-writes and editing. Because I think the moment we stop learning, we stop growing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Keep an Open Mind

I'm blessed to have a handful of people in my life who ask to read my novels. And when they do, I ask their opinions. Sure, part of me wants to hear nothing but praise and glory, someone to tell me how brilliant and perfect my writing is (ha!). But another part of me TRULY does want an honest critique. Because that's the way to make the writing better.

I've come across this lesson today, in fact. My mother (I call her my "personal editor") read an entire book of mine last week, bless her. She liked it very much - but - had some issues with certain plot points and characters. She carefully made her points, and I carefully listened, fighting that innate sensitivity that wants to hear nothing but praise. :-)

And here's the thing: every time she has a critique, I have to listen. Because if I don't, I risk her being right, and me being too stubborn to change my writing. It's ultimately the writing that suffers, not me. And, she, as an experienced reader, sees things that I, as the writer, cannot see. In my mind, in my head, the characters and plot look a very certain way. But if I fail to translate that to the page adequately enough, then something has gone wrong. That's why it's so important to get an outside opinion of your work - whether a close friend or writer's group. It's not that you should blindly take EVERY suggestion and immediately change it to fit your reader's opinion. Because critiquing writing is frighteningly subjective. What one person may love, another may hate.

The flip side of this coin, of course, is also that, after careful consideration of the critique, you might completely disagree with it. And that's okay, too. The most important thing is that you CONSIDERED someone else's opinion, and then came to the conclusion that your initial gut feeling was, in your mind, correct.

So, the best way to approach critiques, I think, is to listen, be open-minded, and ask yourself: "Is this person RIGHT? Does what he/she says make sense? And, will it improve the work?"

If you can answer "yes" to even one of those questions, then that passage, those characters, that weak plot, are worth a second look. But if you know in your heart of writer's hearts that the answer is "no," then you must stick to your gut, in the end.

Being critiqued is such an integral-but-difficult part of the process. In the end, listening to your gut trumps everything else. But - if you're unwilling even to HEAR another person's opinion of your story, then perhaps your writer's ego is getting in the way. And your writing, sadly, will suffer for it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Many thanks to April, who nominated me for a blog award! I haven't had time to fulfill the rules for the award, so I'll take a couple of shortcuts. Here are the rules:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award. Here's April's wonderful blog. Thank you!
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
1) I love my I-Pad
2) I am petrified of spiders
3) I can't believe I'm 40 years old.
4) I've never read a Jane Austen work all the way through (*shock!*), but I ADORE the movie versions of her books
5) I love Texas, my homeland, but secretly wish I could move to England...(okay, not so secret anymore, lol)
6) My favorite Starbucks drink is carmel apple cider - YUM!!!
7) I love drama in books/movies, but not in real life - can't stand it when there's major conflict in friendships or families. Makes me very uncomfortable and genuinely sad...
3. Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order...). This is where I'm taking the shortcut - I've listed my very favorite blogs on the left-hand menu of my blog, so I'll just direct the readers there and say that those are my 15 (or however many, lol - I've never counted them, and am constantly adding to the list).
4. Contact the bloggers you've picked and let them know about the award.

THANKS, April, for giving me the award! I'm always surprised/humbled when ANYONE reads my blog. I write it mostly just for me, and am so delighted to know anyone else reads it. So, thanks, readers!!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I Forgot to Eat!

Here I sit, at nearly 2pm, finally looking up from writing the new novel (I'm 14 pages in, yay!), and realize that I haven't eaten. Anything, all day.

Getting absorbed in the writing process is probably, for me, the best part of it. For awhile, I'm in another zone, another world. I'm chatting with characters I've created, getting more interested in their stories, and looking at a new landscape (in this case, England). It's thrilling, but sometimes, it's all-consuming.

So, whenever you forget to eat - or bathe, or feed the dog, or run important errands - know that it's you, giving priority to your writing. Now, I don't suggest starving for your art, or neglecting your dogs or your bills or your mate. But sometimes, it's necessary to put those things aside for half a morning, and focus - totally and utterly - on nothing but your writing.

Sometimes, forgetting to eat is a good thing...(hey! Maybe I'll lose a couple of pounds in the process!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Falling in Love...

Most agents, when giving a lecture or when blogging, will receive this oft-asked question: "What 'thing' are you looking for in a book that makes you want to represent it?" Their answer usually involves some version of this: "When I fall in love with it (the story, the characters)."

And it got me thinking -- sure, the publishing industry is just that: an industry. It's about business and money and sales figures and hand shakes and contracts. But, thankfully, it's also about the love of books. And when/if I'm blessed enough to get an agent, as much as I want her to be business-savvy and keep the realities of money in mind -- I also want her to LOVE my book. I want the "reader" part of her to fall for the characters, the story. I want to know that, if she saw my book on a shelf somewhere, the "reader" part of her would pick it up and buy it and stay up that night reading it. Because that, and not dollar signs, is ultimately what will drive her, will keep her confident in my book, will keep her optimistic in the face of rejection.

So, every time I read that answer from an agent, my hope lifts a little. Hope that the heart of writing still beats strongly in the publishing world - that it's not ALL about money. That it's also, somewhere along the way, about a genuine love of reading and writing...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What If??

I both love and hate this question. In real life, it can be paralyzing and even unhealthy - "What if I'd made this decision instead of that?" "What if I'd broken up with So-and-So instead of marrying him?" "What if I'd taken that job over this one?" It's unhealthy because there's no turning back. The answers are set in stone.

But when you're writing fiction, the "what if" question is ESSENTIAL. I find myself asking it all the time, especially in the early stages of brainstorming: What if this character does this instead of that? What if his/her background included such-and-such? What if she never knew how he felt, and based her actions on misinformation all these years?

Because when we ask those questions of our characters and plots, we're opening up HUGE possibilities. We're thinking of certain directions we might take our characters, and then pondering the consequences. In real life, when we ask that question, there's often regret attached - those decisions have already been made, and so we're looking back, wondering about the ripple effects IF we'd taken certain paths that are no longer available to choose. But in brainstorming, we're able to take the "what if" question and play with it in future tense, where anything could still happen.

Right now, I'm brainstorming a new novel, and I thought I had the main plotline all worked out. Until I asked myself that "what if" question about an hour ago. Suddenly, different possibilities have opened themselves up, character-wise, and it just might take the book in a whole new direction. We'll see....

So, don't be afraid to ask yourself the "what if" question with your characters and your plot. In fact, ask it consciously. You never know where it might take you...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Another Great Agent Link

Lately, I've been discovering more and more agent blogs. I'm finding them IMMENSELY helpful, not only with learning more about the "business" side of publishing (you get a real insider track from agent blogs!) - but also more about the craft of writing, itself. So, even if you never plan to try and get published, these agent blogs can still be extremely helpful.

Passing this one along: BookEnds, LLC

I've also perma-linked it. Enjoy!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

E-books - Food for Thought

I took a peek at the C-SPAN channel over the weekend (sounds boring, no?). They were covering the NY Book Expo all weekend, showing panels with authors/agents/editors, and experts in the publishing industry. Fascinating! The hot topic, it seemed, in every session, was the boom of digital books, and the worries over how that will affect the industry as a whole.

Today, I found this article online (via Writer Beware): Will e-Books Make Midlist Authors Extinct?

Very informative, and sadly, not very hopeful. It seems that, by this account, the best-selling authors will be just fine in the digital-book age, while the lesser-known midlist authors will suffer. Of course, he could be wrong (and I sort of hope he is). But what he says makes perfect sense. How many times have you entered a bookstore to purchase one book -- but left with MORE than one, just by browsing titles and looking at interesting covers? That same experience can't be duplicated in a digital bookstore. Not really.

So, what are your thoughts on digital books? Do you think they'll greatly affect the industry, or "midlist" authors as a whole? I guess, in the end, time will tell...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Searching for an Agent is like Dating

As you might know, I'm currently in the throws of trying to get an agent. Many of you are in the same boat, I'm sure.

Well, as I was going through the exhaustive submission sprocess, it occurred to me, how much trying to get published could be compared The awkwardness, the nervousness, the fear of rejection:

Step 1: The Meet-Cute

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS: Writer researches agents (online, in agent books, by word-of-mouth), looking for agents who are compatible with his/her work. Then, writer holds breath and sends a query letter.

DATING: Girl keeps eye out for cute/nice/intelligent guys with similar tastes/beliefs. She searches at work, at the grocery store, at bookstores, maybe even online. She sees an interesting guy and makes initial contact.

Step 2: Reaching Out - Best Foot Forward

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS: Writer's initial query is polite and professional, presenting only his/her very best self. No typos, no grammar mistakes, no over-the-top/unprofessional gimmicks.

DATING: Guy asks girl out, and she presents to him her best self at the dinner table (cute outfit, big smile, good mood, dazzling conversation). No smeared eyeliner or obsessive talk about The Ex or food stuck in her teeth.

Step 3: Waiting (and waiting...) for the Phone to Ring

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS: Hours, days, weeks, even months go by, and still the writer is made to wait for something - anything - from prospective agencies. Sometimes, he/she hears nothing at all. Ever.

DATING: After a good date (or what she presumes was a good date), girl is made to wait hours/days for the guy to call. Sometimes, she hears nothing at all. Ever.

Step 4: The Final Verdict -- Acceptance or Rejection?

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS: One of two things eventually happens: The Call ("Yes! I'd love to represent your manuscript!") or The Rejection ("Sorry, not for us...").

DATING: The Call ("Would you go out with me again?") or The Rejection (Silence).

The main similarity here is vulnerability. We writers are putting our best selves out there, taking a chance. And feeling semi-comfortable with that vulnerability is crucial. Because, as with love/dating, if we become jaded, close ourselves off, and never try (to get published) -- we never will.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Conscious Creativity <-- Oxymoron?

It's really difficult to pin down down exactly where/how/when creative ideas can strike. For me, they seem to come out of nowhere, usually at the worst possible times (while I'm driving(!) or running some all-important errand that can't be stopped, in order to write down this stream of ideas).

But what about a conscious effort to be creative? Why is it that when we try too hard to be creative, the ideas dissipate, or fall flat?

I have a couple of techniques here that work for me. They're each one step below "trying too hard":

1) sitting down and opening my brainstorming document and reading back over previous ideas. More often than not, just immersing myself back into those original ideas creates newer ideas, and the juices start to flow.

2) letting my mind "go there" - as I'm going about my day, I allow my mind to drift (notice I didn't say "force" my mind, because that's when I usually run dry) and to think about the characters, mull over the story, in general. No pressure, here - just setting my mind on the book throughout my day. A sort of "relaxed" focus. Many times, when I do that, I'll begin to think of NEW/fresh ideas, and they slowy start to tumble on top of each other, one-by-one. Then, of course, I scramble to find a way to write them down. :-)

*edited to add: I just found this quote at a literary agent's site. Exactly what I was saying (but better-worded, lol). Great timing, no?

I don't find ideas so much as they find me. A writer needs to be available to the lightning that, if he or she is lucky, strikes. ~Frederick Busch

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quote Time!

Found another great one by Stephen King (it's soooo funny, how I'm too wimpy to read his works, but I couldn't agree MORE with every single piece of writing advice he gives. "Dear Mr. King, please write something without blood or serial killers or murderous cars, so that I can enjoy your amazing prose. Sincerely, Me"). lol

Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it's work … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. ~Stephen King (link)

So true. If a writer crafts it well enough, then a seemingly-meaningless object, a piece of dialogue, a gesture, can mean everything. It goes back, I think, to BEADS. The importance of symbolism and of carrying those symbols (subtly) all the way through a work. Something about those beads immediately enriches a work with meaning and depth.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Brainstorming Hilarity

Several months ago, my mom (and proofreader!) helped me brainstorm the revisions an agent had just asked of me. I was petrified about not getting the changes "right," so she agreed to be my sounding board, as we bounced (sometimes outlandish) ideas off of each other: What about this? No, no -- how about this? Well, sure, but what if I have So-and-So do Such-and-Such? Hmm. Don't think that'll work. Okay, but what if he does Such-and-Such instead?

And so on. You get the idea. I remember with great clarity the seriousness of that conversation, but looking back, it was really something along the lines of THIS <--video found at The Gatekeeper's blog. Hilarious stuff!! LOL