For most of my writing career…okay…throughout my writing career, there have been a few people who have continually told me that I needed to “Get a real job!” It didn’t matter that when my boys were small I actually made more money freelance writing than I would have at any of the real jobs I was qualified to do. In fact, I probably saved more money by staying home and writing than I would have made at one of those real jobs. I rarely paid for childcare or transportation costs. I didn’t need a fancy wardrobe (a couple of nice outfits for interviews were plenty), and we saved a fortune on food because I was home and cooked economical meals. For us, it was an ideal set up.

And yet, there were some people who thought I should go get a real job…or at least go back to school and get a degree so that when my kids were all in school, I could get a good job. These are people who love me and want the best for me, but I have to admit the pressure hasn’t always been good for my confidence. Some of them see my writing as a “nice little hobby.” Others…well, I’m not sure what they think.

 Now that our boys are all in college it seems that there is even more pressure.

 “Go back to school before it’s too late!”

“What will you do if something happens and Paul can’t work?”

“Get a job! Help save for retirement!”

And if they think I don’t hear what they’re saying, they are so very wrong!

Although my husband makes a good living, there are times when I feel guilty that I’m home pursuing my writing. Should I go to school? Should I look for a job?

And then my husband, Paul, will come home from work and ask to read what I’ve written. “Wow this is great!” he’ll say or “This is amazing you’re such an incredible writer!” Now, I know he’s my husband and probably more than a little biased, but his belief in me is all I really need.

Then there are our three sons, all gifted artists in a variety of mediums. I tried to teach them to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams, never waste their gifts. I don’t want them to settle for jobs that just “pay the bills.” I want them to follow their passions, do the things that they’ve truly want to do and never wonder…what if? So what am I saying if I walk away from the opportunity to finally follow my real dreams? Did I mean what I said to them? Do I really believe you can make your dreams come true?

The cool thing is my guys are my biggest supporters. My kids don’t seem to think it’s too late for me to pursue my dreams. In fact, occasionally they even read what I write. And Paul…well, every time I mention going back to school or getting a real job he looks at me and says, “Just write!”

So what about you?  Who thinks your writing is a nice little hobby? Who tells you to “get a real job”? And who tells you to “just write”?

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Writers Behaving Badly

March 30, 2011

Any writer anywhere near a Twitter account for the last week has seen the goings-on over at Big Al’s Books and Pals Blog. A self-published author received a negative review, and she self-imploded. The whole circus made me think about writer behavior on the Internet and how our actions impact our careers.

When I was writing non-fiction, I wrote an article about cloth vs. disposable diapers. In the article, I aimed for balanced information, but I guess it was too balanced. Some readers were offended by my less-than-hard-line stance on the topic. They took to newsgroups and message boards, bashing the magazine and me. I could handle the name calling, but what I couldn’t handle were the attacks on my journalistic integrity. When hate mail started coming by email to the magazine’s front office, I asked for permission to receive and respond to those emails. And I did.

I understand the need to defend oneself after a personal (or seemingly personal) attack. What I don’t understand is telling a bunch of strangers (potential readers, editors, agents, publishers, etc.) and a book reviewer to f*#k off. It’s pitiful at best and career suicide at worst.

While I sit here shaking my head, I’m reminded that I’m not a published fiction author (yet), and I don’t know what it feels like to receive a negative review. I’m thinking I’ll pass on reading any reviews once I’m blessed enough to have them written. Although I have self-control and a somewhat-thick skin, I also have an ego and a heart—both of which (when bruised or battered) lead me into sketchy situations from time to time. I don’t want to risk the self-implosion. The internet makes it far too easy to make asses out of ourselves while the whole world is watching.

So to borrow from my mother’s bits of wisdom: “Behave. Do your best. They’re watching.”

Sound familiar? Little did we know the proverbial “they” would end up being the entire world.

How Cliché!

March 29, 2011

So what about it? Do you ever find that you’ve written phrases or scenes that are just too familiar…even cliché?

Things were moving along with my latest project. I was watching the words just flow onto the pages and feeling pretty good about it, until I read an online post by an editor. “Just be careful of cliches,” she wrote, and then she went on to explain that too many heroines meet the hero by literally running into him as they turn a corner, groceries (or brief case full of papers) spilling and flying everywhere. I stopped cold. Had I really written that scene…as the opening to my book? No, I couldn’t have done that and not even been aware of how trite and cliché it sounded!

But mine was different…really…I mean she wasn’t carrying groceries or a brief case, and the hunk she ran into…well, he was soooo hunky that you really didn’t mind that the scene had been played out a thousand times on paper, in movies and on TV sitcoms. Right?

I handed the first chapter to my husband and said, “Read this again with a really critical eye!”

He read the pages I’d handed him, smiled and handed them back. “Honey, it’s beautiful, really. I love that scene, it’s funny and charming, and she kind of reminds me of you.” (Translation…I’m your hunky hero right?)

“Don’t you see it? It’s outrageously cliché…in fact so cliché that an editor mentions this exact scene when she talks about plot cliches!”

“But it works,” he says. “I wouldn’t change it.”

Of course, I changed it. I went back and re-read what I’d written with a more critical eye. This wasn’t the only cliché, just the most obvious…and humiliating even if I fixed it and no one ever knew…but of course, now all of you know too!

Does this mean there are no more clichés in my writing? Hahaha! If only…I’ve found that cliches are much harder to avoid than I would have thought. But, it does mean I’m more aware of them, and if they are there, there’s a good chance that I consciously chose to put them there…no guarantees. When I read, I’m always disappointed in plots and scenes that are just too predictable, so I keep this in mind as I fill blank pages.

And what about you? Are there cliches in your writing? Do you think that they work, or do you ‘avoid them like the plague’? No, really?

I wrote a story once where the protagonist, a teenager, is killed by her abusive mother. At the time, I was a teen, and I sat down with my typewritten pages and read them aloud to my mother, who promptly informed me that she wished I had written different subject matter because…

“What if someone thinks you’re writing about my relationship with you?”

I know Mom was thrilled when I tossed the controversial subject matter aside and spent over a decade writing for magazines that she could purchase in her local grocery or book store. She read those articles. The subject matter was safe: pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. I often heard her proclaim my genius to friends and acquaintances as she encouraged them to pick up the latest issue of this or that.

I’m not expecting a similar reaction to my romance novels.

:Gulp:

My name is Elley Franco and I write about falling in love, including sex–explicit sex. I’m not ashamed, but I’m pretty sure some people I know will be.

The young people in my life:

A friend’s teenage son asked if he could read my book once it’s published. I smiled and rambled off a generic, “Oh, I’m not sure you’d want to read what I write. It’s romance.” In an ensuing conversation with this child’s mom, I stated that I liken what I do to an actor or a director working on an R-rated movie. I’ve heard plenty of entertainers say, “My children don’t see my movies, because they aren’t old enough.”

Well, ditto.

For now, but when they are old enough, I’m thinking they (my boys at least) could be fairly mortified by their mother’s (sick) mind.

My grandmother:

When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest stood up at a family dinner and proudly proclaimed his mommy was going to push his new baby brother out of her vagina. My grandmother choked on her meatball, tsk-tsk’d until her beet-red blush passed and then (I’m sure) said a half dozen prayers for my heathen soul.

If vagina bothered her…just wait.

The Sisters of the Divine Spirit:

Ah, Catholic school, where I wrote for the school newsletter. Topics included parochial league soccer games and a poem about daffodils.

If I write about a soccer game today, more than likely the hero is playing without a shirt, and the heroine is ogling him in a deep POV that leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. Following the game, the hero lays the heroine down in a bed of daffodils, and they make love. (And they’re not married. And they use birth control.)

I can see why Sister Martha might think she failed in providing me with a sound Catholic education.

But I know who I am, and I know what I write. Sex is a big part of romantic love. I think too many of us were raised in a society and in homes where sex was viewed as a necessary evil. And if it ever was celebrated, it was only celebrated in the context of religious gifts and procreation. I’m tired of that portrayal. I’ve been married to a man I adore for fifteen years, and you know what? I like to have sex. It’s not “my marital duty,” and it’s not because we’re trying to conceive. I just like the way it feels. Maybe that speaks to my husband’s talent between the sheets, but I think many women–who don’t sleep with my husband–are having a similar experience with their own husbands (or boyfriends).

Sex is fun! It’s fun to read about. It’s fun to think about. It’s fun to do.

I meant what I said and I said what I meant. I’m not ashamed to write sex—100 percent. 

How about you?

Although I would consider my non-fiction writing ‘creative’ non-fiction, I’d have to say that I made sure that I only wrote factual articles. Not that there was a lot of controversy in the magazine and newspaper articles I wrote.

During the five years I wrote cooking columns there were occasional letters or phone calls from purist cooks who didn’t like my use of a bread machine for my pizza dough, or that felt my tamales were not authentic because I replaced the lard with vegetable oil…and they were right, but I didn’t claim purity or authenticity, just what I believed to be good food.

Whether I was writing a cooking column, parenting article or a piece on public speaking, I did my research, used expert sources and only wrote “the facts.”

So here I am making up stories…and the plot is fiction. The characters exist only in the world in my head. But I find myself verifying “facts,” as if the story were real (as I said, in my head it is). Does that street really exist? Did the South Bay Surfing Santa surf during those years? Would it have been high tide—low tide—at that time? Is there a parking meter there?

My husband, Paul, reads every page as I write. “Hey,” he says as he looks over my latest pages. “I thought she lived on Pier Avenue!”

“Well…she did,” I answer. “But then I was down there this morning, and she can’t possibly live there. There aren’t any homes or apartments.”

“Who cares?” he asks “It’s fiction.”

The truth is he’s right, and the story works better if she lives on Pier Ave. I can just make up my own street, maybe Pier Way or Harbor Lane, and put an apartment there for her. IT’S JUST REALLY HARD TO CHANGE THE FACTS!

So anyway, she lives on Pier Ave.!

What about you? How far do you take fact in your fiction?

By the middle of a non-fiction article, it doesn’t matter if I’m feeling less enamored with a source. Say Dr. Horatio Blowhard provides me with brilliant information to end all colic, but he’s harsh and behaves badly during our phone interview. I don’t need to love him or even understand him in order to write my article.

But, with fiction it’s different.

My stories begin with characters not plots. I’m usually going about my business, driving kids from Point A to Point B or unloading the dishwasher when one or two people pop into my head and start talking. If I like these people, they will more than likely become H&H for my next story.

I begin with such enthusiasm, learning all the wonderful things there are to learn about someone early in a relationship. There are a lot of smiles and deep sighs. After all, she’s beautiful and funny; he’s sexy and romantic. And then, the rose-colored glasses get crushed under the weight of something ridiculously stupid. The heroine cries too much. The hero’s kind of a dick. Crap!

So I push back in my chair and stare at the screen and all 20k words I’ve managed to write before I realized these two people suck.

“Fine,” I say. “We’re breaking up.”

And at first they don’t seem to care.

But after a few hours—days in some cases—they start to see what I see (or I start to see what they see), and we meet for coffee and a conversation about how we can make things work. After all, I don’t want to give up 20K words without fighting for them first.

How do I fight to keep the love (for my characters) alive?

  • I daydream about them, especially using music. Like any relationship, the more you keep that special someone on your mind, the more your affection grows. The key is keeping in mind their positive characteristics. If you dwell on the negative, then this tip will backfire fast.
  • I find pictures of real people who look like H&H. In a college PR class, I learned that having a good headshot is important for success in business, because people connect with a face. I know as writers our imaginations are a bit more active than most people’s, but even the most vivid imagination can benefit from a picture ripped from a magazine, a picture that brings you eye to eye with the one(s) you love.
  • I talk to my characters and even interview them. As I go about my non-writing day, we have conversations in my mind. I ask them questions, and—at the risk of sounding like I’m bonkers—they give me answers.

In the end, it all boils down to respect. The more time I spend with my characters, the more I understand their motivations and behaviors, and while understanding them might not make me like what they’re doing on any given page, I do still love them. And that love carries us through to the final page.

Write Rights

March 23, 2011

Years ago, I belonged to the Southwest Manuscripters here in the Los Angeles South Bay. The group has been around for about 40 years and is very proud of the fact that Ray Bradbury is one of their founding members.

Anyway, I moved to Wyoming for six years and then back to Los Angeles, and I hadn’t been to a meeting in maybe nine years or so. So last night, just as I was about to roll out pizza dough for our weekly Monday night pizza and sit-coms, I remembered that it was also the third Monday of the month, Manuscripters meeting. So I put the pizza dough in the fridge, ran a brush through my hair and raced out the door.

It was a great meeting to attend. The speaker was Louise Nemschoff, an attorney practicing entertainment and intellectual property law here in Los Angeles.

Since I haven’t sold a novel yet, I haven’t had to deal with contract issues, but it’s been in the back of my mind. For non-fiction the issues were pretty minimal. I generally sold first North American rights, retained the right to re-sell previously published work, and advances and royalties weren’t an issue. For most of my work, I got paid a flat rate and was either paid when I was given the assignment or on publication. Not terribly complicated.

A novel is an entirely different story (pun intended). You put an incredible amount of time into this one piece of work, as well as a chunk of your heart and a little of your soul. So, clearly you want to be well informed before you sign those contracts.

At the Manuscripters, Ms. Nemschoff had about an hour to address a diverse group of writers, so the information she could share was of course somewhat generic, but what she did do was get me thinking about some important issues.

What rights do I want to sell? Will I have a say in the rights that I sell? What about electronic rights? (Something that wasn’t much of an issue in my non-fiction days.)  Will I own my pseudonym if I use one? What about advances? How much will I have to pay the publisher to buy copies of my own book? Will my publisher insure me against lawsuits? Is a “next book option” really a good thing for me? Do I want an agent? Do I want an attorney? Should I register the copyright myself?

Obviously, I left the meeting with a lot to think about. Probably the best advice given, although Ms. Nemschoff gave a lot of great information, was to join the Author’s Guild. I’ll be going to their website when I’m done here.

So what legal issues have you run across in your writing career? Are there things you wish you had known before you sold your work? Advice you were given that really helped you out? Questions you have that the rest of us might need to think about?

A Formula for Fiction

March 22, 2011

Is there such a thing? I thought so. I read. I study what I read. I see the structure of the story. I note the climbs and plummets in each rollercoaster plot. And then I write, using what I’ve read as a roadmap.

Should be easy enough. I’ve been writing non-fiction with various formulas for over a decade. How-to. Persuasive. Opinion. The topics change. The words shuffle. But the bones are the same. Maybe that didn’t make me the most creative non-fiction writer, but I was productive.

Maybe that’s what’s so frustrating now.

I want a fail-proof formula for fiction. I want to sit down, following a path, write a book and see it published.

:Head shake: Obviously that’s not happening.

Oh I’m sitting. And I’m trying to follow a path, but somehow I always end up in the waist-high briars and I can’t seem to get back on track. Don’t get me wrong, I do finish my books. But that’s when the real struggle begins. Because without a formula, I don’t know where to submit.

When a manuscript with an alpha hero comes in at 55K words, “category” comes to mind—maybe even Harlequin Desire. Seems reasonable. But what about the swearing and the almost erotic quality to my sex scenes?

:Face palm: I’ve gone off the path again.

So I replace all the F-words with tamer expressions, and I rewrite the sex scenes to include less of a blush factor, and then I save this edited version while keeping the original intact. And still I’m not certain I’ve made the right decision.

:Sigh: I miss the days when an editor said, “Give me 1,200K words on cloth vs. disposable. Two expert sources. Two anecdotal sources. Evenly balanced.” Then I researched. I interviewed. I wrote. And there was no question where the article would go upon completion.

While I miss the straightforward process of writing non-fiction, I don’t miss the subject matter. I would rather make things up than regurgitate reality. And while I’m making things up—on the path or off the path—I tend to be crazy happy. It’s the publishing part that frustrates me—the “where do I belong?” and the “where does this fit?”

Have you found a formula for fiction that works for you? Do you write the book and then find the publisher? Or do you write with a certain publisher and line in mind?

What Makes the Cut?

March 21, 2011

When writing magazine articles, I’d often have a week or two or even three to come up with a 1500- to 2,000-word article. In 2000 words, you have to become skillful at getting to the point, kind of like updating your status on Twitter. Less is more. Not only did I have more time to write fewer words, but I spent much of that time cutting words. In fact, I often spent more time cutting than writing. So in writing a 50,000- to 90,000-word novel, things change a little bit.

First of all, if I write 2,000 words every week or so, the first draft of my book won’t be finished for at least a year–maybe two. My goal is to write at least a thousand words a day. And, if I go with the “less is more” strategy, my full-length book will become a short story, instead of a novel…many of my ideas have become short stories, and that’s not where I want my writing to go right now. After more than 20 years of trying to get the most impact from the fewest words, I’m trying to switch gears.

I catch myself re-reading pages, and cutting words or sentences, and realizing, that I wrote a thousand words a day that week, and then managed to cut out 3,000 words from the last two weeks work. Yikes! Maybe I should work on movie scripts instead. I could take a full-length novel and make it a 90-minute movie with no problem. Very often I like the edited version better, but then I’m worried about making the scene too short, not getting enough into the chapter.

As I said in a previous rant, I’m not writing with a real outline. What I’m hoping will happen as I get further along is that when I finish my first draft, I’ll be able to go back through and actually fill in information and imagery. Not just fluff to pump up the word count, but real substance to give the story shape. My draft would become something of an outline for the final product. (Hey, that kind of solves my outlining issues!)

So what makes the cut when you’re writing? Do you find that you want to slash words, thoughts, paragraphs…even whole scenes? Or if you moved to script writing, would your work be a made-for-television mini-series? I’d love to hear what makes the cut?

I’m not talking lyrics here—but I do appreciate them. No, I’m talking about the marriage of the words I write to the music I hear. I rarely write in silence. In fact, the only time I do is during editing when I read a manuscript out loud. Sometimes I turn the music down so when the playlist shuffles I’m not startled by Eminem when what I really need is some Adele. Sometimes I keep the same song on repeat until I’ve written a scene or an entire chapter.

When I’m stuck, I put on a certain song, listen to the lyrics, feel the emotion and before long I’m unstuck. My H&Hs have their own songs, just like my husband and I do. My H&Hs have their own playlists too. I think of the songs I handpick for their stories as the soundtrack to their lives.

I think it all boils down to enriching the writing experience. I’ve heard of writers who write near a sunny window or with fresh cut flowers on their desks. Some don’t sit down at the computer until they’ve poured a glass of wine. They’re not interested in writing drunk; they’re simply enriching the experience.

How do you enrich the writing experience?   Does music play a part in your creative writing process? Something else?