I didn’t watch the royal wedding live. I slept, and then I paid bills. The thing is, when you’re not a royal, you have to do things like pay your “prince’s” life insurance policy premium on time,  because if you don’t and his brother comes calling with a hoard of usurpers to do unspeakable things, you’re left raising little ones who’ve suddenly lost their place in the line of succession. Real life sucks sometimes…

But it’s also incredibly wonderful.

As I sat with tears streaming down my face, watching clips of Kate walking into Westminster Abbey, my 15-year-old rolled his eyes and hissed, “It’s just a wedding mom. They’re royal goons. Why do you care?”

I care, because I believe in the fairytale.

(Okay, this is where I get sappy, so you can stop reading if you’re a perpetual pessimist or you hate love.)

I write romance because it’s what I know. Of course, I read romance, so I know the genre through the amazing books that have touched my heart. But, I also know romance, because I live it. (Get your finger out of your throat.)

Twenty years ago, I asked a guy with an amazing smile to prom as I drove him to school (Not your traditional romantic moment). He said, “Sure. Why not?” (Also not your traditional romantic moment) And I may have swooned (Not traditional, just pathetic).

By prom, we were dating. I’m still not sure if that was the result of him really liking me or wanting to get especially lucky on prom night (which he didn’t, a fact that still makes me laugh). After all, he was sort of royalty—popular, athletic—and I was a sort of commoner—drama geek.

After prom, and after the prom gown didn’t go the way most prom gowns go (to the floor of a seedy hotel room), I expected him to walk away.

But for some reason, he kept calling. He liked me.  

(I just texted him and asked him why. His response follows.)

  

See? I told you. Romance. After twenty years together.

Dreamy sigh!

If you made it through the drivel and you’re still reading this far, let me end by saying I watched the royal wedding and I write romance because I’m a sucker for love. Real love. True love. The bone melting love that hits you in the middle of the night when you cuddle up next to the person you’ve promised to honor and cherish and you realize somehow in all the suck of life, you got really, really lucky.

Happy Wedding Day, Will and Kate. May your life together be filled with love.

Years ago, I belonged to the California Writer’s Club, the Southwest Manuscripters and for awhile a small writer’s group in Palmdale, Calif. I’ve recently rejoined the Southwest Manuscripters and have attended meetings of the Los Angeles and Orange County Chapters of Romance Writers of America (RWA), trying to decide which to join. (I’ve decided to join both.)

Whether you’re an aspiring writer or a published writer, a good writer’s group can inspire, motivate, educate and offer networking opportunities that you might not have had otherwise. If you write full time, it can also give you some outside contact with the world…contact with people who understand your passion for words.

The writer’s groups I’ve belonged to are not critique groups, although many of them have critique groups you can join. They have guest speakers ranging from editors, agents and entertainment lawyers to writers published in nearly every area. Some invite experts in various fields to speak on areas that writers often research such as forensics and the court system or technology for writers.

One of the things I love about the groups that I’ve belonged to is the range of experience.  In the Southwest Manuscripters group, we have members such as renowned science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, poets who have won local contests, well-published non-fiction writers, etc. It’s an amazing range of published and aspiring writers who support each other, network and share their experience and passion for writing.

Many groups hold contests, share writing opportunities and market news. Each group has its own personality.

There are many online communities for writers as well. As we’ve said before, Elley and I met at the Harlequin Community, a great place for romance writers to talk to published writers, learn from editors and polish their skills. Writer’s Digest has a great site for writers of any genre of fiction or non-fiction to connect, learn from experts and meet other writers.

I love the convenience of the online groups (just log on at any time), and I’ve made many connections in online groups that I might not have made otherwise because of geography. I love the energy of the groups that I attend in person, the opportunity to meet other writers, agents, editors and other experts, shake hands, hear them speak and interact.

Do you belong to any writer’s groups? What do you love about your groups? What have you learned? What works or doesn’t work for you?

Creative Outlets

April 26, 2011

I like to think that I’m a creative person. After all, I’m a writer, so ‘creative’ right? And, there are times when I just can’t sit still with a pen and paper or at my computer for another moment. Sometimes I’ll head to the beach to walk, or dance to 80’s music in my living room (assuming I’m alone). Sometimes I need to be creative…without words.

For me this usually means cooking or sewing.

I love to cook, and although there are days when it’s just a chore, most days it’s an outlet for creativity and a way to show my family that I love them. When I’m writing, if anyone knows what I’m working on, they might see a connection to what’s happening in my kitchen. If I’m working on a romantic scene in my book, I’m very likely to continue that mood and serve scallops sautéed in garlic butter with roasted parmesan asparagus, rice pilaf and liqueur-soaked apple upside down cupcakes for desert. Sometimes if I’m trying to get into a character’s head, I’ll feed that character. Poached salmon with rosemary green beans for the attorney who wants my current heroine, and Flemish beef stew with au gratin potatoes for his hunky competition that drives a pick-up truck! If my heroine is having issues, chances are I’m baking cookies—delicate carrot cookies with orange peel frosting, oatmeal cookies, double chocolate thumbprints, or maybe I’ll try something entirely new.

None of this of course is good for my waistline, but it does serve as creative inspiration and get me back to work writing.

 About this time of year (yes, I know it’s only spring), I also like to get busy working on Christmas. I’ll flip through my sewing books or browse the Internet for ideas, and I’ll start working on projects for holiday gifts and decorating our home. If my writing isn’t flowing the way I like or a chapter just isn’t working, I’ll sew. It’s like therapy for me…and sometimes my characters, and I’ll pick up my pen again ready to write.

All three of my boys are excellent writer’s (if I do say so myself), and each has other creative outlets. Two are artists. They all are musicians, and my middle son writes and composes his own music.

I’m guessing that each of you has other creative outlets. What do you do when the words aren’t flowing? What are your other outlets for creativity?

Hands down, consistent reading and daily writing have taught me the most about writing romance novels. However, a few other experiences have sped up the learning curve:

 1.      Books about Craft

On Writing by Stephen King is my favorite, and highly inspirational. I dog ear, underline and nod my way through the pages. There are specific writing tips to put into practice every day, but mostly a read through acts as a pep rally for those times when I’m certain I should quit and find another way to waste the hours.

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass runs a close second behind the King book. Truthfully, the Maass book contains more practical knowledge (exercises). I see an immediate change in my writing (for the better) when I’m working through this book.

2.      Classes and Workshops

Before You Hit Send (Angela James) opened my eyes to mistakes of overconfidence and simplified my writing, allowing me to hear a rhythm in my words. This workshop, which is packed with far too much information to process the first time around, is a must-take…over and over again.

Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist (Margie Lawson) taught me “atmosphere.” Before this course, I wrote dialogue with little in between. How I love my dialogue! But one line after the other—no matter how brilliant—doesn’t make a sensual experience for the reader. This course taught me how to balance my writing. (But be careful, if you’re like me, you’ll be so thrilled with your new “embellishment” skills that you’ll go overboard and need to de-purple-prose-ify your manuscript.)

The “W” Plot…or the Other White Meat for Plotters® (Karen Docter) is the Sweet Baby Jesus! workshop for synopsis haters. I have read other instruction and taken a workshop specific to writing synopses, and nothing has worked but this one. While I sought out the workshop for the benefits to synopsis writing, I also learned and adopted new and effective plotting techniques, which is quite the miracle for a onetime pantser.

3.      The Good, Old-fashioned Critique Partner (Not that my CP is old. She’s younger than me!)

I’d thought about jumping into the CP relationship off and on over the years. I wanted the insight into my writing, but then again I didn’t. Writing with only one critic is so much easier when the ostrich syndrome has a hold on me. But the longer I wrote, the more I ached for the feedback. I tried an ideal reader (Stephen King does this too!), but she didn’t pack a lot of punch behind her criticism—not the kind that comes from another writing.

I stumbled onto my CP at the Harlequin forums. She was actively looking and posted in the Find a Critique Partner forum, which I perused daily—just in case. I emailed her. We exchanged first chapters as a trial, and the rest is history.

I write for many reasons, not the least of which is publication. For years, I wrote simply to clear my head and for the sheer enjoyment of it. But when publication entered the mix as something more than a niggling dream, I understood that more than reading and writing had to be done. So far, these are the experiences I value the most.

Maybe they can help you too.

Tall, skyscrapers lined the street, leaving just a peak-a-boo view of the sky…no, wait… the endless prairie stretched out before them, nothing but antelope and sagebrush for hundreds of miles…no, no, how about…waves pounded the beach, while seagulls squawked overhead…

How do you decide location for your book? Do you choose someplace you’ve lived? Does the spot become your next vacation destination? Do you let the character tell you, knowing that it’s easy enough to research any location? Or do you create a location that fits your story and exists only in your head?

So far, I’ve used only real locations. I’ve lived in most of the places where my stories have been set, but there have been a couple that I’ve never even visited. I’m definitely most comfortable with places I’ve actually been. I like experiencing the sights and smells first hand, feeling the energy and pace that are so different from place to place. Of course, even visiting a place doesn’t give you a true perspective of a place. Living somewhere takes it to a different level. You start to know the people, the culture, the politics in a whole new way.

For some stories, culture and setting are critical to the plot, and for others, they are merely a backdrop. How and where a hero will propose to a heroine in Uniontown, Ohio may be different from how and where the hero would propose in San Diego, California. The weather the heroine experiences while trying to race to a loved ones hospital bedside will be different in Phoenix, Arizona than in Sheridan, Wyoming…and if you’ve created your own little Narnia, well, then your reader needs enough information to feel like they’re being transported to the unique land that you’ve created.

So what about you? Do you set your stories in places you’ve lived? Visited? Researched? Or totally fabricated? Do you put your characters places you’ve been? Or long to visit? Is it important to you that you can physically walk down the streets your character walks, or does a virtual walk on Google Maps give you what you need?

I write “by the seat of my pants,” without outline, without sticky tabs, without…direction, therefore I must be a pantser. My characters appear in my head. They wave. They smile. They chat. I become attached to them, and I start to think, “There’s a story here.” So I sit, and I write as much as they’re willing to tell me. But when they stop talking, I get stuck.

I’ve written four complete manuscripts this way. At times, the process is painful. Other times, the process is euphoric. There’s really no in between.

Maybe I’m a pantser, but I’m also a bi-polar writer. And this past week, the “mood swings” became unbearable.

Chapter 10 of my WIP didn’t meet my expectations. The story felt less and less about the H&H and more and more about some obscure corporate takeover. As I wrote Chapter 11 and moved on to Chapter 12, I had no idea where I was going. I simply begged my characters to show me the way. In that state of confusion, I sent Chapter 10 off to my CP (Hi, Nicole! Me: waving like a kindergartener), and she promptly sent it back with a big old tongue splatter.

CP: “You lost your way.”

Me: “Damn, you caught me.”

I decided to break from WIP and switch focus to my last finished manuscript, the one that needs a synopsis. I sat. I stared at the blank page. Because even with help from a synopsis class I’m taking, nothing takes shape.

Fed up, I went back over all the synopsis advice I’ve collected. Writing one seems easy enough. If I include the character arcs, conflicts, the story structure and plot then I should have a decent synopsis. I opened a new document. I wrote down everything I knew about my characters, the conflict, and then I realized…I can’t follow my own story arcs.

Bam! (The sound of my head falling to the table.)                          

Upon further research, I realized I can’t name the specific plot points in anything I’ve written.

Crash! (The sound of the table collapsing under my full body weight.)

Now, that doesn’t mean the specific plot points aren’t there…it may mean that I’m simply not recognizing them. So I do more research and finally turn to Karen Docter for instruction on the W plot.

Ding-a-ling-a-ling! (The sound of victory bells ringing in my head.)

After three days of working with Karen Docter’s plotting exercises, I wrote a synopsis I didn’t struggle through or hate. I also identified some areas of my ms in needs of tightening or tweaking, and I’m pretty sure my WIP will get a second chance at a promising future.

I need to plot. Who knew? I should have. Heck, I don’t like to drive across town without my GPS squawking in my ear. I keep three separate calendars: paper, Cozi and iPhone. I’m a recovered bulimic! (Can you say control issues?) I’ll never know why I struggled through writing four full mss “by the seat of my pants” when plotting feels so damn good.

I’m neither a pantser nor a plotter. I’m just a writer, willing to do whatever it takes to get the story told.

Would you buy a book with embedded music written specifically for that book?

I know. On Monday morning I wasn’t even sure that an electronic book would have a cover and was amazed to discover that it could be autographed. But by Monday evening, I had learned that if you have the right technology, you can have music embedded in your e-book.

The speaker at Monday night’s meeting of the Southwest Manuscripters was Stephen Smoke, author of 19 novels and eight non-fiction books, writer and director of feature films including Street Crimes, starring Dennis Farina, and Final Impact. He is also a published songwriter and has a long list of other creative credits.

His most recent project, Cathedral of the Senses, is the first novel with its own embedded soundtrack. You can check it out at here if the idea intrigues you.

When I think about how much things have changed since I was a kid (again I sound like Dana Carvey’s little old man in SNL), it’s astounding. I had to wait for the bookmobile to come to my small town with books for me to read, and I was a voracious reader. When I learned to type, I learned on a standard portable typewriter…it wasn’t even electric. I watched my grandmother sew my clothes on an old treadle machine. (No, I’m not so old that there was no electricity when I was a child, but my grandmother had learned to sew on, and loved, her old treadle machine. I loved sitting on the floor watching the rhythm of her feet on the iron pedal.)

Today a child in the same small town I grew up in can download a new book to their e-reader when they run out of reading material…and what’s a typewriter? My sewing machine is computerized, has over 800 different stitches on it, and will do embroidery for me if I wish. (See, I’m really not resistant to change. I just love the romance of writing with a pen and paper and holding that book in my hand.)

What about you? Are there times when you prefer to write with a pen and paper, and do you read print books? Or does technology get your creative juices flowing?

Yesterday, Tari shared her thoughts on digital publishing and e-books. She talked about how she’s been slow to embrace the format, not so much because she’s adamant against the technology, but because she’s a bit slow to change and she adores tradition (pen and notebook, paper-paged books).

Today, I want to share my dramatic plunge into the world of e-reading. It all started with my iPhone.

Like many moms, I spend a large portion of each week driving kids to and from activities: Monday is acting class for my daughter. Tuesday is lacrosse for my daughter and one son, and then baseball for the other son. Wednesday is lacrosse and baseball again. Thursday is dance for my daughter, lacrosse for one son and baseball for the other. Friday is lacrosse for one son.

I drive, and I wait. All in all I’d say I wait at pick up from each activity for 15 minutes. Math isn’t my strong point, but I think that’s roughly 165 minutes—over two hours—of waiting.

When I downloaded iBooks to my iPhone and bought my first e-book, Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Kiss an Angel, I turned 165 minutes of waiting into 165 minutes of reading. Score!

Learning to read 400-page novels on a two-inch by three-inch screen took some time. While I wasn’t completely satisfied with the experience, I loved that I was reading during otherwise useless periods of time.

And then, I bought an iPad. The screen was bigger, and that’s all it took for my digital habit to grow out of control.

I haven’t purchased an honest-to-God book in over a year, although I still buy magazines. (Odd.) I buy e-books regularly and spontaneously at a much higher rate than I ever purchased hardcopy books. (I have to believe that’s better for authors and publishers.) I also read faster and more often.

I’m thrilled with the digital revolution. From music to books to writing (DocsToGo!), my life is easier and richer with my favorite things at my fingertips.

And yet despite my enthusiasm, I’m not advocating a digital takeover. I want Tari to enjoy writing and reading with paper in hand. I want my neighbor Frank to take his Tuesday trek to the library. I want my daughter to smile as she slips her jeweled bookmark into another Ivy and Bean.

Ultimately, I don’t care how we’re reading. I simply care that we are reading.

Some of you may remember a skit with Dana Carvey as the little old man on Saturday Night Live. He would talk about the ‘good old days’ when he was growing up, making comments like, “When I was a kid I learned to write with a stick in the dirt, and I liked it like that.” (Now I’m paraphrasing, but hopefully you get the idea.)

I can be a bit like Dana Carvey’s little old man. I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t have an e-reader. No Kindle. No Nook. I’ve never even downloaded an electronic book to my computer. I love holding a book with paper pages in my hand. (You may remember that I also prefer to do my writing with pen and paper.) I don’t have anything against e-books. I just haven’t done it yet, and I suppose I “like it like that!”

When it comes to electronic publishing a book…well, I hadn’t really considered it. To be honest, I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the idea. Are you really published if it’s electronically published? Does your book have a cover and a back of the jacket blurb? Can you really make any money? I want to see my book on the bookshelves of my favorite bookstore and library. And…hey, I want to be able to autograph my books!

At the 2011 Romantic Times Convention one of the workshops I went to was titled “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” I signed up for the workshop to learn about writing sexy scenes. The panel consisted of Kelly Collins, Editor in Chief at e-publisher Elora’s Cave, Miriam Kriss, literary agent and Janet Miller, author.

Although I went to learn about steamy writing, I ended up becoming much more comfortable with the idea of e-publishing. With the popularity of the Kindle and the Nook, more and more people are downloading books every day. (I’m sure that all of you know that already. I’m just catching up here.) And writers are able to make a reasonable amount of money from e-books. There are certain writer responsibilities that normally a print publisher would handle, such as the writer may be responsible for coming up with the cover. (Yes, an e-book has a cover…who knew?) And writers want to be careful that they are working with a legitimate, established publisher who understands the industry and has a solid track record.

Many print publishers have their own electronic publishing lines, including Harlequin. The Harlequin editors discussed Spice Briefs at the Harlequin Spotlight at RT 2011. It seems like it could be a good way to break in with shorter stories. According to the editors, Spice Briefs publishes two or three books per month, as opposed to Harlequin’s Spice imprint which is currently publishing one book per month.

Am I ready to jump into e-publishing? Well, my dream is still of publishing a book with paper pages, but I’d definitely consider e-publishing. And, I’m thinking of asking for an e-reader for my birthday this year. So feel free to tell me which e-reader you have, and what you like or don’t like about it. Oh, and I found out e-books can be autographed! Imagine that. They sure take up less space on the shelf, and you can carry your books with you everywhere without hurting your back…I do like that.

What about you? Have you considered publishing your work as an e-book? Why or why not? I’d love to hear how you feel about e-publishing.

Like Elley, for me writing a synopsis has been challenging to say the least. It’s like writing my resume. I’ve written hundreds of resumes for other people, no problem. I know how to lay it out, what to put in, and what to leave out. When it comes to my resume…panic, fear…I frantically spin my wheels. I suppose a synopsis is somewhat like a resume for my book, and because it’s so personal, it’s difficult to reduce it to 3-5 pages.

What do I take out? What do I put in? It’s all important to the movement of the plot! How do I artfully reduce a 350-page book to under five pages?

After last Friday’s workshop at the Romantic Times Convention, I have a new outlook on synopsis writing. The workshop with literary agent Jim McCarthy, took writers step by step through several book synopses that had been submitted by convention goers previous to the convention. The synopses represented category romance, paranormal and fantasy books, but the process was the same for each.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Unlike your book, your query and the back of the book blurb, your synopsis doesn’t need to be artfully written. It needs to be concise and clearly lead the editor or agent through the plot, hold nothing important back (including twists and turns) but not adding unimportant sub plots. Hmm… This reminds me of my non-fiction writing. Cut the fluff. Get right to the point. Be clear and concise. Make sure you get all of the important information in the story that helps the reader to understand what’s happening, and follow the plot and nothing more. You don’t need to show your creative writing talent here. Presumably if the editor or agent is reading your synopsis, they’ve already read the first three chapters or a partial of your manuscript and know that you can write. Now they want to be sure you have a complete story with a plot that works. Stick to the point. In this case as they say, “less is more.”
  2. Get out of your character’s head. Tell the story yourself. Your character’s point of view isn’t necessary in the synopsis and can be distracting. Get out of your character’s head, or get your character out of your head…whichever way it works for you. Your synopsis should be in third person. Again, this point connects to the non-fiction writing I’ve done. Almost all of my non-fiction is written in third person.
  3. Have a clear timeline. Foreshadowing in a synopsis is unnecessary and can be confusing. Make sure that events happen in a logical order, and the reader isn’t left to figure things out. If you say the heroine is going to a major event in two weeks, make sure she does in your synopsis. If it was important enough to mention, it needs to happen and in a timely way. The timeline may be clear in your book, but if it’s not in the synopsis, you may kill the story for the editor or agent reading it.
  4. There are NO HARD AND FAST RULES. It’s true and not surprising. What annoys one agent may be ideal to another. What an editor hates in one synopsis, may work for her in another. So put together a professional presentation—something you feel truly represents your work—and put a stamp on it or hit send.

One of the things that really came out in the workshop is that writing a synopsis is the process of ‘letting go.’ You’ve finished your book. You’ve edited. Now it’s ready to go out into the world without you. It’s time to let go and move on to the next book.

I’m not always good at letting go, whether it’s letting go of my kids…or my size 5 clothes from another decade…or writing with a pen and paper. But now that I understand the process (and realize much of what I need to do I’ve done before in my non-fiction writing), I’m not as intimidated by the project.

Thank you, Jim McCarthy and the writer’s who allowed him to publicly critique their work.

So, what about you? Which part of the process sends you into a tailspin? What have you learned that has made it easier? How good are you at letting go?