Although my WIP is contemporary women’s fiction with a romantic element, my recent reading binge has been historical fiction…and of course, The Help. But not too long ago, I responded to a blog post by Sue Grimshaw, Editor at Random House, on her blog Romance at Random. She sent me a copy of Debra Dixon’s steamy Loveswept novel, Tall, Dark & Lonesome, a western romance, and the first book I’ve read on my Kindle.

So I happily switched gears and as I clicked through the pages I found myself in familiar territory…Wyoming. Some of you may know that this Los Angeles South Bay beach girl spent six years living in central Wyoming with my hunky husband, Paul, and our three sons. After three years back in Los Angeles, driving through the chaos on the 405 Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway and living in the concrete and asphalt of the city, an escape to the peace and open space of Wyoming was just what I needed.

As a writer when I read I’m always looking for something to learn. I’m looking for dialogue that flows, plots and subplots and description that gives me enough, without slowing down the story. In Tall, Dark & Lonesome I found myself lost in the setting. Debra Dixon wove a heated love story into the seductive backdrop of the Wyoming landscape and lifestyle.

While living in Wyoming, the closest I ever came to experiencing a cattle drive was stopping our car to watch one cross the highway in front of us in Pinedale, Wyoming. This is also the closest that we ever came to an actual “traffic jam” while we lived there. After reading Tall, Dark & Lonesome I felt like I had experienced the cattle drive with the heroine, Nikki Devlin, and sexy, rancher Zach Weston. I could just see Zach sitting on his horse silhouetted by the brilliant Wyoming sunset and tipping his Stetson to me before he rode off to…well wherever sexy cowboys ride off to.

Debra Dixon’s book has me thinking about the setting of my own book. How important is it to the plot? Will my reader feel like she is running along the South Bay coastline with my heroine? Will she feel the history of the old buildings? How do I get the reader there without ‘over’ describing? I can smell the sagebrush and hear the sexy drawl in Zach Weston’s voice…

What books have made you think of setting? How important is setting in the book you’re writing? How do you put your reader where your heroine lives?

Today is my first day of doing things differently. Before today, my writing process looked something like this:

  • A hero or heroine appears in my head. We “talk.” I understand what he or she wants and needs, and without much thought the perfect mate appears.
  • I open a Word document and start a fresh character worksheet (from Karen Docter’s plotting workshop). I create one document for Heroine and another document for Hero.
  • I open a Word document and write the Heroine’s W-plot. I open another document and write the Hero’s W-plot. I open another document and write the Romance’s W-plot.
  • I combine the three W-plots into a fresh Word document that now holds the outline of my entire story.

At this point, I feel pretty good about things. I usually read over all the documents a few more times before I start writing, and my thoughts are very positive.

  • I start writing. I write the story as I remember it from the plotting documents, but I don’t refer back to them. I write as much as I can for as long as I can. The only way I can explain this is to call it a “pouring” of words or writing “trance.”
  • Around 40,000 words I become conscious about what I’ve written.
  • I realize the story has veered from the original plot.

At this point, I panic, because while I like what I’m writing, I like the plotted storyline better.

  • I stop writing.
  • I read the original plotting documents again.
  • I try to alter things in the manuscript to reflect the original storyline.
  • I decide it’s too much work to do make these changes. (It would be easier to start all over again.)
  • I mope, because I really want to write the story I plotted, but I don’t want to do all the work.
  • I start writing again, but not the story I plotted. I just keep going with what I’ve written so far.
  • I finish the first draft.

At this point, I usually have a new idea breathing down my neck, and I’m anxious to get plotting again, to start over and do better this time.

  • I send the first chapter of the finished manuscript to my critique partner.
  • I make edits according to her feedback, and I send her the next chapter…and on and on.
  • When the editing process is complete, I set the story aside while I plot a new story.
  • At the completion of plotting, I pull out the finished manuscript and read it in one sitting (preferably). I change anything that needs changing.
  • I submit the finished manuscript.
  • I start writing the new manuscript.
  • I receive a rejection for the finished manuscript.
  • I agree with the editors who rejected the finished manuscript, because it wasn’t the story I wanted to write in the first place (the stronger story).

At this point, I wonder why I’m writing at all if I can’t write what I want to write.

  • I think about rewriting/revising the finished manuscript to reflect the original plot.
  • Instead, I put the finished manuscript away and decide it’s not worth the effort and it’s not worthy of publication anyway.
  • I go back to writing the new idea.
  • And the process goes on and on.

Not anymore. This time I’m going to write the story I set out to write in the first place. I have the plot. It’s broken down into twenty-four plot points, the perfect number of chapters for a single-title contemporary
(give or take a few). My new process is going to include writing one chapter at a time, reading one plot point before I sit down to write that chapter, and writing each chapter in its very own word document. In my mind, this seems like a sensible way to stay organized and on track. We’ll see.

How about you? Is your process firmly in place, or are you struggling to find the best way (for you) too?

My tip today is simple, and I think obvious. READ, READ, READ. So often someone will say to me, “I’d love to be a writer, but I don’t know what to write.” My response is usually, “What do you like to read?” Usually someone who writes or wants to write will say, “Oh I love to read romance,” or “I love vampire stories,” but every now and then someone will say, “I really don’t read.” What? Then why do you want to write?

Reading is motivating, inspiring and it sharpens your skills. If you’re not currently reading a book, I suggest you head to your nearest bookstore, library or download one for your e-reader right now…nothing motivates more than a good story.

As a non-fiction writer, I spent a decade keeping my audience in mind and writing concise copy in a conversational tone. Nobody said a thing about “my voice” unless they wanted me to speak up—or shut up—during a conference call.

After two years of devoting more time to fiction writing than to non-fiction writing, I’m struggling with the concept of voice. Although I don’t think I realized the magnitude of the struggle until I read my first Victoria Dahl contemporary romance. I thought, “Damn! That’s one heck of a voice.” Strong, clear, funny, and even a bit awkward (typed with total admiration), Victoria Dahl’s authentic writing voice inspires me to find my own. What I admire most is that she doesn’t try to copy someone else, and she certainly doesn’t engage in self-censorship.

When I mention censorship, I’m not really talking about strong language and explicit scenes. What I’m referring to is the habit some writers (me, me, me) have of carefully writing almost every word rather than letting the story pour from the deepest parts of them. These writers (read: me) write with the proverbial “they” on their shoulders. The writers (ME) question sentence structure, alter words, change the plot and in general trash their own voices. In fact, it’s impossible to hear the writer’s voice with so much static in the head caused by well-meaning advice from email loops, Twitter, rejection letters, workshops, conferences, Web sites and writing pals.

I’m not saying advice is bad. On the contrary, few writers will achieve publication in a bubble. Over the years, my manuscripts have benefited from advice, especially in terms of story structure and general industry likes and dislikes. But my manuscripts have suffered from advice too. Each time I sit down to write, my story shares headspace with advice like this:

Watch the backstory—not too much. Pump up the dialogue. White space is good (which goes along with more dialogue). Rape and adultery are bad. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs cheapen descriptions. Wandering body parts should be caged. Heroines can’t be too needy. Heroes shouldn’t be too alpha. Small town romances are trendy. Vampire romances are dead. Too many POVs in one chapter confuse the reader. Switch POVs in the same chapter only at scene breaks. Get your H&H together in Chapter One. Focus on sexual tension. Avoid gratuitous sex. Practice safe sex. Say no to prologues. Reward readers with epilogues. And on and on and on…

To be honest, I waste a lot of time sanitizing what I write, and I’m pretty sure I’m killing any fiction voice I’ve managed to develop over the last two years. So I’m detoxing. I’m purging all the dos and don’ts. The only advice I’m going to follow while I’m recovering is:

Write like hell.

My voice is in there someplace, and damn it…I’m going to find it.

Telling Stories

September 26, 2011

As a non-fiction writer, I’ve always considered my rewrites to be where the “real writing begins.” I work with an outline, then write a first draft, then as I edit I craft, rewrite and try to give my piece energy, color…life.

My process for fiction has been very different. I’m not working from an outline, the story pours from my pen as I scribble onto wide ruled spiral notebook paper. The next morning I type the previous day’s work…do some light editing as I type, then print a hard copy. I forced myself not to edit or rewrite until I finished the end of my first draft, primarily because I was pretty sure that if I started doing rewrites from the first or second chapter, I would never finish.

Now as I rewrite, it’s more like hearing my father tell stories of my childhood. The story is already formed (it already happened) but he tells it with a little more flair, more energy and often more humor than the incident actually had when it happened. I think to some degree my kids would say I do the same with stories about them.

My book is like one of my kids. I gave birth to it. I’ve watched it grow and develop. And now that I’m rewriting, I’m telling the story a little differently than it “actually happened,” a little more flair, a little more energy…maybe even a little more humor than there was in the first draft.

This is not to say that my boys need me to tell their stories with more energy or flair…if you know them, you’ll know that their lives are filled with energy, brilliance and wit, and that they are all great story tellers without any help from me. No, I’m just making an observation that I think happens a lot in life. As we retell our stories (true or fiction), we often give them (whether they need it or not) more drama, more humor, more energy…

So I’m going to get back to work retelling my story (hmm, I think I like that…less intimidating than rewrites…I’m just retelling my story) and maybe this time it will be even more exciting than what “really” happened…

It’s Friday, the day when we take off our writer’s caps and put on our reader’s caps in order to gush about an author or a book. And I was prepared to do just that with the book I was reading until the final sex scene blew it all to hell.

I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I know we all have different preferences when it comes to bedroom activities. But what I would like to know is how often you—as a reader—are icked out by a sex scene in a romance novel and if it’s something you can get over quickly or if it ruins the book for you?

Me? This time? It ruined the book. I was left staring at the page, feeling oddly betrayed by two people I thought I knew so well. (Ridiculous, I know.) I mean, would I dump a friend because she shared with me that she and her partner have done the very same thing? Of course not. Each to his and her own. You know? So why am I annoyed by two “people” I’ll never meet? And for God’s sake what does that say about me as a writer? Would I really censor my characters’ intimate moments because it makes ME feel uncomfortable? (Apparently, yes I would, because just thinking about writing said scene makes me feel, well, icky.)

As I’m typing this, other books come to mind. And I realize I’ve cringed at sex acts and dialogue before, and I wouldn’t say it ruined those books. But those books were different. Different how? Well for starters, the H&H didn’t seem so normal to begin with. They were those larger—and harder—than life sort of “people” who promptly proclaimed they wanted sex hot, fast and often. And so it was. And so it went. And I didn’t expect them to do much more than that—like that—until the end of the book when they had the “love revelation.” It was what it was. Simple as that.

But this book could have been so much more. This book could have been one of the few books that picked me up and pulled me in, allowing me to feel like I’m the heroine rather than a privileged Peeping Tom. But one scene…one stupid scene…plucked me right out of those pages and relegated me to peeping. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

On Tuesday I fantasized about a quiet office of my own where I could write undisturbed, except of course by the hunky male receptionist in the main lobby who would bring me important messages.

Today as I prepare to work on rewrites, with my printed manuscript spread out across my bed in various stacks for each chapter, with staggered stacks for revisions…post it notes, red pen marks and color coded paper clips for organization….and did I mention the pretty file folders that are supposed to help keep things in the right order? (You haven’t forgotten that I’m the Queen of Run-on Sentences have you?) Anyway, today, I’ve decided I also need a personal assistant. Not a hunky male assistant—that would be way too distracting. No, I need a real assistant. One who can tell me that the notes in the first stack are from the first revisions, and I’ve already implemented them in the second, trashed them in the third, and reworked them back into the manuscript in the fourth revision….of course not all chapters have fourth revisions, so my assistant would need to be able to help me go from the fourth revision of chapters one through three, to the second revision of Chapter Four to the new Chapter Five which bumped the old chapters five through twelve to chapters six through thirteen, and the parts of Chapter Eight that I cut out and replaced with completely new scenes…except for the old scenes that I kept, oh and Chapter Seven which was completely disassembled and spread through chapters seven, four and twelve…and somehow now I have sixteen chapters, well she needs to help me keep that all in order as I revise the manuscript…you know, someone like that!

Yep, I need a real ‘Girl Friday’ who will field phone calls….well the ones the distracting hunky male receptionist brings from the lobby, without being distracted herself, understand my creative process and the organization of my brain as well as my work, because although the stacks on my bed sound like chaos (since I’d be in my beautifully decorated office, the stacks would not be on my bed) there is immense organization there as well….if you can figure it out…or work your way through all of the run-on sentences in my life…

I picture her as though in an old black and white movie, very serious in a nice suit, and with stockings and low pumps…hmm, I might have to redecorate my office from a Victorian hideaway to a 1940’s movie set, and put a phone on her desk—you know an old black rotary phone with a coiled cord from the handset to the base? (Well, if you’re too young to know then go watch an old movie!) …Anyway, she would bring me green tea—yes I know it should be coffee, but I don’t like coffee, so I drink green tea—and a healthy lunch, keep me very organized and keep the hunky male receptionist…and my hunky husband from distracting me while I worked. Not that my hunky husband has time to distract me, usually he’s too busy at work and I’m the one calling him saying, “Should I leave in the parts of Chapter Eight that I cut out, or should I just cut Chapter Eight entirely and make Chapter Nine the new Chapter Eight, which would make chapters ten through sixteen, chapters nine through fifteen…well, honey, what do you think? Honey? Are you there?”

So you can see why I need an office and a ‘Girl Friday’…and why I’m the Queen of Run-on Sentences…anyone want to apply for the job?

That synopsis you’re trying to write may progress with less head banging if you step away from your manuscript long enough to see the big picture. Being close to something (like a story or a person), lends itself to overinflating the details—details that other people (like editors or friends) may or may not be interested in knowing about. So get some perspective by walking away for a day or two, and then return to the computer to pound out the key points.

A Room of My Own

September 20, 2011

As I told you I’ve been working at the library a lot lately. My laptop is pretty old—so old that I won’t even tell you what it is. The battery won’t hold a charge anymore, and it’s difficult to find a seat at the library near an outlet. Heck, it’s just plain difficult to find a workstation at all. (This is not a complaint. I’m very happy to see that the library is still so popular, at least in this part of town!)

Anyway, I’m working by hand, coming home and typing late at night and trying to stay organized. This is harder than I thought it would be. My new dream is to have my own office. I wouldn’t mind sharing an office with another writer, someplace away from home where I keep nothing but my work. I can turn off the cell phone. No kids will knock on the door and ask if I’m making food anytime soon. And there are no chores waiting for me, just my writing.

I would paint this room pink or maybe a dusty rose, not because those are my favorite colors (my favorite color is blue), but because I have three sons, and it’s highly unlikely that they would want to hang out in my dusty rose office with the ivory lace curtains and wide French Provincial desk with curved legs. Maybe I would put a chaise in a corner of the room so that I could also read there. I picture floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with novels of all kinds (probably more than a few Victorian romances, as this room is beginning to feel a little Victorian). There would be no cell signal in this private writing haven. (Don’t tell them that I have internet access.) However, in an emergency my wonderful sons could reach me by calling the building, and the hot male receptionist in the main lobby would bring a message to me.

My own hunky husband could visit me after hours. I’ll keep a nice bottle of wine chilled just in case. But now I’m getting off track…

So the point is, WHEN I sell my novel, the one I write in a corner of my bedroom between feeding boys (and often girlfriends) and of course my hunky husband…or at the Carl’s Jr. restaurant up the hill, where they are kind enough to let me spread out and never ask me to leave (and never ask me to cook)…or at the Katy Geisert library, where I work when I can find a seat in a quiet spot, I am going to first buy a new laptop and then look for an office!

Any writers out there want to share a peaceful place to work? Oh, and we don’t have to paint it dusty rose nor does my husband have to visit for romance, but could we keep the hot male receptionist in the main lobby?

The Value of an Agent

September 19, 2011

I have a list of publishers I’m interested in working with. Not one requires submission through an agent. According to them I don’t need an agent. And yet, every weekday morning at 8 a.m. ET I visit the BookEnds, LLC blog. I’ve been reading this blog written mostly by agent Jessica Faust for over a year. The information is comprehensive, invaluable and available to everyone on the internet. If an agent gives this much professional advice for free imagine the value one derives from being her client.

I know BookEnds, LLC isn’t the only literary agency that gives freely to the internet community. On any given day an #askeditor can pop up on Twitter or a #pubtip can be retweeted. These people are working among us, sharing their experiences, whether we’re clients or not. It’s something every writer should be taking advantage of.

So while my list of publishers doesn’t require that I have an agent to submit, I want one. In this case, I do think two heads are better than one.