There’s a lot of talk about gift giving this time of year. The malls are packed. The traffic is slow. And banks accounts and credit cards groan from overuse. I received an early Christmas gift last night…one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received…and it didn’t cost a thing.

Around the dinner table, my father told my children the story of his military service during The Vietnam War. I watched their wide eyes and their open mouths as he told stories about secret assignments and living in plain sight but in disguise as a top intelligence photographer for the U.S. Army. He told stories of checkpoints and foreign contacts, of comrades he never heard from again. He talked about the girl he met while on leave stateside, a girl who thought he was an arrogant fool, and yet she wrote him letters while he was away and she was waiting for him when he returned. I watched my mother reach across the table and grab hold of his hand, saying, “Waiting for you to come home in one piece was the hardest thing I ever had to do.” And then I heard my high school freshman interrupt with, “Wait! Pa, you were a spy?”

You see, until last night, my father had never shared much about his time abroad. We knew he served years during the war. We knew he lost friends and still sleeps with a pillow over his head during thunderstorms, which remind him of mortar attacks. We knew bits and pieces, but we didn’t know how rich, how deep, how incredibly amazing his story is.

As fiction writers, we’re charged with getting the stories out of our heads so that we may achieve publication. But as human beings, we hold the best stories in our hearts. They are stories about achievements, overcoming adversity, learning to love, learning to lose. This holiday season share a story about your life with someone you love. You’ll never know how much it means and how much it inspires.

Be joyful. Be safe. Be merry.

Happy Holidays,

Elley

Christmas Snow

December 22, 2011

I could talk to you about the point of view issues I’m having in my WIP, first sentences, dialogue, or even how it took me four minutes to figure out how to change the font size on Word, (yes, I know it was four minutes) but I’m in full Holiday Mode, and it’s all about the next few days at my house. Oh, don’t get me wrong, my characters are still dancing around in my head, but this week, from morning to night it’s Christmas for me. So I’m going to stay on Holiday Mode.

Let me first say, whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, Happy Holidays to you and your family.

Over the years it seems as though Christmases Past become so intertwined that they almost blend into each other. This isn’t a bad thing to me; for the most part my Christmases have been filled with love and joy, and what more could you want from the holidays? There are, however a couple of Christmases that stand out in my mind.

The first, I was seven years old. My family had just moved from Los Angeles, where I was born, to Ohio. I had never seen snow, and all I wanted for Christmas was a white Christmas. We had a long Indian summer, and by Christmas Eve there was still no snow, but I believed in the magic of Christmas, so I knew that when I awoke on Christmas morning there would be snow. I went to sleep happily…I’m sure dreaming of sugar plums fairies and nutcracker soldiers dancing…in the snow. On Christmas morning…still no snow.

My seven-year-old heart didn’t give up. After all, Santa had brought me a brand new sled, with red metal runners and wood planks, all shiny new and ready to go, and he wouldn’t have brought me a sled if there wouldn’t be snow. I sat by the window on my little sled waiting for the snow. I ate my Christmas breakfast on the little sled. I dumped the contents of my stocking out on the little sled…while keeping an eye out the window for the snow.

At lunch time my parents tried to persuade me to sit down at the table to eat with them, but I had snow watch…so no. They looked at me with concern while they explained. “It may not snow today. You may have to wait for another day to ride your new sled.”

“It will snow.” I was confident.

And guess what? About three o’clock that afternoon, the snow began to fall. It started out pretty slowly, but within a short period of time it came down heavier.

“There’s not enough snow to sled ride, and it’s pretty slushy,” my dad told me.

“Please Daddy.” I raised my big blue eyes up with tears welling in them. (I learned this trick young, and it never failed with my dad…or Hunky Hubby, who isn’t in this story.)

“Okay.” So my mom bundled me up in my new winter coat, hat and mittens…all new not because it was Christmas, but because I was a California girl and didn’t have them before.

We walked with my sled to Dogwood Park, a block from our house. I don’t remember how well the sled went down the hill, only my dad holding my hand as we walked up the hill, sled dragging behind, rope firmly gripped in my mittened fingers, as I happily felt the magic of Christmas snow for the first time.

The second Christmas that stands out in my mind also involves the magic of Christmas snow. It was the early nineties, and the economy was bad. Hunky Hubby and I were living in the California high desert. We had three small boys, and three weeks before Christmas, Hunky Hubby was laid off, again. We were still trying to catch up from a previous lay-off. I had few gifts for my boys: three snow tubes I’d purchased for $5 each and the toys I’d received free for hosting a Discovery Toy party….it was pretty meager. My husband was so depressed. He felt inadequate…like he was a poor provider.

Every day Hunky Hubby got up in the morning to job hunt. I would pack him a lunch, he’d leave at 8 a.m., return at 5p.m. and do it all again the next day. While he was gone the boys and I decorated the house and made dozens of Christmas cookies. Okay, two hundred dozen Christmas cookies to be exact. My friend Sandy had asked if I would bake Christmas cookies for her to take to her office, she’d pay me. I didn’t want to charge her, but she insisted. Then she came up with the idea of making a flyer and selling my cookies to others who didn’t bake…it was very successful, and Sandy’s idea helped us get through the next few weeks. Thanks, Sandy!

But the kids didn’t realize how bad things were. All they knew was the house was decorated and full of Christmas smells, and Santa would be coming soon.

On Christmas Eve, Hunky Hubby blew up the snow tubes and put them under the tree. We would take the kids to the mountain just a few miles from us to sled ride in the morning.

About 6 a.m. Joey, our youngest son, woke us up screaming with delight. “It’s Christmas…it’s Christmas, and it’s snowing!” I’m pretty sure he also said something about being hungry. It’s the first thing out of his mouth in the morning since he could talk.

Now, it does snow occasionally in the high desert, very occasionally, and I hadn’t heard any predictions for Christmas snow, so I was pretty sure it was just frost outside.

“I don’t think so,” I said as Paul and I grabbed our robes and put on slippers.

But we went out to the living room with Joey, Jayson and Gerrod, looked out the window, and it really was snowing. Santa had once again brought Christmas snow. That was probably the best Christmas (at least for me) of the boys’ childhoods…and without a doubt the one that we had the least money. We played in the snow all day, coming in to warm up Christmas food and hot chocolate.

That night Hunky Hubby brought in a snowball made from Christmas snow and put it in the freezer. “Just to keep the Christmas magic as long as possible.”

A few weeks later he was hired by TRW (now Northrup Grummon), and we moved back down to the Los Angeles South Bay.

Mark Krisky from KTLA is predicting temperatures in the mid 70’s for Christmas Day, so not likely to have Christmas snow this year, but it will be magical anyway…all three of my sons are here to celebrate.

I know I’ve been long winded, and next week I promise to write about POV, or commas or something writerish,  but I had to share my most memorable…magical Christmases. I’d love to hear about yours…hope you’ll share…

Happy Holidays to all!

Tari

I finished my FiMyFuNo manuscript yesterday, well the first draft anyway. It’s the first single title-length manuscript I’ve written in over a year, and it wasn’t as hard to go back to the longer length as I thought it would be.

While that story is percolating, I’m going to be doing some recreational reading, but before I jumped into that, I re-read my last finished manuscript and have decided to add 17K words to get the current category length up to single-title length. During the re-read, I made a few notes about a character that could be fleshed out more, but 17K words? I’m a little overwhelmed.

So this Christmas, I’m hoping to find a neatly wrapped package filled with the perfect words beneath my tree. (I’m thinking I have a better shot at opening up the puppy I asked for and never received when I was ten.) What are you hoping for this Christmas?

Elley

No, I haven’t mastered my new computer yet, but I DO love this keyboard! I promised that I’d tell you about the December OCCRWA meeting, which was fabulous as usual.

Author Louisa Bacio was the morning speaker. Dressed in an almost 50’s style strapless black and white dress with a fluffy pink scarf around her neck and a luscious new haircut, Louisa could have been a heroine in a romance novel. Her topic was query letters and first lines. The meeting was a “hands on” workshop, and Louisa is an outstanding presenter/instructor, perhaps because in addition to being an author, she teaches college journalism.

Query letters are something I know a little about. I wrote freelance for magazines and newspapers for about fifteen years, so I’ve written numerous query letters over the years, all of them for non-fiction articles. What I learned at the meeting is that all of that experience will transfer perfectly to writing query letters for my fiction.

If you’re new to this and unsure what a query letter is, as Louisa said, it’s basically a one page letter of introduction to your book and to you as an author. It’s meant to capture the reader’s (editor or agent) interest. Get them to read your story. There are at least a couple of successful formats for query letters. Louisa shared a couple similar to those that I’ve used in non-fiction.

My favorite format starts with a good hook, a well-crafted opening line to entice the reader to go on. Louisa recommends a three paragraph summary of the plot. In the plot summary you will introduce the main character, her love interest and the conflict of the story.

Follow your three paragraph summary with a brief personal biography. Keep the biography relevant to your story. If you have writing credits, put them here. Have you won any writing contests? If your heroine is an artist, are you an artist? Do you teach art? Or is art a hobby of yours? Also, if you belong to professional organizations such as RWA, list those affiliations here.

Your final paragraph is your closing hook. Tie everything up neatly, professionally and courteously.

Then, when you think it’s ready, make sure you’ve included all of your contact information, and proofread, proofread, proofread. A spelling, punctuation or grammatical error here is a fast way to land your manuscript in the circular file.

Also, make sure you address your query letter to a specific editor and spell the name correctly.  I made the embarrassing mistake of addressing a letter to Ms. Editor’s Name, when it should have been addressed Mr. Editor’s Name, a mistake that I’m still blushing over and hope never to make again! But always address your work to a specific editor or editorial assistant rather than a generic “Dear Sir or Madame.”

There is a lot of help with query letters on the internet. Book Ends Literary Agency does a Wednesday Workshop on Query Letters that’s worth checking out. If you get a chance to take a workshop with Louisa Bacio, do it! She’s a great instructor and really knows what she’s talking about. She occasionally does online workshops as well.

I actually enjoy writing query letters. Don’t get me wrong. They’re challenging, but I like the opportunity to write something brief, clean and creative. Even if your book isn’t finished, stop from time to time and practice writing your query letter. It’s a good exercise in describing your story, and when people ask you what your story is about, you’ll be prepared with an answer.

Maybe you’ve already written a query letter or twenty. Do you like writing them? What is your favorite format? What tips do you have to share? Normally this is the point where I leave you all and I’m off to write, but this week, I’m off to bake cookies…and more cookies. Anyone want to share a recipe?

Tari

As much talk as there is about romance being “escapism” and “fantasy” and how it sets “unrealistic expectations” one of the things I look for and enjoy most in a romance novel (or any novel) is a sense of realism. I tend not to get as drawn in by stories of princesses and fake countries or Greek tycoons and multi-billionaires, because, as good as those books might be, you don’t get that feeling that they could really happen.

So, one of my favorite authors right now is Sarah Mayberry. All of the novels I’ve read by her have this common thread. They seem like they could happen. Okay, sure, not every guy on the planet is really hot and built, but the characters, the conflicts, the resolutions draw me in because they feel real. Mayberry’s books don’t rely on misunderstandings or power plays or plot devices to create conflict, the characters themselves create the conflict. From tortured past, to bad marriages, to simple fear, her characters’ emotions and the conflicts because of them seem like they could be from anyone.

Mayberry’s books aren’t romangst. The characters deal with their issues, usually together. They have conversations. They behave like real couples. There are dark moments they overcome, but in a way that is usually mature and sensible. For me, those are the most powerful love stories.

Nicole

While I was cheating on my Twitter diet, I read a post about paranormal romance series vs. contemporary romance series and the zest with which readers follow them. (Does that make sense? It might be afternoon, but it’s dark and dreary here, and I’m not sure my brain is working.)

I don’t usually interject my thoughts into scholarly debates about the romance genre (others are so much more qualified to do so), and this time was no exception. I didn’t even follow the link to read further, but the general question stuck with me:

Why are paranormal romance series readers more enthusiastic, more faithful, more rabid (not meaning this in a bad way at all!) than contemporary romance series readers? (This is TOTALLY paraphrased.)

I’m a contemporary romance reader. Twilight is the only paranormal anything I’ve ever read. (Yep, I didn’t even read Harry Potter.) Oh wait, that’s a lie. I read Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead & Unwed (vampire H&H) and the next three or so books in that series until I lost interest. But that’s irrelevant. Where I was going here was that as a decades old lover of contemporary romances, I have a clear idea of why I read what I read. What I read has included a few series (Nora Roberts’ Bride Quartet and…is that the only series I’ve read? Think. Think. Think. Shoot. Really? I mean I’ve read books in series, but I don’t usually follow through with all the books in a series. Ah ha! Jaci Burton’s Play-By-Play series should be the next complete series I read, since I’m two down and intend to read the third when it’s released.) But as you can see, being part of a series isn’t a selling point to me. I’m one of those haphazard contemporary romance series followers.

So what does this mean? (Lord, I just sounded like the Double Rainbow Guy in my head.)

I read mostly to feel, not to escape. Not that escape is a bad thing. On the contrary, there have been times in my life when escape was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be transported. I wanted to be dumped into this world where nothing remotely like my own life lurked. I wanted to get lost for as long as possible and know that I could return when I wanted—when I needed—to. To satisfy all of those needs, a strong, paranormal series would’ve done the trick (and maybe that’s why/when I started reading Undead & Unwed).

Today, I read for a quick fix, a quick rush, and I read for a reminder that love is the reason I’m here, my husband is here and my children are here. I read, feel and then move on with a bigger smile, targeting my husband, because damn it if I’m not entitled to loving my hero the way any romance heroine loves hers. If the first book in a series delivers on this quick rush, then I’ll read the next. But the first book has to deliver big for me to be motivated to search out the next book.

I buy and read every book as a single-title, because I’m in a hurry. I want to get the goods, feel the rush of a happy ending and move on with my real life. The next time I’m power buying at the Apple bookstore (grab and go…this works…this works…baseball hero? Sold!), I won’t even remember to search for the next book in a series unless the first book hit me so hard I can’t let go (and sometimes I’m hit hard in an odd way…like when I read my first erotic romance between the cracks of my fingers…and I went back for more).

I’m not sure any of this contributes anything to the original Twitter conversation that sparked my thinking, but I find it interesting as a writer who has both standalone single titles and series titles in her repertoire. I enjoy writing both, and since I’m first and foremost a reader, I need to keep in mind that more contemporary romance readers may be like me—not automatically gravitate toward a series.

What does this mean (by now you should’ve watched the video so you can read with proper inflection)?

Strong characters drive a strong plot. In any given book in any genre, the main character is the focus. A character who readers can’t get enough of transcends whether a book stands alone or is part of a series. (Honestly, in my limited series exposure, I have yet to come across a character I loved as much in secondary books as I did in the primary book.)

We get hung up on the perfect place, the perfect plot, the perfect secondary characters (especially if we’re hoping for series potential), and in the meantime our H&H could be suffering. The result is a good book, but not the great book that keeps this contemporary romance reader coming back for more.

Elley

Well, it finally happened. Last week my computer crashed, and I mean crashed. In fact, I totally flaked on my Friday blog post because of it.  Hunky Hubby couldn’t take it anymore. He bought me a new computer. Now it’s not that I didn’t want a new computer, it’s just that…in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little technologically challenged. The problem is, that I wanted a new computer from 1998. Hunky Hubby likens me to the “little old man” in the old Saturday Night Live Episodes.  “When I was growing up we wrote with a stick in the sand, and we liked it like that!”

But seriously, I’ve been working on the same computer for ten years. (I know you’re laughing. I can live with that) In fact, I’ve been working on…I’ll just say it…Word ’98. Yes, I said that out loud, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I didn’t want a new computer because this would mean that I had to learn new software, among other things.

So to prove my point, this morning I got up to write my blog at 6 a.m. Los Angeles time. It’s now 7 a.m. and I’ve finally figured out how to open a new document in Word. Okay, I didn’t really figure it out; in fact, I had given up and started to write my blog in an e-mail to Elley. (I know you’re laughing, Elley. It’s okay. I can live with that too!) Well, what else could I do? My Hunky Hubby is gone, and I thought both of my sons had left for school. Then suddenly I realized my youngest son, Joey, was still in his room. I was saved. Once he stopped laughing at me…again, I can live with this. Joey was able to show me how to get into Word and open a new document. Yay!! And, thank you, Joey. If it makes you laugh the rest of the day thinking about it, I can live with that too!

So here I am, typing away on my new keyboard, knowing full well that when Joey leaves in about 15 minutes, I’m S.O.L. You know, I have to admit this new keyboard is really cool, I like the way it feels as I type. Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah.

Hopefully, I can figure out how to transfer my document files containing my book from my flash drive to my new computer. Anyone know where the flash drive is supposed to go? Just a minute, I need to grab Joey before he leaves!

Yes, I actually did back up my files on a flash drive. I also e-mailed them to myself “just in case.”  Not like I didn’t know my computer was about to blow after all.

So this week I’ve got a sharp learning curve. Luckily all my guys, this includes Hunky Hubby, three sons, and two stunt double sons, are much more technologically inclined than I am and will be able to help. In fact, the two stunt double sons (Hi, John & Chris…oh, and I’ll include my cousin, Frank, in this too…Hi, Frank!) who have all helped keep my old Celuron (no one seems to know how to spell this, and they don’t remember what it means) computer running through numerous viruses, and shall we call them “slow periods,” will probably be relieved that all they have to do is teach me a few new tricks as opposed to reviving my old computer …yet again. Hunky Hubby said this was the end, that the computer had signed a “do not resuscitate” order, and there was nothing he could do.

So laugh at me if you will. I miss my old Olivetti typewriter with 500 character memory and automatic correction…at least I knew how to use it…wow, I really do like this keyboard…

I’ll just be sitting here trying to figure out this new-fangled Word program and reminiscing about “the good old days,” when I read by the light of a gas lamp. (This is true, but I won’t explain right now.)

So next week, I’ll tell you about the OCCRWA meeting where I was “pinned” as a PRO. Yay! And Louisa Bacio’s fabulous presentation on writing query letters. It really was good, but how will you know that if I don’t tell you? Well, unless you were there of course…

So anyway, I think I’ll grab a pen and paper, because that’s the way I really like to write, and I’ll figure out this contraption later.

Happy writing!

Tari

Being Happy for Each Other

December 12, 2011

While standing in the paint department at Lowes yesterday, I read an email that made me cry. A writer friend signed a deal for a series with a big NY publisher, and she has a film agent, who will be shopping the series as soon as edits are done. I cried, because I was…

Happy!

I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought I cried because I was jealous. There’s a lot of that going around in the publishing world. It’s hard to celebrate someone else when you’re crying in your wine (don’t look at me) over another blasted rejection (stop looking at me). But it’s not hard to celebrate someone else if you keep a few things in mind.

  1. We’re different. Lord, that sounds overly simplistic, but sometimes it’s the simple things we forget. We’re all writing different things, even if we are writing in the same genre. We have different styles, different voices, different processes and different goals. (The last one’s a big deal.) Why do we compare our achievements—or lack of—with others’ accomplishments when it’s like comparing apples to oranges? It’s like comparing rate of promotion at a plastics plant with rate of promotion at an ice cream parlor. Sure, these people share the fact that they work and they earn paychecks, which they want to see increase, but that’s about it in the similarities department. Apples to oranges. We write. We want to be published. But the similarities end there. Next time we hear about a fellow writer’s success, let’s try not to take it personally. Different people. Different paths.
  2. Published writing is no more vital than unpublished writing. The words in our heads must come out. Just because an agent or editor doesn’t validate those words with a contract doesn’t mean they aren’t important words, words that needed to be written. We must stop needing permission from outside sources to enjoy writing. When we attach a monetary need to our writing, we must admit we’ve changed the game and we must accept those changes. Writing for a paycheck is a totally different beast. We need to be honest about our reasons for writing and understand that our reasons will propel our rate and results when it comes to publication.
  3. Big leap or little step…progress is progress. While we compare ourselves to others, we waste time in which one more sentence could be written, one more chapter edited. No one can publish the words in our heads. We have to get them out in order to have a chance. And as long as we’re still writing, one word at a time, we keep the dreams alive.

Visual Inspiration

December 8, 2011

Something I’ve noticed that many of my romance writing cohorts do is find visual inspiration for their heros and heroines. From celebrities to models to athletes, on twitter or blogs or on their own bulletin boards, seeking inspiration from real people makes total sense.

And yet, I can’t seem to do it. Part of this might come from the fact that I often have my characters well defined in my head before I even begin to plot or write, so a “real” person doesn’t match any of what I’ve come up with. One time I spent way too long sorting through google images trying to find the perfect dark-haired, blue-eyed man to be the inspiration for my hero. I came up with nothing. Plenty of good looking men who fit the broad parameters, but none of them seemed like my guy.

In truth, I’m a little bit jealous of those people that can find pictures to create that image they can go back to again and again. It seems like it would be such a neat thing to have.

This is especially on my mind now, as I should be getting a cover for my first novel any day now. I can’t help but wonder if the image created will match the image in my head (should hero and/or heroine appear).

Is finding visual inspiration your first step in the process? A must-do before you begin to write? Or are you like me, always finding those “real” people not matching up to the people you’ve created?

Nicole

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been unusually quiet lately. Of course, lots of tweeters are quieter this time of year as they run out of hours in the day for shopping, baking, cooking and spreading good cheer. I’m busy, but I can always find time for Twitter, and that’s currently a problem, considering I can’t always find time for writing. So…I’m on a Twitter diet.

I know a lot about diets. You name the method of weight loss, and I’ve tried it (except surgery). I’m not proud. In fact, when it comes to body image I’ve been warped for a very long time. Early on, the diets were innocent, starting with a loving relative who suggested I cut this or eat more of that. Later, my friends got involved, offering diet pills and cabbage-soup diets scribbled on notebook paper. The media urged me to continue my obsession with weight and to try new diet plans. And then came the internet. More gimmicks. More empty promises for fast and lasting weight loss. Ten years later I would enter intense therapy to combat bulimia. Through it all, one thing remained the simple truth: A healthy body takes a nutritious diet and exercise.

What in the world does this have to do with writing? There are parallels between my weight loss obsession and my writing obsession. Both have been subject to outside forces. Some tweets are like diets, promising publication tips and advice to improve my writing, pushing me closer to publication. I’m eager for the information. I absorb it. I use it. And if it doesn’t work in a timeframe I’m satisfied with or if I read something else or something conflicting in the meantime, I move to the next tip. Early on, the search for information was innocent. (We just want to be the best we can be.) But eventually, all the noise and opinions can overshadow the one simple truth: A writer writes. (And tweets don’t count.)

So I’m backing away from the social media for a bit, and I’m going to write. The best “brand” on the Internet isn’t going to sell a damn thing if there’s no product to sell.

Elley