Helpful Articles and Resources Just for Writers:
Here is a sampling of several articles, essays, and blog posts I’ve written. (You can click on the link to go to the original posted site — although some of these blogs are no longer active — or you can scroll down the page to read the full text of each piece.)
I also have some favorite books and websites listed at the very bottom of the page. I hope these features will shed a little light on the writing process and the writer’s life:
NEW ADDITION for 2021: **Here’s the link** to my author page on the Save the Cat! website, where aspiring writers can find the complete story structure beat sheets I’ve written out, which analyze many popular novels. Hope these will be helpful!
“The Road of Flight: Three Authors Reflect on Their Route 66 Novels” ~ National Trust for Historic Preservation, July 6, 2018
**Link only** (Since I didn’t write this article — I was just interviewed for it — I’m not pasting the entire text below. However, the link above should take you to the full story.)
“Austen’s Universal Appeal” ~ Pride & Possibilities, December 11, 2017
“In Passionate Support of the Arts” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, March 2, 2016
“The Courage to Write…or Not” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, August 25, 2015
“Beating Out a Book Series” ~ Save the Cat/Blake Snyder, July 31, 2015
“The Long Journey to a Novel” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, July 20, 2015
“In a World Where…” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, June 15, 2015
“Seeking Joy” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, April 1, 2015
“Writing of Love” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, February 23, 2015
“The Dance” ~ Jane Austen Variations, February 20, 2015
“Facing Rejection…Again” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, January 14, 2015
“Finding Our Creative Art: Where Passion Meets Realism” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, December 7, 2014
“The First Step is Falling in Love…” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, September 21, 2014
“Grow Big Dreams” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, August 11, 2014
“Creativity, Writing, and the Ever-Changing Face of Publishing” ~ Romance University, August 11, 2014
“A Commitment to Excellence” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, January 23, 2014
“Following Our Passions: A Dance of Love, Fear, and Change” ~ Writer Unboxed, November 5, 2013
“The First Writing Critique” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, October 23, 2013
“Travel: A Master Class on Viewpoint” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, September 9, 2013
“For Love or Money” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, August 26, 2013
“Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, July 24, 2013
“The Evolution of the Modern Writing Dream” ~ Writers in the Storm, June 21, 2013
“Traditional vs. Self-Publishing, Critique Groups, and the Eternal Jane Austen” ~Word Café, February 28, 2013
“When You Don’t Get What You Think You Want” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, February 26, 2013
“The Pride and Prejudice Beat Sheet” ~ Save the Cat/Blake Snyder, January 18, 2013
“In Defense of Vanilla Sex & Fiction That’s Not So Edgy” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, November 14, 2012
“A Change is Gonna Come” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, September 23, 2012
“My Five Gifts to Aspiring Writers” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, April 3, 2012
“Owning Our Strengths” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, January 30, 2012
“At the Desk: With Marilyn Brant” ~ Reader’s Entertainment, January 30, 2012
“A Love Letter to Reviewers” ~ Austen Authors, October 10, 2011
“Do We Need to Explain Why We Write?” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, October 9, 2011
“Living on the Edge” ~ Save the Cat/Blake Snyder, September 30, 2011
“Cooking Lessons” ~ Magical Musings, September 30, 2011
“Questioning Our Relevance: Fear, Change & the Digital Revolution” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, August 14, 2011
“The Writer’s Menu” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, June 20, 2011
“One Writer’s Journey: A Tale of Many Beginnings” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, April 26, 2011
“A Little Matter of Verb Tense” ~ Magical Musings, March 18, 2011
“Don’t Forget the Lyrics” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, March 6, 2011
“Don’t Wait for Heroes” ~ RWA-Women’s Fiction Chapter, February 21, 2011
“Learning to Follow a Passion” ~ Girlfriends Book Club, January 11, 2011
“On Competition and Writers” ~ Brant Flakes, December 30, 2010
“The BS2 x 4: Beating Out a Novel in Quadruplicate” ~ Save the Cat/Blake Snyder, October 29, 2010
“Somebody to Lean On” ~ Magical Musings, October 29, 2010
“In Honor of Blake Snyder: Master of the Beat Sheet” ~ The Seekers, September 7, 2010
“For the Love of Voice” ~ Brant Flakes, June 11, 2010
“On Criticism and Writers” ~ Brant Flakes, December 31, 2009
“Flipped: From Reviewer to Reviewee” ~ Romantic Times Book Reviews, October 2009
FULL TEXT OF EACH POST BELOW:
Austen’s Universal Appeal
WHEN I WAS A FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN IN THE 1980s, MY ENGLISH LIT TEACHER HAD THE AUDACITY TO FOIST A SUPPOSEDLY ROMANTIC NOVEL ON OUR CLASS.
The story took place in Regency England and was considered a “classic,” which I figured was literary shorthand for “deadly dull, full of obscure symbolism, and probably selected by the members of the department while drinking too much spiked punch at a staff holiday party.”
After listening to our teacher’s introductory lecture on the book and its author, I was underwhelmed.
So, I read through the story description on the back cover: Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, was vivacious. Mr. Darcy was arrogant. And the drama, such that it was, would take place in parlors and ballrooms and whatever.
“Gag me,” I thought (because, you know, it was still the eighties) and sighed in annoyance. How could this antiquated novel be remotely relevant to my life? I had important problems. Guys I liked who didn’t like me back. Guys who’d hinted that they might like me, but to whom I wasn’t attracted. Snotty girls who made fun of me or gossiped about my friends. Friends who had relationship problems of their own and who consulted me for advice I wasn’t wise enough yet to give them. And my very own family, who seemed determined to embarrass me at every turn and keep me from being the cool teenager I’d fantasized about becoming, rather than the awkward bookworm that I was.
I did not want to read about, think about, or discuss Elizabeth and Darcy’s “courtship” and what that entailed when I was so mired in my own early dating experiences. Besides, what could an author, who’d lived two centuries before me, know about the issues that concerned me during high school?
Not. A. Thing. I was sure of it.
Well, I’m sure you’ve already guessed just how wrong I was. Reading Jane Austen that semester quite simply changed my life. I hadn’t gotten more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice before I realized the truth: this was an author who saw people. She knew them—their thoughts and behaviors, their foibles and strengths. She had an innate sense of what was timeless and universal. Her insights into human nature were so acute and her characters so well rendered that she taught me to spot a modern-day Caroline Bingley or Mr. Collins or Mary Bennet from a striking distance of half a football field. Jane Austen was a genius when it came to relationships of all kinds and, moreover, I knew long before I’d reached the final chapter of her book that I had a lot to learn from her. For me, she was simultaneously a literary idol and an unexpected life coach.
Over thirty years later, I’m still learning from Jane’s wisdom and still deeply in awe of her brilliance. Happily, I’m far from alone in my admiration of her writing. In recent decades, an industry of Austen fandom has sprung up around her work, inspiring blockbuster film adaptations, frequent references in pop culture, cross-cultural characters that are nods to Jane’s own, and thousands of fanfiction works that include prequels, sequels, or twists on her novels.
I recently published my twentieth book, and nearly everything I’ve written thus far has been, in some way, an homage to our beloved Miss Austen—from my debut novel, According to Jane, which was inspired by my experience of reading Pride and Prejudice as a teenager, to my most recent release, Coming Home: A Mirabelle Harbor Duet, which includes a romantic novella that’s a modern nod to Persuasion. Being that I write contemporary stories, though, as opposed to historical fiction, and I typically set my novels in the American Midwest, rather than in Great Britain, the influence of her work on mine isn’t always as obvious as it might be, perhaps, if I wrote Regency romances. And, yet, this is one of the many treasures Austen offers those of us who admire her and who’ve chosen to become authors. Her intelligent writing style, her thought-provoking themes, and her insightful characterizations made me want to try hard to emulate her impeccable narrative craft while working on my own stories, even when the books I was writing seemed utterly different on the surface.
Taking a look at just one of her iconic characters, say, Mr. Darcy (because who doesn’t love him?!); his universality should be surprising and, yet, it’s completely understandable. Despite being fully grounded in Austen’s era, his characterization transcends the period of the novel. Why? Oh, friends, let us count the ways… Yes, he’s the hero of the story. A fictional Prince Charming to Elizabeth’s Cinderella. A wealthy and sophisticated White Knight-type who enters the sphere of the impoverished (relatively speaking) heroine and has the ability to sweep her away to a life of significantly greater luxury. So far, he could be like many of the romantic heroes in literature before him.
What is it, then, that makes him endure? What makes him stand out? One major characteristic is his value system. He’s not looking only for a pretty face; he respects an educated mind. And, more than even that, Pemberley—his castle, if you will—is a place with a huge library, symbolizing the gift of furthering the education of his intended bride and sharpening her already sizable intellect. Elizabeth Bennet needs riches of the mind as well as the body, and Austen is almost revolutionary in pointing that out to her generation.
But what’s even more unique about Fitzwilliam Darcy is that he’s portrayed as fully human—one with marked flaws, despite his tall, dark, and handsome exterior. It’s that combination of the universal Cinderella story plus the humanization of a hero who resembles men we know in real life that makes this tale so translatable across eras and cultures. It’s why readers and viewers can buy into portrayals of Darcy in such a wide range of settings…those as different from each other as Bridget Jones’s Diary is from Bride and Prejudice…or the Latter Day P&P cinematic version is from a traditional Regency adaptation. Who in the world hasn’t had a bad first impression of someone and gotten off on the wrong foot?
Prince Charming is merely a fairy-tale character and frequently etched in a quick and superficial manner, but Austen raises the standard for a hero. She pens Darcy as a recognizable and relatable man. A man who not only behaves rudely and coldly at the start of the novel, due to his irritation at being judged only on his appearance and fortune during that first assembly, but also as a thinking man who learns from his mistakes. He models what a mature real-life gentleman would do: apologize sincerely to the woman he loves for the errors he’s made and strive to correct his behavior within the community at large.
And, speaking of the story’s heroine, Austen’s stunningly realistic character development is true for her, too. Elizabeth candidly admits to her prejudice, once her eyes are open to it, and works to try to make amends to Darcy for her misjudgment of him. She’s capable of turning her sharp observations and astute introspections upon herself, recognizing her missteps, and owning up to them—and this allows the reader to learn right along with Elizabeth.
But the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice aren’t the only ones Austen shades with three-dimensional realism. Captain Wentworth might be a man who loves with great passion, but he’s also a grudge holder with a simmering temper. Catherine Morland frequently lets her imagination run away with her. Edmund Bertram is easily led astray by a woman with clearly more fashion sense than ethics, despite his religious bent. And what can I say about Emma Woodhouse? Whether portrayed traditionally or with delightful modernisation, as in Clueless, she’s a meddlesome mess, and that’s even before she starts getting mouthy with the neighbors.
Then there are the Dashwood sisters. Here, Austen paints her characters with such a beautiful dichotomy, allowing them to be foils for each other and giving the reader the opportunity to see how extremes of behavior are both limiting and, potentially, a source of deep pain. By playing out the opposing worldviews in Elinor and Marianne’s romantic actions and experiences, Austen illuminates the downsides of their sense/sensibility pairing and, simultaneously, the benefits of each perspective. Yet another gift Jane bestows upon her readers across the centuries: an awareness that polarities of behavior are just as prevalent—and just as emotionally dangerous—in our modern world as they were in years’ past. And young people in today’s society (like, oh, high-school teens who, maybe, think that “classic” novels aren’t relevant to their lives) need to learn how to recognize this, too.
I’ve enjoyed so many facets of Austen’s writing in my life, particularly her delicious use of irony and humor, her moral lessons that were delivered with such flair, her utterly distinctive characters, and her memorable romantic plots. But, in my opinion, her greatest legacy will always be her clear-eyed vision of human nature and how timelessly translatable those insights have been into new works that honor her stories. From subtle tributes like The Lake House to faithful BBC productions, many artists have tried to tap into her genius and show the world what Jane showed us.
For me, once she drew my attention to a personality trait through her perceptive prose, I was never able to “unsee” it. Her spot-on, keen observations of human strength and frailty are as accurate today as they ever were. And as much as I owe her a debt of gratitude for my writing inspiration, I owe her a far greater debt as a person for the many priceless lessons she’s taught me through her novels. I doubt there’s a better life coach out there…and I’d be willing to bet that millions of devoted Jane Austen fans around the globe feel the same.
In Passionate Support of the Arts
Nothing will ever change that magical feeling that comes over me when a character I’ve created on the page starts to come alive in my mind. Or that moment of sudden insight when a plot problem that’s been plaguing me resolves itself in a manner far better than I could have anticipated. Or that flash of inspiration when a story premise or a theme or a significant detail has me sprinting to find paper and a pen to jot down notes. (This is all the more remarkable because I’m otherwise not a huge fan of running… 🙂 )
Like the line of the famous Gershwin song, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I know, as long as I live, these gifts are mine.
Publishing, however, is not the same as writing…and there are, in fact, important things that can be taken away. One of them involves the accepted societal value placed on the payment of artists of all kinds for their creative products.
I watched the Grammy Awards a few weeks ago, and a couple of the presenters were talking about the value of a song. “Isn’t a song worth more than a penny?” one of them asked the viewers. And he went on to explain that the musicians who wrote and performed many of today’s popular hits were paid only a fraction of a cent per song. The vast majority of singers—much like novelists or painters—can’t support themselves by their artistic creations alone. That’s often been the case through the generations. However, there’s something a bit different about the era in which we live now: A growing societal belief that music, art, and stories should be very low cost or totally free. That with the easy access to information via the Internet, the creators of content are less valued. If someone can read a blog post for free or watch a YouTube video for free, why shouldn’t everybody also get entire novels or full movies or digital song downloads for free?
As an aside, I’m not in any way talking about libraries here. Every librarian I’ve ever met has been unfailingly supportive of creative artists. And, as taxpayers, one way we all show our commitment to the arts is by funding our public libraries. As a culture, we need to ensure that there’s a place where literary and audio-visual materials are accessible to everyone in the community. “Free” within the walls of a library is a really good thing.
Instead, what I’m talking about is the growing trend of devaluing artistic effort itself. Pirating of books/movies/music has never been more rampant. Blasé attitudes about copyright infringement abound. And there’s a pervasive indifference to the time and effort the artists in question have spent on their creations. Each time I pop in a DVD, I see the warning: “Piracy is not a victimless crime.” It isn’t. But I’ve learned that some individuals won’t come to value the artistic work of others until they themselves have put countless hours into the creation of a product only to discover that a subset of society will not fairly compensate them for it.
I don’t see this happening to the same degree in other professional fields. I’ve never heard the clients of an accountant saying things to him/her like, “You should just be glad that someone wants you to file their taxes for them,” the way writers are often told, “Hey, you should feel lucky that people want to read your work, even if they scamming copies.” Chefs, doctors, office managers, or paralegals aren’t offhandedly asked to work without payment for hours the way local musicians are often asked to provide free entertainment at a venue with their primary compensation being, “Well, you can sell your CDs after the show.” The attitude is perplexing to me.
Thankfully, not everyone shares these beliefs, but I’ve been hearing them expressed more frequently with regards to those in creative fields. Will it stop me from writing? No, of course not. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and very supportive group of readers and book reviewers in my corner. But it does give me pause and it spikes my concern for the future. Mostly, I worry about aspiring writers, artists, and musicians just entering these industries. How often can a newbie writer be told that it’s “just a privilege to have an audience” as a means of explaining away the steep drop in book advances and royalty rates or the rise of piracy and the demand for cheap/free entertainment?
I love writing…but it’s passionate work. It takes time, skill, energy, blood, sweat, and frequently tears. It’s not a valueless commodity, as every person who’s ever tried to create something knows well. That book she published, that film they produced, that song he wrote, etc., took years of study and effort to create. The best way for all of us to show that we love and value an author’s (or musician’s, artist’s, filmmaker’s) work is to buy it for ourselves. Or to choose to give it as a holiday/birthday/special occasion gift to someone else. Or to ask our libraries to add it to their collections—and then check it out and tell our friends it’s there. Tweet about it. Review it. Let our pals know what we appreciate about this creative artist. What makes him or her unique in our eyes.
Truly, it means the world. And, personally, I think the future of the arts depends on it.
The Courage to Write…or Not
Not to state the obvious or anything, but writing takes courage.
Sure, there are all the usual reasons:
*Because we get scores of rejections on the way to publication — from agents, from editors, from just about anyone who so much as glances at the manuscript.
*Because there’s always the potential for negative reactions once we’ve got a book for sale — from readers, from reviewers, from that lady who shows up at your library program just to inform you that “sex in books is sinful.” (Yeah, that did really happen.)
*Because we routinely put ourselves and our emotions out there, which is necessary to write authentic characters, but it also can make us feel vulnerable.
*Because we rarely, if ever, know what our income will be when we begin a project. In traditional publishing, we have to wonder, “Will I sell enough copies to earn royalties beyond my advance (if there even is an advance)?” And in indie publishing, we have to wonder, “Will I sell enough copies to offset what I’ve invested in this?
*Because we need to be our own boss every day and get our work done — not only skillfully but also on time.
Courage is required for all of the above. Just about everyone who’s ever set pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) already knows this stuff, though.
But writing takes additional courage because, at one stage or another, and sometimes with stunning frequency in the same day, we find ourselves asking questions like these: “What am I contributing to the world with these stories? Are they something of value to others?”
Some days, the answer may be a swift and gratifying YES!!! Those are the days when we remember that beautiful email from a reader who told us that our books made her laugh in the hospital waiting room…or the day we got that surprise Facebook message from someone who said our stories brought tears to her eyes. (It’s easy to feel a YES on those days.)
Other days…well, those are the ones that require the courage, aren’t they? The ones where we’re thinking, “Eh. I don’t know if anyone really cares. Maybe just a handful of people…but is that enough? Is it worth it?”
There’s a reason why everyone does not, in fact, write and publish a book, despite announcing to their friends and family that they want to. I think those “Eh” days are a big part of that. I don’t blame anyone for backing away, though, if they can. Constantly having to confront the perceived value of our work is exhausting. In fact, just asking the question “Is it worth it?” — especially once we know the sheer toil involved in crafting and publishing a novel — requires guts because what do we do on those days when the answer feels like a resounding NO? How do we push through that feeling until we can again remember all the reasons we believe it is worth it? Or how do we harness the nerve to step away and go in a different direction if, after all, it’s really not as worth it to us anymore?
I suspect that’s why so many authors from the past have gone on record saying, “Hey, if you can walk away from writing…if you can do anything else…you should do it.” Because it takes courage (and wisdom and a deep self-knowledge) to leave. And it takes courage (and persistence and a series of leaps of faith) to stay.
Beating Out a Book Series
About a decade ago, though, when I was the librarian for the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, Blake sent our group a gift copy of Save the Cat! I got to devour it right away and, at the next meeting, I told the group about it and passed it along to another member. This was several years after I’d started getting serious about writing fiction. At the time, I was in the midst of drafting my fifth manuscript—According to Jane—a book that later became my debut novel.
Let me tell you, that story needed a lot of work. Some serious structural revision. And, having fallen in love with Blake’s deceptively simple one-page beat sheet, I was able rethink the plot points of my work-in-progress. When I got the call in 2008 that the story sold to Kensington in a two-book deal, I tossed a handful of confetti in the air and baked a pan of brownies, mentally thanking Blake for his genius.
The beat sheet is still my favorite novel-structure tool, and I haven’t written a manuscript since then that didn’t, in some way, utilize its principles.
This month, I just released my 12th and 13th books—one novella and one novel, respectively—that are both part of a new women’s fiction/contemporary romance crossover series called “Mirabelle Harbor.” It’s the first time I’ve entered into a project knowing in advance that it would be a series, so I was certain I’d need to do a lot of plotting and organizing before I delved into the drafting process.
For the record, calmly trying to tell you all that this was a daunting prospect does not adequately convey the sheer level of panic I felt—right alongside all of the excitement—when I began working on it last fall, LOL. I loved this fictional town I’d created and the collection of characters that inhabited it. As a result, I’d committed to releasing at least four books for the series. However, my original idea actually required that I plan for seven stories! (That concept alone was worrisome enough to make my curly hair even curlier, and to cause my longtime critique partners to start grilling me on the state of my sanity…) And, so, because I had to be ready to work across so many novels and plant the seeds for later plot elements in the earlier books, I needed a structural tool I could really trust. No surprise that I reached for my own battered copy of Blake’s book.
In the past, since I’d only been working on one manuscript at a time, I just used the original 15-point beat sheet on a piece of regular copy paper. I’d type out each beat, print out the whole thing, and have my list ready as a handy one-page reference. But dealing with seven books was a game changer. I needed to be prepared x 7.
The first thing I did was still to type out a beat sheet for each of the stories, which allowed me to look across the entire series in a glance. But as I was writing the first two Mirabelle Harbor books—Take a Chance on Me and The One That I Want—I realized how quickly new plot developments could emerge, particularly since I only tend to plot out the really big elements in advance, and I leave the details of the individual scenes for when I’m drafting. A lot of serendipitous surprises can come up then…and that means that any new backstory discoveries or character-trait additions that were revealed while I was working on one of the earlier novels in the series could easily affect key scenes of a later novel. I needed to keep closer tabs on those, particularly since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to remember all of these changes over the many months that I’d be working on this project.
So, I decided to add a second way of accessing the beats for each book, this time in the form of note cards. I started out with fifteen note cards (one for each beat) for every book. At the top of each card, I’d write down that one beat, but there would still be plenty of room left on the card—at the bottom, on the back, or paperclipped to it as needed. (For instance, the “Catalyst” section for book two needed five additional note cards just for that beat. The “Finale” needed 13 cards…) But what was great was that I could zip over to the set of note cards for the fifth or sixth or seventh book, find the beat in that story that would likely be influenced by a plot twist or new development in the novel I was currently working on, jot down my notes for how to incorporate the changes, and still feel confident that the structure for that later book would remain strong and that there would be no lapses in continuity.
Thus far, this method has been incredibly helpful for me, and I find myself grateful to Blake all over again for coming up with a tool that’s so versatile. The jury is still out on whether or not I’ll release all seven books, but the first two in the series are now published, and I have several chapters written for both books three and four, You Give Love a Bad Name and Stranger on the Shore.
And regardless of how many Mirabelle Harbor books I write, I can assure you, I’ll be throwing more confetti in the air and baking another pan of brownies in Blake’s honor.
The Long Journey to a Novel
I’ve always been a chronological writer. So much so that I used to be unable to move onto the next scene if there was anything (even a line of dialogue) left unwritten in the scene before. Not that I wouldn’t make a ton of changes later during my revision stage, but I was only able to fully envision a scene and draft it once I felt fairly confident in what I’d written up to that point. As a result, it usually took me longer to write the first three chapters of any novel than it did to write the rest of the book. (We’re talking months and months here…) Ah, friends, I’ll admit, I never anticipated having two releases from the same contemporary romance/women’s fiction crossover series within a week of each other. But there have been a lot of firsts with my new “Mirabelle Harbor” series already…and I suspect this won’t be the last surprise I encounter as I keep working on it.
For THE ONE THAT I WANT, though, something very strange happened. This new story — about a dozen books into my publishing career — is actually a complete and total rewrite of my first manuscript. And by “complete” I mean from page one onward. No more than two or three paragraphs made the cut from the entire original draft of 400+ pages. I kept only a few characters’ names and titles of some fictional movies that still made me laugh when I read them. Even the scenes were different — not just rewritten, but brand new and happening in settings that hadn’t existed in earlier versions of this story. The premise, though — a romantic women’s fiction tale about a woman who tries to figure out if she can be in a relationship again after the death of her husband — was one that had been haunting me for 15 years. I’d read very serious women’s fiction that treated the subject matter with great care and weightiness. But I wanted to tell this story in a particular way. With a bit more humor and with a sense of earnest exploration that’s usually a hallmark of young adult novels. Why? Because my main character is rather like an adolescent at this stage in her life, experiencing dating for the first time in twelve years and coming face to face with a very specific teenage fantasy.
The unexpected result, however, was that the drafting of this novel became a kind of exploration for me, too, and my writing process changed. I wanted to be sure that I captured the tone I was striving for, so I worked on sections where I could hear the dialogue clearly in my mind, and I ended up writing large segments of the book out of order. The very first scene I scribbled down, in fact, was a love scene between my protagonist and one of the male characters, which doesn’t happen until somewhere around page 180 in the book. No one could have been more mystified than me by this bizarre change in my process.
Even more surprising was that I was certain when I began working on this story that it would be the first book in a series. My made-up town of Mirabelle Harbor was populated with characters that I thought I knew fairly well. After all, they’d been in my head since August of 2000. Turned out, they had some secrets up their sleeves. And, somewhere in the middle of drafting THE ONE THAT I WANT, I realized I was writing out of order in a much larger sense. That there was a story that would come before that book in the series…which was how my romantic novella, TAKE A CHANCE ON ME, was born.
Both of these books are stand-alone projects, but they’re connected by several secondary characters, a suburb that they all share, and a relationship (some more directly than others) to a major family in town, the Michaelsens. This opening novella features the lighthearted love story of two opposites — Chance & Nia — who also appear in the full-length novel that follows. Writing about their couplehood in that second story ended up being the catalyst for my seeing more clearly the way their romance had developed. And I found it wildly fun (albeit, rather unusual for me!) to get to go backwards and tell the tale of how they first met and fell for each other.
Today is the official Pub Day for TAKE A CHANCE ON ME and, for a limited time, the ebook is just 99 cents at all retailers. (It’s up on Kindle & Nook right now, and it’ll be available soon on Kobo & iBooks — and in paperback as well.) And at the end of this week, THE ONE THAT I WANT will be officially released, too. I can’t believe it, really — it’s been such a long time coming!
“In a World Where…”
I can’t tell you how many movie trailers have started with that line (“In a world where…”) as an easy way to clue in the viewer on the type setting to expect. With novels, setting is an integral part of most of our stories, even if we’re not somewhere exotic, somewhere otherworldly, or somewhere that’s constantly changing over the course of the book.
I’ve written a couple of novels that take place in changeable settings — namely, A Summer in Europe and The Road to You. I traveled extensively through the locations I wrote about in each of these books, taking pictures and visiting the landmarks they would see during the course of the story. Here’s a brief description of each:
A SUMMER IN EUROPE: On her 30th birthday, Gwendolyn Reese receives an unexpected present from her widowed Aunt Bea: a grand tour of Europe in the company of Bea’s Sudoku and Mahjongg Club. The prospect isn’t entirely appealing. But when the gift she is expecting — an engagement ring from her boyfriend — doesn’t materialize, Gwen decides to go.
So, in both of those novels, the plot is taking place as a direct result of the setting. The changes in location drive the narrative, give the characters a specific place to react to or battle against (depending on the circumstances), and create much of the reason for the dialogue.
But not all books are like that. The use of location might not be nearly as obvious in some stories as it is in others, but it’s still vitally important. For example, in my upcoming contemporary romance The One That I Want (out on July 27th!), the setting for the books in this series is the northern Chicago suburb of “Mirabelle Harbor.” This town doesn’t really exist but, given the fact that I’ve lived in northern Illinois for over 20 years, I know this part of the state fairly well now. Despite the metropolis status of a city like Chicago, the surrounding suburbs — especially those cities right along Lake Michigan — are very much like small towns in certain recognizable ways. They can be very cute and quaint. Interestingly insular. Close knit. Gossipy. Which are traits I happen to love about them from the standpoint of a novelist.
What could be better for writing fiction than personal experience with a vivid collection of caring but (overly) curious people?! Neighbors and friends who know far too much about what’s been going on in the lives of their fellow residents and “just want to help” them when they can?! This quality is what made the towns of Mystic Falls, Virginia (“The Vampire Diaries”), Stars Hollow, Connecticut (“Gilmore Girls”), and Cicely, Alaska (“Northern Exposure”) so memorable to me. I had elements of all of these TV shows in mind while I was writing this book and the novella (Take a Chance on Me), which is also part of this new series. I wanted to capture that community spirit unique to such a setting… 😀
What are your favorite settings to read about? Small towns? Major metropolitan cities? Well-known international locations? Obscure locales? Galaxies far, far away? Somewhere else? Please let me know!
And a quick FYI: Just in case you didn’t know, the Girlfriends Book Club has a FREE fiction sampler available for download from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and GooglePlay! It’s called ONE MORE PAGE, and it includes 34 bonus posts about writing & the writing life, along with the story excerpts. Hope you’ll enjoy!
There are downsides to the writing life. Ask any professional writer and you’ll get a chorus of groans about the MANY, MANY rejections, the years it takes to learn the craft (and the need to keep learning new narrative skills no matter how many eons you’ve been at this), the endless revisions, the confusing/chaotic/changeable publishing industry, the unending stream of promotional and marketing responsibilities, the necessity of being present on social media, the sometimes crushing critical reviews, and did I mention the MANY rejections?! (No April Fool’s joking here about any of the above.)
Yeah, okay. You’ve heard all these things before. Good. Moving on…
Now, let’s talk about one of the absolutely, indescribably, fabulously wonderful upsides of the writing life: The sheer JOY of the creative process.
Why do authors keep doing all of this crazy hard work? I’d say one reason is because of the thrill of creation — a sensation that can sneak up on you at surprising hours. It’s like a special drug that doesn’t damage your health. Like a jolt of caffeine just when you need the energy most. Like gourmet European chocolate that no one can snitch from you. It’s a secret weapon that inspires more than a little courage and great feats of endurance…and, for many writers, I think it drives us.
I’ll never forget the moment I finished the first draft of my first novel. I’d had many little bursts of delight along the way, but reaching “The End” was nothing short of euphoric for me. We had a little baby in the house and I’d been using my son’s nap times and any spare hours I could somehow lasso during the day (or night) to work uninterrupted. I’d tried to write a novel a few times before and had never made it past Chapter One or Two. This time, though, I managed to power through the entire draft by stubbornly working on it nearly every day for seven months…and when I wrote the last line, at 3:17am one freezing late-winter morning, I felt the endorphins rushing through my body as if I’d just finished a marathon. Indeed, I knew I’d run a type of race. I couldn’t be sure if I’d ever be able to cross the finish line again, but I was determine to try…if only to have a shot at experiencing that incredible feeling one more time.
Some of my books in the decade and a half that followed (10 novels and 1 novella, to date) were written faster than that first one — others were written significantly more slowly — but, always, at different points in the process of drafting each one, there were moments of pure, unadulterated joy. And maybe this is just me, but I’ve found it’s not a public thing. While there’s certainly fun to be had in social situations, this kind of moment doesn’t translate easily. It can’t be contained to a Facebook update or explained at a conference workshop. For me, at least, the intense feeling I’m remembering has never happened when I was in the company of others, despite having had a blast with my critique partners during our writing retreats and feeling energized by the ideas we brainstormed together.
This is something else. Something just between the writer and the page.
I think of it as an intangible, harmonic hum that we can feel, but cannot hear. It’s us becoming one with our characters, merging with them and stepping into the heart of our story. It’s the puzzle pieces clicking into place for a vibrant second, giving us a flash vision of the beautiful whole. It’s a rare moment, free of doubt or fear, where there’s only the certainty that we were somehowmeant to do this. To create these characters. To write this story.
For me, there’s an ultimate tensile strength to the memory of this feeling, which somehow manages to outlast all of those acknowledged downsides. It’s what keeps me turning to that next fresh page…and writing down whatever line comes next, and then the one after that…
Seeking more joy.
Writing of Love
Because February is the “Month of Love,” after all, I thought I’d talk about something related to it. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently…
Since I’m a writer who enjoys shifting between genres, I’ve found it interesting that I’ll sometimes get questions on one of the genres I write that I don’t get on the others.
For example, no one yet has ever asked me why I like writing mysteries. They’ve never wanted to know if my coming-of-age mystery The Road to You is based on any of my real-life experiences or how I learned about firearms and explosives or if I’ve ever killed someone. (For the record, I haven’t.)
Likewise, the readers of my contemporary women’s fiction books have never asked me why I’ve written several novels in that genre. They’ve asked me to explain what women’s fiction is exactly, but never about my motivations for writing the stories themselves.
Romance, however, has been an entirely different experience. At least once every month or so, I’ll run into somebody (online or off) who’ll express his/her curiosity about why I’ve chosen to write several books in this genre. Their theories vary from editorial pressure (i.e., “You have to have sex in your books, don’t you? The editors make you do it because sex sells…”) to personal wish fulfillment (i.e., “It’s fun to write about sex, isn’t it? You can make your characters do all kinds of, um, interesting things that would be exciting to try out in real life, like, you know, the things those Fifty Shades of Grey characters do…”) to lack of narrative ideas (i.e., “It’s got to beeasy to write about romance, right? And, hey, if you need any other story ideas, I just heard some juicy gossip about_____, and, let me tell you, my love life is pretty wild…”)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m always open to fresh stories ideas. But I’ve never written romance because I figured it would be a simple task or that it would give me a reason to get a voyeuristic play-by-play on the intimacies of other people’s love lives. Never in my entire publishing career have I been forced into writing a sex scene. And, on the flip side, I’ve never shied away from writing one if I felt the characters and the plot of a particular book warranted it. I’ve written novels with quite a number of sex scenes (According to Jane), just a few of them (On Any Given Sundae), and none at all (Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match). The type of story and the behavior of the characters themselves are what determine whether it’s going to be a sweet tale or a steamy one.
And, yes, while writing romance can definitely be “fun,” it’s not merely what the characters do in the bedroom that makes it so.
I write romance because I adore love stories. Because the very act of two people “falling in love” is something I consider miraculous and one of life’s greatest gifts. I write romance because, while sad and tragic things do happen in our everyday world, sometimes incredibly wonderful things happen as well. The joy of two people meeting, learning about each other and themselves and, ultimately, discovering that there’s no one else they want to spend their lives with more than this other person…well, in my opinion, that’s real-life magic.
And, c’mon, what’s not to love about writing stories like that?!
Do you have a favorite romance novel? One you simply loved reading (or, perhaps, writing)?
Do you have a favorite real-life “love story”—your own or that of someone you know? A romance that simply makes you smile whenever you think about it…no matter how long it lasted, be it a few days or multiple decades?
We’re all inspired by the heartening love stories of our beloved Jane Austen characters, and we read/watch them over and over, but nothing quite tops the thrill of remembering our own, does it? That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. For a number of reasons, I’ve been on a quest to clean my office and, in the process, came across my old high school and college journals. This month, I’ve reread many of them.
There’s so much to appreciate about the energy of youth (and nearly as much to be embarrassed by, if my journals are any indication, LOL), but I’m finding there are gifts that come with aging as well. Being able to look back on the years with a significantly longer lens. Gaining a clearer perspective. Recognizing patterns. Knowing with certainty that, while there may be lows on whatever path we’re walking, there will also be highs.
I can recall more than one romantic escapade from my past that had real-life scenes reminiscent of a plotline from one of JA’s novels—including the start of my relationship with my husband almost twenty-five years ago. 😉 But the young man I’m thinking about today came jitterbugging (literally) into my life seven years before my husband and I even met…back in the mid-1980s when I was just sixteen and was spending a summer halfway around the world.
I’d read Pride and Prejudice a couple of years before this trip and had been blown away by that masterpiece of fiction. The astute observations about human behavior. The self-righteousness of some characters and the sheer arrogance of others. The delightful recognition that we’re complicated beings who are capable of learning, growing, changing our minds and, in fact, being flawed but still heroic. JA’s insight from across the centuries was like being handed a treasure chest of wisdom in high school.
But, when I left Madison, Wisconsin to become an exchange student in Brisbane, Australia, I soon met such a fascinating cast of characters that this, too, was a special kind of treasure. More than once, I imagined myself living in the midst of some sort of modern Austenesque comedy, and the entire exchange experience marked my life in a positive way from that point onward.
For those of you who’ve read my debut novel, According to Jane, you know the heroine Ellie subdivided the guys she’d dated into Austen-character categories, i.e., the Wickhams of the world, the sweet Bingley boys, the Mr. Darcys, of course, and more. Well, the spark for that story thread originated back in high school because, between the people I knew at home and those I encountered on the trip, I felt I’d met all of these types.
One of the guys, however, was truly unique. We were introduced at a private dance, held at the house of a mutual friend. I’d been hearing about him from my Aussie classmates incessantly prior to the party, and was convinced that he must be some sort of sun god to have elicited such adoration. He, in return, confessed he’d heard something of me as well. When he first walked through the door, he stuck out his hand to shake mine and told me with a grin, “My friends said I hadn’t lived until I met you.” I laughed, and we were instantly bonded.
We spent much of the night talking and, alternately, twirling each other around the parquet floor. In my “expert” teenage opinion, he had the intelligence and handsomeness of Darcy, the charisma and charm of Wickham (along with a couple of his vices), and the good nature and social facility of Bingley—all braided together. And, ohhh, that boy could dance! I remember thinking that Jane herself would have fallen for young Mr. Awesomeness if she’d ever met him.
I surely did.
Now, I love romance, and if this were a novel, I could spin the plot accordingly, letting the tension escalate as my trip drew to a close. I would write about our long philosophical chats and the difficulty in saying goodbye when my exchange ended. Our promises to stay in touch. The overseas letters and phone calls that followed and, though we were both dating other people, his sly “marriage proposal” a couple of years later. (A funny tale for another time…) Our plans to see each other, and the reality of meeting once again four years after I’d left.
Were this a romance novel, I would know to end the narrative right there—at that magical moment when he and I were face-to-face again in Brisbane.
From the perspective of decades, though, I’m able to tell you the rest of the story. What happened after that. How, during our reunion when we were both in college, we knew immediately what we’d already suspected while we were apart—that a relationship between us wouldn’t work long term. That more than geographic distance separated us. That we were undoubtedly better as friends.
I can also tell you that we stayed in contact for a while before drifting apart. That we each married other people in the 1990s, became parents, and pursued the careers we’d talked passionately about as teens but didn’t choose the first time around. He eventually studied to become the doctor he’d dreamed of being, and I finally followed my heart back to writing.
But for the briefest segment of time and space—when our paths first crossed and the daydream of a long-lasting love story was still possible between us—it was a memorable, exciting, and utterly joyful little romance. And those memories are made a tad more poignant for me right now because he just recently passed away…
Life, my friends, is far too short.
The lyrics—so beautiful and bittersweet—to the Garth Brooks song “The Dance” have been floating through my mind all week. (You can see the original music video HERE.) Alongside the sadness, though, I also get to remember my friend as the vibrant young man he was thirty years ago, and I can honor his humor, his cleverness, his musicality, and his Austenesque qualities in the characters I create. I more than suspect JA did the same with the friends and loved ones she’d lost. The very existence of certain people inspire us, and our gratitude for that gift is part of what drives us keep them alive—both on the page and deep in our hearts.
And how about you? Is there someone special who springs to mind when you think of a real-life love story? A fleeting dating relationship or a romance spanning half a century and beyond? As always, I’d love to hear about it. <3
This past week, in a New Year’s inspired fit of house cleaning, I decided to tackle my office closet. This closet has been mine alone for the past eleven years — a depository of “keeper” books by many of my favorite novelists alongside unread ones; old manuscript drafts of never-published novels alongside the publisher’s page proofs of my debut romantic women’s fiction book, According to Jane; a handful of acceptance letters for a variety of novel projects alongside countless rejections. (Well, in all honesty, I supposed they could be counted…but I just don’t want to be the one to do it.)
When I came upon the first bunch of white envelopes — a stack of rejections for a manuscript that hasn’t been (nor should it ever be) published, I smiled. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow. I’ve really come a long way since the summer of 2000 when I first started to write fiction. I should be so proud of all I’ve learned.”
And a part of me was proud. I had learned a lot. For nearly a decade before publication, I’d studied writing craft with a level of obsessiveness that frightened most of my family and friends. So, when those few acceptance letters trickled in — and especially when I finally got my first book contract — I felt I’d put in my time. That I’d earned those “yes, pleases” after so many years of “no, thank yous.”
But the further I dug into my writing past via the office closet, the more rejections I unearthed. I’d forgotten about many of these projects because they weren’t women’s fiction or romantic comedy manuscripts. They were for articles and essays, for poems and short stories. And some of those had eventually been accepted by newspapers and magazines, too, but the sheervolume of the letters began to weigh on me. The more I tried to spin a positive attitude about “how much I’d learned since then” to myself, the more an increasingly loud voice in my head railed against it. Why were there so many rejections? Had my earliest attempts really been thatdreadful? And why did the process of becoming a professional writer have to take SO long? Why is it still so damn hard to write a compelling story of any length and sell it, even with the indie publishing revolution at hand?
Instead of feeling pleased with my persistence throughout my long and winding writing journey, I began to feel weirdly depressed, and I couldn’t figure out the real reason behind it. At least not at first. I knew those early projects — especially the novels — had structural and narrative issues that made them unpublishable. I could see the flaws so clearly now, in a way I couldn’t see them twelve or ten or even eight years ago. The stories weren’t devoid of all merit, but any experienced editor or agent would spot a number of manuscript problems within the first two or three pages. The fact that I could recognize that now should cheer me.
It finally hit me that I’d slipped back into the mindset of the aspiring fiction writer I’d once been. That younger writer had expectations. She optimistically thought she’d eventually learn so much about the craft of fiction that she wouldn’t make any other narrative mistakes. That she wouldn’t structure a scene poorly ever again. That, by the time she got published by a New York house, won a contest or two, got an award for her stories, hit a major bestseller list, etc, she’d be above getting rejected for anything. I mean, logically, she probably realized she’d encounter a little editorial resistance for something small, would need to revise a couple of scenes, maybe, or might miss a few typos in proofing a draft…but big errors? Errors that would require serious rewriting? Uh, no.
True, I might not be quite as clueless as I was during those early years of the New Millennium, but almost 15 years of writing and publishing experience, plus a pretty RWA Golden Heart Award, a lovely Illinois Author of the Year plaque, and spots on the New York Times & USA Today bestseller lists didn’t make me an expert either. Unfortunately.
I’m still learning. Some days, I feel very much like a beginner. I’m still wresting with my manuscripts every day, struggling through certain scenes as if it were my first novel. My latest women’s fiction/mystery, The Road and Beyond, took me three years to finally get right. So, I don’t feel I’m anywhere close to being finished with “rejections” in some form or another, even if they don’t come in the guise of a form letter in a white envelope anymore.
Letting go of the illusion that I’ll someday really know what I’m doing…is surprisingly hard. I so hoped I’d be a master of fiction by now, LOL. But I need to do what that aspiring writer I used to be had to do all the time: Learn whatever lessons I can from the mistakes I’ve made and then get back to writing and revising. Tomorrow, if not today.
Finding Our Creative Art: Where Passion Meets Realism
A series of random incidents over the past few weeks—involving people in other creative fields—reminded me why I am neither a musician nor an artist. Why I chose writing fiction from among all of the expressive arts out there, most of which I’d experimented with at some point in my life and had enjoyed tremendously.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the shortest explanation is that I chose writing because I love it…but I don’t love it blindly.
This differs for me from music, which I love with a passion that’s unreasonable and stubborn. Years and years ago, I knew that while I could play piano exuberantly and for hours on end (much to the dismay of my parents), I didn’t possess the discipline to be a professional. I wasn’t willing to do the “boring” stuff. The scales. The transposing. The accurate counting of beats. I just wanted to play wildly and by ear whenever possible, slurring entire passages to get to the good parts, ignoring rules and scoffing at the notion of someone else’s time signature.
I still amuse myself with practicing music “my way”—à la Sinatra—and it’s still crazy fun. But it’s private fun. Like scribbling one’s uncensored thoughts in a journal. I know better than to even fantasize about playing music with other people in public. One is required to stay in the same key. Play the correct notes in the same measure at the same time. Things like that.
Art, by contrast, I really, really liked…but I knew I didn’t love it the way I loved music or writing stories. I followed the rules in drawing and painting dutifully and worked through the technical details of a piece with a methodical precision that was akin to a paint-by-numbers project. That alone should have been a red flag, but I was also afflicted by the ‘Hey, It’s Close Enough Syndrome’ all too often. The finished products tended to look, well, okay. Just not great. Not inspired. In my most honest moments, I’d have to say that, overall, my pieces were fairly competent, but they lacked soul. And I think excellence in any art form needs soul. We need to feel the passion of its creator when we encounter it.
So, it’s been especially interesting to be part of a creative field that’s undergoing so much change. To see me and my writing friends having no choice but to change with it. Even more fascinating has been to discover what’s left unchanged for us as individuals, even amid an industry-wide shake up. I ask myself the same questions all the time: Do I still love writing fiction? And do I still love it realistically?
Yes. And, also, yes.
It’s been over 14 years since I made the decision to pursue novel writing as my profession, and I don’t regret it for a second. I love puzzling through different kinds of plots. I love that moment when the characters come to life for me and begin to feel real. Most of all, I love learning more about human nature through the process of writing, and I love finding out from readers which parts of a story meant something to them. This path has been so rewarding, but I knew going in that it would be filled with rejections, hardships, and disappointments. I wasn’t expecting a nonstop joyride. Although, I’m not sure I was expecting the bizarre rollercoaster it turned out to be, either—where most of the ride takes place in a dark tunnel and you have no idea if you’ll go forward next or spiral sideways or plunge downward or suddenly stop, LOL.
Given the transition away from traditional publishing to hybrid and indie publishing for many professional authors—myself included—I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been able to stay in this field and deal with all the upheaval if I hadn’t been willing to approach it with clear-eyed love. For me, at least, following a passion was a necessity but, equally so, it needed to be one I was willing to look at without rose-colored glasses. Or any tint, for that matter. One that could still bring fulfillment, despite the passage of decades and the inevitable wrinkles that appeared. One I could continue to appreciate, even during those extra-challenging years (which have been many) or while doing particularly tedious tasks (which is often).
Because our expressive art—like a person we love dearly—doesn’t remain constant. It’s a dynamic thing. And, somehow, we must summon up both crazy passion and true commitment to sustain our relationship with it…and to find and honor those aspects that remain the same for us, even in a sea of change.
What do you love most about writing (or music, art, dance, theater, etc.)? What keeps you coming back to your creative love?
Happy Holidays, everyone! I wish you all the best for the season and beyond. 🙂
The First Step is Falling in Love
How do you know when a story is right? As you sift through ideas and topics and themes, how do you know when a particular idea is going to sustain you through months, maybe years of writing and rewriting?
We’ve had some wonderful writing-cycle discussions on the GBC blog over the years, but rarely has a topic come up at such an appropriate time for me as this one… It is, in fact, something I’ve been struggling with —daily — for the past two months.
Back in July, I released a brand-new contemporary romantic comedy, Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet (the companion book to Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match), and this month I have out The Road and Beyond (the expanded, book-club edition of my coming-of-age romantic mystery, The Road to You). I’m really proud of these novels and very excited to have them out in the world, but both of them have plot and character ties to prior projects. In other words, they were new to readers but not entirely new to me.
By contrast, I’ve been getting ready to embark on a completely new writing project, which will require drafting something set in a place I haven’t written about before with a collection of characters I don’t yet know. And it’s been no small challenge. Not for lack of ideas, but because of questions regarding my own commitment. Like dating, back when I was single… Sure, there are a lot of cute guys out there, but who do I want to see nearly every single day for an indefinite period of time? Who intrigues me enough to want to find out their flaws as well as their charms? Who won’t I mind revealing myself to as well? In other words, who has the potential to make me genuinely fall in love?
And, it turns out, I need that with my novels, not only with my husband.
It’s not enough for me to simply “like” a cast of characters. It’s not sufficiently motivating for me to write a book that revolves around a plot I’m only “kinda curious” about. I need to fall passionately in love with the hero/heroine and the storyline with an obsessive attachment that rivals my adoration for Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy or “Outlander’s” Sam Heughan… (Who else watched “The Wedding” episode Saturday night and got all swoony?!)
It’s been quite a process of trying to sift through my various novel ideas, play around with them, test out my level of commitment to them by writing sample scenes or filling out Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! beat sheet for a premise that I think sounds promising. Too often, though — like dating — it might be fun for a while but that special spark isn’t really there. It takes such a powerful combination of qualities to craft a book idea that can withstand the rigors of structural analysis, draft writing, seemingly endless revision, feedback from beta readers or editors, and the certainty of having to face promotion and public criticism together. As with marriage, you’re looking for a partner with whom you’ll be stronger. One that will make you strive to be better, more confident. It’s not always easy to find that — in love or in writing.
So, while I was fortunate to have met my spouse 24 years ago and to have committed to prior book ideas that are now published novels, I’m still looking for my next great narrative love. I’m stubborn enough (and, perhaps, even experienced enough now) to know that it’s futile for me to try to write a novel without that level of passion.
Grow Big Dreams
Last month, a longstanding writing dream of mine finally came true, and the outpouring of cheers and support from fellow authors, reviewers, book bloggers, and readers was absolutely amazing to me. Also, in celebration, some of the dearest people in my life (my nearby friends and family) surprised me with treats to mark the special occasion and, really, just to show me how much they care.
The gifts themselves were lovely — and I’ve included pictures of some of them in this post — but the biggest present was the fact that all of these wonderful people, who’d shared this milestone with me, knew how long and hard I’d worked toward this dream…and they’d been there from the beginning.
My son, now fifteen, doesn’t even remember a time before I was a writer. I’ve been at it for fourteen years of his life, and he’s tolerated sharing my attention with his “electronic sibling” (i.e., my laptop) ever since babyhood. When he was eight, the manuscript that eventually became my debut novel was up for RWA’s Golden Heart Award, and he gave me his “lucky quarter” from his coin collection to take with me to Dallas for the conference/award ceremony. I think he squealed louder than I did when I told him over the phone that According to Jane had won.
My high-school-teaching husband, who’d married me over twenty years ago and thought I’d always be a teacher, too, didn’t skip a beat in encouraging me to completely change career paths and follow my passion for fiction, if that was where my heart was… In fact, he was the one who’d insisted I go to my first local romance-writer meeting in Chicago, and he urged me to take a leap of faith and attend the 2003 RWA National Conference in NYC, just so I could find out for sure if this was really the journey I wanted to take. He’s read almost every manuscript I’ve ever written — over a dozen of them now, the poor guy — and, as someone with a master’s degree in English Lit who’d once been a professional proofreader, he even volunteered his excellent proofing skills for many of my stories. Yes, I know he’s awesome.
And my wonderful girlfriends who live in town with me — Sarah, Joyce, and Karen — have been there to celebrate everything from my first publishing contract (over six years ago) to every local book signing and library presentation to various book club visits and a ton of unusual events in between. Sometimes this even involved taking overnight trips across state lines. They are, in a word, remarkable, and I was so damn lucky to meet them a decade ago.
It’s one thing to have a big dream — and mine was to finally hit the New York Times Best-Seller List — but to have people in your life who are willing to share each step in your crazy writing adventure, celebrate with you when things are going well, and listen to you weep in your hazelnut coffee when the challenges seem to outweigh the delights…that’s priceless. Dreaming big dreams may be an individual thing, but achieving big dreams, well, that takes a village. Sometimes, a metropolis.
So, my heartfelt appreciation goes out to every person — both in the writing world and outside of it — who gave me a smile, good advice, or an encouraging word to help me keep my spirits up during those times of struggle. There were many, and there will be more in the years ahead. This profession is such a roller-coaster ride, I know… And thanks, too, to those same people who danced with me (virtually or in person — perhaps only stopping for chocolate/dessert breaks) when there was a reason for joy. I’m hoping there will be more days like that ahead as well.
I wish all of you the BIGGEST of dreams and, just as much, I wish you the supportive people who’ll be there for you on your journey toward reaching them. When you get there, be sure to tell them thanks 🙂 .
Creativity, Writing, and the Ever-Changing Face of Publishing
In my life before becoming an author, I was a teacher with an educational-psychology research background in creativity and culture. I was fascinated by these two topics, particularly the way creativity and culture mutually influenced each other (all the points at which they both opposed and intersected), and I chose this to be the subject of my master’s thesis.
I spent a couple of years just information gathering—reading studies on creative individuals, compiling lists of specific traits that seemed to predict a potential for creative behavior, identifying cultural patterns and situations that made for a fertile creative environment, and so on. Then I detailed the results in a document packed with quotes, not only from social scientists, but also from my favorite authors, film directors, musicians, and artists. Let’s just say the final product was on the lengthy side…and probably my first indication that writing books might be in my future, LOL. Even so, I still feel I barely scratched the surface.
But if I were to distill my hundreds of pages of notes and years of research into one concept, it would be this: I found that creativity most frequently occurs at the margins of our cultural experiences. It thrives in those places where our knowledge of one world overlaps with another world. And that it’s often at these edges where stunning insights, unusual approaches, combinatorial ideas, and ingenious advancements are born.
I find myself thinking about this a lot nowadays, particularly given the tremendous changes we’re experiencing in the publishing industry. We’re witnessing a seismic shift in the way stories and information are being distributed. All of us who are writing and publishing today are the living definition of cultural marginality, at least in relation to our field. We have a front-row view of the two intersecting worlds of publishing, i.e., the way things were done just a few short years ago vs. the altered industry as it has evolved since the digital revolution took hold. These changes are so real to us and so visible that we have the singular ability to hold the vision of both worlds in our minds simultaneously.
And, while the downside is that it likely feels to you (as it does to me—daily!) that the ground is moving constantly beneath our feet, the gift that comes from where we’re standing is that we’re now in the perfect position to be more creative than ever before.
I truly believe this. I’ve seen it in action, and I think most of you have as well. The spirit of innovation, the greater openness to trial and error, the generous sharing of information, and the rich peer collaboration have been beyond what many of us could have ever imagined during our earlier publishing days. Quite a number of unusual marketing ideas, multi-author projects, new regional reader events, and clever promotional strategies have originated or been expanded upon thanks to the out-of-the-box thinking of some indie authors. But the ideas have spread between all writers, who’ve cross-pollinated techniques drawn from the indie, hybrid, and traditional publishing realms, and most are trying fresh strategies wherever and whenever possible.
While not every promotional experiment out there leads to bestsellerdom, there’s an unmistakable sense of ingenuity in the air and a breathless excitement that comes from turning a corner mid-race and finding that the course is completely open to change. That it can and, in fact, must be reconfigured—by us.
Romance writers were always an unusually supportive and bighearted bunch, but now there’s even more of a sense of possibility and generosity—one that amazes me and overwhelms me by turns. It’s not easy for anyone to pave a brand new path. However, our current climate sparks an appreciation for the gifts that this industry-wide upheaval has brought to all of us and a desire to contribute to the sharing of knowledge that has revolutionized the way we approach the writing, publishing, promotion, and distribution of our novels. It all starts, though, by knowing which talents we bring to the table.
Perhaps one of the trickiest lessons we each have to learn as writers is the art of playing to our strengths. Even as we work to improve upon whatever areas are more difficult or daunting for us as individuals, we still need to take the time to recognize those traits that make us unique—those particular aspects of creativity that fuel our storytelling and our imaginations—and to honor them. As novelists, whether published or aspiring, we are a collective of highly creative individuals. It’s a certainty that you register somewhere above average on scales of creativity—trust me on this! Just think about what we do every day: build new worlds, craft scenes, bring to life characters who feel real, script dialogue for people who don’t actually exist and who live in places we’ve only imagined, and much more. These are uncommon pastimes for most adults…unless, of course, they happen to be novelists.
Below are some of the most frequently cited characteristics of creative people. Many are complementary traits while others may be in opposition. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are fairly well known by educational psychologists to be the kinds of things that are noted as indicators of potential creative talent. I’m sure you can pinpoint quite a few of your own:
Flexibility of ideas
Complexity of ideas
High energy level
One of the most interesting concepts I came across during my creativity research was a characteristic called “permeability of boundaries,” referring to boundaries between categories and spheres of interest. The creative individual is aware of such boundaries but enjoys finding ways to subvert or transcend them. This is where the ability to see and understand more than one “world” comes into play, and it has a direct application to fiction writing. When a writer has multiple interests or strong areas of knowledge, she’s capable of making startlingly original connections between them. It might be as simple as using an unusual but apt metaphor in writing a scene or as extensive as utilizing a deep grasp of another vocation to slingshot book promotion to a new but receptive audience.
Another of my personal favorites is a trait called “tolerance of ambiguity,” which is the ability to deal with vagueness and ideological discontinuities. It is possessing the mental flexibility to accept the internal conflict and tension that result from polarities, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Essentially, it’s marked by the ability to handle the discomfort of the unknown. This is a trait I think most writers must draw upon whenever they start a new novel—just take the art of plotting as an example.
I, for one, happen to be a loose plotter. I love Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! beat sheet and think it’s a work of story structural brilliance. But, even with its assistance in the basic plotting of my story, I still have to face a trillion decisions yet to come. Decisions about the backstory and motivations of my characters. Or about plot twists that I may not have planned out in advance. Or about nifty subtextual cues or literary motifs that highlight a theme I’m only partially able to name when I first start drafting the manuscript. And I have friends who don’t plot at all and, yet, they still end up with beautifully written novels drafted through their own special “fly into the mist” processes. I can assure you that everyone who successfully writes a book that way has a gift of tolerating ambiguity in large measure!
Furthermore, for all of us, there is a strong link between creativity and the ability to take emotional risks. I’ve seen this again and again as a vital difference between those who choose to pursue their writing dreams and those who back away. Ralph Keyes, who wrote one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Courage to Write, also wrote a book called Chancing It: Why We Take Risks. In that text, he states, “While creativity is generally assumed to have some correlation with talent, the more important correlation is with nerve.”
I think he nailed it.
So, in my opinion, although industry-wide change can be frightening, as authors we have very little to fear. Our creativity—our risk taking, our adaptability, our willingness to think divergently, our capacity to collaborate with each other, etc.—will serve us well. Figure out which creative traits are your greatest assets and explore them. Play to your strengths. Learn from those authors who have skills in different areas and share in return. Use your talents to pave the path you most want to follow and join together with authors you respect to reach your goals.
More than ever before, there’s magic to be found when we combine forces and let our ideas, experience, and sheer creativity mingle. Together we can do more than justenvision great things—which is a gift in itself—but we can also make them tangible.
A Commitment to Excellence
Some years back, I was talking with my brother-in-law about martial arts. He has a black belt in jujitsu and has competed many times, including once in Taiwan. His day job was as the deputy chief of police in a northern Chicago suburb — and he answered a million cop/detective/crime questions for me when I wrote The Road to You — but jujitsu has been his longtime hobby. (One that also proved rather useful in his line of work!) He mentioned to me that, as much as he was interested in all of the martial arts, he found it best to focus on attaining excellence in just one of them, so he’d know what it was like to be really good at that one sport. That it would be easier for him to learn another one later, once he’d reached a high level of achievement in jujitsu first.
I don’t believe he meant that judo or karate or any other martial art would be that much easier to learn once a person has learned another. Rather, I think it’s because, once we know what constitutes excellence in ANY ONE area, we can fully understand what it should look and feel like in another. Knowing what it really means to EXCEL in one subject or at one particular skill keeps me from being fooled (or, more likely, fooling myself) into thinking a mediocre performance is an excellent one. Because it’s not.
I’ve seen the same thing with those who study foreign languages or musical instruments. Someone who strives and attains excellence with French, for instance, or with the flute knows the time, work, effort, practice, commitment, etc. it takes to become a master. Someone who’s a world champion chess player isn’t likely to think he’d make a stellar tennis player, unless he’d trained as hard for the tennis as he did for the chess. And I can assure you all, much as I love to paint landscapes and to play pop/rock songs on the piano, I will not be hosting an art exhibit or a concert anytime soon. I may still have a lot to learn about writing, but I know enough to recognize when an essay or a novel is in essentially publishable condition…and, likewise, this hard-earned knowledge helps me to recognize (with sadness but certainty, LOL) that my artwork and my piano playing are NOT at a comparably high performance level.
That said, no one reaches excellence in any arena if he or she isn’t willing to take risks and write, paint, sing, or whatever at an absolutely dreadful level first. No one just jumps into mastery with one or two easy leaps. Some people may be fortunate in learning how to advance more quickly, while some of us (*raises hand*) need years or even decades to acquire the same skills. But I think as creative people we always have to push ourselves, even once we think we kinda know what we’re doing. We still need to take risks. To try new, more complicated, more emotionally dangerous things on the page, so that we’re not only improving our own skill level, but we’re raising the bar of excellence collectively across all creative fields.
Or, to quote Mario again: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Yeah. That applies to writers, too.
So, here’s to a year of striving for excellence for all of us! What projects are you working on right now? Anything that’s a little out of your comfort zone?
Following Our Passions: A Dance of Love, Fear, and Change
“There are those who dance to the rhythm that is played to them, those who only dance to their own rhythm, and those who don’t dance at all. ~José Bergamín
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being asked to speak at the annual conference of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English (IATE). It was a major honor for me because they’d selected me as their 2013 Illinois Author of the Year, and they’d wanted me to give a luncheon talk on the subject of their conference theme: “Remembering to Follow Our Bliss and Teaching Our Students to Do the Same.”
I interpreted that phrase to mean finding our passions, following where they lead, and sharing them with others so they’ll be encouraged by our example. Essentially, so those we interact with will strive to be honest with themselves, open to experience, and willing to face challenges worthy of their time and talents.
As writers, though, I think we live this without reminders. That the need to be passionate and to share those passions is inexorably entwined with our author DNA; it’s as if we have a third strand added to that original double helix. After all, we are driven to write. It takes a powerful force to create the kind of drive needed to sustain the drafting of an entire novel (let alone multiple projects), the seemingly endless revisions, the anxiety-provoking critique process, and the part bravado/part sheer terror of submissions. This publishing game isn’t for weenies. And there are a lot of very successful, smart, and creative individuals out there who are good at composing literate papers but who still don’t get anywhere close to fully drafting a novel. We all know people who claim to want to be novelists who don’t get beyond the writing of the first chapter, if that.
So, in my opinion, the passion to write is fueled by something much more primal than mere aptitude. We don’t write novels just because we are capable of stringing sentences together for 350+ pages or even because we intuitively understand—or have learned through the study of writing craft—how to structure a scene, develop a character arc, or create rising tension.
I believe the passion necessary to write a book comes from great love…andgreat fear. Sometimes simultaneously. We need to understand the sources of our personal passions so we can harness them and channel their power into something we feel is beautiful and meaningful. Likewise, as writers we’re not just required to face our fears, we have to fully immerse ourselves in that deep river where our secrets hide. We have to drag or charm those cagy demons to the surface, hold them up to the light for examination, and give a voice to what was once only a muted cry, so others—who might recognize the sound—will know they’re not alone.
When Therese and I were first chatting about my writing a blog post for Writer Unboxed this month, we were talking in the context of publishing and all of the industry changes we’ve witnessed. I’ve had several novels that were traditionally published and have also become more involved with indie publishing in recent years. I’d hoped to offer some useful information about possible publishing paths. But the more closely I looked at what I wanted to convey about the options available to today’s writers, the less I was able to untangle it from passion. From both love and fear.
I can’t speak for anyone else but, for me, because I started writing seriously back when the idea of an “ebook” was akin to science fiction (i.e., something you might find in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but not exactly in everyday life on Earth) and the only self-publishing models I knew about were vanity presses, traditional New York publishing was the only path I’d originally considered. I pursued it with a relentless commitment for nearly eight years until I got my first book contract. I’d entered a slew of contests, queried scores of reputable literary agents, and wrote a half-dozen manuscripts before I finally got “the call” that According to Jane had sold. I then entered this hallowed world of big dreams (and frequently small advances) and got a front-row seat for one of the most significant industry shifts since the invention of the printing press…
And it was a fascinating experience—sometimes frustrating, sometimes gratifying, but never boring and, likewise, never constant.
As the sands shifted under our feet, ebooks gained momentum, print runs for midlist authors like me got halved, and I realized that my passions were changing…not only when it came to what I longed to write about but, also, what I worried about the most in regards to my career and my future as a novelist.
I suspect one of the reasons arguments between traditional vs. indie published authors can get so heated is because everyone has a tendency to project their own dreams and anxieties on each other. I’ve heard some traditional-only pubbed authors ask an indie author with confusion and alarm, “Don’t you want to be respected?” To which the indies would reply with matching tones of confusion and alarm, “Don’t you want to be paid?”
Of course, the truth is that there’s no guarantee of respect or money, no matter which publishing path we choose to take, and there’s no saying a writer won’t get both by going on either type of journey or by becoming a “hybrid” author and combining traditional releases with independent ones. The magic combination of a well-written book that’s released at the right time and utilizes an excellent marketing strategy can create publishing miracles. But, regardless of the writing dreams we hold dearest to our heart, there’s still the very real possibility that what we want and need most passionately this very second could change a few years down the road. Or that we might start to pursue that new avenue, only to have it change again a few years later.
It’s really important to me to openly acknowledge this because we can’t forget that we ourselves are as dynamic and as changeable as our industry.
Where I am personally in my career right now—not to mention where I am in my family life and with my particular constellation of desires/anxieties/etc.—is noticeably different from where I was just a few years ago.
Back in 2008, just before I got that first contract, my greatest desire was to hold a print copy of my book in my hands, see it sitting on a library or bookstore shelf, and get invited to local book clubs to chat with readers face to face about a story. And my greatest fear was that an editor at a NY publishing house might never consider a manuscript of mine strong enough to publish. I wasn’t willing to let go of any of these things then. Nor should I have. We’re all entitled to the dreams and fears we possess, and no one has the right to tell us that we should wish for something different or that we ought to force our anxieties to manifest themselves elsewhere.
But now my career-related fears aren’t about editorial acceptance. They involve the distribution of my work. In this age of one-click purchasing, I wonder…are my books reaching their intended audience? Getting into the hands of their right readers? Am I doing enough to help make that connection happen, especially since I write across genres? I worry about this all the time.
And, on the side of storytelling desires, I started my career writing contemporary women’s fiction, then added in romantic comedy and, most recently, YA/new adult mystery. My passion for what, specifically, I wanted to write about is changing, too. I hadn’t anticipated that. The books I’m willing to fight for like mad are different now, and I’m craving the freedom to take bigger narrative risks with them. To write much more out of the box than I ever have.
I recently released a novel that I knew conclusively—even while I was drafting it—that New York wouldn’t publish. The Road to You crossed too many genre lines and presented too much of a marketing challenge, especially in this risk-averse climate. I’d spent three years writing and revising, revising, revising a manuscript that blithely hopped between young adult, new adult, romance, mystery/suspense and historical fiction (that is, if you consider the 1970s an “historical” time period—but if you do, please don’t rub it in). I was willing to edit for as long as it took to strengthen the narrative, but I wasn’t willing to compromise on the storytelling… From the very beginning, I’d wanted to tell this tale my way, and I was willing to deal with the fallout if it didn’t work. A traditional publisher wouldn’t have been as able to take that risk, but that’s all right. That’s why today’s publishing options are so freeing.
So far, I’m happy to say my book is holding its own. Readers I’ve heard from have appreciated that I was able to give them a more unique reading experience than I would have been able to if I’d allowed this novel to be hemmed into just one or two genres. And this freedom has meant a lot to me. It is, without question, where my passions have led me for now—to the crazy joy of writing stories that cannot be easily stamped with a genre label. Doesn’t mean that’s where I’ll want to be forever, though.
And, of course, your passions, may lead you to a very different place. But I think the important thing for all of us to remember is that we need to stay true to those things we love, try to see with our clearest vision those things we fear, and fully accept all the facets of our passion and its changeable nature. There’s simply no one right way to do this dance…
With a nod to Henry David Thoreau, we can only step to the music we hear—however measured or far away—and trust in that.
The First Writing Critique
In the past 13 years, ever since I started writing fiction with the intent to publish, I’ve had a lot of critiquing experiences. Some inspiring and encouraging, even while being instructive in regards to narrative flaws. Others intentionally cruel and providing very little of value, even in supposedly “educational” settings.
It can be heartbreaking to a new writer to finally work up the courage to share a draft of a story only to have this offering met with scorn… And, yet, I don’t know if there’s a more effective way to learn to differentiate genuinely constructive feedback from the toxic variety until we’ve personally witnessed both in action.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, which I was invited to this fall because they’d selected me as their 2013 Author of the Year. It was a huge honor for me (understatement!!), and I had the opportunity to be their speaker on Friday at the Awards Luncheon in Bloomington-Normal. In preparing for my talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about my first and most memorable experience with getting my writing critiqued. It was during the only undergraduate composition class I ever took, which also happened to be the first time I remember making a conscious decision about whether or not to follow my (sort of secret) writing dream.
I was 19 that year and, as a direct result of taking this particular class, I chose not to pursue writing seriously then. It wasn’t, however, for the reason you might think…
As an education major, I was surprised and a little disappointed when I discovered I only had to take ONE writing course to get my degree. I’d always liked writing. I’d been on the yearbook staff in high school, and I was one of the head editors of our school newspaper. Nothing about the sound of this puny college English requirement scared me one bit. So what if I’d been warned about the teacher? Told he was a real nutcase, a tough grader and someone to avoid like a bad virus, if at all possible?
But it wasn’t possible. His class was the only one that fit well enough into my schedule that spring, so I took it. I didn’t expect problems.
Can you hear the hubris gods laughing with demonic glee?!
At first acquaintance, Dr. Raymond Schoen seemed almost as terrifying in person as I’d been led to believe. He was a big, gruff, older man with a beard and a pipe, and he spent the entire first class period (75 minutes!) droning on and on about the proper use of a semicolon. Seriously. That’s all he talked about for a full hour and a quarter, as if it might be the freakin’ cornerstone of literacy or something. I was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified by his lecture, and I kept exchanging sideways glances with a guy friend who was in the room with me. We agreed afterward that, indeed, we should have held out for a professor who was a little more sane. Someone who might actually talk about, you know, writing in our college class. Not just one weird little punctuation mark.
But I was in for a surprise that semester. Dr. Schoen turned out to be not nearly as crazy as I’d initially thought. In fact, he started to scare me for another reason entirely: He was really logical and not easily fooled. He wasn’t a professor you could snow with half-formed, ill-considered arguments. He was genuinely readingour papers. Making careful comments. Pointing out every single fallacy in our statements and every single cliché in our descriptions. I actually got a B+ on my first assignment…and again on my second one. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gotten a B of any kind on an English paper (sometime in junior high, maybe?), so this was not, in my opinion, an auspicious start. And I desperately wanted to hate him for this…but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because everything he said was right.
Furthermore, one option we had as students in his class was an open invitation to go to his office to discuss our writing during a short, individual conference — particularly if we were concerned about our grades, and I was starting to be. My curiosity was at war with my resentment over this — I was sure it was going to be a soul-crushing experience — but curiosity eventually won out and I made an appointment to see him.
You’ve probably already guessed that Dr. Schoen became one of my favorite teachers ever. The man possessed an amazing gift — both as a writer himself and as a professor. He was incredibly clear-minded, but he was also fair and kind. He knew what good writing looked like, and he knew when he wasn’t seeing it. He was the first person in years to hold me accountable for what I wrote, to not let me get away with lazy thinking and to make sure I really conveyed on paper what I was trying to express. He demanded honesty and clarity. Most amazingly, he inspired in me a powerful desire to prove to him that I was not illogical, unoriginal or remotely lazy. That his faith in my ability to live up to his expectations was somehow justified.
But one of the very best gifts he gave me was in treating me like a writing peer years before I would ever have the courage to become a writer. Since I’d never actually stopped going to visit him for conferences, even after my semester in his class was over, I had a chance to talk with him about his own work on a few occasions. He was a poet who loved Shakespeare, and one day when I popped by his office to say hello, he shared with me a poem he was working on. It was way over my head and I knew it — far too clever and full of literary allusions for me to even pretend to understand it — but I loved that he read it to me and explained that it was still a work in progress. That revision on it was necessary. And that, always, “writers write”…they don’t just analyze writing or chitchat about writing. They do it.
It was so emotionally honest of him. So open. So real. And I knew that I wasn’t ready to do that then — to be that kind of writer. Certainly not at 19 or 20. Not at 25 either. Or, for that matter, at 29. But, a few years after that, when I was ready, I recognized it; I knew the qualities I needed to look for in myself. (I’d also never forgotten how to properly use a semicolon, LOL.) And when, inevitably, I encountered a critiquing situation where there was derision and a lack of constructive feedback, I had a better model to emulate. To hold out for critique partners who were closer to Dr. Schoen’s style…because I knew what an exceptional writing critique should feel like. That it should inspire us to want to work harder. To revise with intent and hopefulness. To reach deeper and consider the significance of every phrase, every punctuation mark. To, above all, be more ourselves on the page, not less. Never less.
(Thanks, Dr. Schoen. RIP.)
Do you have a favorite teacher? One who inspired you and made you strive to work harder at something? I’d love to know!
Travel: A Master Class on Viewpoint
There are dozens of reasons why I love to travel. The sensation of being en route somewhere. Of simply moving from one place to another. The fun of seeing sites in person that I’d only read about. Of tasting foods that are new to me, more unusual than I’m used to, spicier or sweeter. Meeting people with backgrounds quite different from mine. The mental, physical, emotional and social challenges of dealing with circumstances I’ve never before encountered. The thrill of forging connections between prior experiences and new ones. The pure adrenaline rush of novelty.
And I love all kinds of journeys, too: Flights to foreign lands, cross-country road trips, train rides through mountain passes and even the occasional river ferry.
But the thing I love the MOST about traveling is that, for a writer (or for anyone, really), it’s a master class on point of view. I had a chance to observe this firsthand and somewhat dramatically when we took our son, who was 13 at the time, to England and Wales for a short visit last spring. It was his first trip abroad. His first passport. His first time buying anything with a foreign currency. (As an avid coin collector, this made a huge impression on him.) There were a lot of firsts.
A year and a half later, his “Mind the Gap” t-shirt is almost too small on him and his memories of the British Museum have faded a bit, but he still talks about that one older gentleman we met on the sidewalks of Chester. A man who spoke with an accent so thick that my Chicago-born son couldn’t understand more than a few words. “And he was even speaking in English!” our resident teenager still declares with awe and amazement. “He was so nice, and he was trying to be really helpful, but I had no idea what he was saying!”
Because it was our job to try to understand. We were the foreigners there. We were in his country. And the man’s kind words to us (whether we decoded more than a handful of them or not) were a tremendous gift. I can no longer recall if his directions ultimately helped us find the site we were looking for, but his attempt to share something valuable with us was greatly appreciated — both for its own sake and because it firmly planted the realization in my son’s head that our little Illinois suburb wasn’t the center of the universe. That this 70-something gentleman thought we were the ones with the accents. That, no matter how well we might be able to navigate our way through the American Midwest in our Honda, we were just lost tourists wandering on the cobbled streets of his English hometown.
Above all, our short, pleasant conversation with that lovely man became a tangible event that I could point to when I later spoke with my son about expanding his worldview beyond the confines of his junior-high environment. Trying to help him see that every single person is the hero or heroine of his/her own story, and that we relate to the people and situations around us through our own unique lens. That we need to strive to keep this in mind when we interact with everyone.
No parental lecture on the subject ever worked as well as that 5-minute live demonstration, though. My son remembers that guy in Chester — quite probably, much more vividly than the kindly old gentleman remembers us. But the experience underscored something so important to me as both a mom and a writer: That being masters of viewpoint is at the heart of our job. To help our children see the world just a touch more perceptively. To help our readers experience our characters’ lives as if breathing the air along with them. To give both our kids and our audience a clearer window into the journey of someone else…so they’ll be better equipped to describe their own.
For Love or Money
I have this daily quote calendar on my desk, and the saying that popped up a few days ago was this: “Something is only work if you would rather be doing something else.”
I agree with that to a certain degree. As tough as writing a novel (or a poem or a short story or even a blog post…) can be some days, I rarely wish I were doing something else. Well, sometimes I wish I were watching more episodes of “Under the Dome” with that handsome Mike Vogel or reading Jane Austen yet again, LOL. But, for the most part, I love writing. The whole messy process of it. The crazy puzzle that we need to solve in order to create a story, draft it, edit it (repeatedly!) and, eventually, bring it into the world. I get a strange energy from it and — as an introvert — anything that gives me energy, rather than drains me of it, is always a good thing.
But, I haven’t always had an income from writing (or I had one, technically, but it wasn’t large enough to so much as cover the monthly phone bill), so there were jobs I needed to do to help pay for our family’s expenses. My plan was to find jobs that would not only bring in an income but would also build my writing skills and understanding of stories. That way, I figured, it wouldn’t just be “work,” it would be “experience.”
When I first started writing fiction, I’d just left my teaching position to be a stay-at-home mom to a little baby boy, so, initially, my work was all in the house — taking care of him and our rented apartment and handling all of our finances while my husband, who’s a high school teacher, worked at the school full time and provided us with necessities like food and insurance. When our son started elementary school, though, I wanted to contribute more directly and, yet, still be able to be home when our son got back from his classes. So, I expanded on the the freelance writing I’d begun to do while my son was a baby, and queried more magazines, hoping to write for a few of them in subjects that fascinated me — like music, the arts, travel and, of course, parenting. I got regular assignments from a handful of publications, some regional, some national, and I also became a part-time book reviewer for a large-circulation magazine.
Not surprisingly, although this was all very enjoyable work, it wasn’t much more lucrative than fiction writing, which had netted me exactly $500 when I won first place in short-story contest. (And, let me tell you, that was a BIG deal for me then!) My pre-motherhood profession would have required me to be away from home too much, so I thought about what I could do within the realm of literature that might pay a bit more and still be as interesting to me as writing. I was fortunate to find a part-time position at a library, and I worked there for 3 1/2 years — learning about how librarians chose the women’s fiction and romance books in their collection and which popular novels really got patrons excited and talking. When I finally got my first book contract, I couldn’t believe my debut novel would be one of the ones on their shelves. I still get a thrill when I see my set of women’s fiction books in the stacks or spot the electronic reference pages that they have for my ebooks. There’s no price that can be put on that feeling.
With the tidal wave of changes in the publishing industry, I’ve become a hybrid author, involved with both traditional and self-published novels…and my “baby boy” just became a high schooler. I’ve needed to learn more in recent years about marketing and promotion than ever before, and I can’t say that the advertising aspect of the profession is my favorite part — my favorite is still the writing. It always will be. But promo and social media have their gifts, too. I’ve met more people who share common loves (like Mike Vogel and Jane Austen 😉 ) on Facebook,Twitter and blogs like this one than I ever would have imagined. It’s helped to make the writing experience one of both love and (at least some) money…
Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention
While this is in no way big news to anyone who grew up with me, what I thought I wanted to do with my life when I was a kid was “to become a rock star.” Clearly, I was a very original 7th grader. (And oh, yes, I am definitely mocking my sensitive, lyric-writing, junior-high self.)
There were only three tiny problems with my plan to achieve the kind of global Top 40 domination that one-name megastars like “Madonna” and “Prince” had:
1. I could carry a tune, but I was a long way from possessing anything that approached a ‘rare and natural’ vocal talent.
2. I had acute stagefright and actually hated performing musically in front of anyone.
3. I was too anxious and too unwilling to take the steps needed to improve #1 or manage #2.
You know, I just really liked the fantasy…
So, I did not study much music in college, despite my deep love of the subject, until it turned up as a requirement for my major. All future educators had to take this beginners’ guitar class. (I think some “Sound of Music”-loving administrator in the department was secretly convinced that all elementary teachers should be able to mimic Fraulein Maria and sing “Do Re Mi” in key while strumming.) Up until then, I’d played a couple of years of viola — horribly, by the way — and a few years of piano — more successfully, but that’s not saying a lot. Guitar was a brand new instrument for me, and the first time I tried to tune it, I broke two strings.
However, my classmates and my instructors did not know about my childhood daydreams of rock stardom or the lingering sadness that washes routinely over such a dreamer whenever she realizes she’s given up on a passion without ever really trying. So, I decided I’d do my absolute best in this class. Give it my full effort. Pretend I wasn’t scared to the point of nausea at the mere thought of singing/playing in front of everybody. Besides, I had no choice. I wouldn’t graduate without those 3 effing credits.
The results were pretty gratifying. I picked up the basics of the instrument in just a few weeks. Delighted in the calluses on my fingertips, much as it hurt to develop them at first. Sped through learning the required songs and had the assistant professor listen to me play so I could get them checked off the list. Most of all, I was shocked to discover that the assistant thought I was one of the best guitarists in the class (though, keep in mind, this was a group of all beginners), and other students were starting to ask me questions like, “Hey, have you ever played before?” I did not say, “Only when I was imagining myself onstage as Pat Benatar.” But I did feel that warm, inexpressible joy inside at getting to — in a very small way — acknowledge a dream I’d once had, confront a longstanding fear, and reinvent my self image. Not as a future rock star, of course, but as someone who could, in fact, play and sing in public. At least when necessary.
My final performance piece — in front of the professor, the assistant, and a bunch of classmates — rocked. Well, rocked in a country music sort of way (it was a John Denver song, LOL), but I not only got my required class credits, I managed to work up just enough courage to audition for our university’s musical not long afterward. And I even got a part. A small chorus role in our college’s summer production of “Li’l Abner.” The rare and natural vocal talent I heard from some of my castmates during the show convinced me that I’d truly be out of my depth if I tried to compete with any of them professionally, but the gift I received was in getting a taste of the reality of singing onstage, not just the fantasy of it.
I thought about that whole experience a lot during my years as an aspiring writer. Sometimes being in a circumstance where we just don’t have a choice in doing something or are limited in our options can be an odd blessing, particularly when it comes to figuring out who we are, what we really want, and what we’re genuinely capable of doing. The reward is the confidence and courage that come from meeting an unforeseen challenge…and the knowledge that in some new, similarly unexpected circumstance, we could probably do it again.
The Evolution of the Modern Writing Dream
First of all, many thanks for inviting me to visit WITS! It’s a pleasure to be here today to talk about the evolution of a writing dream/career. I’ll confess, the vision I’ve had for my own fiction career has been an ever-shifting one, and I’m not sure what turn it’s going to take next…
One of my favorite women’s fiction authors, Elizabeth Berg, said something profound in her book on writing—Escaping into the Open. Something that wedged itself into my memory well over a decade ago and never left. As inexperienced as I was in the fiction world back then, I understood what she meant, and I still think about her wise words all the time.
Berg had been talking about “what she wanted” in regards to writing. Early on in her career, back when she was hoping to just get a magazine byline, she told herself that all she wanted was to get published once. Then, she’d have it made. Then she’d be satisfied. Well, she did get published and it was memorable and wonderful, but it turned out that it wasn’t exactly ALL she wanted.
I get that…really and truly.
When I first started, the thing I thought I wanted was just to know for sure that I could write, as determined by some semi-objective measure. I longed for proof of it, and I figured that this proof would best come in the form of a national publication of some kind with a byline and a check. The size of the byline and amount of the check were immaterial, although I daydreamed about both being fairly large, LOL. I’d read the life stories of a number of famous authors and creative types, though, and we weren’t called “starving artists” for no reason. I knew there would be dues to pay, and I was willing to be patient and pay them with my time and my energy because I needed the clips and the exposure. The opportunity to forge a pure connection with readers. And the networking and introductions to people who might want more of the articles or essays that I could write.
But, even once I’d earned a medium-sized byline and a modest-sized check for the coveted back-page essay in a major U.S./Canada glossy magazine, this turned out to be…well, not exactly ALL I wanted. I’d no sooner become a regular contributor to two parenting magazines when I began writing my first novel. After all, I’d now done the magazine thing and checked it off my bucket list. Wasn’t it time to finally tackle fiction?
This habit of attacking a challenge until I’d achieved it and then moving on to something new and more difficult is hardly an unusual trait. Having talked to many authors, I suspect most writers (and artists and musicians) are this way. We’re driven. And we need to be to bring our stories to an audience. We need to be in order to persevere long enough to write our stories down in the first place. But whatever my goal du jour was—winning a contest or getting agent requests or having a poem accepted for publication—I quickly learned it was NOT going to be all I wanted. I had a sense of ambition that seemed insatiable. For years I deluded myself into thinking that a multi-book contract from a New York publisher might actually satisfy me. THAT was the big kahuna, after all! THAT was what I really, truly wanted when it came to writing…wasn’t it?
I did finally get that traditional contract in contemporary women’s fiction after hundreds of agent/editor rejections (that’s not an exaggeration) and almost eight years of focusing obsessively on the craft of writing…but once I had that, I, of course, almost immediately I started to daydream about other things: a bestseller list or two, a better contract, book-club deals, foreign rights sales, honors and awards. Even though I was supposedly “living the dream” that I’d fantasized about for ages, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching toward these new, even more ambitious goals. I suspected it would be impossible for me to break this pattern.
Which wouldn’t have been a problem except…except that I found myself caught up in a lot of inessential details that were draining me. This profession is packed full of exciting challenges—the high can be as addictive as creamy European milk chocolate—but it can also swamp you. Run you completely ragged. I learned it’s dangerous, health-wise, when a very driven person is her own boss. I’d started to lose track of the last time I had a day off…it’d been years. Couldn’t remember when I’d actually fixed a well-balanced dinner vs. something in the soup/sandwich/pizza genre. Hadn’t gone to bed before 2 a.m. in months. Stuff like that.
So, a couple of years ago, I took stock of what I’d accomplished, what was still left on my fantasy to-do list, i.e., that phone call from Spielberg himself, inquiring about movie rights (“Still waiting for ya, Steven” :-)) and, quite often, caught myself mentally returning to the very beginning. To my earliest writing desires, and the origins of whatever sparked this passion for fiction in the first place—the opportunity to forge a pure connection with readers. The need to challenge myself with something new—both inside the narrative itself and within the writing world.
That was what led me to explore some of the multiple publishing options available today, particularly within the realm of indie publishing. The industry had been changing rapidly while I was busy checking off items on my career to-do list, and I glanced up from a frenzy of deadlines to find that I didn’t want to just keep repeating myself. I needed a new adventure, a new focus, a new chance to share with readers something they’d requested of me—more stories with humor—but those books couldn’t be published traditionally in today’s market. The print lines that used to feature short romantic comedies no longer existed. And, if I was going to delve into the world of digital publishing, I was enough of a control freak to want to be the one in charge… This path turned out to be more intellectually stimulating than I could have ever imagined, and it’s a process that’s kept me busier than I’d expected in the past two years. I know this next year will be even more so.
That said, writing and publishing are unpredictable professions (understatement alert!), and I don’t know where the road I’m on will lead next. I have a couple of projects that I think lend themselves best to indie publishing, but I also have others that might find an audience more readily through a traditional house. We’ll see. I love having choices, though, and I’ve appreciated that writers just starting out have them, too. I’ve seen more creativity, enthusiasm and passion for storytelling in recent years than ever before, and I believe this spirit of innovation will lead to even more excitement about books and a greater connection between authors and readers. In my experience, that’s already proven true. So, in spite of all the change—and, in many ways, because of it—I think it’s an exhilarating time to be a writer. And I wish each of you the thrill of adventure on your journey, no matter what twists it takes.
Traditional vs. Self-Publishing, Critique Groups, and the Eternal Jane Austen
For this month’s author interview, I’m thrilled to introduce the wonderful Marilyn Brant, whom I first met at a writers convention in New York several years ago. It has been great fun following her career since then. Welcome, Marilyn!
Anita Mumm: You’ve had extensive experience with both traditional and self-publishing. What are some pros and cons of each that authors should consider? Is there an “ideal” path an author should take in the changing world of publishing?
Marilyn Brant:First of all, thank you so much for inviting me here today, Anita! I love your new blog and am thrilled to be one of your guests : ).
As for an ideal path, I really don’t think there is any one “right” way. Publishing has never been a one size fits all kind of profession—and I feel that’s even less the case these days. I do believe, however, that traditional publishing is the preferred option for some authors and/or some book projects, while self-publishing lends itself better to the writing and marketing style of other authors and certain literary genres (i.e., mystery, thriller/suspense, romance and erotica tend to do well in the indie arena). I’ve personally enjoyed getting to be a “hybrid” author, who interacts within both worlds…even if saying that makes me sound a bit like a shapeshifter on some sci-fi show, LOL.
The pros offered by traditional publishing include things like professional editing, an expert cover designer assigned to create the image for your novel, a marketing department working to get your book distributed across the country (or the world), publicists who get your novel out to reviewers in a timely manner, and a team of people who take care of the formatting of your manuscript—uploading it to digital sites or having it printed, stored and shipped to retailers. When you self-publish, you need to wear all of those hats yourself and/or hire specialists to edit, design, format, market, etc. for you. Self-publishing takes a lot of work!
On the other hand, self-publishing offers quite a bit of freedom in exchange for all of the responsibility. The authors themselves have veto power over any cover image they don’t like. With traditional publishing, one can’t always alter design details, even with an agent’s help. The authors choose their own release dates—something else that most writers would have almost no control over in a traditional publishing setting. The authors can change book prices or create a sale whenever they’d like. For example, my romantic comedy, On Any Given Sundae, will be on sale next week as part of a special promotion, and I get to decide when it starts, when it ends, what the price will be, and so on.
The financial outlay to self-publish a novel can vary greatly, depending on how many skills the author can handle on his/her own but, typically, most writers will need to hire a good editor, hire a talented cover artist (unless they have a design background) and either learn the skills for formatting/uploading books or hire someone to do that, too. In some cases, authors might also choose to work with their agents to get formatting and marketing help. However, once these costs are taken into account or payments for specific services are made, the vast majority of the profits belong to the author, and royalty rates are significantly higher when self-publishing on Amazon or B&N, for example, than they are in a traditional publisher’s contract.
Of course, regardless of which path is taken, there’s still a LOT expected from the author as far as advertising the new book. Authors everywhere are encouraged to take an active role on social media sites—doing blog tours, giveaways and promotions or tweeting/FB chatting. Unless an author is a bestseller at his or her publishing house, getting these activities lined up and paying for the ads will still generally fall to the author. So, in that area, both traditional and self-publishing have a great deal in common.
Your latest book is called Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match, which has been an Amazon Top 100 Bestseller in Humor and Single Women’s Fiction and a “Nook Feature” at the B&N General Fiction Book Club—congratulations! You have a long-standing love of Jane Austen. Why do you think there has been such a resurgence in reader interest for Austen’s writing, characters, and themes of late?
MB: I credit Colin Firth and his famous jump into that lake in the 1995 BBC “Pride and Prejudice” film adaptation. (Just kidding…well, not entirely! : ) )
Austen’s novels are, in my opinion, universal and timeless. They can be easily adapted across cultures (take the Bollywood “Bride and Prejudice,” for example) or modernized (think “Clueless”) or filmed again in various decades (see Mr. Darcy played by Lawrence Olivier, David Rintoul, Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and several other actors) and, still, the stories never grow old.
I’m a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I joined before I’d even sold my debut, According to Jane—a novel about a woman who has the ghost of Austen in her head, giving her dating advice. That novel and Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match are the only two books (out of the seven) I’ve published that give such an obvious nod to my literary idol, and both have easily been my strongest sellers in the digital market. There is definitely a readership out there that loves Austen as much as I do!
Jane Austen’s brilliant way of seeing characters strongly influenced me as a writer. To my eye, she was a genius at depicting human behavior, and she created several flawed but very lovable protagonists, as well as some of the most memorable villains in literature. These characters have been portrayed by famous movie stars from Jonny Lee Miller to Hugh Grant to Jeremy Northam…and from Emma Thompson to Gwyneth Paltrow to Kate Winslet. And now, with the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” there is even more of an interest in grand British houses, courtship rituals and the social interactions of a tightly knit group.
But I think at the center of the Austen resurgence is the joy of reading a love story that’s so masterfully told. Every heroine in each of Austen’s six novels gets her well-deserved happily ever after ending and, deep down, many readers—like me—are true romantics at heart.
You and I have talked about the value of critique groups for writers at all stages of their careers. What are the main benefits you have gained from being in a critique group, and what should writers look for when they decide to join one?
MB: I found my critique group through my wonderful local Romance Writers of America chapter, Chicago-North RWA, which is known for its strong critiquing, so I’m very fortunate to live where I do! As a professional writing chapter, we encourage critiques of members’ work at every meeting (twice per month) and, from that large group, I became good friends with a handful of writers, and we’ve been critiquing manuscripts for each other for over 10 years. In fact, two of Nelson Literary Agency’s clients—Simone Elkeles and Lisa Laing—are members of my personal critique circle. I’d be lost without their brainstorming help, story feedback and thoughtful input at every stage of writing and publishing process.
As for what writers should look for in a critique group, I think it depends on what your own strengths are as a writer. If you tend to be the one to pick up on every missed comma in a manuscript or have a great eye for continuity details, you’re most likely going to need critique partners who’ll bring different skills to the table—i.e., someone who might challenge your plot logic or someone who has an unerring ability to tell if character dialogue rings true or not or someone with a deep knowledge of story structure who can point out where, precisely, the conflict lags.
I think we ought to be in a critiquing environment where everyone contributes equitably and where every member respects and appreciates each others’ storytelling abilities. There are definitely times when helping a less experienced writer is rewarding or getting a detailed critique from a master-level author is truly enlightening but, day to day, for a close-knit critique group, I feel the strongest, longest-lasting partnerships come when we grow, share and learn with others who are at a similar place to us in our writing journeys. It also helps being around people we can have fun with, genuinely like talking to and really trust!
Thank you for your wonderful insight! One more question: what’s up next for you?
MB: I’m working on a story that will be a companion to Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match. I’d gotten so many reader requests for a sequel to that book, using two of the secondary characters as the leads, that I found myself writing it!
I also have a couple of different women’s fiction projects in the works. One is finished and will hopefully find a perfect home soon. The other is plotted and almost half written. And, one of my already published Kensington novels, A Summer in Europe, is being translated into Polish for release in July/August. I’m looking forward to getting to hold in my hands that first foreign edition of the book this summer.
And, just between all of us, I’d love to come up with a story idea that takes place in exotic Tahiti or tropical St. Lucia, so I’ll have an excellent reason to visit there for “research” in the near future!!
Cheers to that! Marilyn, thank you once again for sharing your amazing in-depth advice and experience with me and readers. Best wishes for those current and future projects!
When You Don’t Get What You Think You Want
You know that song by Garth Brooks, “Unanswered Prayers”? Or that famous one by the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
Yeah, me, too.
But I wonder how many times, when you heard one or the other of them on the radio, you thought about something in your life and said to yourself, “No, no! I really do want that particular thing ___(fill in the blank with your heart’s deep desire). I don’t wanna just get what I need — I’m telling you* what I need, and it’s the same thing that I want!”
[*”You,” in this case, typically refers to one of the following: God, Mother Nature, the Unseen Forces of the Universe and/or your Magic 8 Ball.]
Publishing seems to inspire such moments more frequently than, say, almost any other less crazy-making occupation. And I’m not telling you that only because I’ve had some rather heated discussions with my Magic 8 Ball. But, if I’m being totally honest, I’ll admit that in the nearly 13 years that I’ve been a fiction writer, my perspective on what’s an actual blessing — vs. what’s a blessing in disguise — has changed.
I remember finishing my first manuscript — a women’s fiction story that was (roughly) 625 handwritten pages long and (exactly) 507 typed pages in Times New Roman 12. I can now see countless flaws in it…but, back then, I thought it was a work of utter depth, brilliant pacing and staggeringly beautiful prose. Of course, at the time I wrote it, I hadn’t yet actually read a single book on the craft of fiction or taken a class on the art of novel writing or, you know, even talked to a published author about…anything. So, my frame of reference for what constituted a “good” piece of fiction was rather limited and more than a little faulty.
This did not in any way stop me from desperately wanting a publishing contract with a NY house for that book. And Garth Brooks could croon on the radio all night long about how thankful he was for prayers that went unanswered, but I was convinced I was more perceptive than he was anyway and, seriously (!!), I knew what I wanted.
Turned out, I needed to dig a little deeper into that desire. Yes, I wanted to be a published author — that part proved true — but what I really wanted, more than almost anything at the time, was to have written a story that was a good solid piece of fiction. I kept wishing for a book contract for that first novel. But it was actually acquiring the novel-writing skills that would lead to a book contract that was my deep-down burning dream. (And I got the contract eventually, too, but only after I’d finished my fifth manuscript. No one, not even me, should ever have to suffer through that first one again… I remain ever grateful and relieved that it never got published.)
With the enormous changes going on in the publishing industry over these past few years, I’ve had conversations with dozens of writers about the books they’ve sold or haven’t sold. About the dreams they’d once had for certain projects and how they thought it was the end of the line when those stories weren’t picked up by a traditional house. Many novelists put them away in a drawer or hid them on a flashdrive somewhere. They tried to forget about them, but there was always that lingering sense of disappointment.
And then digital publishing exploded onto the scene.
Authors who’d never found the right editor to embrace their work, suddenly had a platform to make thousands of sales, if they could reach their ideal audience. Books that didn’t fit neatly into a publishing niche before, now had an honored place on the virtual bookshelves. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard in just the past twelve months, “Thank God my book didn’t sell to ____ publisher!” Why? Because it gave the author the freedom to sell it to another house that did more for them marketing/distribution-wise or to publish it themselves and reap much greater royalties than they may have gotten under different circumstances.
In one instance, at least, that was true for me, too. I’d been very discouraged when Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match didn’t sell to a traditional publisher several years ago. It had gotten so close! It made it as far as that final mystical roundtable of publishing people at a well-known house…and, at the last minute, they decided against buying it.
Honestly, though, that was the BEST thing that ever could have happened to that book! (And I’d hug Garth Brooks and Mick Jagger and sing their songs along with them both, if they were here, just to prove it.)
From a royalties standpoint, the story earned more in its first month after release than I would have made from that traditional publisher’s small advance, plus, I got to keep all of my foreign/audio/etc. rights and I had complete control over selecting the cover design and choosing the release date. But, best of all, I got my deeper goal…which wasn’t really to sell that novel to a NY house, but to connect that story with its right readership. I didn’t have the online community network back then that I do now, and that’s a large reason why I think I was able to help this book find its audience. Not selling this story too soon was, in fact, exactly what I needed…and, surprisingly, what I wanted as well. Even though I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago. 🙂
What about you? Have you ever not gotten something that you thought you wanted, only to later discover that it was a blessing in disguise?
The Pride and Prejudice Beat Sheet
It’s always both fun and a learning experience when author Marilyn Brant is our guest blogger: If you stroll through the childhoods and young adulthoods of future writers, you’ll always find a unique set of novels and/or films that left a particularly strong mark. Stories that influenced the very worldview of that writer-to-be by stamping it with an indelible impression of skillfully paced plots, believable motivations, insightful characterizations, clever subtexts, and compelling themes.
We all have our own private shelves—literally or figuratively—that feature these memorable examples of storytelling. Forevermore, we hold up their masterful narration as our personal standard of excellence. The one we hope to rise closer to… someday. If we practice really hard. And if the writing gods smile upon us, even slightly.
Now, four years later, I’m celebrating the release of my seventh novel, Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match, which is the first book since my debut to give such an obvious nod to my literary idol. This story is a contemporary romance about an ER doctor and a single mom who cross paths on an Internet dating site. Both have motives aside from meeting their “love match,” and both think they’ll be able to get what they want—fast, easy, and without endangering their hearts. We all know, though, that the course of true love (or carefully plotted fiction) will never run that smoothly…
Miss Austen did not have the benefit of Blake’s beat sheet at her writing desk, like I did when I drafted my novels, but that doesn’t mean her work didn’t exemplify the same brilliant storytelling techniques Blake so clearly illuminated for us. In honor of them both, here is my best attempt at writing out a beat sheet for Pride and Prejudice:
1. Opening Image: Mrs. Bennet, a Regency-era mother to five single daughters (Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, in order of age), is yammering on and on to her husband about how a new eligible and wealthy bachelor just moved into the neighborhood.
2. Theme Stated: C’mon you British lit buffs—or fans of Colin Firth—say this one with me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Imparted to readers with a heavy dose of irony.)
3. Set-Up: We get to know the Bennet clan, particularly sweet/beautiful Jane and witty/opinionated Elizabeth, as they interact as a family and go to the Meryton Ball—the first of the major balls in the novel. (Really, don’t read this book if you can’t abide dancing.) We then encounter the object of Mrs. Bennet’s interest, Mr. Charles Bingley, who is in attendance with his snobbish sister Caroline, his other snobbish sister and her husband and, most interestingly of all, his best friend. Enter the even wealthier and handsomer—albeit, significantly prouder and more arrogant—Mr. Darcy. Despite how literary convention might expect us to think that Bingley’s romance with Jane should be the primary one in the novel, it is not. We get to contrast “pride” and “prejudice” in action as Bingley’s best friend Darcy and Jane’s dear sister Elizabeth meet.
4. Catalyst: Darcy scoffs at the idea of dancing with Elizabeth, no matter how fervently his good-natured buddy implores him to do so. He growls that she’s “tolerable” but not handsome enough to tempt him. Elizabeth overhears this conversation, and you can imagine how well that goes over with her. Her true character, though intelligent and, at heart, quite loving, is one of a woman with a LONG and exacting memory. And Darcy, who spoke in haste and out of irritation at being in unfamiliar circumstances alongside people with whom he didn’t share many interests, would live to regret his uncharitable words.
5. Debate: Others may disagree with me on this point (so feel free to counter), but I’d argue that the A Story is all about Mrs. Bennet wanting to marry off her daughters and the debate here is a series of discussions from the perspectives of multiple characters regarding the nature of courtship and marriage. To Mrs. Bennet, it’s all about money and luxurious living. To Charlotte (Elizabeth’s best friend), it’s about finding a respectable man and comfortable home. To Jane, it’s love and kindness. To young silly sisters Kitty and Lydia, it’s handsome officers. Elizabeth requires something more in a spouse—intellectual respect—while Bingley and Darcy debate the qualities they admire: pleasant manners and attractiveness (Bingley) versus being clever and accomplished (Darcy). And for the Bennets’ relative, Mr. Collins, it’s finding a woman his patron, Lady Catherine (Darcy’s rich and obnoxious aunt, no less!), would approve of, given his standing in the church. Everyone argues their positions.
6. Break into Two: Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy really begins (and not well). She makes a choice to visit Jane, who has fallen ill during a lunch date with Bingley’s snobbish sisters, and she must brave the irritations of Darcy and Caroline in order to give comfort to her dearest sister.
7. B Story: In spite of himself, this is where Darcy really starts to like Elizabeth—particularly her fine eyes and her liveliness of mind. It’s also where her dislike of him is even more firmly cemented.
8. Fun and Games: Oh, there are evening balls and many witty remarks, plus the appearance of new people on the scene and much dating/courtship action. The promise of the premise is in full swing here with marriage proposals, sudden departures, rampant social gossip, and rakish men. Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth. She refuses, so he proposes to her friend Charlotte, who impulsively accepts. Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters persuade Mr. Bingley to leave town, and Jane, in hopes of crossing paths with him again, leaves as well to stay with relatives in London. Elizabeth, who has already met the cunning but charming officer Mr. Wickham (also the son of Darcy’s late father’s steward—follow that?), begins to learn of even more horrible deeds that Wickham has attributed to Darcy. She readily believes them.
9. Midpoint: Elizabeth takes a trip to visit her friend Charlotte, now married to the foolish Mr. Collins, and encounters the formidable and frequently rude Lady Catherine. Since the Lady is Darcy aunt, it’s not so implausible that Darcy suddenly shows up there, too. It is, however, a shock to all of us when Darcy unexpectedly proposes to Elizabeth (badly). Less of a shock is that she immediately refuses him, citing his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley and his nastiness to “poor Mr. Wickham.” Let’s just say, none of this is how Darcy imagined things would play out. He storms off and writes a long letter to Elizabeth, explaining that Wickham is a really bad guy. Both Elizabeth and Darcy have been prideful and prejudiced in a number of ways, and the state of both of their love lives seems pretty pathetic right about now.
10. Bad Guys Close In: This is where the plot thickens. The officers of the regiment, including Mr. Wickham, leave the area for another town. Youngest sister Lydia gets an invitation to go there with a friend and her father lets her go, against Elizabeth’s advice. Elizabeth, meanwhile, gets to take a new trip—this one with her sensible aunt and uncle from London. They head north to the region of Derbyshire, where her aunt grew up and, coincidentally, where Darcy’s famous estate of Pemberley is located.
11. All Is Lost: GASP! Darcy is THERE in Derbyshire, too! After some months apart, during which he has regretted his ungentlemanly behavior and she has regretted believing Wickham’s lies, the two see each other for the first time, mutually humbled and with much clearer vision. They talk and are on the verge of something very courtship like when disaster strikes. Jane writes a letter saying that Lydia has run away with Wickham and the two cannot be found.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: Elizabeth must return home, knowing that Lydia’s actions will forever tarnish the reputation of her family and that Darcy wouldn’t want anything to do with her now. Because of his earlier warnings about Wickham, she confesses to him what has happened with her youngest sister and, basically, says goodbye to him. She knows any further relationship between them is hopeless. It’s heartbreaking. Just when both she and Darcy had finally escaped their pride/prejudice toward each other, they are torn apart.
13. Break into Three: At home, Elizabeth consoles her mother and her sisters while her father is in London attempting to locate Lydia and hoping to convince Wickham to marry her, rather than leave her a “ruined” woman. Elizabeth, fully understanding now that Darcy was telling her the truth about Wickham’s character, is more stunned than anyone when they all find out that Lydia and Wickham are engaged and about to get married. It is a terrible match, but it is the only thing that can be done to save the family’s reputation. Mrs. Bennet is ecstatic to finally have one daughter married, even under these circumstances.
14. Finale: Wickham and Lydia visit the Bennets as a married couple. Elizabeth is wiser now and distances herself from Wickham and his Darcy-bashing speeches. Lydia lets a secret slip—Darcy was with them in London—which makes Elizabeth crazy with curiosity. She begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Bingley suddenly returns, seeks out Jane and, eventually, proposes. Jane says yes. Lady Catherine surprises Elizabeth with a visit, demanding that she stop pursuing Darcy. Elizabeth is seriously confused. She hasn’t seen Darcy in a while and, though she respects him now, she’s quite sure she’s not secretly engaged to him. Nevertheless, she tells off his aunt with her best Regency-era insults, and is further stunned when Darcy himself shows up soon afterward. Elizabeth has learned that HE was the one who found Lydia and paid Wickham off to marry her. When Darcy proposes a second time, Elizabeth accepts with pleasure.
15: Final Image: We have the weddings of the “two most deserving” Bennet daughters. With three out of the five young ladies now married, Mrs. Bennet is beside herself with delight. And it’s a happily ever after ending for those characters who have earned it.
So, for all of my fellow P&P fans out there, how did I do? Would you change anything? And, for everyone, what are some of the books or films from your youth that most influenced your writing?
In Defense of Vanilla Sex & Fiction That’s Not So Edgy
There’s been A LOT of talk online and off when it comes to the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Very strong opinions abound — and frequently conflicting ones — about the series/the plot/the characters, which was why I finally decided I had to read at least the first novel myself and draw my own conclusions.
Well, I just finished Book One this week and, I’ll readily admit, I had some conflicting personal reactions. While it had its entertaining moments, I doubt the primary appeal of this story was the prose itself. Nevertheless, it’s become a runaway international bestseller, and I think I can pinpoint at least a few good reasons why.
To me, the allure seems to stem from a combination of factors: The well-documented “Twilight” fan-fiction connection. The peek inside the world of BDSM (I couldn’t tell you if it’s accurately portrayed, though). The familiarity we have for character archetypes like Anastasia and Christian, where an innocent but beautiful/clever heroine meets a controlling/damaged but very wealthy hero and they inevitably, and somewhat inexplicably, fall in love. In this case, they also have lots of sex on lots of surfaces.
There’s that fear of missing something, too. Most of us — writers in particular — don’t want to be left out of the loop if millions of people are talking about a book. The curiosity alone can be quite a compelling inducement to read it. It was for me. 😉
Regardless, reading this got me thinking about the attraction we seem to have for stories that are labeled “edgy” and for characters who are described as “dark.” Many of us are familiar with Tolstoy’s famous first line from Anna Karenina:“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”And, so, there’s an ever-present expectation that novelists should write about the state of unhappiness in some form or other. I get that. But that doesn’t mean grittiness and dysfunction are the only ways to touch upon it. Unhappiness doesn’t require great extremes in behavior to feel genuine — just well-expressed motivations.
So, I began to wonder to what degree the dark/edgy thing was all about shock value or voyeurism. Do we need our stories to keep pushing the envelope because we’re increasingly desensitized to graphic images — even those we create mentally? Are we collectively becoming a society of world-weary sophisticates, who are bored with vanilla sex, traditional types of conflicts and average, everyday people fighting to rise above their not-very-unusual challenges? Can a book be “fresh and original” without celebrity-ish characters, kinkiness, violence or a hefty dose of emotional instability? (By the way, these aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m really asking you. What do you think?)
For my part, I’ll say this: I’m fascinated by the portrayal of extraordinarily damaged characters. I’m curious about fictional lives and experiences that aren’t my own. I’m interested in being introduced to new worlds and varying ways of processing information, and I consider myself to have a pretty rich imagination. I love to explore characters in my stories whose perspectives may be wildly different from mine.
But, sometimes, equally as much, I love seeing snippets of my real, often humdrum suburban life reflected in the fiction I read and write. Sometimes I want the traits that make these characters unique to be their emotional courage, their honesty, their strength of spirit. I want their passion, humor, hard-earned ethics, persistence and clarity of thought to be what elevates them and makes them memorable characters…not just their “dark enigmatic past” or their “edgy intensity.”
So, I guess, what I’m saying is this: In my opinion, familiar situations and commonplace problems in a story are valuable to readers, too. And, if you’re writing one of those kinds of novels for NaNoWriMo or otherwise, please don’t change your course just because of the popularity of any particular genre trend.
After I’d been married a few years and became a new mother, I read novels by authors who explored everyday experiences with a wisdom and truth that I didn’t merely want at the time…I needed them. I had to know I wasn’t alone in having (very normal, it turned out) fears and insecurities about being a wife and mom. I needed to read about characters who weren’t larger than life, but who were a lot like me, and they let me in on their perceptions of the world, the mistakes they made, the struggles they had and, best of all, the way they eventually rose above them.
I’m still incredibly grateful to the authors who created these characters and plotlines — among them, Sue Miller, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler — for bravely writing about domestic dramas, even though some might consider those tales mundane. (After all, there were no red rooms of pain or 27-year-old billionaires in them…) But, for me, those stories were lifesavers.
Maybe you’ve felt that way about some authors, too. Someone whose work strikes an authentic, recognizable chord in your own life. If so, please share. And to all of you in the midst of NaNo, keep at it!
A Change is Gonna Come
My son started 8th grade a few weeks ago and, as always, the end of summer/beginning of a new school year is a time of transition. There are new classes and new teachers but, because it’s the same building with many of the same students in it, there’s not as much change for him (or for us) as there had been last year when he began junior high. And certainly it doesn’t approach what we expect for next year when he’ll be entering high school. (OMG… 🙂 )
So, it’s transition of the average variety — like a jar of Medium salsa at the grocery store. More noticeable in spice than the Mild. Not nearly as tongue-burning as the Hot. But change can be cumulative. And, as with salsa, even medium levels can get to you after a while.
For me, I’m in a similar kind of transitory state with my writing. I’m aware that the changes are not so obvious to others but, yet, I can feel them. Sense them starting to heat everything up.
With this writing game, I’ve already gone through some years of massive change. Getting that first traditional NY contract and all of the crazy hours of work that went into preparing for a debut release…that was a year of greater stress than I ever would have imagined. Notable, too, in that I had no idea until then that I could be so scared about something that didn’t involve the health of a loved one. I spent most of 2009 in an emotional state somewhere between frenzied and panicked. I’ll admit, I’m not anxious to repeat a year packed with as much change as that!
And last year, I took my first dip into the digital/self-publishing waters and was, again, floored by a whole new set of skills that needed to be developed and topics that inspired a new realm of personal fears. (If I’ve learned nothing else about the publishing journey, it’s that I have an apparently unlimited capacity to find new things to worry about…) 2011 was a big, exciting leap, nonetheless.
Over the next few months, there will be some additions to my author bookshelf. I’m excited about these stories and delighted to share them with my readers, but their genres and their publishing formats traipse over territory I’ve covered before. It’s like being an 8th grader. There’ll be some surprises and a few challenges, I have no doubt, but I’ve walked down those hallways already. I can recognize my peers and wave to them. And I’m as comfortable as I can be with my circumstances, given that adolescence (whether in writing or in life) is never actually easy for anyone.
But I’m aware that much larger changes are on the horizon for me and, with them, a transition that I’ll have to seriously prepare for emotionally as well as professionally. That this year is a bit of a reprieve from the intensity to come, but I know better than to think the relative calm will last.
Here’s why: Because what I’m writing about, as evident by my last completed manuscript and my current work-in-progress, is changing. And it’s changing because I — the writer — am also changing.
I’ve been noticing that the stories that now compel me enough to be worth fighting for (you know the kind I mean — the ideas that keep us awake at night, make us battle our darkest demons, inspire us to edit the same words over and over again until they’re blurry before our eyes but, hopefully, clearer to our audience) don’t entirely resemble the stories I was driven to write twelve years ago when I began my first manuscript. They’re even different in some significant aspects from the novels I was writing just three or four years ago.
And I hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t anticipated — in a very real and persistent way — to need to change. Getting to a level of comfort with any part of the publishing process takes so damn long… So, I thought, once I’d mastered a certain set of skills, once I’d understood a particular market, once I’d found a collection of topics fascinating to write about, etc., that I could just be happy staying in that niche and carrying on indefinitely, going along my merry little way without stopping cold at any time or needing a whole new set of directions.
Turns out, no.
Not every single thing is different now, of course, but there’s enough that I need to rethink most of what I’ve been doing, and I’ll have to decide which writing habits and story elements to keep and which to let go. And, while I’ll confess to being envious of writers who can remain committed to one genre, a handful of themes and certain sets of characters for decades, I’ve discovered I’m not one of them. As novelists, we’re drawn to fiction for different personal reasons, and I can’t pretend to be content with someone else’s method of facing the writing life when it’s not my own.
So, I guess, for me — or for anyone else who may be experiencing something similar — the first step toward handling such a transition is recognizing that we can’t wish it away, even if it would be easier or less frightening to ignore it. The second step is to figure out what, exactly, must change…and why. And the third would be to get ready as best as we can, knowing that the only certainty is that this won’t be the last change in our writing lives, just the next one.
My Five Gifts to Aspiring Writers
Dear Aspiring Writer:
A recent conversation I had with a multi-published novelist friend made me think of you…and how difficult, stressful and frequently frustrating it is to break into this “challenging” (read: “OMG, it’s so chaotic and insane…why do we DO this to ourselves?!”) industry. How we need so much emotional bolstering and moral support (and, also, boxes of chocolate truffles and pitchers of margaritas…) from friends and family to see beyond the soul-crushing rejections or reviews, the steep learning curves, the unpredictable publishing changes and the banquet of fear/insecurity/self-doubt that this particular calling creates.
I know what you’re dealing with out there. Really. I do.
My author friend and I were aspiring writers together a decade ago, and we still help each other remember that long, arduous climb toward getting any kind of professional feedback, agent interest, editor requests and — eventually — publishing contracts. And, yes, the industry has changed, and we all have digital opportunities that didn’t exist just a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean the roadblocks and the aggravations have all disappeared.
They haven’t. Not even when you’re published by a New York house. Or the winner of a big literary award. Or the #1 placeholder on some kind of coveted list.
But, while I could devote a lengthy, meandering post to how hard it is to get published and stay that way (or to self publish and gain discoverability), I will, instead, pull out my magical fairy wand — just a little trinket I picked up over spring break — and bestow upon you what I think are the FIVE GREATEST GIFTS a writer could ever have. None can be purchased, lost or stolen. And none require anyone else’s consent to possess them.
So, Aspiring Writer, these are for you:
Yes, rejection sucks. It sucks for everybody. You can pout for a day or two (want some Belgian chocolate? a grande margarita?), but then you need to revise your manuscript if there’s room for improvement — and, let’s face it, there usually is — and submit the damn thing again. How many times? Well, IMO, until you get the answer you want to hear.
2. A Killer Work Ethic
Be responsible. Get done what you say you’re going to do. Or, to quote the wisdom of one of my favorite fortune cookies: “Always over-deliver & under-promise. (Lucky Numbers: 28, 29, 16, 52, 38, 14)” It’s stunning how often people don’t follow through. Unless a family or health crisis prevents you — because, on rare occasion, there ARE legitimate reasons for not finishing a project on time — show how incredible you are by not being a slacker.
3. Creative Thinking
There will be moments when readers won’t get your story’s humor (trust me on this) or like your “unusual premise” or relate to your offbeat characters/plot/narrative style. Still, don’t play it safe and write something that doesn’t have a shred of risk in it. Use your imagination. You’re special. It’s true, you REALLY are. Show us your unique vision in some way.
Yes, rejection sucks. It sucks for everybody. (Do you hear an echo?) I’m not advocating rampant Pollyanna-ism. It’s useful to see the world as realistically as you’re able…BUT, there’s no need to be the Loudest and Most Insistent Voice of Doom in the Tri-State either. You’re allowed to grumble sometimes. (Though, if at all possible, try to avoid tactless ranting on social-media sites, okay?) But then, if there’s any kind of a bright side or silver lining to be found, please try to find it. It’ll most likely make you feel better, and it’ll most certainly make other people more inclined to want to lend you a hand.
What do you care about? What are your passions? What makes life worth living, in your opinion? If you can’t answer these questions, for heaven’s sake, don’t work on a manuscript right now. Go out into the world and experience some of life until you DO know. Ask yourself, “What if?” Ask other people, “Why?” and “How?” and “Then what happened?” When you’re bursting with something you just have to try to express, THEN go home and write about those sensations, thoughts, emotions, situations and complications… Attempt to write what you care about so passionately that it inspires curiosity in others.
And above all, Aspiring Writer, hang in there. It’s a long road, this journey of ours, but you can do it.
Here’s wishing you the fulfillment of your every literary dream~
p.s. I don’t think my list of gifts is an exhaustive one. What qualities would YOU give to other writers?
Marilyn Brant writes contemporary women’s fiction and romantic comedy. Her latest novel, A Summer in Europe, was recently called “an armchair traveler’s dream come true” and it’ll be the B&N General Fiction Book Club’s featured online read for May 2012. She’s insanely passionate about both travel & chocolate, and she just returned from a family trip to London (after 16 years away!), which is where she picked up her magical fairy wand, along with a suitcase crammed full of Bournville Cadbury Bars. Those Brits, they have everything. 🙂
Owning Our Strengths
So often, a sign of maturity is our ability to own up to our weaknesses. To learn to admit when we’re playing at something that’s out of our depth, so we can genuinely take the steps we need to improve and move forward.
But there’s more than one way in which we can skitter at the edges of honesty and hide the truth from ourselves. The world won’t be as quick to criticize or to call us out if we’re downplaying a strength and, more than likely, we’ll even get praise for our modesty. But, just as we should never be foolish enough to believe our own press or fail to see the publicity spinning wheel for what it is, we, likewise, shouldn’t make a habit of internalizing our self-deprecating statements, particularly when we know we don’t mean them.
I think about this sometimes, especially when I’m actively trying to deny an ability I have. My high-school years were marked by two such assertions: (1) that I wasn’t athletic and (2) that I wasn’t a storyteller. In moments where I was quiet enough to listen to the inner voices and be honest about my actual gifts and flaws, I knew I was wrong to fight so hard against both of these. To keep claiming again and again that I was exactly who I said I was.Someone who hated gym. (Wasn’t this proof enough of my lack of athleticism? Sure, I might love to dance, but didn’t REAL athletes freakishly enjoy running laps and playing games like softball?) And someone who couldn’t tell a story to save her life. (A TRUE storyteller would be able to express an anecdote aloud with ease, not just write it down, wouldn’t she? And she wouldn’t need to burn through half a dozen drafts to get the paper version just right either…)
So, I ignored any signs that might contradict these two arguments, even though there was a persistent side of me that suspected if I really challenged my denials — point by point — my claims wouldn’t entirely hold up.
But I know now why I did it. Why, in many ways, I’m still denying these two areas to be strengths, despite having been a competent enough dancer to be chosen to tour Europe with a performing group one summer during college…or a decent enough storyteller to be multi-published in fiction. Because to own up to having some natural abilities — to really embrace them as strengths — would require my having to take full responsibility for developing them. If I tried but failed in some way (i.e., didn’t get a place on the team or had a manuscript rejected), my ego couldn’t soften the blow of defeat by blaming it on my lack of aptitude. But if I could insist that I had no gifts at all in these areas, then any small bit of progress I made was a triumph. I could pat myself on the back for overcoming great obstacles and doing something not remotely innate. I could convince myself that, of course, I’d have to work 3x harder than those natural athletes or storytellers. If I succeeded, then it was only as a result of my work ethic. But if I didn’t succeed, well, I’d have a ready excuse to justify that failure, wouldn’t I?
It’s difficult for me to fight this tendency to immediately negate a gift just because I’m terrified of the personal/societal expectations of owning it. Better to think of myself as an overachiever than to suspect the reverse: That for too many years I may have actually been underachieving. That I possessed more strengths than it was comfortable for me to admit, and that I even squandered them at times because I wasn’t willing to believe they existed. That my greatest weakness had nothing to do with either athletics or storytelling, but being too afraid to tell myself the truth about what I could really do well and what was genuinely out of my grasp.
In A RETURN TO LOVE, Marianne Williamson wrote something famous and beautiful on this subject, which even Nelson Mandela quoted her on. She said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world.”
Perhaps not every person who reads this will have experienced something similar. (I don’t doubt I carry around more fears than most, LOL.) But I’m hoping there are some of you out there who’ll immediately think of a gift of your own that you’ve struggled to openly claim. Maybe it’s baking or painting or playing a killer game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Having an aptitude for poetry, math, tennis or jewelry design. Possessing more musical talent or more computer knowledge than you ever use. Whatever it may be, telling yourself you don’t have it — when you do — doesn’t make it disappear. So take that first frightening step…whisper it aloud. Say, “Yes, this gift is mine…now, what am I going to do with it?”
At the Desk: With Marilyn Brant
I have friends whose offices are a study in well-organized shelves, neat piles and dust-free cabinets. Mine? Not so much. My bookshelves surround the room (I have one against every wall), and all of them are packed with books like the one in the picture. Some hold books on writing craft, others have my “keeper” novels, one has all Jane Austen-related works — both research guides and fiction, and another (the largest) has the stacks of print novels I’ve bought but have yet had a chance to read. My desk itself is mostly taken up with the computer and telephone, but the remaining space is a cluttered collection of paper scraps and notecards on which I’ve jotted messages to myself. Many of them are quotes, sometimes with shades of contradiction (i.e., “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” ~ Buddha vs. “You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t. You take the action, and the insight follows: You don’t think your way into becoming yourself.” ~ Anne Lamott).
But I like that. I don’t think ideas are always neat and easy and, to me, writing creatively requires the ability to tolerate ambiguity and paradox. Above my desk, I have a poster from one of my favorite classic movies, “Roman Holiday.” To my left, I have one from “The Philadelphia Story” and, to my right, a poster featuring Shakespeare’s works — inspiration for good dialogue! I’ve written over half a dozen novels in this little space and, though my office is messy and sometimes dusty, it’s still my favorite place to write.
A Love Letter to Reviewers
“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.” ~ Charlotte Lucas, Pride & Prejudice
Charlotte may have been speaking of courtship in the quote above — Jane Bennet’s and Mr. Bingley’s in particular — but she could almost be talking about writers as well, as there are few of us who have the fortitude to press on with our writing without having had some encouragement from somewhere. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find that support in our loved ones. Other times we find it in the words of wonderful creative writing instructors, or possibly in the help of good friends and critique partners. But, often, it’s readers who give us that extra gift. Readers that make us want to keep going, keep on creating stories despite all the challenges…
This post is for every single reader who has ever taken the time to write a positive review for an author or send him/her a fan letter. You do not know how very special you are!!
I don’t mean to say that the only value of a review or a note is one that’s loaded with praise and nothing else. There may well have been a few story elements you might have liked better if changed. I, personally, find it really interesting when a reader tells me about scenes he/she enjoyed in one of my novels, like According to Jane, despite the fact that, for instance, the reader tends not to like first-person narration or read paranormal stories in general or even remember ’80s music. The very fact that this reader took the time to pick up the novel, read it all the way through and share his/her thoughts on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, in a blog post or with a personal email…that is like literary gold…like a declaration of affection from a lover. “You may not be perfect, honey, but I love you anyway, and let me tell you why!!”
When I got my first reviews for my debut novel, they ranged from Laurel Ann’s lovely 5-star Austenprose review that said, “What an unexpected, uplifting, and urbane debut novel! To paraphrase Jane Austen’s character Lady Catherine, Marilyn Brant has given us a treasure…Subtly powerful and amusingly acerbic, you will be gently reproved into agreeing in the power of love to transform us all,” to an angrily written 1-star Amazon review by some woman I didn’t know who suggested that I must not have ever had sex in my life because the steamy scenes in the book were, in her words, “unnatural.” (My husband of nearly 20 years found this almost unbearably funny. 😉 )
Some writers have the strength to stay away from reviews altogether — good or bad. But, since I don’t have that kind of will power, I had to learn to put a negative review in its proper place and to always keep a sense of perspective. There are different literary tastes in the world, are there not? As proof, I printed out some reviews of another novel, one I dearly love, where a number of reviewers said less-than-encouraging things about the author and her writing:
**This is without question the worst book I’ve ever read in my entire life. The style is clumsy though the author strives to impress with an aristocratic pompousness so typical of social climbers of her day. The characters are cold, their development dull and boring… I would rather endure a daily root canal than read this book again. It was almost as inspirational as witnessing a mountain top removal to mine coal. It doesn’t surprise me that her original manuscript was rejected as it should have been and now I wonder to what extent politics played a role in her eventual success? Perhaps zero of five stars would be more accurate…
**The story-line is predictable – you know how the whole novel is going to play out after the first couple of pages. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that there would be some little twist… Unfortunately not. Each of the female characters are shallow, self-centred…and vacuous.
**The book is really sort of a nightmare that never ends. It is not romantic or charming in the least bit. The main character comes through as arrogant and at times even stupid. It is a completely forgetable book, and I have no clue as to why so many people find it romantic.
**I am forced to read this book for my lit class and I find this book repulsive. I have never read such a novel that is completly incompetant, complete nonsence, the smallest talks of all the small talks in the world, it is about nothingness, and how several nothings trying and wanting to get married to other nothings for all the wrong reasons in the world. It is about people pretending to be inteligent and pretending to be civilized. It is a book where they compliment women as being handsome and men as being well…also handsome. It is quite contageous I might add because I find myself helplessly imatitating the language that it was written in. I am offended by every paragraph that I read. I have never felt such contemt for any work that I read. I pasionately despise this novel and I could write an entire paper on why. (Marilyn is compelled to add: It is my hope that the anonymous “reviewer” in question will check his/her spelling prior to writing such a paper, LOL.)
Of course, I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the novel in question is Pride and Prejudice. Yes, these words were written about our beloved Jane’s literary masterpiece (unbelievable, I know!) but, thankfully, she did not have to read them on Amazon. However, on her behalf and on the behalf of all writers who’ve ever read what’s been written about their novels online, let me just say THANK YOU to readers everywhere who write evenhanded reviews of books, send thoughtful notes to the author and/or find something they can honestly praise within the pages of a novel! You may not realize the preciousness of your gift, but we novelists surely do. Some of you have given that gift to me, and my gratitude cannot be measured.
Do We Need to Explain Why We Write?
Writing a novel is such an emotionally intense and mentally involving task that, much of the time, we writers are so caught up in juggling the details of story structure and craft that we lose focus on the ultimate big picture: Why are we writing this book in the first place?
For me, days, weeks, even months go by and I don’t think about this huge, unstated question. Oh, no. I’m too busy pondering whether the point of view I’m using to narrate my latest project is, in fact, working effectively. Or wondering if the plot and turning points that I’ve laboriously beated out (thank you, Blake Snyder) are, actually, succeeding in escalating the conflict like they’re supposed to… I spent most of the summer puzzling over the time period and the setting of my current manuscript, asking myself — and just about anyone who stood near me long enough: “Hey, do you like this idea? Does it make sense? Is it as interesting as I hope it is?”
These aren’t bad questions, of course. But, at some point, isn’t it more important to ask myself instead: “Who else cares about this? Why does this story matter? Will any narrative choice I make mean anything to anyone but me? Is going to all the trouble to write this book worth it?”
In my opinion, there is a long and a short answer to that for each of us as we face our various projects.
The long answer is undoubtedly a complicated equation involving an analysis of our writing goals, our resources, our ability to reach readers, our desire for some of the fantasies that typically come with the writing life (regardless of whether or not we end up achieving them), like being seen as famous, earning our idea of a good fortune, winning honors and awards, battling Death in our ever-present fight against our mortality, or feeling the rush we get by challenging on paper a personal fear. Essentially, by some semi-objective means, we try to determine how capable, connected, valuable and relevant our stories are in the eyes of our target audience. How meaningful our work is, at least as deemed by the society in which we live.
The short answer is…I don’t know.
It’s kind of like asking if Love is worth it. You can try to measure the quality of the relationship by whatever scale you value most (how attracted you are to that person, how smart or kind or wealthy he/she is, how often you laugh when you’re with him/her, which ideals you both share, etc.), and you can answer the famous Ann Landers question — “Are you better off with him or without him?” — to try to get at the very core of what draws you to the relationship. But, when it comes right down to it, we all know it’s still a leap of faith. That, ultimately, we have to come to terms with our own lack of absolute certainty in regards to what we hope is our Love of a Lifetime.
Maybe that’s why, as writers, we throw ourselves so wholeheartedly into the details of the writing craft. THAT is something we do know (or, at least, we’re fairly confident people like Robert McKee and Anne Lamott have some idea 😉 ), and it gives us hope that there are things about our calling that we can know for sure. (“Yes, third person point-of-view is definitely the way to go for this piece. No, no, don’t put the first turning point in that scene…”)
In the end, we may or may not leave a literary legacy behind, we may or may not earn much money or many accolades for our work, and we may or may not even know all of the deep-seated reasons that drew us to writing stories in the first place, but I don’t think we should have to justify our passion for writing any more than we have to justify falling in love with our spouse.
Why do we do this? Why do we write?
Somewhere inside of each of us, we know why. And though we may work hard to express every nuance in every sentence within our manuscripts, and we should be held accountable for those story choices by our readers, I don’t believe we owe anyone an explanation about what drives us to set pen to paper in the first place. We may choose to share, of course, but I feel it’s as personal a question as revealing a childhood secret. As much of an individual stamp as our writing voice. And as unique and hard-to-define as we are.
What do you think?
Living on the Edge
When it comes to the current state of the publishing industry, we’re living in the midst of a Chinese curse, aka “interesting times.” I’m sure it would come as no surprise to anyone reading this if I said we were in a period of great transition from print to digital—and that being a writer today presents some new choices and challenges, which can be difficult to navigate. And, yet, despite the confusion that tends to come with change, I believe every transition holds an extra-special gift in its hands and that these sweeping changes surrounding us are no exception.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was in graduate school for educational psychology, working on a thesis I’d rivetingly entitled Creativity and Culture: Perception, Interaction, Opposition and Marginality. (Yeah, I know. You’re wondering how you can possibly get your hands on this entertaining document. Lotsa laughs in it, I tell you.) After upwards of two years of research, I’d pieced together a model that I hoped would show how certain forces in society influenced creativity and the ways the act of being creative left its mark on our culture. I presented my paper to the committee, confident in my 106 primary and secondary sources and delighted by the sheer academic-ness (sure, it’s a word) of my creation. I’m still proud of it… but…
But it’s one thing to understand a concept intellectually and it’s altogether another to live with it daily—online and off—because the industry that surrounds your passion, your calling, is shifting under your feet like a hot tectonic plate. Reality like that is kind of frightening, even when it presents all kinds of new writing/publishing opportunities. It is at this point, though, where my research from long ago greets the current changes in the industry with a smile. And, knowing what I do about creativity and culture, it’s that insight I find reassuring when this Brave New Digital World is scaring the bejeezus out of me.
See, if someone were to distill the findings of my laboriously written thesis, it would be this: That creativity is most likely to occur at the margins of a society, and that people on the edge of two cultures (whatever those two cultures might be) have the ability to peek into both worlds and make connections that those people fully immersed in either one side or the other cannot necessarily see.
Guess what? That’s us, folks!
No matter how mainstream you might think you are as far as race or ethnicity or religion, when it comes to publishing culture, we’re the ones standing on the edge between two worlds, dancing on the cusp of change. We’ve lived long enough to remember the “old” ways (c’mon, raise your hand if you ever used an electric typewriter or maybe a manual one… or a card catalog at a library… or even a mimeograph machine), but we’re also young and adventurous enough to have learned to use Microsoft Word, attach a doc.file to an email, publish a blog post, and possibly even convert a manuscript to a mobi or an epub format and upload it for sale online.
Programmers are unleashing new technology on us with the rapid fire of an automated weapon, but we continue to learn it, adapt to it and, maybe, even come to love it… all without ever having forgotten what it was like to dab whiteout on a mistake when we mistyped something or what it felt like to get blue ink on our fingers from the carbon copy paper we once used.
This is where those of us who loved Blake’s Save the Cat!®Goes to the Movies can get all excited about writing that next novel or screenplay and merging our own on-the-edge experiences with new plotlines across the genres. Just think of the possibilities. What would our particular “Monster in the House” be? For some it might be a technological demon sent from the future. For others, it’s an ancient menace that thwarts our modern weaponry. Or how about all of the ideas we can build on with an “Out of the Bottle” story? So many times in the past, advances in technology were seen as magical. That could be the basis for a new tale, or it could be the reverse. How many times have we heard movie trailers that began with “In a world where…” (fill in your own unusual circumstances)?
I write both romantic comedies for the ebook market and contemporary women’s fiction for Kensington trade paperback, so I not only straddle the digital and print worlds and care deeply about both, but my stories are a mix, too—usually some combination of “Buddy Love” plus “Rites of Passage.” But I noticed in the manuscript I’m working on now that, while the various relationship themes I love writing about haven’t changed, I’ve needed to make some alterations to my draft based on the advances in technology. So much so that I actually decided to move the decade where I’d set a large part of my story to an earlier one so the electronic world couldn’t factor into those scenes, thus making the appearance of technology all the more dramatic and significant to the plot when the scenes moved to the present again. That revision of the time period brought about all kinds of new and interesting twists that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t been so aware of living between two technological worlds myself, and it’s my hope that the final novel will be richer for this perspective.
What about you? Do you find yourself using your knowledge of life before cell phones or MP3 players to enhance your stories in some way or develop a more complex range of characters? Has technology—or the lack of it—played a key role in any of your manuscripts? Are you tapping in to the creativity that an awareness of more than one worldview can inspire? I’d love to hear your thoughts and I wish you all the best with your writing!
“Food is the only form of art that will involve all five senses.” ~ Chef Fabio Viviani
I believe life, especially when it comes to the arts, is built on a series of connections — relationships between people, surprising sensory experiences, simultaneous interactions and threads that tie one subject to another. One passing acquaintanceship will lead to a relationship will lead to a friendship or a marriage…or a handful of ingredients in combination and baked at a set temperature will lead to a cake…or an acute observation plus a strong emotion plus a “what if” question will lead to story.
(*pictured above: Fabio Viviani and me with our books – my 3rd novel, A Summer in Europe, and Café Firenze, one of his many excellent cookbooks*)
I spend a lot of time thinking about such things because, well, one thought leads to another and, soon, a full-blown theory has appeared. I like theories and, typically, they’re easier for me to follow than recipes. So, I could jabber on and on about connections…or, I could just tell you a story.
It all started with the Nutella Biscuits…
One day I was reading Ciao Florentina’s cooking blog, where I’ve often found delicious recipes (LOVE her dips and salsas!), when I came across some pictures of Nutella Biscuits (http://ciaoflorentina.com/2011/07/16/chef-fabio-vivianis-nutella-biscuits/), the recipe of which she happened to pick up from Top Chef Finalist Fabio Viviani.
Now, you have to understand (insert critical backstory here), my addiction to Nutella goes WAY back, about 25 years, when I first tasted it in Europe. (These were in the days before you could find it at Walgreen’s. Other people brought home bottles of wine from our college dance tour…I brought home giant jars of Nutella. No kidding. 😉 ) So this recipe was a love-at-first-sight experience for me. I clicked over to Fabio’s page to get the details (http://fabioviviani.com/recipes/nutella-biscuits/), was delighted to see that it required only a few ingredients and, later that week, bought what I needed to make it.
With a little help from my son, we mixed everything together, kneaded the dough, flattened the biscuits and cut them into fall-leaf shapes before baking. I am not, as I’m sure many of you have gathered, the most skilled person in the kitchen. I was, however, very motivated to give these biscuits a try, and they were well worth it!
When they came out of the oven, we let them cool and then decorated the tops with an extra swirl of Nutella and, finally, tasted them. Delicious!!
Having just had this exciting culinary experience, it set me off on a quest to seek out more great recipes by both Florentina and Fabio, and it eventually led me to their Facebook pages as well… Knowing the way social networking can make people’s lives criss-cross, you won’t be surprised to hear that one clicked link led to another clicked link which led to my mom (a fantabulous cook in her own right, btw) getting tickets for us to see a live cooking demonstration by Fabio himself!
The show was held in Dubuque, Iowa at the Diamond Jo Casino — my first visit to the building but not to the city. In fact, one of the many coincidences that led to me driving across all of Illinois to get there this past Saturday was that Dubuque is the city my heroine (from my upcoming novel, A Summer in Europe http://tinyurl.com/3d3kuz4) is from, along with all of the American secondary characters in the story. I hadn’t seen it since I’d written the book, so I was excited to go back to visit. And since that same heroine learns about love and is awakened to a more passionate life, thanks in part to the delicious food of Italy, I couldn’t have concocted a more perfect weekend adventure.
I left home not knowing what to expect or what I’d find, certain only that some interesting experiences would await. One thing I learned right away: My two perplexing hours at a slot machine was proof enough that I don’t have the internal fortitude of a gambler, but there were shimmery moments of excitement that, likewise, convinced me addiction to the game would be easy. The puzzle-loving side of my brain kept watching the symbols spin by, trying to figure out a pattern. Trying to mold something random into something ordered. (I suspect the tall strawberry margarita you see sitting beside the machine assisted a little in this endeavor, too. Tequila helps you find connections everywhere, LOL.)
And then Fabio’s show started and I had brand new thoughts to puzzle over. He made us laugh (“Use fresh herbs. Using dry herbs will give you the same pleasure of kissing somebody with a helmet on…”) and shared a humorous but very true distinction between “common sense” vs. “knowledge.” He said, “How many of you know that a tomato is a fruit?” Most of us in the audience raised our hands. “Knowing a tomato is a fruit is knowledge, but you wouldn’t make a fruit pie with tomatoes. That’s common sense!”
He talked about what made a dish good. He said there were really only three things a person needed in order to cook well:
1. a recipe
2. good appliances
3. common sense (ahhh!)
And I laughed because, yes, I’m sure he was right about these things when it came to being in the kitchen (I’d fallen short on #3 more than once while baking something…), but it was also a moment of connection for me between cooking and writing because I saw a similarity that I couldn’t deny.
For a novel you need:
1. a strong plot/characters
2. working writing tools, like a computer
3. common sense, which is knowing the difference between school-like knowledge and what will actually work in real life…or, in this case, in believable and compelling fiction. (Like the difference between real conversation — with all the “ums” and “hmms” left in — versus good dialogue, which is not a replica of real conversation, but it’s an impression of it — one that leads the characters toward an action or a decision.) I don’t think common sense is something we’re all born knowing — not in cooking or in writing or in life (I live with an adolescent, so I’m sure his is still in development!) – but I think if we’re paying attention, we do tend to learn that skill over time with the help of some expert guidance and hands-on experience.
Thanks for the cooking lesson, Fabio! And to all of you, what’s the best cooking (or writing) advice you ever got?
Questioning Our Relevance: Fear, Change & the Digital Revolution
I totally wanted to blog about something light and fun and uncomplicated enough to have fairly clear-cut answers, like the best birthday cake you ever had or your favorite kind of appetizer (do I talk about food too much?!), but this topic kept needling me. I figured if I had it on my mind, a few other people here might be thinking about it, too… So, let me just state the obvious: This is a pretty unsettling time in the publishing industry.
No matter what your opinions are regarding what constitutes a book or who qualifies as an author, changes like the bankruptcy of Borders, the shrinking of print runs and the explosion of digital-only or digital-first releases (both self-published and through major NY houses, such as Bantam’s revitalized “Loveswept” line or Avon’s new “Impulse” line) have been wreaking havoc on the professional lives of booksellers, publishers, editors, agents and writers alike.
There is some very real excitement out there, too, by the way. New opportunities are emerging almost hourly, and many entrepreneurial souls have been quick to hop aboard the digital train in hopes of striking gold. Some have found it in the literary realm and are shouting their gratitude and their Amazon rankings from the rooftops. Others are still striving and hopeful and secretly trying to crack the logarithm for ebook bestsellerdom. And yet others are capitalizing on the author accessories needed for a successful digital experience — the creation of book covers, the proofreading skills, the uploading and conversion know-how.
In my opinion, More Opportunities + More Choices = Something Good. I may not utilize every service available to me out there, but I love having options. Getting to self-publish a few of my light romantic comedies alongside my traditionally published women’s fiction has been both an interesting venture and a fun one. But then, I’m a big fan of a good Asian buffet, too. You tell me I can have Thai satays and Chinese egg rolls and Japanese teriyaki chicken and Mongolian barbequed beef…all on my plate at once? What’s not to love about that?!
Food fantasies aside, though, I’m also an observer by nature, and I’ve been watching and listening to everyone. Attentively. I’ve been reading their posts and their tweets and their messages. And for every public comment that unabashedly praises the Digital Revolution, there are at least five more — ranging from whispered concerns to infuriated accusations — that express in some way a powerful and pervasive sense of fear.
For me, trying to uncover the source of that fear has been occupying a lot of my mental energy this summer. Best I can figure, I think it comes down to a persistent questioning of our relevance and how well we think we’ll fare in the publishing world of the future.
Whether our job is that of an author or an agent, an editor or a bookseller, we’re united by worries about what these changes mean and who we are now if the original hierarchy and gatekeeping system we’d grown accustomed to is no longer in effect. Where is our industry going? Will readers abandon paper books in order to make the digital leap? Will the skills we’ve all worked so laboriously to acquire be relevant in this evolving publishing landscape? And, even if we fully embrace the lightning-like changes that have struck publishing hard in recent years, will we be able to roll with whatever comes next in an industry that has transformed so rapidly in such a short period of time?
Just about everyone I know is asking themselves some version of these questions. Publishers are wondering if they need to add a digital branch to their company or expand the one they already have. Literary agents are fielding a slew of queries from their clients about rights reversion or assistance in the self-publishing of backlists. Writers across the genres are wrestling with the decision of whether or not to dip their toes in the digital waters and, if they do it, then they’re struggling to adjust to a different method of manuscript formatting and online marketing and the panic/elation of having daily updates on their sales numbers. Brick-and-mortar booksellers aren’t sure where to go next or how to use their valuable skills.
To top it off, there’s a social-media windstorm brewing around all of us, amplifying the collective fear and setting off an onslaught of comparisons between authors. (Whose downloads are higher?) Or between publishing professionals. (Whose services or distribution methods are better?)
It’s been kind of exhausting.
So, I wanted to brush all the discord and confusion away for just a moment and say, à la Oprah, the one thing I know for sure… It’s something I bet you know, too:Yes, change is hard (and frustrating and scary and, sometimes, exciting), but there will always be a need for stories. And what drives us to read those stories — whether it’s to feel that sense of connection with others, to be entertained, to escape, to learn something new — that part is constant. That part will always be relevant.
I think we need to hang tight to this truth until the dust settles, even as we learn new skills and face the challenges that come with navigating our careers in this ever-shifting publishing environment and this not-exactly-stable global economy. How stories will be packaged, sold and delivered in five years or ten is still a point of some debate, and I suspect many of us are going to have to adjust far more than we may feel comfortable doing (sigh), but the craving for stories will live on. No revolution — digital or otherwise — will change that.
The Writer’s Menu
Where do writers get their story ideas?
I’d love to give some kind of witty response to that question — and would, if only I could think of one. When asked at author talks about where I get the ideas for my books, I worry I’m supposed to grin and say brightly, “Why, at The Dollar Store, of course. They’re cheap and easy to find there.” And then, when the few polite chuckles die down, launch into some semi-serious and detailed ramble about how my mom and her sisters said something wise to me while making holiday pastries when I was an angsty adolescent and how the memory of that conversation lodged itself deep into my mind and flowered into an original plotline when combined with a handful of less-than-delightful dating experiences years later…
It may well have happened that way.
But, for me, the where of getting a story idea is an almost uncomfortable thing to discuss because…well, I rarely understand its appearance any more than the person asking me about it. Often, the ideas are just out there. I wander out into the world and they exist. Like stepping onto a patio in summer and being surrounded by sunshine, oxygen and the occasional swarm of mosquitoes. How could I explain the existence of story ideas any more than the presence of air molecules or insects? They’re a familiar part of my world, ever present, undeniable, frequently mystifying.
But I think there’s another question, lurking right behind it, that has proven marginally easier to analyze and, perhaps, something else aspiring writers and thoughtful readers might wonder about as well: How do writers manage these story ideas once they’re here?
In my (admittedly, heavily food-obsessed) mental world, I think of the ideas as sitting in wait for me, like an infinite variety of ingredients listed inside the cookbooks next to my stove. The ingredients on their own don’t usually make a meal, but when combined in appropriate amounts, they might result in a pretty good recipe.
My real-life cookbook collection contains recipes with an ethnic flavor, vegetarian meals, lite dishes, grilling guides, more dessert creations than one person should be allowed and scrap sheets of paper with special family favorites scribbled on them. All of these clamor for my attention at meal time, and I must choose between them. There are a gazillion possible combinations and, yet, before dinner (or before writing), I have to sift through them and pluck out a few that appeal to me because “that’s what I’m in the mood for right now” or “that’s what I know I can do reasonable well” or “that’s one I’m absolutely fascinated by and just have to try for myself” or even sometimes “that’s one that was highly recommended.”
For me, selecting menus — or novel plots — are strikingly similar tasks. And before choosing either, I’ve always got my fingers crossed in hopes that it’ll turn out.
But, in my experience, it’s the next step that requires the trickiest maneuvering. There are times, yes, when I’ll fix a one-dish meal. A stew in the crockpot, for instance, or a casserole in the oven. But, most of the time, I’m not so focused. Most of the time, I have a few different things on the burners and one thing heating in the microwave and another that needs to be tossed together on the counter.
My story ideas are like that, too. A set of blog posts, essays and/or interviews that I can assemble, like a salad, in between other tasks. A short story I’m revising — a brief but intense project. A couple of items on the stove top: the proposal I’m working on, for example, which requires constant attention and frequent stirring, along with this other idea, which sits on the back burner and mostly just simmers. I know what it needs most is time…like rice that takes 30+ minutes to soak up the water. You don’t want to mess with it too much until it’s ready. Once it’s ready, though, some fast action is required or you’ll end up with a dish that’s burnt on one side and mushy on the other.
I’m not an expert in the kitchen by any stretch of the imagination (the truth is that I love looking at the pictures in cookbooks more than doing the actual cooking, LOL), but the multitasking doesn’t bother me. I’m well accustomed to this as a writer. And, as a reader, I’m much the same. I have four or five different books that I’m reading now. I’m in different places in each of them, and I switch back and forth often between titles, depending on how I feel and the time available to me.
What about all of you? If you’re a writer, do you tend to only work on one project at a time, or do you juggle multiple stories/essays/articles frequently? What about reading — do you read one book completely before picking up another, or do you have several books in progress at once? I’d love to know!
One Writer’s Journey: A Tale of Many Beginnings
Most everyone is familiar with Lao-tzu’s famous saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’ve muttered it to myself a time or twenty, especially when starting a new book. And I’ve thought about it often enough when I tried to understand the novel-writing profession as a whole. Each stage, I figured, was another stride on the long climb up the publishing mountain.
But, more than a decade into this journey, I now realize that it’s not exactly a straight-line continuum for me. I haven’t been scaling the side of Everest, using ropes and climbing gear (and, thank God, because I’m scared of heights); it’s more like walking on a curving, ever-rising path that starts at the base of the mountain and slowly spirals upward. Every new stage — each circuit around those bends in the mountain, up to a slightly higher elevation — is like being a newbie all over again. Novels may have distinct beginnings, middles and endings, but I think writers just a have long string of often terrifying beginnings.
At first, the path seemed to be all about learning to believe in the dream. That is, gaining enough experience writing, studying craft and building the skills to recognize when the story was working (or not). Knowing when I was being true to my voice, when I should accept or ignore feedback, when the elements of structure and characterization were coming together vs. just flitting in and out of the manuscript randomly and with no sense of authorial control. To put it in courtship terms, I was flirting, dating, falling in love with writing fiction as I walked along that part of the path — coming to appreciate it for what it was, and for who I was when I was with it.
But, then, this stage merged into another. I had to stop and catch my breath when I realized I’d circled the mountain once and was now beginning a new rotation — one I wasn’t prepared for in the least. One that required a brand new skill set. This circuit was all about working to make the dream I finally believed in a reality. Committing to it with the exclusively of a soulmate, and attempting to understand what made the publishing industry surrounding it tick. (Rather like a dysfunctional family, I discovered, but that’s a post for another time… 😉 )
I began to research agents and editors, learn more about branding, marketing, publicity/promotion and what was involved once a sale actually happened (contracts, copy-edits and royalty statements, oh, my!), so I’d know what to do when I finally got “the call.” I imagined that moment would be similar to a fairy-tale marriage proposal, with the time between contract and publication like the engagement. The release day would be akin to a royal wedding and then, of course, there would be the happily ever after.
Only, I’ve been married for eighteen years, and I know better, LOL. Weddings — royal or otherwise — are lovely, but then the marriage starts…and, as many of us know, it marks a whole new stage in the relationship. Likewise, despite all of my attempts at being prepared for publication, I was, again, left breathless by this new level in my career when it finally came. Two books (well, three in November) down the road/up the mountain, and I’m still trying to get a few good lungfuls of air, stay sort of on that walking path and keep slogging forward without keeling over from exertion and fatigue.
I’m still very much a beginner in this stage, which seems to be all about dealing with the daily reality of the dream. Juggling growing responsibilities, having more writing-related commitments and/or presentations, handling reviews (positive and negative), getting awards and hitting bestsellers lists (or, um, not…), being in the swirl of other professional authors — online and off, having opportunities to experience the incredible generosity of my peers, especially those who’ve trekked further up the the mountain than I have and are willing to talk about their struggles and joys and, sometimes, having to face disappointment when either the vagaries of the industry or the insecurities of other people let me down.
It’s scary here. As with every beginning, I’m wondering if I know enough to handle this particular leg of the journey…or if I can learn what I need to know very quickly… I’m unsure of what’s ahead and can only hope I’ll have the strength and faith to continue on, even amidst all of the uncertainty.
Yet, I need to look no further than my current manuscript to understand why I don’t know. Why I can’t know. I’m on page 92 of the draft — still, by my account,the beginning of this new project. I need to somehow make it through another 300 or so pages of wobbly narrative and half-expressed dialogue before I get to what I consider to be the middle of the book, which is the revising/layering stage after my first draft. (The end is when I get to tweak and polish — and that’s light-years away at this point.)
Of course, in life we know there’s no revising, no copy-editing. It’s ALL first draft: one long unpolished beginning. But, I have to be honest with you. I never would have become a writer if revisions and tweaks were all I did. Despite how frightening and perplexing those beginning stages are, despite the self-doubt that arises during them, I also know they can be the most thrilling of the whole book. It is, after all, in the beginning where the magic of the story is born. Where the drive to journey forward originates. And where we get the inspiration and the courage to take that very first step.
So, I wish you, too, the gift of many beginnings on your long and winding journey, no matter what mountain you’re trying to climb. May it be filled with life-long passions, wonderful companions and stunning vistas…and may you get to the thousand-mile mark and realize you’ve only just begun.
A Little Matter of Verb Tense
I had an experience in the past month that reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in a while: The difference between wanting to do something and wanting to have done something.
For instance, I’m not much of a runner these days. (Read: Only when I go out to the mailbox and it’s raining. Not sprinkling, but seriously downpouring.) I was sort of into it at one time, though. Pre-motherhood. For about a year, I actually ran for 3 – 5 miles a few times per week. Even got up to 7 miles on a handful of occasions. So, I’d experienced enough of the sensation of lean, stretching muscles toned by high-cardio exertion and fully oxygenated lungs working to capacity, etc. to understand the concept of a long-distance race…and to even imagine myself running an official marathon. (Hey, if you can run 6 miles, what’s 20 more, right?! Hmm…yeah.)
I loved the mental image of it. I could so easily picture myself having crossed the finish line, striding — exhausted, but proud — to the winner’s podium (Gatorade bottle in hand) to get a medal, a certificate or even just a few congratulatory handshakes.
My brother, however, wasn’t just imagining it. He ran the Chicago Marathon three times — his finishing time just a few minutes above or below 3 hours for each of these events, and he qualified regularly for the Boston Marathon, too. It was so inspiring to watch the races and hear his stories about them. For one thing, he finished fast. He’s a statistics guy at work, not a professional athlete. Even so, in his first year, he came in 599th place out of 31,200 finishers and about 45,000 total runners — so in the top 1.5%! I had, right before my eyes and in my very own family, a model for real running success. Furthermore, my brother is an incredibly cool dude, and he openly, enthusiastically told me all the things he did to train and prepare for the big race.
And THAT — my friends — put a dramatic end to my marathoning fantasies!
Turns out, I didn’t want to run a marathon. I wanted to have run one. I wanted the end game only — the podium, the handshakes, even the Gatorade. I did not want to wake up at 4:45 (A.M.!!!) to go to the gym for strength training every day before work. I did not want to limit my chocolate intake in any way or learn how to regulate my diet for “ideal athletic performance” (huh?!). And I really did not want to run outside in all types of nasty weather conditions — rain! snow! heat! — for mile after mile, month after month, just so I could get ready for that grueling marathon course. No way! I wanted to run for fun — short distances and at a leisurely pace, amusing myself with daydreams about first-place ribbons and Olympic gold. That’s the unvarnished truth.
Any of you ever have a fantasy like that? To win “American Idol,” for instance, or to be an Academy Award nominee or a jujitsu black belt or a star figure skater? (I’ve imagined all of these at some point or other. 😉 ) I was willing to do exactly zero work for any of them, but they provided some entertaining daydreams, LOL. Writing a novel, however, was — quite literally — a different story.
So, for example, when somebody strolls into a bookstore, scans the shelves and dreamily says to the person next to them (i.e., me), “I always wanted to write a book,” I have to wonder if their desire is like my idea of being a marathoner — a totally fun fantasy — or if it’s like my brother’s idea of being a marathoner — years of work, dedication and sometimes pain.
And I’ve found myself more than once kindly and gently trying to explain to that person the difference between wanting to write a book and wanting to have written one. I’ll ask them many of the same questions I had to ask myself: Does the prospect of getting up early every morning and/or staying up late every night to work for hours on a manuscript excite you? Would you rearrange your hobbies, your work hours, your free time, or whatever you need to do, to accommodate the writing whenever possible? Do you enjoy studying the necessary aspects of the writing craft, the publishing industry and the market to improve your skills and understanding as a novelist? And are you already doing this — if not every single day — on most days, whether or not you have any guarantee of success or fame or fortune in the end? Will you draft, revise and persist no matter what the weather is like, how you’re feeling (tired, sick, unmotivated), the number of rejections you get or what’s on TV that night?
Whether the other person’s answer is a yes or a no, I’m happy for them. Self knowledge is power! But I know from both my experience at the track and my experience in front of the computer screen that, oh, yeah, the difference in verb tense is a big one. And, at a certain point, one of the marks of adulthood is being able to be honest with yourself about when you’re willing to pursue a passion with all the time, energy and effort it requires vs. when you’re not. That fantasy may be delightful (and fantasies should be!), but be sure to recognize it for what it is.
And as for those activities that you are willing to do all the hard work to pursue — please give yourself some extra kudos for the uniqueness of that commitment. Because it’s rare and should be honored.
Don’t Forget the Lyrics
Music is my poetry. Some people have Frost and Browning—I have Foreigner and Bon Jovi. For decades, I’ve turned to songs by my favorite singers to give me inspiration, understanding and sometimes even guidance as I’ve faced situations new to me but, perhaps, old hat to the musicians. I was recently on a Dennis DeYoung (of Styx) kick in anticipation of seeing him in concert last month, and I wrote about following our writing dreams, using a few insights from his 1984 single “Don’t Wait for Heroes.”
I remember that song well when it first came out. I was a senior in high school and had no real idea what I was going to do with my life. I had all kinds of big, unrealistic (at the time) dreams I held in secret, but no way of achieving them because I just didn’t know myself that well back then—like a writer who hasn’t written enough words to know his or her own voice yet. But DeYoung’s lyrics stuck with me and, as simple as they were, they were there to give me a helpful perspective on pursuing a passion when I was ready to draw wisdom from them.
This month, another song has been spinning on the LP turntable inside my brain, and it speaks to my writing resolution for the year—one of our current Girlfriend topics. The truth is that my resolution doesn’t, actually, have anything to do with drafting a novel. It has to do with the world outside of the stories in my head. Being naturally Type A, my fantasy is to achieve that elusive sense of peace and balance, so I can participate fully in this writing life, but not cross the line into the realm of unhealthy obsession. Not let the characteristic chaos of the industry consume me, create an unending loop of self doubt or throw off my internal compass. It took a long time to find my writing voice, but it seems to be taking even longer to find my unshakable author center. And, sadly, I suck at that whole Zen thing.
For those of you who remember the big hits of 1976, the song I’ve been humming lately hasn’t been Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” or even Aerosmith’s “Dream On” but, rather, Boston’s classic “Peace of Mind.”
“Now if you’re feelin’ kinda low ‘bout the dues you’ve been paying, future’s coming much too slow, and you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin’, can’t decide on which way to go…”
Yeah. “I understand about indecision,” all right. The publishing industry is one where many of us are left second-guessing every professional choice we’ve ever made—weekly, daily, hourly sometimes. Where hurry-up-and-wait may not always be the name of the game, but it’s often the subtitle. We work our tails off to follow up on a requested submission or a great writing opportunity and, then, are stuck in limbo while the person with acquisition power tries to juggle everything on his or her desk so they can (eventually) get back to us. And while we wait, we worry and wonder: Did I do enough? Was it good? Will they like it? Would it have been better if I’d changed___? How long will it take before I know?
As for the line in the song’s chorus, “People livin’ in competition,” well, I hardly need to address that here. Any aspiring or published writer knows just how tough it is to both break in and stay in. I’m in awe of authors who’ve been doing this since the ‘70s and ‘80s and have asked a few how they stay balanced. How they manage not to live in a near-constant state of anxiety over the ever-changing industry, the stunningly heavy writing/promoting workload and the emotional rollercoaster of professional reviews/critique partner feedback/agent suggestions/editorial revision notes, all while trying to have a life outside of this. How they’ve learned to calm their minds amid the mayhem and uncertainty and find a sense of peace…
One wonderful NYT-bestselling author, who sold her first novel almost 30 years ago and is still actively publishing today, told me she just removes herself from as many stressors as possible. Refuses to read reviews—ever. Doesn’t engage with any person or group that strikes her as crazy-making. Follows her own writing process and ignores anyone who tries to tell her that she should try to tailor her style to anything other than what works best for her. And she reminds herself of this inherent irony in publishing: that it’s an industry in which nobody really has any control, but just about everyone involved with it—from editors to agents to writers, etc.—are, as she phrased it, “overachieving control freaks.” That struck me as very funny, but painfully accurate.
So, being an unapologetic quoter of song lyrics, I bow to the genius of Boston’s songwriter Tom Scholz, who managed to capture a feeling so human and so universal that it rings true for me now, and it’s applicable to my life in ways I never could have imagined when I first heard it on the radio. Granted, I was in 4th grade at the time but, for a future writer and an incurable observer, the line “Lots of people out to make-believe they’re livin’, can’t decide who they should be” was a warning that made sense even then.
Today, I’m taking a deep breath, getting myself outside for a brisk walk and making time to talk with a few people I care about—basically, remembering to live a little in the 3D world. Peace of mind, for me, anyway, is not dwelling in the past so much or fretting endlessly about things that can’t be changed. Realizing I did the best I could with whatever resources, skills and time I had available to me. And just focusing on what I can do right now to make tomorrow a bit better.
Or, as Scholz once urged, “Take a look ahead…look ahead.”
Is there a popular song that you’ve found to be brimming with unexpected wisdom? An era of music or a particular musical genre that speaks to you most?
Don’t Wait for Heroes
“I’ve got my dreams. I know you think that’s crazy. But I won’t give up, ‘cause I’ve got this burning desire in me…” ~ Dennis DeYoung
Like a lot of music lovers, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head and days/weeks go by and, still, I’m unable to change the tune. Throughout this month, Dennis DeYoung’s “Don’t Wait for Heroes” has been featured heavily on my mental radio station. Part of the reason is that I’m going to see DeYoung (of Styx fame) in concert soon. Very excited! The husbands of two of my best friends play for fun in a band called The Mojo Daddies and their group is opening for him this weekend at a college just outside of Chicago. So, I’ve been listening to some of my favorites of his, watching old music videos and getting sentimental about ‘80s pop songs. Hardly unusual for me.
But I noticed there was something different about this particular melody. Every time I thought about writing this post for our RWA-WF chapter blog, it was as if someone turned up the volume on the song in my head. I kept trying to figure out what it was, exactly, that made me think of it so often. What it might be about these lyrics that made them feel so applicable to women’s fiction writers.
“While the world sleeps, I sit up all night thinking and making my plans, ‘cause there’s something special ahead for me…”
I suspect it had to do with a discussion that was taking place on the loop a few weeks ago about what makes a story distinctively women’s fiction. How unusual or extraordinary our protagonist’s journey ought to be versus how much of an “Everywoman” she should be so we could all relate to her. And I remember thinking that the women’s fiction stories that resonated most for me involved women whose lives were, in many ways, like mine, but their circumstances conspired to make them act more heroically than I typically had to. They might wish for some hero to come in and fix it all or, at least, make things easier, but they didn’t have the option of waiting for anyone else to do the job. If they were lucky, they might have family, friends, lovers, husbands or a community to lean on but, still, these heroines needed to tap into what was most unique about themselves and find the strength to fight whatever battle they had to face. It wasn’t going to be easy but, at some point, they were determined to do it.
“So don’t you tell me that I’m wasting my time, ruining my life, and that the odds against me are a million-to-one, don’t be concerned…”
And I couldn’t escape the further connection that, for me, this is exactly what it feels like to face the writer’s life. There are no shortcuts to this publishing game. There’s no white-knight agent or editor who’s going to come along—at least not until we’re ready to play seriously on this field. Until we know ourselves. We know our voice. We know we have something we’re passionate about exploring in a story. And, to get to that point, we need to do a lot of work that no one else can do for us. Having a fabulous community, a brilliant critique partner or a supportive spouse are all priceless blessings but, ultimately, we each need to go on a women’s-fiction-like journey and tap into what’s most unique about ourselves as writers.
“If you’re waiting for that miracle train to call out your name, and if you think the rainbow always finds someone else, never yourself. Just look inside and find that spark that’s burning in you, follow it through. The light you find, well, it could change your life…”
Like our story heroines, bravery is (unfortunately) required of us, along with a list of other traits that frequently make me want to race back to bed, pull the covers up over my head and hide. But, if we’re to find our niche in the women’s fiction market, get published and stay published, we need to make peace with the necessity of courage and persistence. We also need to have a passion for learning writing craft, accept that patience will be required of us daily, develop the skill of flexibility, understand the certainty of change and deal with the fear of the unknown, the reality of failure and the surprising panic of success.
“Don’t wait for heroes. Believe in yourself, you’ve got the power. Winners are losers who got up and gave it just one more try…”
But, unlike our daring protagonists, we get to go one step further: We have the privilege of continuing our journey long after our characters have ended theirs. So, if at first we don’t succeed, we have the opportunity to get up and give it one more try. Or one hundred more—if that’s what it takes.
Yes, really. Who’s gonna stop us?
Learning to Follow a Passion
I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. I was supposed to be a scientist. That was the occupation my parents and extended family members had agreed upon for me from about 3rd grade on. They took a long, practical and rather somber look at what I good at in school (science and math = yes, sports of any kind = no) and immediately started suggesting a career path that would lead to my becoming their favorite kind of scientist: a doctor.
Thankfully, they were somewhat flexible on this. When I turned out to be squeamish about things like blood…and needles…and medical procedures of all varieties, they were just fine with me channeling my academic efforts toward the bloodless sciences of geology, physics, astronomy or botany. My father, as I recall, was especially keen on the idea of pharmacy as my future occupation for a time, and I had to admit I was initially taken with the notion of grinding up tablets with a mortar and pestle and mixing chemicals every day like some kind of mad scientist — never mind that most pharmacists don’t actually do a lot of that. (I was geeky enough in the ’80s to think the white lab coats were pretty cool from a fashion standpoint, too.) There were tons of possibilities, almost all of which would have made my parents happy.
But, see, I had a secret.
Although I really liked and respected the sciences, I loved the arts. All of the arts. Passionately and with my whole geeky heart. I did not dream of becoming Gen X’s answer to Marie Curie. I dreamed of becoming Pat Benatar. I wanted to sing, write poetry and lyrics, play my electronic piano, be in a stage play or two, paint huge canvases with watercolors and oils, and dance, dance, dance — tap numbers and jitterbug and the occasional samba. (Don’t laugh, Latin styles are fun.) More than anything, I wanted to do something artsy and creative every single day. Something that had meaning for me. Something where I could try to make sense of this crazy little thing called life.
But making a career in the arts requires more than dreams or hopes or passions…it also requires courage, and I didn’t have a lot of that at 16 or even at 26. Part way through college, I changed majors from biochemistry to teaching — working with 2nd and 3rd graders would be both creative and meaningful, IMO — but I knew there was still an important element missing for me.
After eight years, when I was expecting my son, I took a leave of absence from the school district. I’d already gotten a master’s degree in educational psychology (where I’d spent my grad years studying other people’s creative efforts…), and I’d been working on adding an art certification so I could teach that subject, too. But a very strange thing happened during my time away. The courage that had elluded me for decades on my own was present in full force — possibly doubled, even tripled — when I held this new little being. I felt overpoweringly protective of him. Conscious of my need to do for him what I never would have done just for myself: To be the daily example of someone who put aside her fears long enough to follow her true passions.
I knew how easy it was for parents to get caught up in having their children fulfill their dreams for them. I’d seen it. Lived it. Didn’t want to make the mistake of pressuring my kid into becoming a painter or a writer or a musician (if, say, he was wild about the sciences and dreamed of being a doctor instead…) just because I’d wanted those arts opportunities and had been too afraid to take them.
So, I started by writing poetry, articles and essays and sending them in to magazines. Some of them — to my shock and delight — even got accepted and published. I wrote my first women’s fiction manuscript by hand on lined paper when my son and husband slept, having never read at that time so much as a single book on the craft of writing fiction (yeah, it showed), but then I wrote a second, third and fourth manuscript with the tremendous support and advice of Chicago-North RWA and my family behind me. And when I wrote the fifth one, According to Jane, I not only got an agent for my efforts, but that book went on to win the Golden Heart Award for “Best Mainstream Novel with Strong Romantic Elements,” sold to Kensington and was released in October 2009.
Since then, I’ve sold two more novels. Friday Mornings at Nine, just came out three months ago and was chosen as a Doubleday Book Club and Book-of-the-Month Club featured alternate selection. And my third book, A Summer of Europe, will be out this year in late November.
Beyond that, though, I don’t know.
I’m working on a fourth and a fifth novel — and I’d love to sell them, of course — but I’m taking it one story at a time. The writer’s path is an interesting one and I’m curious to see where it leads. As for my son, he’s now 12 and really fond of stargazing, coin collecting, Blackhawks hockey games, playing clarinet and his Nintendo Dsi. I have no idea what this motley assortment of passions might mean for him career-wise or what skills he’s building toward exactly. (He swears his video-game playing is educational — LOL.) But that’s for him to decide, not me.
What I’m proud of most is knowing he’s been a firsthand witness to my writing journey for as long as he can remember, and that he’s come to understand that following a dream takes thousands of hours of time, a relentless work ethic and enormous levels of courage. I’m so glad I was able to give him the gift of this insight. It was very hard won. And for all those writers out there — both published and aspiring — putting endless hours of work into drafting, revising and submitting your stories, without knowing what the outcome will be and wondering constantly if it’s all worth it…stay the course if you can. Because, yes, I think it is.
On Competition and Writers
At the end of last year, I’d spent a lot of time pondering Criticism and Writers. This week, having reread those reflections, I realized I didn’t have much to add to them after another year amid the thrill, the chaos and the frequent insanity of being a part of the publishing industry. What was true for me 12 months ago is still true for me now. Although I have to admit, my determination to pull away from the gossiping maelstrom wasn’t without consequences…
Two friendships I’d valued came to an end in 2010, both due in part to our having different approaches to dealing with life stressors and criticism. Letting go is rarely easy and that was certainly true in these cases. However, there are times when the path on which we’re traveling splits and we have to make a choice if we hope to move forward and live a healthier life. This year was, for me, a reevaluation year, and while there were a couple of losses, there were quite a few more gains. I met some awe-inspiring people and had the pleasure of getting to know better or reconnect with some wonderful friends — online and off. This year made me even more appreciative of the insightful, compassionate, secure and genuine travel companions who are sharing the journey with me…and I thank you all for that.
Now, as 2011 approaches, my thoughts have turned to a different but marginally related theme: Competition. I had an interesting, somewhat unexpected experience with it in recent months. I was taking part in a multi-author booksigning event and a reader came up to all of us to ask about our novels. Since the reader questioned me specifically about one of my books, I was in the midst of explaining the story’s premise to her when the writer to my left jumped in and launched into a description of her own novel. It was a noticeable interruption, but I liked the writer and attributed her behavior to a combination of over-eagerness and the simple desire to make a sale.
The reader, however, raised her eyebrows, took a step back and laughed uneasily. “What? Are you guys in competition or something?” she asked. I started to shake my head, but the writer jumped in again and immediately said, “Yes!” Before I could respond, another writer near us said emphatically, “Oh, no! Reading one of our books makes readers want to find others that are similar. It’s not a competition.” I nodded mutely in gratitude, but found I couldn’t put into words all that I was feeling at the time. The issue is complex. It has logical and emotional components, real-world battles pitted against internal, intensely personal ones — and rarely are all of these addressed. As a result, I haven’t been able to get the incident out of my head.
Looking back, I probably should have been offended by the first writer trying to horn in on a potential sale, but I wasn’t. I just thought it was ineffective, if it was a strategy (in the end, the reader chose to buy my book anyway), and merely strange, if it wasn’t. I’m aware it’s a mindset some people can get trapped by — that whole zero-sum game where all the world is classified into winners and losers. In the realm of the arts, it tends to perplex me more often than not because, IMO, it may be an unavoidable business reality on one level, but it’s a fallacy on a dozen others. Yes, there are Amazon rankings and, if someone else’s book earns the #1 spot, that means mine will inevitably be lower. If someone else sells the most copies that means mine will sell fewer. If someone else’s novel wins the fill-in-the-blank award that means mine won’t.
Okay. That’s true — literally. But that’s not the only game that happens to be in progress. And in the game that’s most often in the forefront of my mind, the win-lose construction is almost…laughable.
Because I already won. I won years ago.
And so did many of you.
I won when I decided to pursue a passion rather than do something I hated. I won when I chose to write stories as honestly as I could whether or not anyone else on the entire planet liked them, understood them or cared about them. I won when the side of me that is grounded in self-belief chose to stand up to the side of me that isn’t…or, rather, I’ve triumphed in a handful of battles against Lack of Confidence but the war is far from over. This much I can tell you about it, though: The end result won’t be determined by a royalty statement. Or by the number of GoodReads raves or bashes. Those are irrelevant in the heat of such combat. Tell me, how many “wildly successful” (in the eyes of the society) actors, musicians, writers, athletes, etc., do you know who’ve crashed and burned when forced to face themselves? That have lost their fortunes, their families, their sobriety or their sanity?
Yeah. A lot. So, a focus on comparing sales figures as a measure of success — while not a wholly worthless endeavor — is limited in scope when placed alongside all of the truly significant conflicts fought within.
I physically cringe when I see someone setting him- or herself up as some kind of opponent against me. I want to tell them to chill out (“Here, have a cookie!”) and to please use their energy more productively. Out of fairness, they should know there’s no external competitor in the universe more powerful than somebody’s internal demons. The notion of a mere human rival being strong enough to turn my attention away from Fear…well, that’s absurd. I wish the real battles were so simplistic.
Alternately, how can anybody put a price tag on having done what one set out to do? On reaching one’s intended audience — no matter the size? What author could possibly “lose” by overhearing a reader tell another author that his/her novel touched them? That a character the other author created was one the reader closely identified with? That the author expressed something for that particular reader that this person couldn’t express for him- or herself? How do you quantify meaning and slap a win-or-lose label onto it?
No one will convince me that what’s meaningful to 5 people is worth less than what’s meaningful to 50. I don’t believe that the thoughts and emotions of those 5 can be dismissed just because more people happen to agree on something else. I think of all the times I saw a film or read a book and LOVED it and, yet, my positive opinion was in the extreme minority. Is the fact that it changed my life of less significance than the fact that another film or book changed someone else’s? I know more than one book and more than one film have influenced me, but I fail to see where the competition is between them. They were each a gift to my mind and my soul. Each brought me something I needed. Each shared with me a message of value — even if it only illuminated a tiny corner of some concept. There is no ranking that can be stamped on illumination. Am I the only person that finds such attempts futile?!
Sigh. (Yeah, I’ll get off my soapbox now… 😉 )
Of course, on the materialistic, tangible plane of existence, competition abounds and it’s often hard to ignore. Writers can’t afford to go on writing if our books don’t sell enough copies. Publishers won’t take a chance on a debut author without a P&L statement that’s in the writer’s favor, and they won’t pick up our option books if the financial pros don’t outweigh the cons. But just because I can’t completely close my eyes to the reality of competition in the literary world, it doesn’t mean I have wrap my heart around it. I know what I’ll remember in old age about being a writer in 2010 will have far less to do with my novels’ placement on one list or another than the thrill of knowing I fought off Fear or Lack of Confidence long enough to write something a few people told me they loved…
Wishing you all a 2011 filled with important battles won, meaningful memories created and peace throughout the process. And joy. May the New Year bring you much of that, too!
The BS2x4: Beating Out a Novel in Quadruplicate
I’ve been a novelist for 10 years and wrote four complete manuscripts before my fifth, According to Jane (the first one I used Blake’s beat sheet on, by the way), sold a few years ago. It was about a woman who had the ghost of Jane Austen in her head, giving her dating advice, and it debuted in trade paperback from Kensington Books last fall, was on Amazon Kindle’s Top 100 Bestseller List for 7-8 weeks, and won a bunch of really nice awards. For me, though, it also solidified the power of the BS2 in helping me focus my ideas with a logical, sensical structural tool, and I vowed when that story sold that I wouldn’t write another novel without using the beat sheet as a guideline.
Well, just this month, my second novel, Friday Mornings at Nine, hit the shelves and I was thrilled when it was chosen as a featured alternate selection for October in both the Doubleday Book Club and the Book-of-the-Month Club. It’s the story of three women who get together weekly to talk about their husbands, jobs, and families when — one morning in early fall — one of the women admits she’s been getting emails from her college ex-boyfriend. This sets all three friends on a course of second-guessing their lives, wondering if they married the right man, and contemplating the alternatives…
I can tell you, this wouldn’t have been a project I would have felt comfortable delving into without the BS2 beside me. It was a complicated story to write — trickier in some ways than my debut book. Since there were three protagonists, each with a marital tale to tell, all of them needed a full character arc plotted out and a number of chapters written in their individual points of view. But there was also an added challenge because, every few chapters, the three women got together and the viewpoint shifted to omniscient narration. Their trio was, actually, like a fourth character. So, structurally, I was facing a big and frightening dance of characters, moving around the novel in a way I had to carefully choreograph in advance — at least if I had any hope of getting them to the end of the book with all the turning points in place.
So, I realized that I needed to take my trusted beat sheet… and multiply it by four! I used an Excel spreadsheet to lay out what became my BS2 x 4 grid. Across the top, I typed each of the original 15 beats (opening image, theme stated, set-up, etc.). Then, along the left side going down, I typed the name of each of the three women (Bridget, Jennifer, and Tamara), plus the word “Trio” for those times when all three friends were together. Finally, I beat out the story four times — once from the point of view of the group, and once from the perspective of each woman. Below are many of the major points that I used in that sheet. It’s not overly detailed (and I held back some of the revelations in the later beats so as not to have too many spoilers!), but it was exactly what I needed to be able to visualize this story fully, and to see where the women’s individual threads intersected, before settling down to write the book:
Opening Image: (Trio) The friends are at the coffee shop at the start of a new school year; Jennifer gets a new email from her ex-boyfriend and poses this question to Tamara and Bridget: “What if we’re not with the right man or living the right lives?”
Theme Stated: (Trio) “Do we have the courage to test our marriages against other possible relationships and deal maturely with what we find?” All three women think about their husbands and kids, as well as the one man outside their marriage that they’re most tempted by. (Bridget) Dr. Luke, the dentist at her new job. (Jennifer) David, her ex-boyfriend from college. (Tamara) Aaron, the sexy, divorced neighbor down the block.
Set-Up: (Bridget) Introduce readers to her husband, her three kids, the dental office where she works, and Dr. Luke; we learn she wants to go back to cooking school and craves a new twist in her life, her husband is in a rut, hasn’t seen her freshly in years, she wants to embrace life, love, pleasure again and accept her changing perimenopausal body. (Jennifer) Introduce readers to her husband, two daughters, and her email/texting relationship with old flame David; we learn she wants a sense of closure to her relationship choices in life, that she married her husband on the rebound after David broke her heart, that she wants to set a good example for her girls and that, with her daughters in adolescence, it’s time she faced the trials of her own youth. (Tamara) Introduce readers to her husband, college freshman son/their only child, her favorite aunt, and her neighbor Aaron, who works from home; we learn she wants deeper intimacy — both physical and emotional — with the man in her life, that her husband is gone all the time, that she’s still getting over the departure of her son and trying to let go so she can adjust to her new role without him in the house.
Catalyst: (Trio) All deal with problems at home and the difference between the reality of marriage and their real lives vs. their fantasies and the projections they’ve put on these potential lovers. (Bridget) Decides to start taking her cooking dreams seriously and begins making meals for co-workers. (Jennifer) Gets an invitation to meet David alone to plan a college club reunion and decides to go. (Tamara) Loses her aunt and decides she must start living more fully because life is short.
Debate: (Bridget) Wrestles with the issue of morality vs. immorality. (Jennifer) Wrestles with the issue of certainty vs. indecision. (Tamara) Wrestles with the issue of depth vs. superficiality.
Break into Two: (Trio) Each woman considers having an affair for her own reasons. (Bridget) Needs confidence in new self: Is it a sin if she’s not the same person she was when she got married? (Jennifer) Needs a sense of reassurance to stand up for herself: Did she make the right decision in moving on after college and does she need to deal with unfinished business now? (Tamara) Needs freedom to show her insecurities: How guilty is her husband for not valuing or knowing her if she doesn’t know or value herself?
B Story: (Trio) Each woman gets to know the man outside her marriage a bit better — this becomes a window into understanding how the women think of themselves. (Bridget) Talks to Dr. Luke, treats him as a mirror for her new self. (Jennifer) Reconnects with David, treats him as a memory of her former self. (Tamara) Chats with Aaron, treats him as a boy toy/object so as not to see herself.
Fun and Games: (Bridget) Flirting with Dr. Luke at an Italian restaurant, a sensual foodie experience they both appreciate. (Jennifer) Flirting with David via text, email, and phone — their calls get racier and she meets him again in person. (Tamara) Flirting with Aaron in his house and yard, surprised by the high level of personal disclosure they share.
Midpoint: (Trio) Real life vs. fantasy life meet at an adults-only Halloween party. (Bridget) Gossipy colleague mentions to her husband that Bridget was at the restaurant with Dr. Luke. (Jennifer) Gets a text from David, then a phone call, which her husband overhears. (Tamara) She and her husband spend most of the party apart, but Aaron happens to be there… and, when they’re both very drunk, he kisses her.
Bad Guys Close In: (Trio) Each woman must deal with the confrontations that result from the revelations at the party. Arguments with the husbands, stress with the family, and/or the demands of the love interests all put pressure on the women to make changes.
All Is Lost: (Trio) The marriages of all three are in flux and the relationships they have with the dentist, ex-boyfriend, and neighbor aren’t in a great place either. (Bridget) Realizes she may have damaged the trust she had with her husband. (Jennifer) Realizes there are things about herself that she doesn’t know and she needs to find out. (Tamara) Realizes that her feelings for her neighbor are more complex than she’d expected, but she can’t follow through the way she wants.
Dark Night of the Soul: (Trio) The moment of clarity when each woman knows — finally — what her story is about. (Bridget) Must accept her current self as a sensual and worthy being and honor her dreams. (Jennifer) Must accept that the past is over, learn from it, and take the best from those experiences. (Tamara) Must accept her own responsibility and culpability in any relationships that have failed, but also allow for self discovery now.
Break into Three: (Trio) Each woman makes a choice to determine who she’s going to be with and what steps she needs to take, fully understanding that there’s an element of loss and sacrifice no matter which choice is made. (Bridget) Husband or the dentist? (Jennifer) Husband or the ex-boyfriend? (Tamara) Husband or the neighbor? (I included their final choices on my personal beat sheet, but I’m keeping them to myself here! Let’s just say that all three women must use the knowledge they’ve gained about themselves and their relationships to make a conscious decision at this point.)
Finale: (Trio) The consequences of Bridget, Jennifer, and Tamara’s actions play out in the form of three concluding stories that take place at the end of the fall, just as the holidays are about to begin.
Final Image: (Trio) The woman are together again, talking/eating/celebrating, all of them having gained courage in a different area and exercised it while responding — via the life choices they made — to their individual “Debate” questions regarding morality/immorality (Bridget), certainty/indecision (Jennifer), and depth/superficiality (Tamara).
Hope some of you have found this helpful, especially those fellow writers who are wrestling with multiple protagonists in your own stories!
What type of narration do you most like to read? Stories written in first person with one protagonist throughout? (My debut novel was like that.) Or, one protagonist but told in close third person? (My third novel, which will come out next year, is written in this way.) Multiple points of view for different protagonists, told in alternating first person, alternating third, or omniscient? Obviously, I enjoy trying out all of them, but I’d love to know your favorites!
Best wishes to you all on your writing.
Somebody to Lean On
I hope the title makes you all start swaying and singing, too. No one should be doing karaoke alone. *grin* (C’mon, I wanna hear ya now, “We all need, somebody to lean on…”)
This writing gig is a tough journey. I tend to be pretty independent, but a decade of doing this has proven — again and again — that this isn’t a career path I’d want to travel without a support system. That support system doesn’t have to traipse around with me in my daily life — virtual pals are great, too — although it’s nice to have both. What it does have to be is genuine. (I think we all know the sting of thinking someone’s a friend because they seem nice on the surface, only to find they’ve been talking about us behind our backs, feeling resentful when things are going our way or, even worse, gleeful when things aren’t.) But when you find someone truly supportive, I don’t think even the best writing tool available on Amazon is more effective at helping us keep working through those rough patches.
When I first began taking fiction writing seriously, my only support system was my family — specifically, my husband. (My son was too little back then to do anything other than shred my manuscript pages or, occasionally, chew on one.) I didn’t tell my parents, my husband’s parents or even my brother that I was working on a novel until after I’d finished writing by hand the first draft and typing it up. Once they knew, they were incredibly supportive, especially my husband’s mom, who must have been the world’s most wonderful mother-in-law. (She read and gave me feedback on THREE different drafts of my first dreadful, deservedly unpublished manuscript! And then the dear woman read my second manuscript. And my third. And my fourth. And half of According to Jane before she got too ill to continue…) My brother, who couldn’t be more of a macho-cool guy and a reader of only thrillers, surprised me by asking to read many of my early romance, chick-lit and women’s fiction efforts, too. My son, who is not allowed to read my books yet (!!), learned to give Mommy time to write uninterrupted and, when that failed, my husband — a god amongst men some days — learned that an evening of bonding (out of the house) with his son was right up there chocolate, roses and whispered sweet nothings.
But strong support on the homefront, while priceless, wasn’t the only kind I knew I needed. I somehow lucked into getting involved in the Chicago-North RWA chapter, and that branched out into meeting other aspiring writers online and, eventually, in person, from all around the world. This month marks eight years that I’ve been an RWA member, and I know I wouldn’t have become a published writer without the insight, encouragement and astute critiquing of my CPs. More than that, I wouldn’t have survived years of rejections or the whirlwind of release days and promo without the friends in my life — online and off — who’ve been there to talk me out of torching a problematic proposal in the fireplace, distract me from reading negative reviews with the promise of Almond Joy martinis or email me links to helpful articles or blog posts when they know it’ll give me valuable information.
And, sometimes, these awesome people even invite me to join their fabulous group blog. 😉
What about you? Who do you call on when, um, you need a hand? (Cue the music again…start swaying…) Who can you lean on?
In Honor of Blake Snyder: Master of the Beat Sheet
What I decided to do, though, was to look up in one of Blake’s books 2 movies that were as different as I could imagine and compare them structurally to show these stages in action. The films I chose were one of my all-time favorites in romantic comedy — When Harry Met Sally — and the popular Bruce Willis thriller — Die Hard! In my opinion, both of these are excellent, well-structured stories. Even though they were written as screenplays instead of novels, I still learned a whole lot that was — for me — directly applicable to writing a book. At one point, I even went so far as to multiply the page numbers by 3 so I’d get a sense of where each stage would fall in a 330-page/100K-word novel ( i.e., If the “Catalyst” lands on page 12 of a screenplay, it should come in at approximately page 36 of my book).
Taking a look at just this first beat of the Beat Sheet — the Opening Image — it’s page #1 of the script and the first scene of the film. In When Harry Met Sally, actors pretending to be “real” couples share with the camera how they met. Meanwhile, in Die Hard, a NYC cop is being advised by his seatmate on “how to survive traveling” as their airplane lands in LA. You can see how these well-known movies progress though every one of Blake’s beats, right down to the “Final Image.” Cool, huh?!
1. Opening Image (1): “Real” couples talking about how they met/A plane lands at LAX, and NYC gun-carrying cop Bruce Willis is being advised by a businessman onboard “how to survive traveling”
2. Theme Stated (5): Impossible for a man and woman to be friends/”Survival” is the theme and Bruce’s mission
3. Set-Up (1-10): We meet Harry and Sally–they’re totally different types–but they have to drive from Chicago to NYC together/The boss at Nakatomi Plaza wishes his employees a Merry Christmas, including Bonnie Bedelia’s character, who is on the verge of divorce from Bruce; Bruce explains to limo driver that his wife had a good job that turned into a great career, but now they’re unhappily bicoastal; Bruce and Bonnie get into a fight and a mystery truck arrives at the Plaza
4. Catalyst (12): They part in NYC saying “have a nice life”/A dozen robbers posing as terrorists lock down the building and crash the party
5. Debate (12-25): 5 years later, Harry sees Sally kissing boyfriend goodbye at airport and Harry is engaged to be married–they’re still REALLY different and decide they’re not at all right for each other/Alerted to the commotion, Bruce grabs his gun and begins to assess the situation–he is spotted by the bad guys
6. Break into Two (25): 5 years later, Harry is getting divorced and Sally has broken up with her boyfriend, they decide to try to become friends/Bruce is the “lone defender of the fort”–he tries to get the cops to help by pulling the fire alarm (they think it’s a hoax), but he soon realizes he’ll have to stop the bad guys alone
7. B Story (30): Harry and Sally’s 2 friends and their eventual love story–the friends talk about the film’s theme/An LAPD Sergeant arrives to check on fire alarm and gets involved–finally cops are on the way
8. Fun and Games (30-55): Harry and Sally hang out as friends–shopping, eating in the deli, talking, finding solace in each other’s company/Bruce is fighting bad guys, being chased, rolling down stairs, breaking necks, etc.
9. Midpoint (55): A New Year’s Eve party when they realize they’re falling for each other–they kiss as friends and try to set the other person up with their best buds/Using a bad guy’s walkie-talkie, Bruce contacts head baddie, who gets worried and asked his thieving crew how much longer it’ll take them to crack the safe
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): While out with Sally, Harry sees his ex-wife out with her new boyfriend, realizes his dating life is terrible and takes his anger out on Sally and their friends/Pressure builds with this new time clock; Bruce has an ally in the Sergeant, but Sergeant’s boss thinks Bruce is one of the bad guys; FBI arrives
11. All Is Lost (75): When Sally calls Harry because she finds out her ex is getting married, they make a mistake and fall into bed together–it’s the “death” of their friendship/Bad guy leader (pretending to be a civilian) and Bruce bump into each other, and bad guy learns Bruce is barefoot (a weakness)–tells baddies to shoot out the glass–bad guys get the detonators back
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Despite the joy of confessing their deed to their 2 friends (who are now a couple), Sally and Harry realize their error/Bruce laments he’s done all he can; Sergeant reveals via walkie-talkie that he made past mistakes too
13. Break into Three (85): They both decide to tell the other they made a mistake, hoping it’ll save their friendship/Bad guys open vault and get ready to escape, but when Bonnie is exposed as Bruce’s wife, she’s taken as a hostage; Bruce must save her
14. Finale (85-110): The A and B stories cross as Harry and Sally attend the wedding of their friends and they fight, but on this New Year’s Eve Harry races through NYC to tell Sally he loves her and they kiss/Bruce jumps into action to rescue hostages and rescue his wife, even without the help of the cops; he outsmarts and kills the bad guy then kisses his wife
15. Final Image (110): Harry and Sally finally tell the story of how they met/Bruce meets and hugs the Sergeant (who, in killing the final bad guy, is helped to get over his past mistake); Bruce takes his wife home
Hope some of you will find this helpful as you do your own novel plotting ;). Many thanks to Tina and the wonderful Seekers for inviting me visit today! Wishing you all a great week!
For the Love of Voice
Style–the flow, rhythm, cadence of the writing; vocabulary, lexicon, slang and whether the author is wordy or spare
Personality–the unique way of seeing the world and choosing which details to focus on and highlight
Consistency–while it may get darker or lighter or funnier or sadder, it doesn’t suddenly shift wildly in tone
Moderation–even the strongest voices don’t over-do it, and they’re not just made up of repeated verbal tics
Transportation–a good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book
Authority–quoting from Ink: “For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story… A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story. I think all great voices have that… There’s a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won’t sink, not with these voices.”
Originality–above all, a good voice is unique and can’t be duplicated, and it is also extremely contagious
Authenticity–this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you; it’s not you per se, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of you
Thank you, Nathan.
I also think there are certain themes that we and our favorite authors tend to focus on. It’s part of our unique perspective–those subjects that are so relevant to us that we MUST write about them. Personally, I love exploring a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she tries to sift through the elements of her past and the relationships that shaped her worldview to come to a new understanding of her life in the present. I’m really hung up on characters learning to be honest with themselves, facing their fears and their fantasies, seeing and hearing each other more clearly. And I don’t think there’s a problem in the great universe that can’t be improved with the support of true friends, a little humor and the occasional piece of chocolate. So, while I truly love reading across genres, I’m always pleased when I find authors who write stories like these…
On Criticism and Writers
The year 2009 has been an interesting one, and I use the word “interesting” deliberately and in exactly the evasive manner with which it’s often intended…
For me, this was a year of a lot of ups and downs and, while I mostly talked about the ups on this blog (the book! the book!), there were plenty of other things that created challenges. It was a tough and stressful year for so many people I know and care about, and I couldn’t help but think this week what a blessing it is when, in the midst of some such challenge, you encounter people who are gentle with you. Who give you the benefit of the doubt. Who treat you with care. Not because they think you’re fragile and can’t handle it, but because they’re wise enough to know they don’t know what else might’ve been going on in your life in the days or hours before you met up with them.
It’s been surprising to discover those who naturally demonstrated this gift of perception…and, likewise, those in whom I haven’t seen any evidence of it this year. In a lot of ways, I think it comes down to a sense of fairness, whether innate or developed. Trying to be as evenhanded and as objective as possible when dealing with others–in person, on the phone, online. Being critical for a specific purpose, perhaps, but not as a state of being. Not as a way of relating to the world at large.
And so, as 2009 comes crashing to its conclusion at a snowbank near you, I want to discuss a subject that has been very interesting to me throughout the year, and this involves a few facets of criticism, particularly in the writing world.
I wandered into this year expecting literary criticism. Writers write and reviewers comment. (“That According to Jane book had kind of a cool premise, I mean, if you could get over the really odd ‘hearing voices’ thing and all of those sex scenes.”) While I may not have always agreed with someone’s analysis of the story, my debut novel is out there, and it’s not just mine anymore. A part of it belongs to every reader willing to pick it up, and everyone who does is entitled to comment as they see fit about the story structure, the characters’ motivation, the plot conflict, etc. I’m more than okay with that. I find genuine, thoughtful novel critiques fascinating, and I never tire of learning more about writing craft.
Criticisms of me, personally, however–fault-finding not of the story but of the author–created a far less sedate internal reaction. Turns out, published writers are open to criticism from everyone, from everywhere and for just about everything. There is little discretion and often even less tact in some negative reviews. And though we want to send hugs and chocolate to those kind souls who take the time to write something positive and encouraging about our novels, there is a subset of readers who think nothing of linking their individual dislike of a specific story element with a personal slam against the author. (“Since the main character is obviously an immoral tramp–the writer must be, too.”)
But, as bizarre and irrational as that reaction seemed to me initially, I grew to expect it on nearly every major review site (Amazon, GoodReads, Library Thing, etc.) and for a large percentage of novels reviewed there. If an author had more than, say, 10-15 reviews, you could almost bet one of them would be by some angry person who felt justified in spouting a grammatically challenged missive like, “Whata bunch of crap. Only a lonly, fat, cat-loving spinster could of written such a unbeleivable ‘love’ story. Blehh!”
Actually, I noticed a lot of Internet rage in general this year, with Anonymous people posting callous remarks not only in book reviews but on discussion loops, article comments, forum walls. There was a particularly ruthless dig directed at Stephenie Meyer that was so personal, insulting and not remotely writing-related, it succeeded only in making the commenter seem jealous, petty, insecure and extremely bitter about Meyer’s tremendous writing success–far from the “smart and witty” observation that I’m sure he/she had intended.
But I’ve been both intrigued and frustrated to find that the criticisms don’t end with anonymous nasties. This year has brought a windfall of other, non-novel-related criticisms–ones that I’ve learned writers deal with all the time–and they come in forms both verbal and nonverbal. These are “personal” in a different way, and they have to do with the expections other people have of us. There’s one criticism in particular I’d heard leveled against debut authors in prior years, and I’d been monitoring myself carefully in hopes of avoiding it. I desperately didn’t want to be one of those new authors who, in the gossipy cocoon of RWA and among a mix of writers at a range of publishing stages, could be accused of this serious charge: Now that she’s published, she’s changed.
But it’s not so simple. No one undergoes any sort of trial by fire and is left unchanged by the experience. So, in case anyone is wondering: Yes, I have.
That change, however, is not, as some might suspect, because of the book contract, or because of some newfound love of being in the public eye (LOL! I’m an introvert, people…), or because of my now permanent affiliation with the Published Authors Network. It’s because of the very public nature of criticism itself and the braided strands of toxicity that are Envy, Resentment and Insecurity. It’s having spent the majority of 2009 trying to come to terms with other people’s misperceptions of my job–while still trying to do my job–that made me reevaluate the attitudes and actions of those around me. It also made me rethink my own and, as a result, draw some new boundaries.
Online, of course, separating oneself from antagonism requires different tactics. Sometimes, I think the only effective method is to turn off the computer… With increasing frequency, I’m stunned by things I read there. Like this week, I read a one-star review of a fellow novelist’s first book–a novel I loved, by the way, by an author who went on to have seven successful books in her popular series so far (with more to come!) and then to see those novels translated and sold throughout the world. And a random commenter/non-professional reviewer, who claimed to be an aspiring novelist herself, said she’d wished she’d thought of the high-concept story premise first, so she could have done a much better job of writing it than that talentless author. I laughed aloud at the computer screen, cheered for my multi-published friend and, to the anonymous reviewer I said, “Yeah, honey, good luck with that EVER happening.”
I was an aspiring writer myself in rather recent history. I also have the pleasure of knowing a great many wonderful aspiring writers who are working hard to hone their craft and break through the cement-like wall of query letters and agent/editor rejections. I know it’s hard. But this I’ve learned for sure in 2009: It doesn’t get any easier. As a published author, you get just as many rejections on your story ideas as you did pre-contract, at least as many (usually significantly more) editorial suggestions, very public objections to elements in your book AND you have to promote your novels and your “brand” while writing new material on deadline.
When a writer, whether aspiring or published, turns into an incessant critic of, let’s say, a New York Times bestselling author, and that writer-critic publicly–or, even worse, behind that other author’s back–insists that this famous author’s writing sucks, her publishing contract paid her more than she deserved, her print runs were too high, she looks far less attractive in person than in her author photo and her agent and/or editor must be battling a crack addiction to have ever signed her…well, I wish that writer-critic the opportunity to see every one of her publishing fantasies realized, and that wish isn’t out of loving kindness on my part. I’d look forward to watching her try to juggle all of the required aspects of the writing life and the pressure that comes with the perception of success in this industry. Even more, I’d like to see the knowledge dawn on her (sooner rather than later, if at all possible) that every critical and ungracious thing she’s ever said about some other writer will be said about her–if she’s lucky enough to be noticed by readers–whether those comments are deserved or not, true or untrue, simply because serious and persistent criticism comes with this territory. It’s a whole lot easier to stand on the sidelines and be a constant critic than it is to be the central focus of that criticism, especially when it’s sung to the tune of “Hey, she’s made a lot of money and/or hit a big list, we should all spew hate at her.”
And knowing this–really, really knowing this–even to my far lesser, smaller-contract, non-NYT-bestseller, no-big-list-hitting degree, has, indeed, changed me this year. Though I’ve never written a nasty online review (who has TIME for that?!), the awareness of all the criticism writers receive has now fully penetrated, and it’s made me unwilling to tolerate even clever little quips at a famous writer’s expense. Do not trash Nora Roberts, Dan Brown or Stephen King here, please, unless it’s in the context of a fair and honest literary analysis of their writing. I only have the tiniest inkling of what they’ve had to deal with, but I’m in awe of the difficulty of their accomplishment, and no one got to their level without a hell of a lot of work. For the same reason, please don’t trash my published writer friends, least of all in my earshot (not that anyone here would!), especially those friends who’ve scored big contracts or won major awards. They may have faults, but so do we all, and I can tell you, most of them didn’t get to where they are by spending their precious writing time blasting their negativity and futile what-ifs at other writers.
In my opinion, if someone thinks he/she can do a better job of writing a story than someone else, that person had best put his/her energy toward actually writing one. Save the sniping comments for those people who, by claiming they could have done a far superior job with another writer’s storyline, clearly show just how incapable they are of coming up with an original idea themselves and following through on it. (And I sincerely believe every writer skimming through this essay is more than equal to the task of creating authentic and inspired work… 🙂 )
And so, while I’m not one for making grandiose New Year’s Resolutions, I am making this vow for the coming year: To take my own advice and to practice it, every day, to the best of my ability. I can’t force anyone to follow me in this, nor do I expect it, but, considering what I’ve seen of the alternative, I know I’ll feel cheerier and better able to rise above the unfair criticisms out there if I’m not getting swept into taking part in them myself.
Here’s to wishing everybody reading my end-of-the-year ramble a happy, healthy and productive 2010! May the books you read–or write–bring you so much peace and joy in the coming year that there’s no room for anything negative. And may you feel as fortunate as I do, to enter a New Year with such a terrific, supportive and fabulous blog community. Thanks to all of you for being one of the really good parts of 2009. Wishing you the fulfillment of every cherished dream…plus a few unexpected but delightful ones.
Flipped: From Reviewer to Reviewee
If you’re the kind of person who grows up to be a writer, you’ve already spent years revising the endings of other people’s novels or fabricating the personal histories of strangers in your mind. You’ve probably even mused on the antics of, say, a heroine with a penchant for microwave meals and carryout and the organic-obsessed hero who sports a “King of the Grill” T-shirt — characters who inhabit a romantic comedy novel you’re writing.
But in the Spatula Flip of Life, no imagined point-of-view switch helped me glean as different a perspective as when I went from book reviewer to book reviewee.
I had been an aspiring novelist before I began reviewing for RT in the spring of 2004. I knew that pulling together the storytelling elements of plot, structure, characterization, etc., into a cohesive whole was very tricky (understatement). Becoming a reviewer gave me a crash course in analyzing stories, figuring out what works, what doesn’t and why. But more on that later.
I’ve always loved stories, and every month for four years I looked forward to new books for review landing on my front porch in their sealed plastic packets of possibility. These soon-to-be-released novels had been plucked from thousands of hopefuls, and I was one of the fortunate first to experience their magic.
But with privilege comes responsibility, right? In trying to be fair to both the novelists and the readers, I made a list of Reviewer Vows and solemnly promised to:
* Read each novel in its entirety
* Analyze every book consistently for specific novel elements
* Make sure readers could extract the correct story premise from my summary
* Ensure the author would be able to find sincere words of praise in the review
* State, as objectively as possible, my criticism of any parts
of the book I felt needed strengthening, and relate this in a manner that made it clear I was commenting on the narrative only, not on the author.
Above all, I knew taste in novels was unquestionably subjective, but I felt if I tried to write the kind of evenhanded, honest, story-focused reviews I hoped to get someday, there should be nothing to fear — either from the author’s or the reviewer’s standpoint.
My experience has led me to believe that most reviewers strive to be fair, and I’d like to think this perspective helps me deal more peacefully with both criticism and praise. That it allows me to better handle the mixed emotions of having my own debut novel under scrutiny. Logically, it does. Yet, every time my debut women’s fiction book, According to Jane (Oct., Kensington) gets sent out for review, I still reach for a calming chocolate-caramel Ghirardelli square and wonder what Jane Austen would suggest I do to relax, if she were giving me advice like she does my main character.
However, even if Jane or my insider knowledge of the review process doesn’t entirely quell my anxieties, the act of reviewing itself was one of the keys I credit with being able to write and pitch a salable manuscript. Why? Well, because I had to learn how to:
(1) Deeply analyze a story’s structure for the key components of a novel (character arcs and motivation, rising plot conflict across three or four acts, escalating scene tension, writing style, point-of-view usage, the subtle inclusion of symbols and subtext, etc.)
(2) Boil down the essence of a book into a brief summary, which was terrific training for writing blurbs for query letters and short pitches for editor/agent appointments
(3) Study the distinctive narrative styles and “voices” of published authors who wrote in a range of genres and for publishing houses I’d hoped to work with someday, and learn what made these writers so successful and their work so compelling
(4) Read extensively the type of material editors were currently buying, which became an unparalleled exercise in literary market research
(5) Recognize overused plots, character stereotypes or cliched phrases that might bore readers because, if I’d encountered them a number of times, I knew publishing professionals and other reviewers had too
(6) Get used to meeting a strict editorial deadline — period.
All of these skills proved excellent practice for the reality of being a novelist under contract.
So, while I may have flipped from one side of the review table to the other this year, I’m indebted to all I learned as an RT reviewer. Additionally, one of the greatest gifts of the job was discovering remarkable authors I may not have encountered otherwise, whose books managed to wedge themselves permanently onto my keeper shelf. I can only hope a reviewer or two, somewhere out there, will feel the same way when she opens a sealed plastic packet and pulls out one of my novels. But whether she does or doesn’t, I know the process from two very different sides now — and I love and appreciate them both.
A Few Websites and Books for Aspiring Writers:
Alicia Rasley’s The Writers’ Corner, a fabulous site with an impressive array of writing articles on craft-related subjects, found at: www.aliciarasley.com/index.php/craft
Blake Snyder’s incredibly helpful novel-structuring tools, found at: www.savethecat.com/
Michael Hauge’s wonderful articles on novel/screenplay structure, found at: www.storymastery.com/articles
THE COURAGE TO WRITE~Ralph Keyes
ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN~Elizabeth Berg
TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER~ Dwight Swain
MAKING A LITERARY LIFE~Carolyn See
BIRD BY BIRD~Anne Lamott
ON WRITING~Stephen King
WRITING FICTION~ Janet Burroway
CREATING ROMANTIC CHARACTERS~Leigh Michaels
WRITING THE ROMANTIC COMEDY~ Billy Mernit
SELF-EDITIONG FOR FICTION WRITERS~ Renni Browne & Dave King
TOXIC FEEDBACK~ Joni B. Cole
GOOD NAKED~Joni B. Cole
THE FIRE IN FICTION~Donald Maass
LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING~ David Morrell
THE JOY OF WRITING SEX~Elizabeth Benedict
ON BECOMING A NOVELIST~John Gardner
FICTION FIRST AID~ Raymond Obstfeld
WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes
EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE~Peter Dunne
WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS~Linda N. Edelstein
FROM WHERE YOU DREAM~Robert Olen Butler
SAVE THE CAT!~ Blake Snyder
THE WAR OF ART~ Steven Pressfield
“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” ~John Steinbeck