Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nothing Gold Can Stay: Writer's Block

There is something that has always perplexed me: Writer's Block. I had yet to come across it.

Until Now.

There were days where I looked forward to it. Days when my characters were especially loud. Days when their adventures were ridiculously rambunctious. Nights the talking and adventuring continued to the detriment of my sleep.

Well. It's here. And I'll tell you: things are getting mighty lonely in the 'ol pumpkin. It feels like I have just grown out of my imaginary friend (cue the violins).

This Writer's Block in particular is all-encompassing, affecting my desire (ability? drive?) to write or read. I don't know if the synapses are firing slower than usual or if everything else surrounding me is extra shiny.

Ironically, this Writer's Block is accompanying a major desire to be creative. Perhaps it means I am supposed to participate in some form of physical activity or weed my garden, but I will resist. Why? Because I Am A Writer (and accident-prone and it's raining).

The best ever tip I have been given on how to combat Writer's Block: sit your butt down in a chair.

For those of you sitting in a chair in front of a computer/pen in hand and still facing Writer's Block, here is my non-professional, totally unauthorized tip on how to battle Writer's Block: Stop before you want to. Hang on to that feeling of anticipation.

Here are a few small exercises you might want to try:
  • Randomly choose one page of work. You have 5 minutes to read and edit it. You are not allowed to do this again for another 20 minutes.
  • In one scene, highlight anywhere you describe any of the five senses. If there are less than five senses, add a description of one of the missing ones. Brush your teeth. Add another. Floss. Add another.
  • Make a grocery list. Go grocery shopping. You can write again once you have picked up your groceries. Even better, have one of your characters make a grocery list. Dress like them to go shopping.
  • Set an egg timer (5, 10, 15 minutes). Write. Even if it is the same word over and over. When the bell goes, stop.
  • Figure out what the message on one of your character's answering machines would be. If your character is pre-answering machine, how would they end a letter? Yours, your dearest friend ... humble servant, etc etc. There are an amazing number of ways to end a letter. Check out a museum and find some archived files.
  • Read something. Find out what works. What doesn't.
  • If you are having difficulties reading novels to the end, read short poetry. Nothing puts romantic imagery into perspective like love poems. Especially authors like Pablo Neruda, Emily Dickinson, Byron, Robert Frost and Tennyson.
I look forward to the inevitable cacophony of my characters and their adventures when they return, but I'm a patient person. I can wait. And while I wait, I have Pablo Neruda to keep me company.

Please, please, please: Anti-Writer's Block tips. Any and all are welcome.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reasons for Rejection

As you may know, I’ve begun the dreaded query process. If you haven’t heard of my latest foibles, check out yesterday’s post on my blog, because I just can’t bear to admit it “out loud” one more time. I expect I will be flooded with rejections soon, so I decided to look up the reasons most agents reject a query.

My first query went out to Kathleen Ortiz of Lowenstein Associates, after a contest on where she requested my material. Since I sent it to her first, I thought I would check out her reasons for rejections (no response yet, by the way).

  1. Word count. In the YA world, if the word cont is over 100,000 words, it’s too high. For reasons why, check out for the lowdown. Conversely, if the word count is too low (30,000 words) it is too low and needs to be fleshed out.
  1. Voice. If it doesn’t have the basics: originality, authority, authenticity, it just isn’t going to grab their attention, and hold it for the duration of the novel. For more on this topic, check out my previous post here.
  1. Backstory. You shouldn’t have fifty pages of the boring; start the novel with the turning point in the character’s life.
  1. Show, don’t tell (I felt mad, I felt sad, I felt happy). Don’t do it. We all know how easy it is to fall into the telling trap, because showing takes A LOT of work.
  1. It’s too complicated. If there is too much action in the beginning, to the point where it’s impossible to follow who the characters are, and who’s doing what, it just gets confusing.
  1. Not following instructions. If she asks for a query letter, 2 page synopsis and the first ten pages of the manuscript – do it, for goodness sake! Don’t assume you can ignore the rules; otherwise you’ll just appear arrogant.
  1. Too many cliché’s. If you rely on stock characters (happy hooker, busty blond bombshell, evil billionaire, your ms is going straight into the slushpile – and fast!)
  1. The first pages are awesome, but then the rest falls apart. So many websites out there right now provide first pages critiques, but the truth is, if the rest of the manuscript sucks, it won’t help anyway.
Here are a few of my personal notes from the Surrey International Writer’s Conference - Idol workshop in 2009:

  1. It just isn’t authentic. If you have a vampire in your novel these days, it had better be pretty unique (hint – no sparkly, self-loathing, brooding vampires with the name Edward).
  1. It’s too boring. Don’t make your opening characters stagnant, you have to grab the reader from the first sentence.
  1. No reason to care about the character. There needs to be something special or unique about the character, otherwise, why would a reader care?
  1. Head-hopping. You get one POV per scene. That’s it.
  1. Graphic violence, profanity and explicit sex from the get-go. Don’t rely on the shock factor to hook a reader. Not that these things need to be excluded altogether, but you need to earn their respect before you go there.
  1. There’s a morality lesson or message. This can be insulting to a reader and be the number one reason for them to put the book down.
  1. The writer has an attitude about literary agents and expresses it. Be professional. Don’t assume a literary agent is cruel and insensitive. They are people too, with feelings, so treat them with respect.
  1. The pacing is off. Does dialogue make it move too quickly? Does description slow it down?
  1. The writer is a stalker – follow your favorite agents on twitter, read their blogs, but don’t repeatedly re-query them, or ask for feedback or generally annoy them.
After reviewing the above list, I’m curious what will be the reason(s) for my rejection. The best I can hope for is a request for a partial, and the worst, a form letter. Maybe I’ll get something in the middle, perhaps a personalized letter with some short feedback on why it was rejected.
Have you ever received a rejection that explained why your ms didn’t make the cut? Did it involve one of these seventeen reasons?

Monday, June 28, 2010

What's On Your Top 10 This Week?

I was under the impression that the making of "Top Ten" lists was somewhat of a recent phenomenon, but today I picked up the December 2009 issue of The Writer from my stack of magazines which proved me wrong. In it was an article entitled, "10 Habits of a Successful Writer." Upon closer examination, it was an Archive article that was originally published in January 1992! So much for my mistaken thought that David Letterman and/or the TV channel that carries Hollywood's Ten Best had dreamed up the category when I became an occasional member of the pop culture-viewing audience a mere couple of years ago.

But I am straying from my purpose: I need to sort out some disjointed thoughts that would constitute my current list of priorities, which I will enumerate for you.

#10: I will stop scanning the TV guide for something to watch when I know very well that all my favourite shows had their season finale two months ago. As the numbers get progressively higher (in importance), I will appreciate the importance of this one.

#9 On these lazy summer afternoons, when it is either too hot to be out in the garden or there is a thunder storm with a downpour of rain (all of which has been alternating hereabouts lately), I will substitute a book from my accumulating pile of to-be-reads for said television viewing.

#8 The gable where I write is becoming cluttered to the point where I can't find anything. I felt guilty when Janet envied me my little nook, because she wouldn't be impressed if she saw it right now. Connie's description of her basement could be transposed to my gable and not be far off the mark. Must get organized ... gives me more momentum!

#7 Reading the article I referred to above, and others in the same issue, e.g. "Make Your Novel Agent-Ready," by Elizabeth Lyon, "Smart Writing Goals, to make 2010 your best year ever" (remember this was the December issue), made me want to subscribe to this excellent writing title again. Take a look at the website and click on back issues to view the topics covered each month. Currently, I pick up an issue once in a while when I'm in a city bookstore, but I would love to have something on writing land in my mailbox every month. A subscription costs less than buying all 12 issues from the newstand, and also gives access to a subscribers-only part of the website.

#6 I am going to follow Janet's lead and reduce the amount of time I spend roaming through blogland or idly web-browsing the day away. And how is that going for you, Janet? I will likely set a minimum amount of time per day, rather than cut out any days entirely.

#5 My fifth spot is interesting because it links up with both #9 (read more books) and #6 (spend less time on the Internet). On the CBC program Spark today, the host, Nora Young, was concerned because she has noticed lately that she has a great deal of difficulty reading books, she can't concentrate on a long narrative like she used to. Nowadays she gets easily distracted, wants to check her email, her text messages, Facebook, and Twitter. She wonders if all this electronic content has changed how her brain works.

Go to Spark for her thoughts on this, and to listen to an 18-minute segment where she interviews Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains in which he discussed how the brain adapts to the type of activity it is expected to do. Apparently our current habit of seeking small bits of information from a variety of electronic sources has trained our brains to respond in that manner. He says it is not true that our brains have a fixed ability that is set by the time we reach adulthood, but is constantly adapting throughout our life. Early man survived by being constantly aware of everything in his surroundings, and could not afford to focus exclusively on one thing, so our current splintering of attention is not new. He said, in fact, that the book may have come along as a temporary aberration that required long periods of concentration. I don't want that to go away, therefore, my attention to this topic will require that I re-train my brain to do more solid reading. (Confession: I have been noticing the same thing!)

#4 Also related to #9, and thus #5 as well, I will be attending a couple of literary festivals this summer, and I want to read something by some of the authors that will be in attendance. My priority reading list is being developed in my head at this moment. I will make a list asap. Some of the authors: Yann Martel, Alice Kuipers, Louise Penny, Helen Humphries, Jack Hodgins, etc. etc.

#3 Speaking of Jack Hodgins, I was originally going to write my post today exclusively on his well-known book on writing fiction, A Passion for Narrative, but I have just started re-reading it after a long lapse since I last looked at it. Since I will also be hearing him speak on the topic in July (so excited about that), I will save the topic for another day when my knowledge and approach will be fresher.

#2 My writing group is waiting for the next chapter of my novel (and I don't have another one ready!), so this one is obvious. Since this depends very much on the progress I make on #1, I will be filling the gap for a while with short fiction.

#1 Finally, and obviously most important since I have assigned it numero uno, I have made a start on the major re-write of the novel that has been in first draft for longer than I care to admit. It requires more than revision, editing, or polishing because I began to realize there were flaws in the structure and it needed some serious rearrangement of scenes, timelines, etc. A complete overhaul was needed. I am having a great time with it, and will report from time to time on my progress. I hope to have it ready to pitch at the Surrey conference in October!

What would your Top Ten, or Top Five, or even Top Three be right now? Obviously, my list is slightly fluid, and changes somewhat or a lot, from week to week. Except for #1. That one will remain in top spot for as long as it takes.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Winners of my contest!

Last Monday I had a couple of giveaways to celebrate the publication of the short story anthology "The Cupid Diaries: Moments in Time", in which two of my short stories appear. "Moments in Time" is available from Classic Romance Revival. I also gave away a download copy of my novella "Burning Love". And the winners are ... (drumroll please!)

DebH wins a copy of "The Cupid Diaries: Moments in Time". Congratulations!

Mindy wins a copy of "Burning Love". I hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Welcome Guest Blogger Cornelia Amiri

Celtic romance writer Cornelia Amiri joins us today to talk about author branding. What exactly is author branding, you may ask? Cornelia is here to explain all.

Branding is one of the most important marketing tools, but when we think about branding, especially here in Texas, we think about cowboys and cattle, which is fine, that’s one of the best ways to explain its use. Imagine cattle in a field, branding makes your cow stand out from all the other cows, even though they may all look the same.

In order to brand your books you first need to understand what author branding is. It’s a promise you make to the reader based on your unique author voice and the quality of your writing. The reader knows, every time they buy one of your books, you’re going to deliver on this promise. And that is what you need to think of when you come up with your brand. You may write multi genres and even over a span of writing you may alter what you write about, but the essence of that promise will remain the same. So the essence of your writing, the part that won’t change, is what you want to brand.

When you create your brand, go back to the moment you decided to be a writer. What I mean is, you probably wrote as a child, but think of the specific moment when you decided to craft a novel with the intent to submit and get it published. Something pushed you into it. Some specific things happened to drive you at that moment to make that decision with all the sacrifices it entails. If you go back there, within that moment, you will discover a lot about your writer voice and your brand. An author’s brand is as unique to them as an author’s voice

After you create your brand, advertise it. You promote individual books but most of the advertising and emphasis on promotions should not be on individual books but on your brand. Incorporate your brand in all you do, even in your appearance when you’re promoting. Some author’s brands are based on their culture or a culture. That’s not surprising because one’s cultural identity is a strong part of who they are and what motivates them. If culture is part of your brand, incorporate it in your dress and your display at signings and presentations.

A slogan that fits your brand is good. I use “Long Swords Hot Heroes, and Warrior Women.” Put it on your web sites, on your business cards, your letter head, you signature line in your e-mails, in your press releases, put it everywhere.

Create a logo and use it on everything: press releases, business cards letterhead, book marks, and candy wrappers. The logo should represent your unique brand. I’ use a torc. Your logo represents your brand and your readership. As a historical romance author, I write realistic battle scenes and my books are historically accurate, in turn I actually sell to more men than women, so my logo like hers has to be gender neutral, like the torc.

Branding is key to in any marketing plan. Multi million dollar companies who base all their marketing decisions against the bottom line all use branding. It works, it helps them make more money. To be successful, you have to stand out. And the way to do that is with branding.

But to brand, you need to first figure out what about your writing style, your books, and you is unique, and brand that. There are readers searching for what you are writing, branding will help them find you. They will read your books and see that the branding, the promise, holds true. Then when they want to read a book, for instances, one set in the dark ages in a Celtic land with historical accuracy and strong female characters, blended with Celtic mythology, instead of saying all that, they’ll say, I want to read one of Cornelia Amiri's Celtic romance novels.

And it will work the same of for you. With branding, our books will stand out from all the other books even though the titles and covers seem so much alike.

Cornelia Amiri taps into her Welsh, Scottish, and Irish roots to write the Celtic/Romance books Druid Bride, Druid Quest, Queen of Kings, Timeless Voyage, A Fine Cauldron of Fish, Vixen Princess, The Fox Prince, Danger Is Sweet, and One Heart One Way. She loves to read historical, paranormal, and romance novels. Books that combine the three genres are her biggest weakness, except for chocolate.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Get Out of the Office...

I now have an office! We settled into our new house and bedroom number 3 has been designated Janet’s Office. The number one reason for this is that I now work from home – the Day Job requires 5 to 6 hours on the computer so I can link into the office computers back on The Prairies. Technology is an amazing thing! And because of those hours and my need for an actual desk, telephone, good chair, the decision was easy. I even got to paint my office walls a beautiful lilac color!

The Day Job then becomes the Non-Paying Job – my writing career sandwiched in-between the paying job, the household chores, the shopping, the socializing, the reading, the running, the blogging…well, you get the picture. And sometimes sitting in my lovely office where remnants of the Day Job are visible left, right and center I have a hard time getting started on the writing or staying focused.

Even if you aren’t working from home and your office isn’t a catch-all for all things data-management related, it can be hard to focus. Perhaps you don’t have an office, but use the end of the dining room table (clearing it away every night in order to feed the masses). Or a favorite chair in the living room where, again, you must put everything away or threaten those present within an inch of their life that if they touch anything they will meet an untimely and, most likely, horrific death. Some of you are holed up in a cold, drafty basement under artificial light, toes going numb and worried about hypothermia instead of getting your characters to their "Happily-Ever-After".

So, why don’t you get out of the "Office"?

Coffee House: A fantastic place to grab a cup of Joe, fire up the laptop and type away. You’ll feel very writerly and if you avoid hooking up to the wireless connection they offer (most do these days), you’ll get a ton of work done…that is if you’re not people watching and eavesdropping (my problem with public places).

Library: Quiet, good lighting, space to spread out – what’s not to love about taking your work to the library. Of course, I still have issues with people watching, eavesdropping and the added stress of being surrounded by books.

Park: A beautiful surrounding to calm your writer-self and focus on the task at hand. Sit at the picnic table or bench, bring your own chair or blanket, work on your laptop or go ‘old-school’ and break out the pen and paper. If the bugs, crowds, or pollen make working outside impossible, just sit in your car and have the vista of green visible through your window. And write!

Beach: Very similar to the park with the exception of no tree pollen (but possibly an issue with sand everywhere). I had to share the beach because the picture posted is of Crescent Beach here in Nova Scotia where I took the dog for a good romp and then sat in my car, the rolling waves visible through the windshield whenever I looked up from my notebook. The salt air added an extra touch of ambience to the day out of my office.

Cemetery: Yep, same idea as sitting in your car at the park or the beach, but there just happens to be gravestones visible through the windshield. Talk about quiet! No one’s going to disturb you, there’s no distraction of people watching or eavesdropping – and if you think I’m crazy for suggesting it, Andre Dubus III wrote The House of Sand and Fog sitting in his car in the middle of a cemetery (during his lunch breaks).

Bus/Subway: Go for a ride! Take your laptop or go ‘old-school’. I’m not sure what the cost of a fare is – and how far you can ride – but even if it’s just an hour that gives you plenty of time to focus on your writing (and pretend you’re a best selling author as other riders give you ‘The Look’).

Trailer/Shed: Have you considered using that travel trailer/camper sitting in your backyard? The one unused with the exception of a week or so camping every summer? It has everything you need – especially peace and quiet. I know our own Anita has used her camper as an ‘office’ and she’s got plenty of work done out there. Or convert the underused shed into an office retreat. A lawn chair, an old end table, your pen and paper – even your laptop could work out there on battery power – everything you need to get those words down and move on with your career!!

Any House Other Than Your Own: There are plenty of writers out there who would love to have a ‘write-in’. A day just for writing in the company of just writers. In fact, why don’t you think of hosting one. All you need is some space for your writer friends to set up, a coffee maker or kettle to make tea, and the peace and quiet for some serious work. You could even do an organized break every hour and a half – stretch, chat with your friends, discuss plot, have some tea – 10 minutes then back to it. And I think you could consider a relative’s house or perhaps a neighbor who’s going out of town for holidays – offer to look after their place and ask if it’s ok for you to spend an hour or so there writing. As far as interruptions go, this option would be as quiet as the cemetery.

Writer’s Rooms: I did some research for this blog and found out that in some cities there are such things as Writer’s Rooms. Here’s the link! An actual office for your writing – the height of luxury.

And my last suggestion – Bed: That’s right. Curl up under the blankets with your laptop or pen and paper and declare yourself off limits (set a timer so the family knows, post a sign on the door). What better place to write romance? Boas and bon bons are optional!

Did I miss any, People of Blogland? If so, add to our list in the comment section. And let us know where you go to ‘get out of the office’.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Welcome Saturday's Guest Blogger Cornelia Amiri

Cornelia Amiri taps into her Welsh, Scottish, and Irish roots to write the Celtic/Romance books Druid Bride, Druid Quest, Queen of Kings, Timeless Voyage, A Fine Cauldron of Fish, Vixen Princess, The Fox Prince, Danger Is Sweet, and One Heart One Way. She loves to read historical, paranormal, and romance novels. Books that combine the three genres are her biggest weakness, except for chocolate.

Cornelia will be joining us for a discussion of author branding, what it is, and how to find yours. Please stop on Saturday.

Writing Retreat 2010

This past weekend, eight romance writers met at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK for the annual Saskatchewan Romance Writers (SRW) retreat. Since there were so many requests on what we do/did at a retreat, I thought I’d give you the low down on this one.

History of St. Peter’s Abbey

At the turn of the century, the Canadian government put out a call for immigrants to settle the west, then known as the North West Territories. Many Minnesotans answered the call and settled in the Muenster area. One settler sent a letter to his pastor, a Benedictine monk, in Albany, MN requesting spiritual help. An exploratory mission proved the spiritual need and preparations began to establish a church in the Muenster area.

On May 12th, 1903, the first mass was celebrated in a tent. A 12 x 16 ft log monastery (pictured) soon followed. St. Peter’s Abbey had become a reality. 

Today, St. Peter’s College has an accredited 2 yr university program which includes a 40,000 volume library for both the monastic community and University of Saskatchewan members. A noteworthy addition is the Centre for Rural Studies and Enrichment.

The on-site St. Peter’s Press, established in 1904 as the first area newspaper, is still going strong as a weekly paper, as well as a book publisher.

The Abbey is home to 20 Benedictine monks who pastor in a number of local communities. The philosophy of the abbey is to follow the monastic rule of St. Benedict which balances a life between prayer, work, and study.

Severin Hall can house 50 guests at a time and is used by many writing groups from across Canada for retreats such as ours.

Sask Romance Writers Retreat

St. Scholastica is a guest house and home to the SRW retreat while at the abbey. It was built as a residence for the Sisters of St. Elizabeth who provided domestic and hospital duties for the abbey from 1913 to 1990. It has 11 single rooms, half a dozen bathrooms, a kitchen and a lounge.

So, with all this going for me, how did I spend my time? I wrote. My laptop was the first thing I saw when I woke without an alarm approx 0630 each morning. I fired up both my old laptop (for writing) and my new netbook (for email and research) as I passed enroute to the bathroom.

At 8 o’clock, we all met near the door and walked across the parking lot to the Abbey for breakfast. We were back within the hour and everyone headed to their rooms to write. I’d usually make a couple trips to the kitchen next door to my room to replenish my coffee, but other than that, the mornings flew past. I could imagine the racket 8 typewriters would make, but with our laptops, silence reigned. The next thing I new, it was 12 noon and the girls were gathering for lunch so back to the dining room we’d go.

The afternoon was similar to the morning, except for more movement. With supper not until 6 pm, writers broke up the afternoon by taking a walk. Residents and retreat members are encouraged to tour the buildings, explore the grounds, and hike on the walking trails.

Striving for self-sufficiency, the grounds contain a greenhouse, garden plots, berry bushes and an orchard. An apiary produces 100 lbs of honey per year. If you tour the mixed farm, which is about a quarter mile from the main buildings, you’ll find horses, chickens and a pasture-fed beef herd. The farm grows and stores its own wheat, barley, oats and canola.

After supper, we retreated to our rooms once more until 8 o’clock when we gathered in the lounge for fellowship. On Friday evening, we sat around and talked. Sat evening, we watched a movie. A romance, of course.

(L to R) *Joanne Brothwell, Muriel, *Anne Germaine, Hazel Kellner, Georgina, Carrie Ann Schemenauer, *Anita Mae Draper, and Jessica Eissfeldt (*Prairie Chicks)

After lunch on Sun, the members began to head home and by supper, only Georgina and I were left. With our retreat time diminishing, we spent the evening working on our individual projects. It was almost midnight when I finally powered down my equipment and went to bed. I must say, however, I did get a bit creeped out.

When I went to lock Scholastica’s door that night, I wondered if anyone had entered while we were at supper. And my writer’s imagination went wild. Was someone hiding upstairs? Was I going to go check? Nope. Neither did I mention my fears to Georgina. However, at midnight while lying in bed—me at one end of the building with Georgina at the other end—I wondered what I’d do if I heard someone walking above me. I mean, for 2 days, I’d listened to Anne moving around in the room above me. There was no one left up there. What would I do if I heard footsteps? It took me a long time to fall asleep Sunday night. And no, I never did hear anything. Phew.

Monday morning, Georgina left and after a nice lunch with Hazel, who lives in the area, I began the 4 hr drive home.

Was the weekend a success? A resounding, YES! Without domestic duties, interruptions or responsibilities, I made tremendous progress on Emma’s Outlaw. Even though we had internet access in our rooms, I made a point of not checking blogs or surfing the net unless I needed it for research. Plus, I was able to spend some quality time with 7 fantastic writers whom I never get to see on a social basis.

Writers: If you’ve been on a retreat, where did you go? Or where would you go?

Readers: If you could go on a retreat with a dozen books, where would you go? And what genre would you bring?


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Invitation to the Dark Side

I’m partial to stories with a dark underbelly, to read and to write. When writing, I aim to weave a sense of menace from the beginning straight through to the end. In my work-in-progress, Common Ground, physical abuse plays a major role.

The fortunate people among us don’t live with the threat of violence. They don’t brace themselves against it. They don’t peak around corners checking for it. They see no need for a Plan B. And they don’t expect to step out of a door and crash into it.

That is the concept for Common Ground, my work-in-progress. Pitting someone, for which violence exists as a way of life, against someone who has absolutely no experience with it. At a past Saskatchewan Romance Writer’s meeting we submitted a snippet to be critiqued. One of my fellow members laughingly said she had no wish to read the whole story. Not her kind of book - too violent, too chilling, too uncomfortable. I took it as the highest compliment. I’d succeeded.

The idea, for me at least, is to create a situation based on grave reality or human suffering and to counter that with heroes and heroines who act with honor and compassion unique to their personalities. Whether they want to or not. They’re not perfect, but neither are they one step away from being the bad guy. At this point in time, that’s important to me. But that might not be the case, or important, to another writer drawn to the dark side. Gritty and raw are relative.

Life is hard and often ugly. Pick up a newspaper or watch the evening news. And some people have only to step out the door or close it behind them to find it. Humans, as a species, are capable of causing huge suffering to others of their own kind, not of their own kind, and to the very earth itself. The story possibilities are endless…and frightening. But what does dark and edgy mean for the feel-good, happily-ever-after expectation of the romance novel? It’s still there. Love and hope exist within in the darkest of circumstances, are perhaps intensified by it. They may no longer be the cure all of the past, but they do enable the reader to envision a future for the hero and heroine beyond the last page.

So how far is too far? Every writer has lines they are not prepared to cross. And ones they will. As a reader we can decide to read or not to read a book. No doubt about it, some books out there are breaking all the rules, pushing boundaries, and moving into uncharted territory. They are not for everyone. Because I’m an armchair thrill seeker, I enjoy those reads. That doesn’t mean I can’t find raw and gritty, on a different level, within the inspirational genre and others. As for my writing, it doesn’t contain explicit violence, buckets of gore, blurry or non-existent lines of conduct. But I’m not ruling it out for the future. I kind of like the idea of some future reader lifting her eyes of the page, staring into space and thinking, “Holy crap, did she just go there?”

Holding nothing back. There have been a few scenes I’ve given serious thought to toning down. One scene in particular comes to mind but I keep resisting because I feel it needs to be there, it has value as it stands. It is truly the point in the book in which the hero’s worst nightmare becomes an almost certain reality and he loses it. Some would think it tame and some would not. In the context of the rest of the book it’s intense, but it will be far easier for me to tone down than dial up in possible future revision requests. Also, if I compromise on this scene will it become easier to compromise on others, until I’m left with a lukewarm, watered down version of original idea? As long as the scene fits the storyline and is not used as ‘shock value’ I think it’s important to go with your gut, with your first instinct, and see it through. In the end, trusted critique partners, beta readers and editors will offer opinions on whether they think it works or not. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Reader Backlash. Not everyone is going to like your book. Thank goodness, or we’d all be fighting over the same ones. Hopefully, your cover and back blurb will give the reader a strong sense of what to expect on the pages inside the book so they don’t end up with a book they cannot or will not finish. We’ve talked a lot here on the Prairies about that all important first page which should also clue the reader into what they’re getting. Your website, free reads, newsletters and other promotional material should make it plain to potential readers what awaits them between the covers of your book.

In the end, the only thing we can do as writers is please ourselves first and foremost. I can’t write with my parents, in-laws, neighbours, or anyone else in mind. I like to embrace the dark side. I haven’t immersed myself in it completely. Here I go again with the word, yet. Because there’s potential lurking there that appeals to me.

What are your thoughts? Are you drawn to the dark side? As a reader or a writer? Do you have a favourite author you’d like to mention who likes to cross lines? As a writer, do you nudge certain lines?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World-Building 301: Cultural Referents

Greetings from across the pond! I'm on vacation in England until the 15th of July, so I thought I'd follow up last post's discussion of larger-scale world-building with a bit more elaboration on working with a unifying motif. This post, originally written over a year ago for Eventide Unmasked, explores the cultural referents that can evolve out of unifying symbols or motifs prevalent in that culture, including an extended exploration of the sun/moon duality in my own WIP.


How have your surroundings affected your perception of the world around you? Do you come from flat prairie land and always look to the horizon, the goal at the end of the journey? Does a coastal upbringing give you an urge to travel? Perhaps your faith emphasizes a trinity, and you look at things in threes.

We've talked before about how a character's individual perspective alters their world and the way they describe it, but on a larger scale, these sort of distinctions can influence the development of an entire culture or country. An island nation requires sea travel, producing superior knowledge of naval transport, as seen with the rise of the British Empire. An island nation may also create an insular culture, as with the Edo period in Japan.

In building the setting for your story, any such detail can become a focal point for the development of the culture and people of that region, permeating all the way down to technology and turns of phrase. A kingdom in rich agrarian land may have advanced farming and irrigation techniques, and the majority of the population may show a greater awareness of weather and seasons, as well as developing a need for more accurate, long-term predictions (a Tolkien's Almanac, if you will). A landscape filled with rivers provides greater ease of travel, acting as natural highways, allowing faster communication. It can also produce a collective consciousness of the lifeblood (both of information and water) rushing through that kingdom, and produce a great deal of water and river-related analogies for passages through life, successes, and set backs.

In Antharon, the people give their reverence to the sun and the moon, in the form of a pair of god-figures. This sets the cultural perspective towards picking out contrasts, opposites, and similar binary pairs. As a result, they are keenly aware of light and shadow, and thus the changing of the days throughout the course of the year*. The play of the seasons and the waxing and waning of day and night play a large part in the kingdom's culture, producing celebrations such as Nocturne, the transition from the sun's reign to the moon's long nights.

For those with a meticulous bent, the cultural attention on the passage of sun and moon across the sky has led to chronicled transition of days, months, and thus a recorded year turning on the longest day and longest night. On a shorter scale, sundials and other attentive trackings of the sun mark off the progress of the day, allowing for improvements in timekeeping over their less celestially-concerned neighbours. Antharians also study the night sky for signs and signals from beyond the Veil, and even a child tending flocks can recognize the familiar figures speckled across night's dark canvas.

Charting of constellations, then, enables sea travel, and Antharon is a coastal nation. What's more, the sea forms their eastern border, so the sun and moon rise out of the sea to travel over the kingdom, placing that far country, Amaris' twilit shore, across the sea. Many have attempted voyages to find those silver sands, but none who cross the Veil return without the Dark Lady's consent.

A simple thing, like landscape or a religious referent, can expand to influence all aspects of world-building from culture and technology to turns of phrase and the perceptions or remarks of your main character.

What key features influence the world-building in your stories? Does the landscape, the beliefs, or another aspect play a large role in the development of that culture? Share your process below, I'd love to hear it.

*I am not so gung ho about world building as to start dabbling with worlds featuring a different axis tilt toward the sun.

Monday, June 21, 2010

CRR Blog Carnival: Writing the Short Story

Thanks for joining me here on the Prairies today! I’m pleased to be a part of the Classic Romance Revival’s Blog Carnival in promotion of our short story anthology “The Cupid Diaries: Moments in Time”. Thirteen romance writers have combined to create an anthology of sixteen short stories that range from contemporary and historical, to urban fantasy and futuristic romance. There’s truly a story here for every reader’s taste.

“Moments in Time” is a very apt title for a short story collection because a good short story endeavors to capture that one riveting moment when an event occurs that changes the course of a character’s life. Or perhaps it’s the moment when a character must make an important decision. I thought I’d take this opportunity to explore short story writing and that all important “moment in time”. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from studying the art of writing the short story:

1. Theme is everything. What is your story about? I’m not talking the events of the plot, but the ideas a writer wants to convey. A writer of a short story wants to explore a theme and pass her interpretation of that theme on to her readers. For example in my story “Hometown Hearts” I wanted to explore the idea of going back to live in the hometown that wasn’t always a happy place for you when you were a kid. Can you go home again? In “The Way to a Man’s Heart” I wanted to know if two people who had been best friends since childhood could risk that friendship to become a couple. Can friendship survive love? A clear theme throughout the story will resonate with readers and help the writer sort out what to include and exclude in her story.

2. An effective short story covers a very short amount of time. The time span covered in “Hometown Hearts” is brief; the evening of Jamie’s class reunion when she meets Chris again after so many years, and then later at the fire station, where Jamie returns the jacket she’d spilled soda on. It may be tempting to write extensively about your character’s background, family, friends, etc. but resist the urge. Remember this is a moment in time. Save your deeper explorations for your novel.

3. Start with a bang. A catchy opening line is critical in short story. Dennis G. Jerz says “the first sentence of your short story should catch your reader's attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end. “ Draw your reader in with your opening and it will hook them for the rest of the story.

4. Make every word count. A short story has no words to waste. Eliminate passive verbs, unnecessary dialogue tags, and any words or passages that don’t contribute to your overall theme. It may be tempting to give poetic descriptions of people and settings, but if these explanations don’t add to theme, or create emotion or conflict, delete them.

5. Too many characters spoil the short story. Use only as many characters as necessary to tell your story. Every additional character brings their own personalities, their own storylines, and can take focus away from your main characters and the story and theme you want to tell. A short story doesn’t have room for subplots and casts of thousands. Remember, a moment in time. Like novel writing, you need to know much more about your characters than you’ll every reveal in your short story. Dennis G. Jerz gives a list of characteristics to consider in “Ten Tips for Creative Writers” when deciding who your character is.

This is only a brief outline of things to keep in mind when writing a short story. Short story writers also need to consider elements of plot, conflict, and characterization that are essential to longer fiction. The important thing to remember is that whereas a novel may portray a character’s entire life, the short story picks one important moment out of that life and shines a beacon of light on it. A Moment in Time.

Have you written short fiction? Do you enjoy reading short stories? What do you find are the differences, and challenges, in writing short fiction as compared to a full-length novel?

To celebrate being part of this blog carnival I have two prizes today. I am giving away one copy of “The Cupid Diaries: A Moment in Time” and one copy of my latest novella “Burning Love”. To be eligible to win please answer this very difficult question: What are the names of my two short stories included in “The Cupid Diaries: A Moment in Time”? Be sure to leave your email address in your comment. To fool the Internet trolls, use "at" and "dot" instead of the symbols, as in jana dot richards at hotmail dot com. Two names will be chosen at random from all the correct answers.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Re-TREAT

Note: Click here to see this week's guest blogger, which was posted on Wednesday - An Interview with JULIE GARWOOD!

It is that time of year again when the Saskatchewan Romance Writers get together for their annual writing retreat (no, not at the location shown in the photo--wouldn't that be nice!). As a new member of SRW this is my first opportunity to attend. I have to tell you that I am both excited (Yay, uninterrupted writing time!) and nervous (What do you mean no interruptions—what will I use as an excuse!?!).

I am not sure what to expect; I've never attended anything like this before. It wasn’t until a week or two ago that I realized none of the discussions we had or information emails I received mentioned the cost of internet access. When I asked about it I found out that most rooms at the abbey don’t actually have internet.

NO INTERNET!! But…how will I research? And it has been so long since I looked a word up in an actual dictionary (vs. the online variety) I don’t have a clue what unpacked box to start looking in. I’m not sure I’ve ever owned a Thesaurus, but thinking about writing without one has set me in a panic. And how will I check my email? Monitor my blog posting? Message my friends? Skype my sister? Update my Facebook status? Surf YouTube?

Ok, so clearly I have some issues with concentration and I lack the ability to stay on track when I’m writing. Maybe I like to procrastinate (just a bit)—it is, after all, so much easier than writing. I’ll admit that I have used at least one of the above excuses to avoid my plotting problem instead of working through it. I’m guilty of reading someone else’s story because mine isn’t progressing the way I would like. A time or two (or is that all the time…) I’ve spent the afternoon searching for a job that will allow me more time to write since I never seem to get anywhere in the time I have (you can see the pattern here I’m sure).

I guess I should work on my discipline. I’ll have to research tips on that later…

Back to my original worry—how will I research my story if there is no internet at the abbey? Well, that’s the thing. It isn’t a research retreat, it’s a WRITING retreat. The whole point of being there is to be free of ALL distractions and to spend the time putting actual words down on paper (or on the screen). The research I need to do for the plot of the story has been completed. There are always other things to research, but at this point in my story I don’t have to worry about them. I just have to get the story out. Then I can polish it with those little details that make a story better. Right now is the time for writing and I’m so glad I’m going to the retreat to do it.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to go away, but it isn’t something everyone can do. You can still 'treat' yourself to some uninterupted writing time, whether it is a weekend, a day, or just a few hours on a Saturaday afternoon. Here are a few ideas to help you stick to the task at hand.

1. Pick a date ahead of time – if you don’t pick a date for your retreat, it likely isn’t going to happen.
2. Plan to be away - do everything you would do as if you were actually leaving town so you don’t have to struggle with the guilt of not completing regular chores like grocery shopping
3. Tell your family and friends – share your plans with them so they can stay out of the way or maybe even help keep you on track (if you are lucky, they might even cook for you!)
4. Disconnect from technology – unplug your DSL or shut off your wireless, don’t answer the phone, turn off the television
5. Set a writing goal – don’t forget to keep your goal SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound) so you can measure your success when the weekend is over
6. Celebrate your success – take time to pat yourself on the back for everything you’ve accomplished during your retreat

Good luck writing everyone!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Welcome Guest Blogger Liz Flaherty

Thank you so much for inviting me to contribute to Prairie Chicks—what a great blog! I am thrilled to be here.

Despite an alarming tendency toward prudishness and an inability to drop the f-bomb unless I’m truly, truly ticked off, I am a fairly modern woman. Back in the 60s, I’d have been first in line to burn my bra if anyone had asked me. When Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman, hear me roar,” it was me she was singing to.

Although I liked reading about the 1800s, I never wanted to live then. Those long dress and multi-petticoats wrapping around a woman’s legs no matter what she was doing, not to mention that she did virtually everything only to be told every time she turned around where “her place” was—well, I just wasn’t having any of that, thank you very much.

When, after reading hundreds of romances (sound familiar?) I made the blithe decision that, hey, I could probably do that (sound even more familiar?) it was to contemporary I turned. Three published—and more unpublished ones than I care to talk about—books later, I still love contemporary. Even more than that I love Women’s Fiction. So much I capitalize it when I write the words.

But one day I was at the family farm where my brother and sister-in-law live and I looked at the concrete steps that led down to a flattened area in the hilly lawn. The flat space was where the interurban train that ran between the small towns in the community used to go right through the yard.

And I thought...hmmm….

It would be fun, maybe, to write a story about the building of the interurban. So I went to the library. Many sunlight-deprived hours later, I had a story. I found the germ of it in The 1875 History of Miami County and went on from there. It had nothing to do with the interurban, but I didn’t care. It captured my imagination and my heart and the tips of my typing fingers and before I knew it, Home to Singing Trees was born.

Liam and Sarah’s story is about second chances for two people who richly deserve them. It’s about families and working together and overcoming things you think just can’t be overcome. It will be released by Wild Rose Press on October 15 (it will be in both electronic and print formats, but the date on print is tentative) and I am so excited. Here is a teaser of an excerpt—there should be a graceful way to segue to that, but I haven’t found it yet!

He felt the warmth of her skin through the thin fabric of her shirtwaist, and the scent of roses was even stronger when she was in his arms. Her curly hair tickled his nose, and he brushed it away, allowing his hand to linger on the silky tresses.

She is so soft, and it’s been so long since I’ve felt this kind of softness, or even wanted to.
When she finally drew away, he was reluctant to let her go, sorry for the space she placed between them on the wooden step.

“Is it all right,” he asked, “that I call you Sarah?”

With that question, he felt her withdrawal become not only physical but mental and emotional as well.

“Of course,” she said, her voice colorless. “You are my employer, after all.”

Liam was struck with the abrupt and unsettling realization that being Sarah Mary Williamson’s employer wasn’t enough. He didn’t know what else he could be; even in the wilds of Indiana, employers and servants didn’t marry, and the liaisons they did enjoy were hardly the kind he would ask of Sarah.

Maybe, he speculated, they could be friends. He had other female friends, like Amy Waite, the daughter of Gilead’s most prosperous merchant and the teacher of the lower grades at the school. And there was Sue Anne Klein, who had come to visit her aunt and uncle, the Shoemakers. Only Sue Anne wanted to be more than friends.

He looked at Sarah’s hazy profile in the darkness, at the set of her firm chin and broad shoulders and remembered that she hadn’t felt firm or broad at all in his arms.


It would do.

For starters.

Come visit me at I’ll draw a name from the commenters on this blog and send you a copy of my last book, The Debutante’s Second Chance. Thanks so much for coming by and I wish you happy reading days.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wit, Wonder, Wisdom

When I was a little girl, there was a column in the Niagara Falls Review by Winnifred Somebody - the name will come to me. Her daily column was entitled Wit, Wonder and Wisdom. I was fascinated by it. The column was made up of bits and pieces.

If you were hoping for a themed column with a logical progression from opening statement to conclusion, you are out of luck. I have been reading about writing all week and I am about to present you with what wit, wonder and wisdom bitys and pieces I gathered.

Stokes. Her name was Winnifred Stokes. See?

First, one of the WWWs I thought about myself. Conflict drives the plot. Conflict drives the  writer crazy. If he falls in love with her and vice versa, early in the story, you have a big problem. What are you going to do about conflict now? Yet, characters won't wait on you. Sometimes, they are determined to take the lead and leave you without any conflict. Then they sneer and say, "What are you going to do now"?

  Internal Conflict

I always have trouble with internal conflict. I usually forget all about it - in my story that is.
I have been presented with a real life internal conflict just this week. There is a wannabe flower bed across the front of our house. The tulips are fantastic and thereafter, it just looks like what it is: very dead dirt struggling to grow something and even weeds aren't very interested. I painstakingly (my arthritis is killing me) got down on my knees and carefully skirting the tulip bulbs, dug out all the dead dirt (which I spread on the dead lawn). I then blended my own earth mixture of compost, peat moss and whatever stuff and additives lying around and built up the flower bed. The internal conflict: I want to plant ferns, which I love. The neighbour has announced that she hates them. BIG internal conflict. Do I plant ferns and there goes the neighbourhood? Do I plant iris, as she prefers, and  (to thine own self be true) see myself as a total wimp?
You just gotta know don't you? Well, I have decided to plant alternate ferns and iris - not because it is a compromise setting my internal conflict at ease, but because I procrastinated and half the ferns died.

 Wisdom - from somebody else (or is this wit?)

"Over the years, I have come to terms with procrastination. I know the sink needs to be cleaned and toe nails have to be clipped, so I don't beat myself up or suffer any guilt; instead, each day, I jump fully into that day's procrastination". This author is my kind of lady.

Getting started  (or Getting from the kitchen table to the computer)

In one book, there are pages of notes like the admissions of the procrastination lady, telling how writers get started. In short, bits of wisdom you may take or leave

1. They all need coffee first. No tea drinking writers I guess.
2. They get the kids to school, thereby avoiding any questions from them, such as: "Mommy, will you come to my tea party?" This, as we have seen, mommy can't do and be a writer too
3. Some have special clothes they have to wear or their muse won't recognize them I guess.
4. Like Anita and her cave, they all have a special place to write. Mine is a space in the basement with walls lined with clippings and photos, including one of our dog having a stroke.
5. One writer, like me, has been blocked for months. She determined she would write for 15 minutes every day to build up her writing muscles. Now, she puts her contacts in so she can't go back to bed, makes said bed, has a second cup of coffee, sits down and writes all day.
Diana Gabaldon offered the same advice at the Surrey conference (not the contact bit -  especially if you don't wear contacts). She said you just have to start somewhere and just do it. Make a habit of it. Write every day.

When the Muse says, "Let's take a break," (I don't have a muse, so that decision is mine alone) I play Freecell for awhile, or eat Rainbow Jello Parfait, until the non-muse gives me a load of guilt.

  Sexual Awareness or Tension

Actually, this has nothing to do with whether your husband/wife is home or not. However, romantic novels are made up of sexual awareness and/or tension, and there are rules (apparently - at least in this book) for them.
1.From the first time they meet, the hero and heroine must be aware of each other. This awarenss grows and expands until finally, it leads to the resolution.
2. The hero and heroine must be together as much as possible, and when they aren't, the absent one must be kept in the reader's mind through memories, yearning and so on and so forth.
3. When they are together, their feelings must take on a different aspect, e.g. their emotions will strengthen, shake, threaten and finally solidifying the relationship.
4. The senses of the hero and heroine are sharpened when they are together. Whether they are having a fight or about to make love, sexual tension escalates with each scene. (Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher)

Lairds and Lords

I recently read a romance in which the heroine was not beautiful and another in which the hero was so plain, she wouldn't notice him in the supermarket even if she was desperate for a hero. Spolied as I am by gorgeous lairds and ladies with swan necks, I didn't enjoy them as much as novels with the impossibly broad shoulders and square jaws. and heroines with generous busts.

Recently, I saw a picture of a real laird. No wonder writers go for swan necks and square jaws! This laird, from the ground up, was downright ugly. His legs were spindly and bowed. His kilt looked as if it was pressed by someone who absolutely loathed kilts ad lairds. His waist coat demonstrated what a beer belly really looks like. His cutaway coat shouldn't have been. His shoulders were so sloped and narrow, he could have walked through a picket fence. He wouldn't make it to the bottom of page one if he was to be the hero of a good old fashioned Scottish laird romance novel. Writers have to create their own worlds. Fortunately, Hayley has given us instructions on how to create a world sans bowlegged lairds.

I hope this bit of Wit (well not really), Wonder (does she know what she is talking about?) and Wisdom (fill in your own or borrow from a book as I did) has given you some new ideas or removed forever some not-so-good ones. Conflicts anyone?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Friday's Guest Blogger Liz Flaherty

This week on Wildcard Friday we welcome my fellow Wild Rose Press author Liz Flaherty. Liz will talk about the move from writing contempories to historicals, and what persuaded her to do so.

Check out Liz's website at See you Friday!

An Interview with JULIE GARWOOD!

The following is a compilation of questions from you, the readers of Prairie Chicks. Julie was kind enough to answer them all. Thank you everyone for your contributions and a very special thank you to Julie Garwood for taking the time to stop in!

Julie will be checking the comments so make sure you say hello!

Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
Just about everywhere. I'm always finding stories in things I see and hear. I was once sitting at my son's football game and envisioned medieval warriors going to battle. My imagination kicked in, and before I left the stands, I had an idea for a historical novel.

Q: How do you organize your various projects? What does your working/writing schedule look like?
I wish selling more books meant you had more time to write, but it's just the opposite. I find that much of my day is taken up with business matters, marketing, contracts, etc., so I've had to separate my writing time. For me, that's early in the morning. It's a routine that actually began at the beginning of my career. When my children were young, I'd get up before they did and spend an hour or two writing. I'm still a morning person and I try to get in several hours before turning my attention to other matters. Of course, when a deadline is looming, that schedule might change considerably, but my ideal situation is to write in the morning and by mid-afternoon be free to handle everything else.

Q: Was it difficult for you to get that first novel published?
No. I was so, so lucky. I had attended a reception following a local writers' conference and at the end of the evening met a literary agent who asked about what I was writing. I described a story about a medieval knight that I was working on, and she told me it sounded like a historical romance. I wasn't even sure what that meant exactly. I also told her about a little book I was working on for younger readers. She asked me to send them to her, so I did. It wasn't long before she told me she had sold them to two different publishers.

Q: What do you consider the most successful way to promote your books?
I think the Internet is the best way to reach people these days. There are so many sites for readers, and it costs next to nothing to get word out about your book. I also think every author should have a web site.

Q: What are you working on right now?
I'm at the beginning stages of my next book, and it's a little early to tell much. It's not that I'm being guarded about it, but I've found sometimes I'll be surprised at the direction a story goes, and I'll make changes. So I like to have most of it written before I talk about it. I can say this: it's another contemporary romantic suspense novel, and I'm liking the characters very much.

Q: How do you handle revisions and polishing before submitting the finished product? When is enough enough?!
That's a really big question. Every time I send a manuscript in, I wish I could take it back and rewrite it. I'd probably hang on to it forever to polish it, but the deadline forces me to let it go. I envy any writer who submits a book that she believes is perfect.

Q: I have read all the historicals at least once and more often twice. Did you plan them as a series or write more as the idea struck?
I don't really follow a master plan for a series. Most often, as I'm writing one story, I become intrigued with some secondary character and want to find out what happened to him/her, so I bring that character back for another story.

Q: While I enjoy your contemporary novels, I LOVE your historical ones--are there any plans to introduce more of the historicals?
I love the historicals too. The contemporary novels, however, have a much broader audience, so the publishers have asked for more of these. Right now I'm committed to writing several contemporary novels, but I hope to return to medieval Scotland before too long.

Q: Do you have a favourite out of all your books? Do you have any favourite characters?
That's like choosing a favorite child. They're all special to me for different reasons, mostly having to do with what was going on at the time I was writing them. I guess I'm usually most partial to the one I'm working on because it's demanding all of my attention.

Q: What challenges have you faced in writing more than one genre? Did your editors/agents discourage you from this? Do you have a preference for one of the genres?
Actually, my publishers had been asking me to write a contemporary novel for a while, and I was a little hesitant. I so loved researching and coming up with historical plots, I resisted the change. But then I wrote Heartbreaker, and I really liked the experience and the change of pace. If I lived in a perfect world, I'd be able to write several at once, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet.

Q: Many historical writers pick a time period (i.e. Regency) and base the majority of their novels in that period. Your historical novels are set in a number of different time periods. How do you decide the time period your story will be written in? Do you research a time period and then the story comes to you or do you have a story in mind and then research the time period?
I was a history major in college, and my favorite period was the Middle Ages. After I wrote a couple of books in this era, I decided to branch out, so I wrote several Regency novels. They have a whole different feel to them. I think of these as more light-hearted because society then was a little pompous and silly. Then I came up with an idea for a western based on what I had read about the orphan trains, and I became so attached to the characters in FOR THE ROSES, I had to write a story for each of them. So, I guess you could say I tend to go where my imagination leads me. Usually, I come up with a story idea first, then I do the research.

Q: For several years, I had been hopping from novel to short story to nonfiction to poetry in no particular order. I finally decided I should stick to longer fiction exclusively for a while, but occasionally hanker to dip into another genre. Do you write exclusively in one genre from start to finish, including the revisions that come back from your editor? Or do you work on more than one simultaneously? How do you guard against "cross-contamination"? Also how do you keep your focus?
I focus on one at a time, though usually by the time I finish it, I'm jotting down plot ideas for the next one.

Q: What advice on writing would you give to unpublished writers?
Keep working and keep improving your craft. Even if you don't get the approval of a publisher at first, find ways to share your writing with others. Writers organizations, critique groups, etc. will give you an audience. I also encourage you to attend writers' conferences where you'll get the chance to network with agents and editors.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Now that I'm finally preparing to send out query letters, my anxiety has begun to build as I imagine it getting deleted after only the first paragraph is read. In The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, he outlines the various problems that result in most manuscripts getting launched, unread, into the slush pile. One of the chapters I found interesting was on "Sound", or what most of us would refer to as “Rhythm”.
Prose, like music, has a rhythm. Sentences and paragraphs can be grammatically correct, yet sound distasteful, even offensive. The craft of writing is more than grammar and awareness of technical aspects of structure; it includes a feeling, a sound embedded within the words, sentences and paragraphs. Much like the difference between the musician who is technically perfect, and the one who plays with his heart; the distinction is often so subtle it is difficult to even describe.
Poor grammar and improper sentence structure is usually the most easily recognizable rhythm problem. But sound problems plague both beginner and established writers. Ugly consonants and vowels or odd sounding echoes can easily go undetected by even the most discerning ear, especially if minds are focused on plot, characterization, and setting.
Most writers need to have a basic awareness of how to divide sentences; specifically to understand the proper use of the semicolon, colon, dash and parenthesis. For a great rundown on these, check out the UOttowa website.
Next is to check for Echoes. The most common echo problems are found when a) a character’s name is repeated too frequently; b) when the words “he” and “she” are used too often; and c) atypical words occur too regularly throughout the piece.
Now it’s time to screen for Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the first letter of a word in the first letter of the word immediately following. Alliteration is dramatic, and should be used sparingly. If overused, it can give the prose a childish, rhyming feel.
Resonance refers to the way sentences resound to the reader, such as when a short sentence is sandwiched between two longer ones. The short sentence will resonate differently than the long ones, but not necessarily in a good way.
With your assessment complete, now it’s time to intervene:
Sometimes fixing something as elusive as sound is difficult, especially when we are so intimately tied to our creations. This is when we turn to beta readers or critique partners to take a look, asking specifically for their comments on sound. We might ask them to keep an ear out for poorly divided sentences, echoes and anything else that jumps out.
Read your manuscript aloud. This is a secret I’ve recently discovered, especially when I had my query letter written out loud in front of a few people. If your first reaction to hearing your own prose is to cringe, you know you have some work to do.
Cut, cut cut! That’s right, cut the offensive sounds out completely so at the very least the reader isn’t distracted by a poor sounding passage. How to write harmonious-sounding prose is a whole other issue altogether.
Simplify. Complex writing does not equal complex thinking, with perhaps the opposite is true. It is far more difficult to find a concise, straightforward way to describe complex thought than it is to ramble. Spare prose is the goal.
Poets are sometimes the most efficient at writing prose because of their close attention to the sound of the language. The end result is usually beautiful writing; both to read and to hear. Take some time to read poetry, paying close attention to the words, phrases and stanzas. Now take the first five pages of your manuscript and reformat it so it reads like a poem - placing stanza breaks in the appropriate location, and removing or adding words as necessary to improve sound. Afterward, put the paragraph back together and take a look. Should some of the changes you made be implemented? Can you make things tighter, more concise? Do you need to expand on a thought?
If you have the time, take a few minutes to rearrange a paragraph in your current WIP so it reads like a poem, and place it in the comment section of this post. Then step back and review it for sound. Does anything jump out at you? How does it sound? Will you implement any of the changes?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Suspense, Mystery, Love, and Loss

I have given myself an assignment to write about these four topics in the context of a movie I have just seen. To complicate the task, I know that when more than one of these elements are present in a novel or a movie there may be a wide range of consequences. Here are a few examples:

** Suspense – Typically, this is the traditional thriller where elements of the unknown lead one or more characters on a journey of discovery, checking out facts and following clues to try to come to an understanding of what seems to be unexplainable. There may be scary bits with darkness, strange noises, perhaps a haunting, but above all there will be heaps of tension. If the main characters are a man and woman who are trying to get to the bottom of the situation together or who meet while one of them is on this journey, then we might have a romantic suspense. The underlying evil must be exposed, and there must be a resolution to the romantic tension. In other words, two kinds of “happily ever after” are necessary for a satisfactory conclusion.

** Mystery – There doesn't seem to be much difference between the categories of suspense, thriller, and mystery. But if the element of crime is introduced, there is immediately the elevated sense of danger that is associated with murder, blackmail, abduction, or drug lords, to cite a few examples. While ordinary citizens or wannabe private investigators may get involved, usually these cases are dealt with by the police or other special enforcement units. There may be romance involved in these stories, too, as we occasionally see on the CSI TV shows, or hinted at on Castle where a mystery writer is allowed to participate in police investigations which are led by a female detective, providing him fodder for his research!

** Love – This word conjures up the whole gamut of romance, but specifically can also include love for a child, a parent, or a friend. It may be first love, married love, love affairs, unrequited love, etc. etc. The list would be long if we tried to enumerate all the kinds of love that might exist in a novel or movie.

** Loss – Combine this with any of the other elements and we have occasion for grief over the disappearance or death of a loved one. There will be suspense or mystery when an infidelity, a theft, or deception is suspected. Once aroused, suspicion and doubt feed fear and anger; tension heightens until the lost is found or a resolution is reached.

These then are some of the elements that writers may introduce in their stories to add a layer of tension to the plot and to provide conflict between the characters. Always the objective is to keep readers turning the pages or viewers glued to the screen. Check out the techniques recommended in this article by Simon Wood:
9 Tricks to Writing Suspense Fiction.

Now to get on to the movie that suggested these topics in the first place. On the weekend, I watched The Other Man, which is described in the blurb as a “gripping suspense thriller.” Richard Eyre, the director who also co-wrote the screenplay, calls it a love story. Liam Neeson plays “a man obsessed with uncovering the truth surrounding his wife’s (Laura Linney) disappearance. After stumbling across clues that take him to the streets of Milan, he tracks down his wife’s charismatic lover (Antonio Banderas).” What follows is a twisted trail of revenge-seeking and revelations of a side of his wife that he never knew existed.

It was fascinating to see how the information needed by the viewer was released bit by bit. The tension rose as the husband’s obsession grew with each discovery he made. In the director’s commentary, Eyre noted that a certain amount of exposition is always necessary in a movie -- to set the scene and provide enough background to the story to engage the viewer. In this instance, the opening scene is the image of water, which eventually includes a hand trailing in the water over the edge of a motorboat, and the figure of the wife is revealed – but no other person in the boat can be identified. The scene then shifts to a fashion show in Milan, where shoes designed by the wife are being modelled. This scene also introduces her husband and daughter (Romola Garai), neither of whom indicate that they are in any way enthralled by the fashion world, though they are supportive of her.

One of the early scenes is between Neeson and Linney in a Milan restaurant where the dialogue provides some of the exposition Eyre mentions. It also establishes that they are comfortable discussing their relationship, until she asks a couple of surprising questions: “Can two people live their whole life together?” and “Don’t you ever wish you could sleep with someone else?” Now we know that the film is going to be about fidelity. From that point on, suspense and tension build with each succeeding scene. For every detail revealed, much is withheld until the right moment is reached.

I don’t want to provide any more details that would serve as spoilers for anyone who wishes to see this movie which came out in 2008 (on DVD in 2009). It was shot on location in England and Italy, as well as on studio sets. Scenes shot on the streets and in the buildings of Milan certainly add to the atmosphere. The cast is excellent, although some reviewers thought that their talent was wasted on a story that was tagged as “melodramatic” by one, and “lightweight” by another. The screenplay is based on a short story written by Bernhard Schlink, a German author who also wrote the novel on which the movie The Reader was based. A writer friend and I enjoyed the movie, and enthusiastically listened to the actors and director talk about why they thought it was worth making.

Do you watch movies with an eye to how well the writers and directors build tension and conflict into the plot through suspense and mystery, and how well the characters are portrayed by the actors? What is the best movie you have seen lately that falls into one or more of these categories?