Writing Tips

Stand Out with Some Expertise

I’ll come out and say it. It’s not enough to be a wonderful person anymore–in life or in literature. I mean, it’s still great, but these days, a person, a character, even an idea needs to be grounded in some sort of knowledge or expertise. You can see the dearth of knowledge all over Twitter–lots of personality but often not much behind it other than arguing and a link*. It doesn’t take much to become a ten-minute phenomenon. This is why more and more, the way to stand out with a book and, I guess, as a person, is to put one’s nose to the grindstone, work, and keep learning.

This is why I love books. Books elucidate, inspire, and elevate. Sometimes, they can send you into dark territory. Though I must admit, I love that. If you want me to read on, scare me to bits.

With each book, at the very least, I expand my horizons, even if it’s a stinker. After twenty years of editing, I understand why certain books are bad or what is needed to fix them (often more editing). When I pick up a book, I think of the usual things: Who is the author? Why do people love this book? Why should I even read it? What will I discover? The plot might hook me at first, but the characters keep me going. I want to care about them as people. And these days, I want to know what they do–aside from being awesome characters who deserve love. What talents do they have? What keeps them from being blah?

This is where a writer needs to research and find a way to infuse the character with some kind of expertise. Maybe it’s an unexpected skill she acquires: the writer and the character in her story.

Here’s sort of an example of what I mean. Recently, I was asked to give a talk on overseas marketing. Do I know anything about this? No. In fact, I’d say I was the worst person to send to do this. But after twenty-six years of standing in front of people, I could definitely fake it. I can talk to anyone now**, but faking a speech would be just lame.

The solution was simple: for me to seek out the experts in the marketing field and get a lot of help. It meant watching less news coverage of our imploding world and fewer Housewives gallivanting in the Hamptons. So much the better because the information turned out to be fascinating, like how we sell books to different territories and the surprises about what themes are successful and what aren’t. When you learn something new, your enthusiasm shows and your audience appreciates it.

The experience built my confidence. And now I can say interesting things to someone new.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about expertise and how valuable it is to amass skills and information. It builds you as a person and, as a writer who researches myriad topics, your writing can’t help from benefit from this. When I read books, characters with skills win out over those who are bumps on a log. A heroine who is passionate about designing wedding dresses? Yes!  Especially winning is when the author does research and shows us in detail how the character creates her masterpieces. What about a medical examiner who has the truth about how a murder was committed? I’m so with her and want to understand science the way I didn’t bother to do in high school.

In romantic suspense, I learn a whole lot about law enforcement and how to hide one’s tracks (wear gloves, don’t leave hair behind). I also gravitate toward non-fiction to soak up new information, especially if about a skill/passion that I have (Joe Torre’s book on management, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). Then, there’s the book that shows off a writer’s research (Botany in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and gems and jewelry in Stoned by Aja Raden). Who knew I loved the plants I can’t help killing or that Japan created an empire of cultured pearls?  Not me!

In romance novels, you learn about the careers/backgrounds of two main characters (at least) and this brings the reader into a new world. I especially love books with military themes since that life is fascinating to me. I was speaking with an author recently who generally writes contemporary romance but loves to delve into historicals because the research is so much fun. Another author told me excitedly about her seminar with a forensic expert. I love writers and characters who know and can do things. They can perform surgeries, run ultra-marathons in bare feet, explore different time periods, serve in the military and write about it with knowledge and precision, just to name a few.

I get that it’s okay to read about a lovable person, too.

It helps us get in touch with the lovability in all of us. But it’s even more fun to become engrossed in someone whose pursuits may not always be inward focused. Your character is an investment for the reader. Do you want to read about someone who languishes on the couch and is generally nice? Or do you want to read about someone who is multi-faceted.

It is the difference between having a conversation with someone who talks about their feelings and someone who discusses their feelings and maybe also understand how a diamond goes from being carbon to rising to the earth’s crust.

For me, a story succeeds if your protagonist is more than just charming or a survivor of hardship. We all endure so much. Of course, a writer can bring out the unique elements of a universal experience. But it’s even more powerful if the main character has a gift of some kind: wacky intelligence, medical expertise, a legal mind, artistic genius, leadership, a caring nature that transforms others, deep knowledge of…something cool. This is more parallel to real life where we are all carrying around gifts in abundance.

*Did I mention I have a Twitter addiction and am endlessly scrolling and reading what everyone says. I really shouldn’t speak.

**Except for celebrities.

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Whining

Marriage Minutia in a Time of Chaos…

I’m trying to lighten up and not rage about politics, so while I’m taking a knee, yelling at the TV, and donating to relief efforts, let me offer this bit of annoying privilege.

In our early courtship days, when Sam asked me what I wanted for dinner, I started crying. That’s totally weird, and I didn’t expect this emotional response. How bratty that I can’t choose. Figuring out what to eat is like passing Econ 101 for me. I just can’t do it.

Because he’s so nice, Sam took over food preparation. We’ve been married for almost seven years and I’m very spoiled now.* We are happy, ebbing and flowing like any couple. He’s a social butterfly, which is fun to watch from my comfy corner of the party. On quiet nights at home, he likes our movie marathons. But food is his arena, not mine (except for Cheetos and dessert).

I won’t mention some of my concoctions, mostly involving ranch dressing and canned peas.

This semester poses a challenge. Sam has long hours this fall and I need to start cooking. There is no space for my cooking panic. In the grand scheme, this is nothing. Look at these hurricanes, these earthquakes, the floods, the chaos in government. We don’t even have children (or pets). I am fortunate to chop wood and carry water for him.

Still, there are neuroses to conquer. Let’s start with grocery stores. So full of delicious things, but so full of choices. What goes with what? The longer I walk up and down these cluttered aisles, the more I want to run home. You have to bring a list and plan. Grab a cart, dodge people, find the shortest line, and dart home. Repeat. Readers who grocery-shop (and with children) on a regular basis, you are heroic to me.

Last week, I made salmon, a monumental feat since I’m afraid of fish. Sam told me to cook it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. I cooked it for 30 minutes at 375 degrees just to kill any critters lurking inside. Progress.

It occurs to me that this is part of marriage, helping your spouse, and his happiness when he sees the laundry and dinner ready is so worth a million trips to the store. Though, he really doesn’t like my cooking. He pretends, like the prince he is.

Next stop: Cooking chicken or going vegan altogether.

*While knowing and appreciating every day how lucky I am.

Romantic Life Lessons, Shameless Promotion

Weekend at Williams College

I’m a firm believer that leaving the house is a good thing. Two weeks ago, at Williams College, I sp18033806_1841392116120242_235358556887425489_noke about my employer’s global marketing program at a conference about romance. Following this, I signed my book at Water Street Books, a lovely bookstore that is too friendly to be your typical college bookstore. Where were the shotglasses and school banners? Maybe they were there, but I was too focused on the wall to wall books.

Given my new fearless status when it comes to travel, this whole trip was a labor of love: hopping on a train and getting into a car with like-minded romance-aholics. I had the pleasure of talking with stars of the genre: Eloisa James, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Sonali Dev who writes Bollywood in a romance novel, Katy Regnery, Radclyffe of Bold Strokes Books, Alison Case who is a professor at Williams (and fellow Oberlin alumna!) to name a few. We had a blast, and not because of the constant Dunkin’ Donuts outside the lecture hall.

And now I’m packing for the RT conference in Atlanta. This is my first time going. Except, of course, I have three emergency edits to do. Is it me or are work and Crazy Life Events falling from the sky all at once? Well, this just means it’s time for chocolate and dessert.

 

Uncategorized, Whining

Still in the Rabbit Hole

I should be writing about writing or even editing but I confess to a one-track mind, as depicted on the most recent Real Housewives of New York City. 100% of the time, my life bears no resemblance to a housewife’s but this season, I feel Carole Radziwill‘s pain. In the first episode, she recounts going down the rabbit hole during the presidential campaign (and I assume afterwards since I check her twitter constantly). Friends, I’m still there, just like Carole. It’s hard to wean myself off news, especially with the Constant Chaos. And all the damn bombs! It’s like high school again, only the chubby psychopath* is launching missiles instead of dissecting a fetal pig in Biology class.

My self-destructive days are over, and I’m determined to climb out. Here is what I’ve done so far:

  • I went through all my shoes and threw out 7 pairs I haven’t worn in years. And bags. So many bags. Sad bags–gone.
  • You know that button that needs sewing on the shirt you never wear? Did that.
  • Volunteered for another project at work. It’s really dumb how I keep raising my hand and, sometimes, I regret it the instant my hand comes down. Work is a fabulous distraction–and it lasts longer than Designated Survivor. I figure that after twenty years, I sort of know what I’m doing no matter what the mental state. And this time, while I’m meeting deadlines, I actually feel good about being plugged in to the world.
  • I’ve cooked three meals since November. That’s better than 0, which was my score for most of 2009-2016 (i.e. the second Sam darkened my door). You know I’m desperate if I go to the grocery store and offer to make dinner. The pork chops were inedible. Still, overachieving in the food department.
  • I text and Snapchat my brother and high school friend Nici all the time now. Stupid stuff. Usually, I keep to myself. They must think I’m crazy.
  • The little things help every day: going to the gym, checking my Google alerts on Gwen & Blake’s relationship, watching/listening to Sam talk to his brother on the phone, bugging my mother,  a new fountain pen

And there’s the fact that I wrote my first blog post in three months. That’s another step forward (or backward if you’re reading this).  Here’s hoping for some peace and quiet in the world soon. And if not, I am ready–eyes and ears open. If you have any good tips on how to cope with current events, please share! Except giving up sugar is not an option….

*There is more than one, isn’t there?

Uncategorized

Happy 6th Anniversary to Us!

I never t10154130_1420895221503269_7061014535412761438_nhought I would meet the right person. By my early forties, I got tired of hearing, “It’ll happen when you least expect it.” I hate to say it, but this wound up being true! And I would add: My mind was blown by the surprise identity of my groom. You never know, and because this applies to many aspects of life, I have hope even as the world seems to be crumbling around us.

So Happy Anniversary to serendipity, the person you don’t see around the corner, persistence, the fight, and of course, to the fun and healing properties of l’amour.

I love you, Sammy from Miami, King of Hope and Joy.

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

Will Schwalbe Delivers Book and Life Inspiration at B&N Reading

I love going to readings. Last Thursday, I attended Will Schwalbe’s reading/signing for Books for Living, which will be a keeper on my shelf. What made this such a happy event was not only the author’s joyous energy, but also the communal love of books. There are few things more sublime than being surrounded by carefully put-together book nerds. The array of fashionable eyewear alone was impressive.

The author opened his talk with his nightmare: being at an airport on his way to Perth (far away) and not having a book to read. I might have suggested an Ambien to help with the panic, but I totally get it. Books are an intimate connection to multiple factions: words, the author, the author’s world, and yourself. It is an eternal relationship that goes from one mind to the next and becomes a collective affection.

He addressed several of his life-altering books, including The Odyssey and the subject of mediocrity. I mean, Odysseus wasn’t so great about getting home. You get it.

The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang became increasingly magical as Schwalbe relayed how this book affected his life, where he was when he read it and the lessons he learned.

There was a lovely bit of shade thrown at the tech obsessed. He mentions 1984 and how Orwell hadn’t foreseen that one big screen could become a million little screens and that we’d all be carrying them. We are the ones depriving ourselves of the pleasure of living.

After his fabulous talk, we got our books signed. Rocco DiSpirito was there, and he got to cut in line because he’s cute and famous. The big moral of this story is that I deviated from my routine and it fed the soul.

Many many raves and congratulations to Will Schwalbe and his new book which I can’t wait to read after I’m done with The Exorcist–don’t ask. For those who feel depressed by the state of the world, writers and readings are a way out of the rabbit hole. I left very inspired and recommitted to put new energy into loving books.

Writing Tips

Time Management is BS in 2017

146Who has time for Time Management? No one, because if you’ve attended meditation classes at the Shambhala Center, you understand that time is as ephemeral as harmonious interaction between Real Housewives. I prefer to think of Time Management as an exercise in “Orgasmic Sharpie Worship.”

We all know that the best part about “time management” is crossing that thing off your list. It’s more official if you use a black Sharpie. You lift off the cap, take a whiff–a medium one–and make that dark line through the task. There are so many books about time management (notice I’m not capitalizing it anymore), but should I state the obvious about that?

I’ve read several of these books and have decided to face my ever-dwindling minutes and overflowing assignments with pleasure, silliness, and just a touch of violence. We’re all going to die. Why not leave a bigger legacy behind?

While creating an exhaustive list is pointless, it can be a pleasure to see how important you are. You have a list–and you can mostly spell the things on it. As I do this, I think, how fabulous that I’m such a busy person! The longer the list, the less I’m likely to accomplish but it completes my daily self-sabotaging routine. Plus, some days I surprise myself.

The second pleasure is knocking out those easy things, like: waking up. Done!

Seriously, though, I am not so fatalistic, at least not before Thursday. I do have a real system that adds complexity and a sense of accomplishment to my day. I call it my Guerrilla Day. Since I’m five, I’ve used the term “Guerrilla warfare” without knowing what it means but it sounds cool, the way “literally” used to before the flood of literallys (with vocal fry) killed it. Lest I offend someone when I’m forty-eight, I looked up Guerrilla warfare and, indeed, I’ve been using it correctly. My MO is an irregular way to work, but I do sort of attack the day in a way that is both invigorating and exhausting. I’ve vowed to get more done this year. No gentle-ing of the work process or strategizing on how to be more productive. I just get stuff done, period.

My GD starts by marking down the hours I’m awake. Next to each hour, I put down three tasks to finish in that hour. I go down the list, leaving a one-hour break here and there. An hour will look something like this:

9:00 am:

  • Answer 5 more difficult work emails
  • Edit 30 pages
  • Iron 3 shirts

And so on until about 8pm. It’s a race, one I check over when the day is done. I leave two-hour blocks for meals, which helps me catch up when I fall short. Quality is not compromised, but the key is to make good use of the sun’s journey (I keep forgetting time doesn’t exist). Notice that I combine work with household tasks. And yes, I like to iron shirts, so that’s a pleasure.

It’s a fatiguing day considering that no one really works a full eight-hour day, much less an eleven-hour one*. You do need time to agonize over the state of your nails. But on some days, I don’t know about you, but I really need to get stuff done more desperately and this kind of insane day does it for me. On a GD, I will drink a lot of coffee, get myself to the gym during one of the breaks, and forge ahead without lingering in front of the TV. It helps me make deadlines and create better work habits.

One thing to note: Every day should not be like this. Only for those times when one needs to produce. And there are even times when GD moves even faster. After this, I take time to smell the roses.

Now, how did this veer away from Sharpie worship?

*Unless you’re really, really important.