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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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.

Writing Tips

Welcome to Synopsis Camp!

IMG_2493What is more painful than writing a synopsis? Writing a blog post about writing synopses. Just kidding not really. While on an editor panel, I promised to write this post and I’m glad I did. From the bottom of my heart, I feel that banging out that synopsis is essential–and easy.

Let’s just get it out of the way, that every writer tells me, “I can’t write a synopsis.” And I can’t eat pickled beets unless you give me money, which is what my mother and brother did once. Seriously, you can write a synopsis. If you can write a book, you can write a synopsis. Remember high school, college? It’s a matter of getting into the right head space and practicing. I don’t blame you for complaining. I have to write synopses, too, and I do plenty of whining about it. Then I realize what a skill it is: being able to summarize your work.

One thing to note: Editors need that synopsis. They have to pitch your story to higher ups. We might even require a refresher if we haven’t looked at your book in a few weeks. There are so many books that we read between your submission and that second or third read. A synopsis turns out to be a handy guide to your story. It introduces everyone to the basics.

But how do you write a dry synopsis on a story you are so passionate about? It can be done, I swear. If we can survive the elements, reality television, and the presidential campaign, we can tackle this onerous task.

Because I hate writing synopses myself, I’ve devised a handy way to get through the pain. Maybe it’ll help you, too.

  1. Choose two days where your goal is to write the synopsis. No other writing, no other big projects. Just the synopsis.
  2. Write a logline, a one-sentence summary of your story, two sentences tops. Encapsulating your premise into one neat sentence is a talent and one you can show off when you pitch your story. You will use that logline over and over again.
  3. Prepare yourself psychologically for the longer synopsis. Editors have different requirements, but I like to ask for a five-page synopsis, double spaced. If you can do this, you’re in great shape. Line up your pencils, hydrate, and say, “I can do this.”
  4. Break down your synopsis into three parts. Act I, Act II, and Act III–but don’t label them as such in your synopsis. It’s easier to write a synopsis when you think of it in smaller segments. Never write a chapter by chapter breakdown. These are hard to follow.
  5. Write Act I in the morning. You have that surge of energy, you’ve had your coffee, so get out those first 500 words. You’ll be shocked at how little time this takes.
  6. Take a few hours off. Let Act II percolate in your head. Eat lunch. Have another coffee and then go at it. Get the middle of the story down in lovely prose. No need for gimmicks, just the story as if you were telling someone about it. Think generalities. Think that annoying paper that you’re writing for school. Readable, engaging writing that will inform the editor.
  7. Reward yourself. Watch an episode of your favorite show. Eat a Snickers and/or Cheese Puffs (see picture).
  8. It’s late afternoon, when you’re almost ready to call it a day. Maybe you want to take a nap, but you have one last item on your to do list: Act III. Make it dramatic and exciting! You’re on the home stretch!
  9. You did it. Was that so hard? Maybe, if you think mowing the lawn is hard. It’s just not something you want to do, but you did it because it needed doing. If you didn’t have a Snickers before, you deserve one now.
  10. Forget about your synopsis for the rest of the night. Sweet dreams! They will be sweet because you accomplished this one little yet crucial part of the writing process.
  11. Wakey, wakey! Don’t you hate it when people say that? I do, too, but not so much since I finished a synopsis. After breakfast or whenever the neurons start firing, go over your synopsis, revise it, edit it, then look over it five more times throughout the day. Remind yourself how awesome you are for writing a synopsis, which all of us hate to do.
  12. You are now done–and a new graduate of Synopsis Camp. For good measure and because this is a heinous chore, reward yourself often.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to go over your work, but the hardest part is often getting the words down. As a writer, though, you’re used to that, right? In conclusion, I’ll let you in on a secret. The synopsis is important, though many of editors don’t love reading them. It is truly a guide. The most important part is your voice, your story. But we still want the synopsis. 🙂

Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Romance Pet Peeves: The Shefani Edition

gwen and blakeIn this age of negatives, I need balance, so please forgive–or love–my special combination of romance writing “pet peeves” and my latest obsession: the Gwen Stefani/Blake Shelton relationship. I haven’t been the same since November 4, 2015, when their couplehood was confirmed. No doubt, I see these peeves as a neon light (wink wink), which will brighten up your romance novel:

1. He knew… She realized… He wondered. The first time Blake saw Gwen in her flapping plaid paper-towel dress, he knew he’d have trouble resisting her. This sentence is not hella good (wink). Every now and then it’s okay for your characters to know, realize, or wonder. More often than not, the reader wants to see how Blake has trouble resisting her. Does he turn away and focus more on his bromance with Adam Levine? Does he wish he’d worn something nicer than his jeans and plaid shirt* from yesterday? Is he sweating or having trouble speaking?

Here’s another example: Gwen sat on the plane. She realized that she’d forgotten her Urban Decay makeup kit. Of course, her natural beauty would allow her to face the outside world, but still. She knew she had to keep a better To-Do list. Again, I’d rather experience the stress Gwen endures when she doesn’t find her makeup kit. It’s a bummer when you’re about to land, photographers are just waiting to see you not perfect, and you are used to being ready. I go through this every day…on a much smaller scale. Sure, I can realize I forgot to put on lipstick, but I’d rather show the reader how my pulse increases when I open my purse and don’t find my Kat Von D lipstick. I bolt for the closest Duane Reade and run up and down the aisles, then grab a coral lip gloss, which is good enough (but not Kat Von D).

2. So many qugwen-stefani-zoom-87aae920-0a3a-4769-b671-151aeb9b7975estions are annoying in life–and in romance novels, especially in a character’s point of view. See here:

The limo took Gwen from the private plane to Blake’s million-acre ranch in Oklahoma. It was her first trip. What would she find? Would her waterproof foundation and mascara survive country life? Would Blake approve of her red stiletto boots killing his tomato plants? Oh God, will he ask her to clean up horse poop?

Nothing ruins a visit home faster than family peppering you with questions, and you don’t want to do this to your reader. The reader is supposed to be asking these questions herself and letting the story guide her to the answers. As a writer, why not convey Gwen’s feelings over seeing her love interest for the first time on his turf? This will develop her character for the reader. And as far as I’m concerned, Gwen can wear her red boots anywhere. Probably not on a subway grate.

3. Here a but, there a but, everywhere a but, but.

It’s natural to critique. You give a compliment, and then take it away with a “but.” Watch any talent show and you’ll hear constant use of “but.” You’re an amazing singer, but your Vibrato sucks. Without a “but,” you’re perfect. But here’s my problem. I see this kind of paragraph often, full of “buts”: On The Voice, Blake felt absurd without his cowboy hat and bullwhip, but he couldn’t bring it onto the set. He loved the money and free drinks, but he hated being under those blinding stage lights when fish and ducks and trucks better scurry when he takes Gwen onto his surrey with a fringe on top. But would she want that?  Watch those “buts,” people. It turns a character into a big whiner.

That’s enough silliness for today. Do these pet peeves mean a rejection letter? Not necessarily (maybe they mean the end of my sanity). Today, I let two “but” sentences go by without changing them because they worked side by side. Rules/editor preferences aren’t life.

Happy writing and let us pray that I find another obsession the next time I post. Like, maybe the presidential election? Just kidding.

*That’s all I wear outside of work so no judgment here. Actually, I just wear hideous pajamas.

Writing Tips

Pet Peeves…A Few Clichés

editingThis post is coming a little later than I’d planned. I got sidetracked by news of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck’s impending divorce. And a certain red-haired presidential candidate’s fiery comments about immigration. And how Kourtney and Kids are going to cope sans Scott. Oh, and my latest obsession with Vanilla Kreme donuts. I managed to crawl back into blog mode because a few items jumped out at me while reading romance these past few weeks. Here are some clichés I’ve seen so much, I have to call them pet peeves.

The soon-to-be-reunited exes never had problems in the bedroom. Are you kidding me? In a romance, one sort of has to imply that sex was always hot, but it might be refreshing to try realism — that as the relationship disintegrated, the–ugh–lovemaking* slowed down to ten times a week instead of thirty.

The hero is always raking a hand through his hair when frustrated. Does he ever find leaves? In some ways, it’s cool that guys fuss with their hair too, but the raking of hair in romance is like the jaw clench actors use to denote anger. Can’t he just have steam coming out of his ears? Or, in my family, there’s the exasperated sigh, which conveys severe frustration/disgust. When my husband is angry, he gets this wrinkle between his eyebrows (like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally…). This is a rough one, writers.

He fell for her like a moth to a flame. I’d like to be the flame in this metaphor because being the moth would suck. This phrase, I’m sure, just flows naturally from the fingers. For years, I let  it go, but I’ve been striking it out of manuscripts. What about: He fell for her like Marc Antony fell on his sword after hearing the Cleopatra was dead (I don’t think this is true, but you get the idea). Or He fell for her as one does during a case of vertigo when the barometric pressure changes. (This is why I don’t write romance)

One thing I’ll say–as much as I make fun of clichés, I do sometimes find them comforting. The familiar can be very soothing. At the end of the day*, it’s always good to be aware of clichés and investigate alternatives.

*This word is another pet peeve. Who says this unless perhaps in an editorial meeting, instead of rougher language.

**Another pet peeve. Cannot believe I’m using this so-ten-years-ago phrase!

Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Five Tips for Fine-Tuning Your Romantic Voice

17SCANDAL-superJumboAdmit it, you were expecting my Barry White impersonation. No such luck! Instead, after reading a whole pile of submissions, I’ve put together pointers for you as you write that proposal/manuscript/and even that Powerpoint presentation. I swear, I follow these tips when I have to talk to a group. Be thankful that I’m not singing. Others aren’t so fortunate.

Here we go:

1. Create intimacy with your reader. I love it when a writer’s voice invites me into the story, like I’m about to get some juicy insight into a character’s plight. This is the reason why I watch reality TV, as if I’m learning about a secret world–though I don’t always like what I see! Scandal is very good at showing us the scandalous behind-the-scene world of politicians. The more a writer does this–creates a connection, reveals–the more I want to read her book. I want that intimacy with your story. Show me what the characters are hiding.

2. Start in the right place. This is a tip I repeat over and over. Part of what stops me from reading is that the set-up can seem so ordinary. Boy meets girl. They hate each other on sight. Or, girl is intrigued by boy as they are assigned together. Boy goes to destination, meets girl, conflict ensues. Some of these set-ups are necessary, but to lessen the editor yawns, there must be excitement and tension. Take a chance and start your romance in a riskier place. Those too-easy set-ups are sometimes not the most effective.

3. Take time to flesh out a moment. I may be contradicting myself here. As you create the above mentioned excitement, be sure to expand upon those mundane moments. They can please an editor’s senses. I am a big fan of routine, descriptions of a person’s process (code for: food preparation; colorful portraits of nature, which are lacking in NYC; interesting wardrobe choices), and how one lives in everyday life. Show us how the heroine decorates her cupcakes (mmmm, cake!), how a cowboy/girl takes care of a horse, how a spy may agonize over what to pack. These tiny details reveal character. If you loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, you must have enjoyed passages about their daily chores. They are the reason I cleaned my room, joyfully did laundry, and enhanced my work ethic. I could have read those chapters on baking, sweeping, and walking to school forever. Don’t deprive the editor of those details! Also, don’t go overboard.

4. End chapters with a bang. One of the reasons why everyone read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code–aside from scintillating content–was because every chapter ended with a bang. You don’t need to give your reader whiplash, but the opening three chapters–and many chapters afterwards–should end with a crucial moment/question that leads the reader to the next page. I like the whole “this is the last thing I wanted” or “do you dare to take on this horrendous yet provocative assignment” type of situation. Also ask, what does your character want to avoid–then, make it unavoidable.

5. Stay focused on the purpose of your story (romance). As I read submissions, I can usually tell when even the writer gets tired of her story and just wants to get it done. It’s important to  find ways to revive your story, invest in it, keep those central themes in mind, believe in your characters. When I devour thrillers, which is often (hello, Harlan Coben), I love how the writers have at least four subplots going to augment the “Oh no” factor. Always remember the reason why you have to write this story.

There, I’ve solved everyone’s problems. Now it’s time to get back to it. I realize many of you are sad that I didn’t sing. I’ll make up for this here.