Writing Tips

Easy Romance Writing Tips

In the last week, I read 40+ submissions. You may not believe this, but I love reading slush! It’s not fun to walk in when you’re wearing new shoes, but slush is an oft-tarnished term that means a submission from the publisher’s general pile. What’s wrong with that? Publishers need submissions to survive, end of story.

As I was reading, I noticed once again (as I do with non-slush pile submissions) easy fixes for those about to submit. So, before I forget, here are items you can revise in your sleep.

Clean up your synopsis. Let’s get out of the way that you can’t write a synopsis to save your life. We know that already–though some of you are pros at crafting a summary of your book. One tip is to be aware of how many times you begin a clause with “When”. Vary your sentences. Even if you can’t write a synopsis, do try to write a good one. 🙂

A comma of direct address sets you apart. Pet peeve alert! In the last ten years, maybe more, the comma of direct address has disappeared from many submissions. I don’t understand this. Or I do, but it’s still infuriating. For love of the English language, throw in that comma. I won’t say that leaving it out will make me reject a story, but…

Open your story in the right place. Often, there is an abundance of setup in the first few pages, which bogs down the pacing. I’m more interested in the voice, the character’s point of view as he or she experiences a remarkable event. I don’t care that she’s driving to a scene or getting ready for a party. I don’t need to know what she’s thinking as she goes up the hill in her Honda Civic, wondering if she’ll encounter her mean ex. I want her to be examining the zombie’s body and realizing it’s her lost husband. Some good examples of openings: The Morning Show, Mission Impossible 2, and The Bodyguard (the one on Netflix, not the Whitney Houston one).

Monitor your use of And, But, Actually, Apparently, especially at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs. Even with writers I’ve worked with for decades, I have to strike sentence misfires. It is so easy to start a sentence with And or But or He or She. And it adds to the flow of your paragraph. But it winds up sounding repetitive. And lazy! And did I say repetitive? At some point, you will need to go over every single word in your manuscript (don’t leave it to the editors). Be brave in getting rid of those easy words or at least use them sparingly.

So your villain calls your heroine a bitch. Do you envision a man with a twisty mustache, too? Since I first began reading romance novels, I encountered this same bad person. Forty years later, bitch is stale and dated. In the real world, don’t you think your villain would call her something…I don’t know…hard-hitting? Better yet, give your evil mastermind a creative way to insult the heroine. Think of Hannibal, who knew exactly how to push Clarice’s buttons without name-calling.

That’s all I’ve got on this Sunday. Happy Writing and those who are Nanowrimo-ing, keep on rocking those words! You can do it.

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

Hamilton

When Hamilton first appeared on Broadway, I didn’t care. My historian parents would soon discover its existence and make us see it anyway. As a late-forty-something and new iPhone addict, I no longer had the band-width for academic things. Plus, it seemed manipulative for a play to feed me American history. Why did I want to know more…about anything?

The buzz grew. As presidential candidates began their tap dancing, I heard you, Hamilton, and your room where it happens. Obama even went to see it, blessing it as the best thing to exist in this galaxy. At the office and on Facebook, friends treated Hamilton seats like winning the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. OMIGOD, you’re seeing it in eighteen months? You are so lucky! (You could die before then)

I rebelled against this peer pressure, which meant I had a budding interest. What a great time to be in theater ticket estate planning. When I croak, my nieces could inherit my Broadway tickets. Smug in my non-history-play-seeing (but still alert), I returned for my tenth viewing of Frankie Valli vowing to pay off his bandmate’s tax lien in Jersey Boys. Meanwhile the scent of 250-year-old treasury secretary wafted its way down to the West Village, at which point my mother, a famous historian, said, “Get us 6 seats, orchestra, anything in the next month.” Sure, Bonnie. I’ll do that.

For my mom, I’ll snooze my way through a history lesson with its creative rethinking of the birth of our nation. For Mom, I’ll even accept that Hamilton has a man-bun. But alas, my computer laughed me silly as I tried to purchase 6 seats together in the same year. That’s not only impossible, it’s the price of a Honda Civic circa 1991 (fact).

Mom and I said, “Whatever” to these results. We didn’t want to see it anyway. What’s this about non-Classical music in a period piece? We don’t even listen to hip hop (My iTunes purchases say differently). So, American history, hip hop, and a scarcity of tickets. No thanks!

All around me, the hype continued and I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda on shows, being happy and excited, not the least bit tired or jaded over being a sensation–again! He was in the thick of that wonderful genius bubble where you create something meaningful for the world. Damn him!

My friend from work finally went to see it and came back saying, “It’s nothing you’ve ever seen before. Another level.” Her review weighed on me. Another level means another level. I bought Ron Chernow’s book and started to read. The text was engrossing, as was LMM’s adorable book of uplifting tweets (600 pages shorter, tho). Add to this the synchronicity of my giving a Hamilton bill to my takeout delivery person multiple times per week.

But, people, my fever broke. I gave up pursuing the secret dream. Sort of like when I knew I wouldn’t be able to score a ride, shelter, and Duran Duran tickets in 1984.

When LMM did Hamilton in Puerto Rico, I saw it as a sign of renewal. Go. I even entered the contest to win a chance to fly to PR (I don’t like to fly) to see Hamilton. The realization took years to appear like a banner in my brain: I have to see Hamilton. I really have to see it. Over and over, I thought this. Tickets still too much. But I still have to go. I checked calendars. Asked my husband wouldn’t it be nice. No, he said. When the play Charlemagne opens, he’ll be there (he likes France).

Weeks went by. After a couple years of not wanting to go but secretly wanting to go. I started to think about going by myself. No follow through.

Last weekend, Sam and I were dying of boredom (it happens even when you love each other). He looked through the plays and clicked a few icons and said, “We’re seeing Hamilton tomorrow, 3 pm.”*

So.

Everyone was right. I won’t go into detail because I’m running out of ink. Just know that it’s a masterpiece. I am still thinking mostly about the labor involved in creating those three hours of joy. Hamilton is what happens when you work harder than anyone else. Great works take work. Writers who are stuck or crawling toward that agonizing finish line–answer that call to witness someone else’s talents. It might be the motivation you need at the exact right time.

The Hamilton ear worms are brutal, though.

(Okay, Mom. Now it’s your turn.)

*Yes, he’s really nice.

Writing Tips

Ramble On (but please edit), Brave Writers!

When I decided to be a great novelist, I knew exactly how to start my story. With me! And my Extraordinary and Very Rare experience of dating a tortured intellectual who drank…in college…and sometimes he was mean! This narrative went on for pages and pages. Oh, the pages! The fact that my pen glided so effortlessly across the paper meant I was genius and this story would capture the hearts of millions. I wasn’t even at the good part or even the beginning. By the time I was done, I had filled a notebook, one I couldn’t go back and reread because, I’ll be honest, it was a little boring. But someone else would find it fascinating!

And so I began my relationship with writing fiction. As an editor, with now daily experience in reading critically, I notice how rambling points of view can kill a story. Mind you, I still do this—go on and on for pages (or even blog posts). What one writer might consider fascinating character revelations, one editor might use as a sleeping agent.

Is this Rambling POV bad?

Only if you don’t edit it. Rambling POV is actually a good thing. It gets your brain moving and pushes you to free your imagination. In editing, you can make that point of view more succinct and targeted to your storytelling.

How do you know you have rambling POV?

Keep rereading what you have written. If you find yourself skipping over paragraphs, consider cutting those paragraphs. You might feel liberated. In case of regret, always save your drafts. If you have the energy to go back, cut and paste, your words were meant to stay.

When I read submissions, a common mistake is a rambling POV at the beginning. Too much of a good thing can bog down the pacing and a character with sass can quickly turn off an editor if the sass goes on forever before anything happens.

Just remember that all talk and no action renders your character a big snooze fest.

When can rambling POV be good?

In narrative nonfiction, it can be lovely. Though in this format, it’s not so much “rambling” as “telling a true, gripping story.” You can bet that the editor is looking at every word and trimming what comes off as rambling.

One way to tell rambling from elucidating prose is that it seems to be more about the author than about the reader. There’s a sense of “I so love my voice” or “I need to get this out before I move to the next thing” or “I’m writing so fast, this must be brilliant!” So, in the end, rambling POV can be good—as in, a good start, but amateurish if not done well.

How do you deal with rambling POV?

Understand from the beginning that may overwrite in places. Often, it’s to show your character. You can always go back and cut. In fact, you should go back and cut.

Think about how your character moves through the scene rather than thinks. We all think. It’s easy to share thoughts on a page. But what does your character do?

Don’t censor yourself from rambling. More writing is better than no writing.

Remember that most of the time, rambling doesn’t help. There are many exceptions, authors who do it brilliantly. Sophie Kinsella comes to mind. She can immerse you in her story with her rambling characters, who do very little but are ablaze with thought and insight, all of which is highly entertaining, at least to me! Those thriller writers with the unreliable narrators or fascinating protagonists, also pros at rambling POV. And good memoirists can go on and on with a purpose.

It’s always good to err on the side of knowing you’re probably not an exception, though maybe you are. It never hurts to experiment.

Back to important stuff: my “fictional” story about the alcoholic in college. Yeah, she’s sitting somewhere in my mother’s closet along with Teacher’s Pet, my attempt at writing a romance. And my master’s thesis, a truly rambling onus from the depths of Hades.

May you fare better than this. Go forth and ramble, experiment, and edit. And lastly, read the exceptions and learn.

 

Writing Tips

10 Reasons Why You Should Write that Book

1. It engages your brain. How easy it is to sit and let others entertain you. If you’re like me, you want to sit on the couch and take the easy way out of writing: watch a movie or hours of reality TV. Because mama is tired. She’s so tired of the idiots fighting, the long hours, and oh me, I just need a break. I’m not saying that these are wrong, but they can keep you from getting back in the chair. So, let’s put down the Snickers and say, “Extended breaks and self-care are good. But it’s time to put my creative genius to work.” Hop to it!

2. Why not expound on your favorite topic? I really love cake. Someday, I’ll write a story about cake, but until then, I love reading about cake! May the gods bless cookbook authors and the chefs creating desserts on TV. I also love knitting, astronomy, jewelry, celebrities, romance, cooking shows, and serial killers–maybe even in the same story. I know exactly where to turn to get my fix: a writer like you. Show us readers something delicious–and dangerous!

3. That life is too short thing. My grandparents told me that watching TV was worthless. That said, they clocked at least four hours daily of Wild Kingdom, nightly news (aka The Murder Show), The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Search for Tomorrow (aka Search). At the end of the road, you may have a better story to tell than the ones parading in front of you. Think about it.

4. Don’t we have enough short form outrage right now? You know what I’m talking about. Believe me, I’m there, too. Twit/Face/Inst (short form) eats up whole days, months, and the more informed I am, the stupider I feel. Social media has a hold on me and I need to be plugged in at all times. There are so many better words we could be writing. Take your life back, writers!

5. If you’re reading this, you might identify yourself as a writer. I caught you red-handed! Don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret for now. In the meantime, show me I’m right and get yourself in that chair. I hear Nanowrimo is next week (wink wink). So, sure, you have your day job or whatever, but you’re a writer. You’re a writer. Say it over and over again, then stop and write. 

6. Writing a book is an actual accomplishment. It’s one of those empirical beliefs that finishing a book is a big deal. Not many people can write a book. But you can. Maybe you have. Or you just feel strongly that you can. Write one page, then another, etc… Eventually, if you keep pushing, you will get to the end. There will be MANY DISTRACTIONS. It’s okay because you’ve got support and talent and persistence in your DNA. Do the work and get to the end.

7. Living vicariously can be a whole lot of fun. I don’t know about you but sometimes I like to pretend that I could be a moviestar–like completely overhaul my wardrobe and makeup situation and try to act! Or that I’m a psychic 32-year-old shopgirl who heals people. Or a sweet middle-aged manager who plots a murder, then actually goes through with it. This is when I shut out the real world and start tapping furiously on my computer. Am I right to think you have an awesome life/story/character that you like to dream about? 

8. Because a world without creativity, well, let’s not even go there. The more we scroll for that quick fix, the more our attention spans and imaginations die. What would our lives be like without books? I’d be sitting on the couch. Oh, and unemployed. Think about that. An existence without those great classics, those romances, those writers conferences. Can you feel the emptiness? The world needs you.

9. Don’t you have something to say? Everyone I’ve ever met has something to say, even (especially) those who pass under our radars. So many stories out there! You may be that quiet person who thinks she’s nothing special. Or the opposite. At each end of the spectrum and everywhere in between, you have an experience, an imagination, and a message.

10. You will change someone. It’s unrealistic to think that you don’t affect someone else’s life. If you’re a writer—and I suspect you are—you know which writers have changed you. If I hadn’t read Mario Puzo’s Fools Die, I’m not sure I’d be sitting here writing this. Reading Emile Zola helped me understand that I never wanted to live as a drunk in 19th Century Paris. And Penny Jordan’s romances helped me find a better path (and a way not to fail my history exam). Just think of the good you can do for someone by the story you have inside you. It’s time. Don’t you think?

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.

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.