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. ūüôā

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 Clich√©s

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 clich√©s 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 clich√©s, 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 clich√©s 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.

Writing Tips

15 Romance Clich√©s–Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?

young romantic couple kissing in front of sunset in santa monicaEvery genre has its clich√©s and I sort of love them because they can be like chicken soup or The Brady Bunch, i.e. comforting old friends. At the same time, when you’re a voracious reader, these clich√©s get tired and seem like a quick exit. As a professional reader, I see certain things so much I could just die*. Here are some offenses I would urge romance writers to avoid from now on:

  1. Referring to sex as a “dance as old as time.” You know what’s as old as time? Mitosis! Or if you have another belief: God. So really, sex isn’t a dance as old as time. For me, personally, the hustle is a dance as old as time because, for me, that’s when time began.
  2. The hero says he’s hungry but not for food. Let’s just say lovin’ and feasting aren’t the same thing, but comparisons are made interchangeably throughout acts of whoopee. He feasted on her body. He sipped her lips.¬† I’ve programmed myself not to wince over this hungry-not-for-food clich√©. Instead, I try to think of Duran Duran**. Here, though, Simon Le Bon is hungry but not for food. Alas.
  3. The heroine runs into the hero–literally***. And as their hands touch, this odd bolt of electricity goes up their arms! Wonder what that could mean…? I say it’s from rug burn.
  4. They engage in the Missionary position 90% of the time. I get it because the hero and heroine are face to face. It’s more intimate. In a category romance, you certainly don’t want the first act of forever love to begin with, “Get on your knees, Sarah.” One time I was reading a romance and I became a little agitated because the hero and heroine weren’t in the usual face to face position. So shocked was I that I didn’t skim the sexy and romantic scene. Well done, romance writer!
  5. His tongue “sweeps past her lips.” There’s no pretty way to describe French kissing, but I’m tired of this one.
  6. Running his tongue along the outside of her lips. I’ve read this bit of foreplay since the 80s. And it’s still happening! I may be naive about technique, but ew.
  7. The heroine dabs on gloss, and that’s the extent of putting on her face. I know the heroine is supposed to be low maintenance. Do real-life heroes like kissing gloss? Maybe it’s an aesthetic thing in romance, but heroines don’t all need gloss. Okay, maybe they do. Here’s what I use, just because I like it.
  8. When she’s really driving him nuts, the hero runs a hand through his hair. I know he can’t reach for a Xanax. It’s good he has hair, right? At least he’s not balling his hands into fists. On TV, you’d see the actor clench his jaw (indicating frustration). It’s a valid reaction to aggravation, but clich√©.
  9. Starting your story with a dream, car ride, breakup, anything in italics. This normally makes me put down a book. I just can’t do it! My eyes are too feeble to read italics for long stretches. Now if it’s a manuscript I’ve already bought, I forge ahead and consider how important it is to the story to begin this way.
  10. Kissing her thoroughly, senseless, or breathless. You can’t exactly say he kissed so powerfully as to bring on an asthma attack. After this mind-melting experience, which causes respiratory distress, her lips are swollen from his kisses. I understand that the writer wants to convey intensity. There are other ways. These have been used again and again.
  11. He has a baritone voice. Just overused. I like a good Irish tenor myself.
  12. He’s seeing how she has curves in all the right places. What about the wrong places? Whenever I read this, I laugh a little to myself.
  13. A real annoyance to me is the combative banter between the hero and heroine, especially at the beginning, to show he’s arrogant and she’s a spitfire! There are people one can hate on sight, but wouldn’t you be polite? If these characters are going to bicker, the writer should show motivation behind it aside from temperamental issues or irritation masking desire.
  14. After their lovemaking****, the hero cooks breakfast, especially eggs. So many heroes, as it turns out, can make omelets. They go to omelet school before they take out a lady. What a heroine really wants is a nice gooey Cinnabon in the morning–or that’s just me.
  15. The heroine says at the beginning that she has no time for love. I never believe this. It’s a deliberate set-up to show us just how radically her world is about to change. I have a friend who has no time for love. He works at his day job and spends all his free time dazzling in the entertainment industry. “What about love?” I queried. He acted as if I’d asked him about string theory. If the heroine has no time for love, she wouldn’t even be thinking this or saying it. When in doubt, show us how busy and indifferent she is.

As I wrote above, these clich√©s can be welcome to a reader, but it should be every writer’s challenge to forge a new path. Make it even more memorable and creative for us, your old, new and future readers.

*Hyperbole is a real-life cliché.

**This doesn’t take much.

***Misuse and overuse of “literally” drives me batty these days, not literally.

****I hate this word because it seems to old-fashioned, but in romance, you can’t avoid it, especially when describing coitus in meetings or with authors. Sex can be too technical, making love too syrupy. Boinking isn’t an option either, so it’s lovemaking or the love scene (s).

Writing Tips

An Ordinary Day Editing Romance

Goal for the day: Edit 100 pages of overdue manuscript.

7:45: Roll out of bed. Out the door by 8:06. I know, 21 minutes to get ready is amazing. I’m a brat about commuting so¬† I figure if I’m half asleep, it’s better for fellow commuters. It takes me 10 minutes to get to work. When I lived further uptown, my commute was at least an hour–still not bad at all. Some of my colleagues commute almost 2 hours each way, every day.

8:30: I work on the back cover copy of the four books I oversee from month to month. I also review the Front Sales (or Page One), which is usually a catchy scene. Then I approve the author bios, book lists, dedications and send to our copyediting team. This takes a while since we usually rewrite copy to get wording just right. In addition, a lot of fact-checking is involved.

10:00: Mass phone meeting where I learn more about a side of the business I don’t usually encounter.

11:00: Because I’m old school, I edit first on paper. This kills many trees and I’m sure I’ll wind up in a fiery chamber underground. But it saves my eyes at the same time that it adds a couple hours to my workload. I spend a good chunk of the day transferring my paper notes into our editing program. While I do this, I listen to this movie‘s soundtrack. So relaxing!

Noon: I realize I forgot to change into my fancy shoes. This is an idle thought. I don’t do anything about it. Silently figure I can get through the day in comfortable shoes and I don’t need to look taller. Run out to get Valentine’s Day cards (b/c Papyrus store downstairs is my drug of choice) and lunch. Back to editing program until 2-ish.

2:00: Restless wandering of halls, running little errands. The long walk to the mailroom is good exercise. To up my FitBit numbers, I do this at least twice. I also grab some of our new books, which have arrived on the communal bookshelf. I  socialize, touch base.

I get three compliments on my sweater, which I’d worried was either hideous or gorgeous. Verdict: gorgeous.

3:00: Department meeting, which is pleasantly boisterous (informative, too, of course) and lasts until I have to go home.

How many pages did I edit on the overdue manuscript? 0. Guess what I’m doing today?

me in H office

Writing Tips

Monday’s Pet Peeves (Which Never Include Julia)

article-1095106-007B725B00000258-365_468x287With the horrific events of the last week (my heart is with you, France), I had a difficult time coming up with a blog post. How can I think of romance when atrocities keep happening? Finally, I shut off the television and refocused my synapses. I have some new pet peeves that have irked me in recent months.

The heroine can’t stop crying: I used to believe that if I wept, I’d be even more of a romantic heroine, especially if in front of a boy! Sadly, the weepies creeped out my swains. As a reader, I enjoy a well-placed cry-fest, but those stories where the heroine keeps gushing and gushing over past travails, well, I wanna tell her to get some Kleenex and good meds. Is that heartless? Maybe, but I like it when a heroine can keep her marbles together. That said, it takes very little for me to ugly cry (I’m looking at you, end of Notting Hill).

Writing too young: I’m guilty of this in real life–trying to be 20 instead of 46 (thank you for pointing this out, nieces). In romance, sometimes you can tell when the twenty-five-year-old heroine is actually fifty. Slang from the 80s might slip out along with well-placed millennial idioms. Or her joints bother her when it rains. Or the sexy scenes seem inauthentic and derivative of recent blockbuster books. Just an issue to watch as you’re writing.

Ignoring editorial suggestions: I’m not fond of times when after I spend days of reading and marking down revision notes, a writer will just refute every one of my points. The pregnant heroine doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until two minutes before she gives birth and never sees a doctor before or after, just because. Or the heroine faints a lot and that’s just what happens. Or the hero has no reason to be mean and never changes–but that’s just how he is and the reader will understand. Yish. I vacillate between letting the writer shoot herself in the foot and remembering my integrity. I try to land somewhere in the middle leaning toward the latter.

And now with these peeves in mind, let’s get back to writing strong stories! Happy Monday to you.