Writing Tips

5 Ways to Outsmart the Editor

This past December, the list of “read immediately” submissions was longer than my winter scarf. We masochists love a challenge, especially if it involves staring at words. Reading for eons is a pleasure–not to mention my job.

I tackled this assignment because it was the end of the year and that’s what vacations are for. Open doc, read, make notes, decide yay, nay, or maybe. I got into a zone. Sometimes it took two pages or a whole chapter before I knew the verdict. After years of urging writers to focus on the whole book, not just the first three chapters, I’ve changed my mind. With our increasingly complex world of fast vs. thorough, we are in an age of just-get-me-through-the-door. On the traditional publisher path, here is what a writer might face.

I am a meaner reader than I used to be. It takes less time for me to decide if I want to keep reading, which is why I am now urging writers to pay extra special attention to those opening pages. Time is limited. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a new Cynthia Rowley sweater. It’s important that you grab an editor’s eye quick–and keep it. Read on, and don’t be distracted, not even by this.

Tip 1: Make that first paragraph, first page count, even if it drives you to eat twenty of these. Elmore Leonard has a helpful list of writing rules. Every little bit helps, right? I’m not a stickler, but weather descriptions are a bore unless you’re in an elevator and you have no idea what to say to your neighbor. And don’t be distracted by everyone’s tips, even these really good ones!

In this vein, if you start off with dialogue, it better sparkle like Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. No mundane comments, like “How does this dress look on me?” Start with a big moment, without throwaway lines. Instead of showing off a dress, maybe she sees a dead body on her doorstep; her test says Not Pregnant which is funny given the kicking in her stomach; as she walks down the aisle, she notices the man she actually wants to marry and he’s officiating the wedding…and you have no idea who your groom is. Or you can knock your reader’s socks off with irresistible points of view (Hello, every Kristan Higgins novel).

Tip 2: So I hear you detail your car. Do that with your first three chapters. Go over every sentence. Every word. Every feeling, movement, description, conversation. Is there balance and flow? Do you repeat “very” and “definitely” and “actually”? As your editor shrink, I suggest you and your book become intimately involved. Does your voice shine through? Do you find cohesion in your plot? This is the moment when you pare away unnecessary sentences, without going overboard. Bribe yourself with treats (candy, beer, cat nip) all the way through.

Tip 3: I love a romance checklist, though you can distill all advice into one question: Will your reader care? If you have those first three chapters the way you want them, have gone over them a million times, and you definitely feel, Yes, my reader (and future editor) will care, you could be ready. But read the next tip first.

Tip 4: Pretend you’re at a glamorous reading for your book. Your hair/makeup are perfect. You manage to appear scholarly and hip at the same time. You have the voice of Maggie Gyllenhaal or Colin Firth. Read your chapters out loud to an audience. As you listen, mark down parts that don’t sound right. Fix them! Read that part again like it’s your audiobook.

Tip 5: During writer/editor pitches, if the story appeals to me, I ask for the complete manuscript and a synopsis. So yeah, it’s better if your book is done. It shows you can write a complete book. But between us girls, you really should have those first three chapters polished and shimmering with wit. Readers like me will likely make a decision based on your beginning. If the writing is solid, she or he will eventually request the complete story. Send three chapters, synopsis and, while you’re waiting for an answer, get that complete manuscript in order.

Bonus Tip: Don’t worry that the editor has read so much and you can’t compete in the slush pile. You totally can! Even after reading 30 submissions, editors will keep reading if #31 is page-turning. We are professionals so we don’t reject an amazing story if we’re in a bad mood. A great book makes the editor forget the real world.

You made it through. It’s now time to work on the beautiful adventure that is your book. Do not click on this harmless yet tempting link.

I am waiting.

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

Happy Date-iversary! Let Me Count the Ways…

Happy First-Date-iversary to my beloved Sam. It’s been nine whole years since I went to JFK to pick him up for our first date. We hadn’t seen each other in almost three decades, since high school. Now, so many years later, it is easy to love Sam. Here are just a few reasons why…

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He loves a buffet, food spread, or five-course meal. A real foodie. The joy on his face is so worth my constant fear of food poisoning.

He is handy–and works hard to learn new tricks. Home Depot is his friend. His forays into TV installation are legendary. At first, he mounted our TV near the ceiling, then realized this wasn’t ideal.

It is fun to live with him. I’m not sure why. Is it his good nature? His non-smothering way? He’s just lovely, even in small spaces. In fact, I’m more comfortable when we’re in the same room. He makes really good coffee, too.

When he has time, he cooks and his meals are heavenly, except for the stuffed cabbage but I eat it anyway.

He is a book-worm and reads international news. A total smarty-pants.

He really loves my mother and brother (my deal breakers).

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Three times, he came with me to see Duran Duran in concert and even acted ecstatic for this picture.

When I am enraged or mean to him or having a meltdown, he takes it seriously but also isn’t freaked out by it.

Except for his camo shorts, which his nieces loathe, he dresses nicely for every occasion.

It is highly entertaining to hear Sam talk to customer service on the phone. He will go on for hours and get to the bottom of a problem–and get that $5.00 refund from a vending machine.

He is fearless. I mean, he might have anxieties, but if you want to jump out of a plane, he will do that, too. He can also tell you in minute detail how to put your butt through a glass shower door and get thirty-six stitches in your butt.

Sam has a strong moral compass. He does the right thing, helps people, and feels endless guilt if he causes harm. He just cares, even if the person is a shitbag.

Obviously, he is good-looking and charming. That’s only a fraction of why he’s so special.

In all the dating manuals, we’re encouraged to act a certain way. With Sam, the more attention he gets, the happier he is. It’s that simple, and so refreshing not to withhold the urge the text him with lots of emojis.

I love listening to him, even if he is ranting about things I don’t believe. The intellectual or emotional slant is always fascinating. Then he will change his mind a week later.

Sam is close to his brother and their daily conversations are a play in three acts with one twenty-minute intermission while Warren finishes shopping at Publix. The best theater around.

He doesn’t tell me about the near misses on his bike rides to and from work–and he wears a safety jacket and helmet. I just pray he comes home every night in one piece.

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He makes everything more fun! Travel, walking around the block, getting ice cream, dinner out, exercise, and even illness.

He will chase Yossi around the apartment, play fetch with him, and wrestle. The cat has him wrapped around his paw.

His anal retentiveness is adorable. I thought I was bad, but yeah, not even close.

Sam is one of those people who brightens up a place. He’s always good to have at a party and at home. If it’s open bar, do not have a karaoke machine.

When he walks down the street, he usually has a smile on his face, which is why people stop him to ask a question/directions.

He has his bad days, but understands how things shift. His self-awareness and overall understanding helps those who might have stormier outlooks (I’m not naming names).

I am so grateful that I get to spend every day with this special human being. Happy Nine Years, Cookie aka Love of My Life! When this picture was taken in 1984, I had no idea that you would be my husband someday….

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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.

 

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.

Uncategorized

Goodbye to 2016, the Year of No Fear

My year started with a celebration: 25 years of extra life. I didn’t say anything except quiet wishes to my friend (sister) who was with me one horrible night in early January. We are both thriving now, but it took a while, at least for me.

Then, I had a long flight for work, one I’d been sweating. Like Guinness, I don’t travel well and lose my bubbles. But when your boss shows confidence in you by sending you places, you say yes. Meeting with writers is fun for me. They feed you cheesecake and regale you with stories. All I have to do is get on the damn plane.

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We went to my thirtieth high school reunion in May, which was nice, low key, and I felt very fat. I thought that red dress would be roomier, but it wasn’t. More on my inexplicable weight gain from eating cookies below. %*$&%*! As you can see in the pic below, I’m half in love with my friend Di, who is mentioned in my book. She is a gifted artist and so full of the same warmth, moxie, and wisdom. Plus, she is rocking some serious braids. I wish she lived next door.

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I threw a surprise party for my darling husband, Sam. He had no idea what was coming and it blew him away. Maybe my favorite moment of the year, watching him walk in and see us. This whole marriage thing is pretty cool.img_1968

Sam–a French prof–decided it would be great to take students to Paris. Sure, you do that. Okay, so I managed to get on that plane again (thank you, Delta, for the amazing service). I went to France because when your husband turns 50 in Paris, you get on the damn plane to meet him there. We had an amazing time. The butter!!!

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I flew three more times after that. My fear of travel is now gone. It happened gradually until one travel day, as I strapped myself in the seat, I thought, “Oh this again.” No big deal. I ditched the tranquilizers and now just listen to music and knit. I’ll go anywhere. Except on a boat. Or a prop plane. Hate those.

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My childhood friend got hitched and I love her and her family. I rediscovered that warm fuzzy of seeing someone again and remembering deep bonds and memories. Here are some flowers from her big day.fullsizerender-003

This year, I rediscovered food. It’s weird, but food tastes good again after 25 years of not caring (and being thin). What happened? Were my tastebuds released from jail? Long story too long, I gained 15 pounds. I’m so startled not to fit in most of my clothes that I’ve upped my running. Love handles on me are not okay!

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Part III. August. As you get older, lifting weights becomes more important. Plus, I couldn’t open a jar of pickles, so I signed up with a trainer. On good days and bad days, M kicks my butt and I always feel better afterwards. (I’m not James Corden, btw)mgid-ao-image-mtv-com-207885It all seemed to be going okay, until…do I have to say it?

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On November 9, the fear came rushing back. The embodiment of my nightmares will be in office. How did that happen? I feel sick just seeing his face or hearing him talk–and I’m so so so angry. You can’t tell this broad to move on or accept the outcome. It runs too deep for many of us. I like that people think differently but this election was different–and not in a way that celebrates our differences.

It would be easy to stay indoors and sleep through the next four years. I’ve thought about it. What a waste, though. We can be a community of survivors, right? I will start by bidding au revoir to 2016. You’ve put us through a lot and I’m grateful for the lessons. Maybe not grateful in a gratitude way, but I get why things happened and how I can learn from them. But did you have to kill Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and David Bowie?

Sam and I are ending the year with a nasty bug that has left us bed-ridden and watching The Sopranos. We will recover from all upsets, sinus, stomach or the caustic Orange kind, and 2017 will be about badassery and La Resistance. Stay tuned.