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.

Writing Tips

Working That Sagging Middle — Body and Scroll

trainingThe “sagging middle” is a grim reality once you hit George* territory. Diet, stress and sedentary habits can settle in the gut. In a novel, the sagging middle can cripple your story, as well. Editors encounter it so often that you can almost hear us putting down the e-reader around chapter three. The sagging middle is more than just a dopey comment after too many donuts, so I’m going to tackle abs and a flabby manuscript all in one blog post. Disclaimer: Don’t take my exercise suggestions too seriously since I injure myself regularly. And for the sake of laziness, let’s call the sagging middle “SM.”

To understand SM, I delved into why it happens in a manuscript. A writer works so hard on the beginning–because that’s what the editor sees first, unless the editor is crazy and skips to the middle (guilty). It’s hard to keep up that intensity for 250+ pages. Why not just work on the beginning–since that’s most important–and not worry about the middle until you get an editor interested? The reader can’t be hooked every second, can she? This kind of thinking is all wrong, by the way. It’s right around the third chapter that I need a boost because I’m getting deeper into the story. Every page is important. If sagging weighs down chapter three, I know what’s about to happen later: not a whole lot. The sagging gets saggier. For the editor, life is too short and the pile of reading too high. For the writer, it’s time to work out the SM.

You hear similar things about strengthening your “core.” Since my husband took up Pilates (he says it was invented to rehabilitate injured soldiers, thus is manly exercise) and I am trying it, I sense how important it is to build up the stomach area, which holds so many emotions, stressors, and for me at least, croissants. My SM troubles began circa 1973. Newly Parisian, I fell in love with food and stuffed as much French candy into my mouth as possible. Because I was five, I ignored my health and went for new and flashier pastries. Whatever I could find, I ate–often regretting my gorging. Confection looks great on the outside, though doesn’t always feel so delicious an hour later. Regardless, my belly grew into a giant balloon (please bear in mind, I was still cute). Since I didn’t care about boys or modeling, I kept up my eating marathon for a few more years. Then kids really started making fun of me. That’s when I started doing sit-ups, the old-fashioned ones where you lie down and sit all the way up and back down again. I began with 10, then 50, then 100. They were a pain in my gut, but I could tell they worked. The balloon deflated.

So how do you fix the sagging, out-of-control middle in a manuscript? As with your core, there are steps to fix the problem. You just have to follow them, be relentless, and keep going until your manuscript shimmers with excitement and health.

1. Ask yourself if you’ve started the story in the wrong place. Several years ago, an author told me that her beginning wound up being chapter 9. This explained why I gasped in the middle of her story. No sagging there. You may not have this problem–the wrong beginning–but the path to solution opens with a question, a tough one. Be brave enough to consider re-arranging your book.

2. When I was toiling over a story, finding myself on the sagging middle to nowhere, a friend explained that the protagonist should have a main problem with an even bigger problem working against him/her. Plotting is like physics to me, i.e. I don’t get it, but this simple advice made sense to me. Reading up on story structure can help beef up a novel. As with an ab workout or plot revitalization, consult experts. Check out those books, watch exercise videos, talk to trainers. You will eventually get what you need to succeed.

3. Don’t let the reader rest for too long. There’s that moment where a writer may think, Ah, the excitement’s over for now. Let’s just have the characters picnic in the grass and wax poetic about the breath-taking landscape.  Show off ability to describe beautiful scenery! Isn’t it fun to just sit and behold? In a romance, those scenes should be short and incredibly meaningful or else they sag. Too much of a good thing (relaxation and picnic fried chicken/potato salad) can bring on the ZZZZZZs, much like the dreaded food coma. The second I started sitting and reading (with snacking) for a living, I noticed certain physical changes and energy drainage. After enjoying 10 years of an “eat anything” metabolism, I suddenly gained weight just looking at cupcakes–even more when I ate them. Exercising less had been my mantra until I became an editor and had to buy new clothes. And since entering George and Demi territory, I must exert myself even more to keep from doing what I hate so much: shopping for new clothes in an actual store. Don’t rest too long is my new mantra–true in life, true in romance.

4. You want the story to escalate, not reach a plateau. With romantic suspense, a writer must juggle two difficult elements. There is ebb and flow in romance and suspense. How do you make them work together? I would start with how best to torture your characters further. For me in real life, that torture is a push-up. I can’t do one. Because I’ve mastered my situps and run/walk so that I can still eat a cupcake, I neglected upper body strength, putting it off until my bones crack in half later in life. But when I couldn’t open a jar of peanut butter (for evil midnight dining purposes, of course), I realized I had to torture myself a little more by adding weights and pushups to the mix (I did rewatch Rocky for that inspirational training montage). Putting your characters through more pain than they expect will up the ante as you race through that middle part.

5. Maybe your character isn’t with the right person. Gasp! A few months ago, I was reading a story where the heroine fell in love with the hero. The entire time, I thought she was with the wrong man. And–gasp again–I encountered a SM and put down the book.  As with nutrition and exercise, it’s a matter of exploring what will test you the most and, in the end, be the most beneficial. Boy do I love sugar, but it turns me into a jerk, goes straight to the gut and was my original Achilles heel in France. It’s the reason I do situps, so it can’t be my hero. Now, I have a shaky but growing relationship with brown rice.

6. Prolong the romance even more. Though I don’t recommend waiting until the very end for the kiss, Sixteen Candles has this remarkable way of sustaining conflict for two hours. Sure, it’s an ensemble cast, but even a simple love story can create those goosebumps. Think of your favorite stories and how the writer/movie kept the conflict building to an exciting end. I can think of no clever nutrition/exercise parallel except to wait five minutes before getting that bag of Fritos (my lunch weakness). 70% of the time, I still indulge, but I like to believe I’m building willpower.

7. Resist the temptation to keep working on the beginning. Carve out time to work on the middle–a lot of time. Since SM is such a problem area, why not focus the most on this area? If you pull a muscle in your calf from running (as I do), do you then nurture your arm? Usually it’s the area you want to ignore most that requires the most attention…or else the problem will keep growing, like my love for French pastries circa 1973.

I wish I had more answers to the mystery of how you bring a romance or body to its most perfect form. With those pesky abs, I just want to feel good and, sometimes, that involves a corner piece of vanilla cake or 100 situps. With a manuscript, it’s that feeling that I’ve done everything I could with no niggling thought saying, Well, you kinda phoned in the middle. If that happens, I just go back to these steps and repeat. The torture is worth it.

*Usually, one might write Demi since she somehow became the poster girl for over 40. I’m changing it to George Clooney since he’s way over 40, and even over 50!

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Romance Is My Day Job Trailer–Behind the Scenes

Black and White Reading (2)In our apartment, here I am reading my lines, trying not to croak or squeak. Luckily, I had high-octane coffee to help. Trailer Director was single-minded and knew exactly how I needed to read the lines and what to emphasize. He accidentally left his marked up script on our couch and I kept it as a souvenir.

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Bench (2)By now, six hours have gone by, thus my frowny-face. We’re in the park right in front of City Hall. It’s getting dark and I can’t wait to film the part in the cupcake bakery. We wind up getting three desserts–one dulce de leche cupcake, a pecan bar and chocolate chip cookie. If I knew then what I ordered minutes later, maybe I could have cracked a smile?

Can’t help but notice my nice blue purse.

Here’s the finished product.

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A Day Where I Did Nothing on My To Do List

postitEach day, I make a list of items I must accomplish. In the office, with good intentions, I wound up avoiding my list and I put the blame squarely on Mercury in Retrograde (right?). First, I walked in to see a bag of Valentine’s chocolates from my employer. Talk about sweet sabotage! I ate three pieces  immediately. I took it as a sign that I shouldn’t plan every minute, she says through her sugar fog.

Though I didn’t edit 10 pages of one book (due in two weeks) or 50 pages of another (due in a month), I am down to 5 emails in my inbox. Here’s what the chocolate made me do, as well:

File 4 months’ worth of papers (I keep everything). Read a manuscript. Start another one. Attend 2 meetings. Rewrite some copy. More copy. And lose my cell phone somewhere in my shoe drawer (I think).

In today’s shameless book promotion:

I got to contribute to Marshal Zeringue’s wonderful blog, which asks my casting choices for the movie version of my book (this is dreamland). My family and I did have a blast coming up with a cast for some of the characters. We’re still mentally picking who would play my in-laws.

And just when I thought things had quieted down, the Associated Press reviewed my book! My mother has been tracking it and sending me updates. We love AP!

Writing Tips

Random First Sentences

Call me superficial but I will bring books home based solely on the first sentence. It’s true, the story could get better after an opening as mundane as, She didn’t like the gluten-free pasta, but I like to be wowed right away. Okay, that’s not totally true. I am a patient reader and will give the book at least a page or two. Just for diversion, here are some first sentences that compelled me to carry home a heavier bag.

Later, she would ask herself how she could possibly have missed all the danger signals emanating from the man. –Stormy Challenge by Jayne Ann Krentz

Hello, it’s THE Jayne Ann Krentz. And haven’t we all been there–ignored a million red flags and run headlong into trouble? Maybe Mr. Trouble will work out this time!

I still can’t believe Myra Jean, the trailer park psychic, was right about everything! –Wedding Belles by Beth Albright

I want to know what the psychic was right about. Plus, I love reading about weddings–even before I got married.

It’s dark, and there are hands on my naked flesh. —The Lovers by Eden Bradley

Poor thing. What’s happening to her? Is she having one of those dreams? I gotta find out.

“Stop smiling. Every time you smile, an angel dies.” —My One and Only by Kristan Higgins

It’s the anti-Clarence! Truth be told, I love grumpy characters–and Higgins’s humor.

The man who’d murdered Romain Fornier’s ten-year-old daughter didn’t look like a killer. —Stop Me by Brenda Novak

I’m a suspense-aholic and this is just the kind of opening that hooks me. The idea of an “average guy” killer creeps me out! But I have to keep reading….

Do you have any favorite first lines?

Oh…and should I say, only 9 days until Romance Is My Day Job is out in the universe!

Shameless Promotion

Scribbling Women and the Real-Life Romance Heroes Who Love Them

Four monScribbling Women_FC_300ths ago, I was approached to contribute an essay for Scribbling Women & the Real-Life Romance Heroes Who Love Them, an anthology of twenty-eight stories featuring the true love stories by romance authors (and me). All net proceeds will benefit Win (formerly Women in Need). What fun it was to read these real-life tales by some of my favorite romance writers!  You can find my story in this here collection. It’s for a good cause! Next Monday, I get to do a virginal reading of the essay at Lady Jane’s Salon. They say it’s like riding a bike.

 

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Behind My Dedication

253257_10151592965469449_26713425_nI sometimes wonder how writers figure out their dedications–especially romance writers. In a genre with many 6+ book-a-year careers, a romance writer could thank everyone she(he)’s ever met. But after thanking your spouse, your parents, your pet, friends, don’t you run out of people? Probably not since one encounters special people all the time. My one author who’s written over 200 romances manages to craft poetic dedications every time. For my one book, the dedication was obvious. Even Sam said to me, “You’re dedicating it to me, right? If you don’t, that would be strange.” He was joking (sort of), but I wanted to find a way to name him in the dedication.

In high school, Sam was a master of hijinks. As the type who loves to run around and knock things down, he played on the football team. His freshman year, at an early practice, he put on his helmet wrong. The captain of the team said, “Come here, Cookie” and fixed it. The nickname stuck.

So that’s the story behind my dedication. Of course, today I found out that it’s slang for x-rated acts and body parts. Is nothing sacred?

Writing Tips

Tuesday’s Romance Pet Peeves

iStock_000011486725XSmallIn my romance reading, I encounter things that prompt a secret eye-rolling event, which I try to suppress because of karma. I know how hard writers work, pouring out their hearts in page-turning content, but these peeves weigh heavily on my mind. This is one editor’s opinion–and these peeves don’t stop me from buying books by multiple offenders.

Peeves:

1. Lately, I’ve been seeing many f-bombs in submissions. Why? Is the f-bomb so f-bombing romantic? You go along, eyes flowing over lovely prose, hero and heroine having a nice iced tea before embarking on their mission to quiet a coup d’état in a fictitious country. Suddenly, the hero says, “Oh, %&$*, who sweetened this iced tea?”  I curse like a sailor sometimes, but it has to be a special moment, like when I drop a stitch ten rows earlier and have to start over (f-bombing lace knitting is not fun). I either lead up to cursing with steam coming out of my ears–or I hit White Hot Rage. The romance f-bombs I’m seeing are coming out of nowhere, like in mundane speech. If you have to curse in your romance, make your swear meaningful…and rare.

2. A heroine who is described as having a “generous mouth.” I’ve seen this description since the 80s. I’m sure it’s even older. Is there another way to say this? Big, giant pillow lips? A charitable mouth (generous and charitable, practically the same thing). I wish I knew the answer… Again, if I see “a generous mouth” I won’t put down the book.

3. Saying your hero looks like Brad Pitt. I used to think it made perfect sense to compare your hero to an A-list actor. Who doesn’t think Brad Pitt is hot? Well, I don’t because I was born with a defective gene. I tend to crush on the actors who  A. look as if they’ve been beaten up several times B. have played Satan and C. do the voiceover for car/orange juice commercials (Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Bridges, Donald Sutherland). As the years go by, your actor reference could date your book. Thirty years ago, if your hero resembled Michael Douglas, I would have known exactly what that meant. Now would be a different story. Your own description is more than enough to conjure that amazing hero for your readers.

And that is it for this Tuesday. Happy reading and writing!

Writing Tips

My Love/Hate Relationship with Revisions

Young womanI loathe writing revision letters but feel very satisfied once I’m finished with one, like I’ve done my job. As I read a manuscript, I take notes with sparkly pen (because I hate taking notes so why not make them pretty) and my comments tend to be unfit for public viewing. On a designated day, I’ll take the manuscript, with its sparkly notes, and reinterpret my ranting scribble into helpful (I hope) feedback.

If the world were a perfect place, all manuscripts that crossed my desk would be ready to edit (or wouldn’t need editing, which would mean unemployment for me, so thank you for any imperfections). I imagine that writers don’t like receiving revision letters either, but expect them.

So can we establish a mutual dread of the revision letter?

Some facts I’ve learned about revisions as an editor and writer:

Diplomacy is nice but writers want direct feedback–page numbers, chapters that need extra work. It would be so easy for me if I could just write: Can you add romantic conflict in this manuscript? Yeah, sure. Like, where?

The longer the revision letter, the greater chance the writer will run for the Maalox. I try to keep letters short (1-3 pages) and sweet–without being too saccharine. Even better if I can do Track Changes in the manuscript itself so the writer can see areas to improve. But not everyone is technological (okay, we’re talking about me here–and Track Changes means no sparkly pen).

Writers can smell BS, so I try not to BS in a revision letter. But I also avoid being unnecessarily critical (which is so easy nowadays, isn’t it?): Ugh, pllleeeeassse, make the heroine stop with her whining!!! I find it’s effective to fashion the revision note in the form of a question: Can you have the hero take off his shirt at the end of Chapter 3?

After writing or reading a revision letter, take time to digest it. When I received a revision letter for my book, I forgot about it for a whole weekend. By the time Monday night rolled around, I was ready to tackle every note and felt good about improving my work (I still needed a Maalox power shake, though).

If I start a revision letter in the morning (with that Nike mantra: Just Do It), chances are it will go out that same morning. Just do it. Write that letter. Go through those revisions, point by point.

We’re all here for the same purpose: to provide the best book possible for your audience. Yes, I have more revisions to request. Will I get that letter out today? Only the sparkly pen knows for sure.

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

How to Impress an Editor

Female fictionI was thinking a lot this week about what pleases me as an editor free coffee, a day of no meetings, Starbucks downstairs. Often it’s an writer’s preparedness, flexibility and niceness–and talent, too. Over the years I’ve met a lot of authors at conferences and came up with a list of ways to stand out to an editor. Of course, it’s more important to deliver the best work possible, but in addition to this, some tips to remember:

If you find a giant red shoe chair as in this picture, please contact me immediately. Must have!

Don’t worry about being nervous (you should see me the day before I travel). Just come prepared and ready to talk about your story, however you want to pitch it.

I’m not a fan of elevator pitches, but I give kudos for persistence.

Edit your work thoroughly. It’s so satisfying to see a proposal that is typo-free and grammatically sound. Never leave all the work to the editor.

Know the publisher. As with a job interview, you want to investigate a company and read its books, understand each imprint, and the submission process. This will give you more control, as well. Informed is well armed–and a confidence booster.

Professionalism: Be nice. I can’t say that 100% of writers I’ve worked with are sugar and spice and everything nice, but a professional/cordial demeanor certainly motivates me to work harder. It’s crazy, I know, but if a person asks me politely for help, I want to do whatever it takes. Barking and ordering makes everyone miserable. Isn’t life is too short?

Optimism: The more positive you are about your work, the more I want to know about it. Writing can be a lonely business, but regardless of the storm cloud over your head, pretending optimism can go a long way, even if it’s only for 10 minutes with an editor. Then get yourself a piece of cake (that’s what I do).

Flexibility: I love when a writer can take criticism and make her story even better than she’d imagined. Revising doesn’t hurt. And if it does hurt too much or feel off, maybe you’re getting questionable advice.

Know a little something about the editor you’re pitching to. This is not a must, but I tend to remember people who are aware of what books I work on, my author base, maybe my favorite band (Duran Duran). It’s called narcissism.

Never give up on this dream. I always love hearing about a writer’s first sale after years and years of writing. I’m a prime example, though I didn’t try to publish as actively as most romance writers. After decades, I even took a break to not write and sometimes you need those hiatuses. No matter what your situation, just don’t give up on anything that you want so passionately. This will impress an editor.