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.

Romantic Life Lessons, Shameless Promotion

To Emote or Not to Emote

I tend to read a lot of artist/writer blogs, the juicier the better. Because I’m not physically in high school anymore–or even in my twenties or thirties–I get a vicarious rush reading about an individual’s personal and professional trials: deadline pressures, the angst of parenting, difficulties (physical and mental), irritating moments that ruin one’s day, pep talks, who hates Jonathan Franzen today, or good old-fashioned frivolity (Housewife chat?). I’m both impressed and a little horrified at how a person can put so much out there for anyone to see. What did we do before blogs and social media? It’s so tempting to read everyone’s thoughts and then I want to emote myself. There is a lot I have to say! Fair warning, some of it is superficial. You caught me in a moment. Yesterday, I was agonizing about events in Rome, circa 31 B.C–don’t get me started. Here goes:

I’ve switched from Cheetos to White Cheddar popcorn as an evil snack. Sam loves it, too, so we get two bags. We feel like giant hogs afterwards.

Ranting on FB (about life, politics, Israel/Iran/Palestine, climate change, Obama) annoys and fascinates me. I have an appreciation for the need to connect, preach, and spread information. I’m doing that right now, see? Hey, I wouldn’t be married without Facebook. Sadly, I don’t recognize some of the people I thought I knew and I now know people who have mostly been strangers (it’s all good-ish).

No one has noticed this but I’ve been weening myself off television and reading more. I read for my day job, but currently feeling that reading day and night means stronger eye muscles…or blindness. Right now, am flying through The Sun Also Rises by The Hemingway He kinda writes like a five-year-old, Andy Cohen’s memoir (awesome), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (you must read), The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (who knew Harry S. and Ike could get along!), and Come Dancing by Leslie Wells (addictive, especially if you love the 80s)…11051892_1555249804734476_5339737004723344042_noh, and a biography on Charles Manson (I don’t know why…).

Because I drove with my husband to Rochester, New York, last weekend for his business, I rewarded myself before the trip with an iPhone and three secret cookies from Fika. With my gadget I was able to take cool selfies. Furthermore, if I get to see Duran Duran in concert, I can finally take a good picture of my boys! I hear the iPhone is also used for calling, but I am not good at using phones. The Candy Crush is too small for me to see.

Starting to feel that editing on paper is inconvenient and yet I don’t want to do the first edit on screen. Will I make the transition? This could be exciting news for trees.

I struggled with depression in the second half of last year. It made me a little too quiet, but I know how things shift from light to dark, dark to light–and even shades of grey (see how I got that in there?). The world is lovely again in all its forms. When I go outside, I don’t feel terror, just an appreciation of sunshine, the taste of coffee, people hanging out in my local Pain Quotidien. Notice how this gets sandwiched between lighter stuff.

I put hot rollers in my hair now, which makes me feel 100 years old, but the outcome can be splendid and slightly Mad Men if I brush vigorously like Betty–or it could be senility setting in. Am now looking around at women and wondering who secretly uses hot rollers. Fess up!

Trying very hard to accept that “awhile” and “fairytale” might be one word. This seems wrong to me.

After 30 years, I’ve stopped running. Now I walk or do the elliptical, which begs the question: Will I join a walking club and wear fussy gym clothes from Athleta? Am I someone now worried about joints and my back? Will I start doing yoga?

At 46, I should be all 1962853_664713946900219_800430870_neasy breezy about how I look, but last night, I had second thoughts about my purple pants from J Crew. Nah, they are awesome.

I recently had 10 minutes where I had no work deadlines. Now I’m swamped again. I’m not complaining at all, just observing the tides of my industry. The busier, the better.

My love/hate for CNN grows strong in both directions. I love my Anderson Cooper (very much), but hate the editorializing of most of the other anchors. Just deliver the news, please, without the moral outrage and incredulity. Sometimes, this compels me to a more conservative station. I like my headlines dry and without emotion!

Yesterday, someone sent me a fan email for Romance Is My Day Job. It put a huge smile on my face.

Romantic Life Lessons

My After Happily Ever After: Vol. I

1504209_1388883841371074_78845019_oA friend told me that I haven’t been married long enough to write about being married. He’s probably right. But a few lessons have been valuable for me on this bridal path. I blame serial dating for twenty-five years, my “little sister” complex, and an inner princess for needing my own way at all times. What a novelty that in a relationship, you have to cooperate with another person. Here are some of my marital takeaways:

  • Being kind and respectful always wins–even when he’s irritating.
  • I’m generally nice to others but very self oriented. Now, I think about little things Sam might like. On my excursions, I’ll pick him up a snack or his favorite newspaper. It goes a long way.
  • I hold grudges, but Sam caves within minutes. He never gives up on people unless they’re truly reprehensible. This shows me how silly it is to stew in self-righteous indignation. We bicker now and then, sometimes really fight, but I’m better at saying I’m sorry.
  • Five years later, everything he does still charms me–how he walks, how his hair sticks up, his obsession with his expensive toothbrush, how fussy he is in the kitchen, even the cadence of his snoring (it changes depending on what he eats and drinks). Someday, I may take this for granted. For now, I stare as much as I can.
  • You have to do things you don’t want to do. I try to gauge what’s important to him. This can be difficult because, like a guy, he shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn’t mind one way or the other. I don’t like eating in restaurants, but he does. Sometimes I suggest we dine out and his eyes light up. His joy is well worth the inconvenience of sitting in a noisy, cramped space and waiting on potentially greasy food (I can be nuts in a restaurant).
  • Men seem to have their monthly cycles, which I find fascinating. I know to stay away certain days of the month.
  • He can’t stand to be within fifty yards of the bickering Housewives. I can still watch my precious Housewives, but I wait until he’s out of the room.
  • I just assume people are there and I don’t reach out to them as much as I should. When you live with someone you love, you can’t assume. I try to check in with him a few times a day. He’s the type who loves hearing from people so I know it’s a big deal. Being with him has made me better about calling my mother, too.

I’m sure I’ll learn more over the years and some days will be more difficult than others. Most of the time, I think how lucky I am.

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!

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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!