Writing Tuesday: Climbing into the Stands

There’s something almost intrusive about watching an athlete after he or she wins a championship or event. No matter the sport, the winner usually seeks out his or her group. In golf, the winning golfer may hug his caddy (or jump in a lake). In baseball, the teammates rush the mound. In tennis, the player may climb into the stands to hug his coach, team, friends, and family. This summer, after the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic and Flavia Pennetta both made their ways to their player’s box where hugs abounded between the player and his or her support staff. Even in individual sports, athletes depend on their team to push them the extra mile and support them when no one else may even expect them to be victorious. Writers can appreciate those elements. Writing itself is solitary. An author sits down by him or herself to capture the words on some sort of device, whether laptop or pen and paper or something else. No one else will do it for him or her (from here on, I’m just going to use herself). Rainy days. Sunny days. The writer must find that inner burning in her innermost self to sit down and capture the characters and the story. At the same time, there is something about a support team that can be an invaluable tool. Writing is hard. There are rejections, bad reviews, and naysayers. A support team won’t turn a rejection into an acceptance, but your team can give you hugs and even the occasional ice cream cone. How does a writer build her support team?

Friends and family. Over the past couple of years, I’ve realized how lucky I am to have people who support my writing journey. I’ve talked to writers whose spouses demean their writing, wondering why they don’t spend more time with their families. I’ve talked to writers whose friends keep calling during their writing time. I’m fortunate. Cupcake, my five-year-old often tells me that when she is a publisher, she will publish my books. Chunk used to give me eleven kisses before I went to my local chapter’s writing programs. And my WH believes in me. That says it all.

Fellow writers. Some writers love critique partners, and most rely on some form of beta readers. Whether it is a fellow writer giving encouragement or giving advice, the words and wisdom of those writers are, in and of itself, the meaning of support. Knowing a writer has been rejected one hundred and five times before getting the call gives me a boost. His or her perseverance in the face of rejection sends a positive message that it is possible to get better, it is possible to fulfill your goals. As a member of a local romance writing group, I call the monthly programs my pep rallies. They invigorate me and help me connect with other writers, some of whom are celebrating their first sales, some of whom are celebrating their fortieth sales, and some of whom received rejections. As the chapter president says, a rejection can be good news because it means you’re getting your work out there and continuing to persevere.

Online bloggers and online writing friends. Online writing friends are invaluable in that they understand the joys and the frustrations from sitting at a keyboard trying to form a story that is not only coherent but also fun to read. Whether through social media or online blogs, it helps to check in on online writing buddies to gain perspective or to read a funny meme or learn something new about the craft of writing. Sometimes when I go to conferences, I run into someone and I’m convinced I know them. It usually turns out we read the same blogs or are friends on Facebook. We have a shared thread and are able to talk about writing. Online writing friends are often great resources because they don’t have any preconceived notions about you, and they want to encourage you as much as you want to encourage them. It’s usually a win-win for both of you.

All those dedication pages you read in books? They’re there for a reason. They’re writers’ versions of climbing the stands and giving their support team a hug.

Do you turn off games and sporting events before the celebrations or do you watch them? Let me know.

Reading Thursday: Anthologies and Novellas

Lately it seems as though I’ve read as many short stories as I have full-length novels. This isn’t a new trend. In high school, I read many short stories by the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie (and let me give a quick shout-out to the fact that this past week marked the 125th anniversary of her birth). Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, and Poirot were as familiar to me, if not more familiar, as my classmates. In law school, I fell in love with Jude Deveraux’s books and would pick up anything written by her, even anthologies featuring one of the Montgomery clan or a Taggert. I’d read all the novellas in the anthology but rarely would reading a story by another author lead me to buy one of her books. Fast forward to now. It seems like there are so many anthologies available right now. If you go online to your favorite book retailer, chances are there will be an anthology in your suggested reading list box. Right now, on my Kindle, I am reading-yes, you guessed it-an anthology. And my paperback? Drum roll, please. An anthology. With all these recent anthologies, I asked myself some questions, and what better place to share three of them than my blog?

Why novellas? The most obvious place to start is the most obvious question. Why am I reading two anthologies comprised of novellas? One answer that jumps out at me actually has four components: Kath, MJ, Cupcake, and Chunk. When I’m on the go, I can read novellas in a hurry. I’m also not as likely to stay up to two in the morning with short stories. (My WH might send some of the authors a thank you note for that). Too often I find myself reading a Sarah MacLean or Jodi Thomas novel, and I can’t put it down. With short stories, I haven’t really had that problem. I’m usually done with one in a relatively small amount of time and can easily wait until the next day to start the next offering.

But another reason isn’t so obvious. They are everywhere right now. So many authors offer a novella free on online book retailers in the hopes of enticing the reader to buy more in their series. It’s easy to download several free stories, and then look for something short to read in the car rider lane.

Am I enjoying them as much as a full-length novel? This was a harder question to answer. Some of the stories blow me away. I was literally on the treadmill at the gym crying as I read His Beloved Bride. (Thank you, Ruth Logan Herne. BTW, if you haven’t read this inspirational author, she’s an author worth reading.) While part of the reason revolved around events in my personal life, Ms. Herne knows how to pack an emotional punch whether in a novella or a full-length book. A while back, I was reading my Kindle while waiting for Kath’s concert recital doors to open. I was laughing my head off at a novella in an anthology. So at times, yes, I am enjoying them.

But the problem is I often like three out of the four offerings. I’ve discussed in my blog before that I’m not the type of person who can put down a book without finishing it. And when it’s a short story, even more so. There’s not a lot of time invested in individual stories, so what if it’s bound to get better? I don’t want to miss the good part. But so often lately, there is always one story in the collection that I’m not enjoying. Enough to start thinking about whether novellas are worth my time. But then I think about the times they have made me laugh or cry, and I usually go ahead and download another novella.

Do I buy any other books as a result of reading a new (to me) author in an anthology? As a writer, I would love the answer to be yes. But as a reader, the answer is (with my head hung low) usually not. The problem is I usually read an anthology because I love one of the contributing authors’ works. I don’t usually pick up an anthology out of the blue. Right now, I have very particular reasons to be reading these two anthologies. One I acquired at RWA2015 in New York City. I love Jodi Thomas’ books. Ask Me Why has a Harmony short story. Free book plus Harmony? I’m there. The other book I downloaded for free with my Amazon Prime membership because I’m going to write my next book in that genre. This book actually led me to write this blog because I loved the first two stories but was only so-so about the third.

Now there was a time last year when reading the prequel novella did confirm to me that a book I wanted to read by that author was going to be worth my time (and I was absolutely right-I’ve loved all three of the Milford series so far. If you haven’t checked out Piper Huguley’s Home to Milford College novella and books, they are wonderful, and the novella is free.)

With the glut of novellas right now, I will probably switch it up and read full-length books for a while. But I applaud those authors who dare to try something new, and team with other authors to try to expand their fan base. And when I read a short story that makes me laugh or cry, it’s like any other book-it goes on my keeper shelf.

What about you? Do you read anthologies? What if you don’t like one of the stories in the anthology? Do you skip it and move on to the next? What was the last anthology you read and would you recommend it? Let me know.

Writing Monday: Vary your Shot Selection

As I watched more than one match from the US Open, the absolute dedication and training of the players struck me more than once as a sight to behold. It was an exciting two weeks, and I only witnessed the matches from the comfort of my home. What a thrill it must be to actually step onto Ashe Stadium or any of the courts as a player. No matter whether the player lost in the first round or progressed further, each has an accomplishment to be proud of, their hard work paying off with entry into one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world. As a tennis fan, I loved listening to the commentators and watching the matches. And what matches I enjoyed, among them possibly the biggest upset in tennis history, an improbable but entertaining women’s final, and a truly astounding men’s final. And more than once, I heard so many great life lessons, most of which can be applied to the craft of writing.

Vary your shot selection. One of the joys of watching the men’s final was watching the great skill and mastery of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best ever. Whether he spins it in, slices it, or nails it down the line, there is always a glimmer of his intelligence and foresight into the how he is trying to manipulate the point. Federer has incorporated new shots into his game, including what was termed the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger). Even though he has won seventeen Grand Slam matches, he’s still trying something new.

Throughout the tournaments, there were forehands or backhands, volleys or lobs, some with spin, some without. Players vary their serve, some going down the line, others going out wide. They vary their shots and their shot selection. They know when to settle into an exchange and when to press and hit a winner.

In the same way, an author varies his sentence structure. It would be very boring to read a bunch of simple sentences that all have the same pattern. So, too, an author should have variety in his arsenal. Sometimes a stretch of dialogue is needed for banter. Sometimes short, terse sentences are needed to convey tension. Sometimes long, meandering sentences are needed for a break from continuous action. Authors know when to vary their shot selection.

Authors can also learn from the sneak attack play. Whether an author is a plotter or a pantser, an author can take a page from Federer’s playbook and throw in something when the reader least expects it. I recently read Mary Connealy’s Swept Away. (Spoiler alert for an event 60% into the book.) One very likeable character was Big John, a Texas Ranger whose job was to deliver a wanted criminal to the proper authorities. Did I see him getting attacked by the prisoner and being left for dead? Not a bit. Ms. Connealy snuck up on me and placed one of her characters in mortal danger when I least expected it. Whether an author follows the three-act play format or breaks down the book into quarters, throwing in something completely unexpected, but still within the boundaries of the book, can help to vary the shot selection and keep the reader turning pages.

For example, to keep advancing the hypothetical romance from my last blog (quick reminder: romantic suspense, hero detective in France falling for sister of art thief who happens to work at the museum where the painting was stolen), as an author, I want to keep moving the plot forward and vary the shot selection. In the tense scenes, I’d use short, compact sentences with sharp, pointed verbs. Then say, a quarter of the way, I would make sure there is a surprise to add to the conflict. Say the hero discovers the heroine is the sister of the thief. Then halfway through, I might choose to kill off the detective hero’s partner who got too close to capturing the villain. This also would amp up the conflict between the heroine and hero.

Surprises and sentence variety can go a long way to hooking the reader.

What are some of the favorite surprises in your favorite books? Let me know.

Writing Wednesday: Move the Story Forward

In my last writing blog, I shared my enthusiasm for the professional side of tennis. With the US Open happening as I write this, it’s an exciting time to watch a Grand Slam. On the men’s side, the field is deep with several strong contenders, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. Several commentators have noted Federer’s recent play where he’s attacking the ball off his opponent’s serve. The man has won seventeen Grand Slam tournaments, Olympic gold, and umpteenth other tournaments. You would think it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels and coast from here on out. Not Roger. Last week at the Western and Southern Open, he attacked his opponent’s serve and moved forward to the net, displaying grace and agility to win the tournament. He kept moving forward, and it paid dividends. On the women’s side, everyone is watching Serena against the rest of the field with experts agreeing Serena has an excellent opportunity to win the calendar year Grand Slam, becoming the first person to do so since Steffi Graf in 1988. I’ve already watched a couple of hours of coverage, getting quite a lot of laundry folded in the process. Last night as I watched some of the Andy Murray/Nick Kyrgios match (and rooted like crazy for Andy Murray), there were several points where the commentators talked about moving the ball forward. For a tennis enthusiast who happens to be a romance writer, I thought of the importance this advice plays for writers and readers everywhere. How does this translate to writing? Quite simply it’s important for the writer to keep his or her eye on the ball and push the story forward.

Move the ball forward. The author should always be conscious of trying to move the story forward. There’s a saying in writing: No more sagging middles. Think about your favorite books. There was probably some twist or some plot point that made you keep reading. In the book I am presently reading, the author totally surprised me in the middle. She diverted to an alternate storyline with a huge fight leaving one character in the dust. I wasn’t sure if the character survived or not. Here I was reading the book while walking on the treadmill wanting to yell at my Kindle for Big John to live. No sagging middles for that book (for anyone who is curious, the book is Swept Away by Mary Connealy).

In tightly knit books, the author doesn’t wander all over the place. Instead, the author moves the story forward and advances the plot.

Let me come up with a hypothetical story: a romantic suspense set in Paris covering the theft and recovery of a French impressionist painting where the hero’s twin brother stole the painting and the heroine works for Interpol. Since I’m a romance writer, the hero and heroine will live happily ever after with the twin brother in jail (I’m more on the sweet side of contemporary) and the painting is back at the museum.

Near the climax of the book, the author (in this case, me) is not going to weigh the book down with two chapters of the characters eating croissants at a French café. The author is going to have lots of action and lots of scenes that stick to the plot and the characters recovering the painting. In the scenes with the most tension, there will probably be short, terse sentences conveying action and intrigue. The author will move the story forward, or at least would if this were a real story.

I myself struggle with moving the story forward. I love to meander with my characters and have them go out to eat, talk to their friends for no good apparent reason, or think about their pasts. During editing, I’ve had to say good-bye to scenes that do not advance the main plot, do not increase the conflict, and do not convey some critical aspect of a character. If it doesn’t increase the conflict, the scene has to go. Some of these scenes have some of my very best writing, but they are left on the cutting room floor because they slow down the story.

What are some of your favorite books? How does the author move the story forward and avoid the sagging middle? If you have any suggestions or comments, let me know.

Reading Friday: Through My Children’s Eyes

stock-photo-young-man-reading-a-book-244451953I love my two oldest children, but they tend to fight. A lot. Kath is liberal and strong-willed. MJ is conservative and equally strong-willed. My usual thought is to let them settle their differences unless one is sitting on the other or blood is spurting profusely out of one of them. Then I step in. My WH says if they ever figure out how to work together since they are also both very intelligent, we’re in true trouble. So when they aren’t fighting and are having a real conversation with the other, I tend to listen. One to make sure they aren’t plotting against my WH and myself, and second because when they agree on something, it’s worth hearing.

Yesterday, MJ started talking about an informal poll he took in his seventh grade math class. He asked his fellow classmates what their favorite book is. He expected a lot of people to say The Hunger Games and expected to extrapolate some data on reading habits for his math project. Most of the people in his class told him they don’t read unless it’s for school. Now, some of them may have said this because reading may not be perceived by some seventh graders as the coolest activity (and for the record, reading is the coolest activity, ever.) Nevertheless it struck me that for some kids in middle school, they no longer want to read books.

Kath heard this and jumped into the conversation. Her observation was that these kids have no problem reading all the texts on their phones, so they obviously do read. Then she asked a question that struck me to the core and became my blog topic for today: “What do people who don’t read do with their time?

MJ piped up immediately and said he didn’t know and didn’t want to know. They talked some more about the topic, both agreeing (which, if you didn’t gather from the first paragraph, was a minor miracle in and of itself) that a life without books isn’t what they want from their lives.

As a parent, I loved this conversation between them, but as a person, it left me worried. What do people who don’t read books do with their time? There are some days I may only get to read a couple of pages of my book, but I love to read and try to read everyday. To me, one of the things I’m looking forward to in winter is snuggling in front of the fireplace with a roaring fire going and a good book.

With the proliferation of the home computer and now the sheer number of television programs, are people eliminating books from their daily lives? I hope not. There’s something to be said for living life, and days are often full with work, school, children’s activities, the rare date with WH, family time, meals, and so on. But to me, the day isn’t complete without opening the pages of a book or opening my Kindle and reading part of a story. The wonderful thing about reading is I’ve gone to outer space, medieval times, tropical islands, pioneer America, the cold climes of Canada, and more all from the comfort of my couch or my bed or wherever I open my book.

The other day, Cupcake came home and said her teacher gave her books to take home. I tried to explain to her that I bought the books from Scholastic and paid for them. She didn’t care. She just wanted me to read them to her and Chunk. They cuddled up with me, and I read to them.

Yesterday as MJ and Kath were debating what people who don’t read do, I was struck once again with the age differences between my kids. But I’ve written this before, and I think it bears repeating, I hope that kids and adults of all ages continue to read books even after they graduate from school. I didn’t have an answer for MJ and Kath about what people who don’t read books do all the time. I still don’t have that answer. But it made me think. There’s a book out there for everyone. So go find one and read.

What are you reading now? When was the last time you finished a book? Let me know.

Writing Tuesday: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball

5230306-a-tennis-ball-and-racket-on-a-white-background

I love to watch professional tennis on television. Now I can even watch even more tennis on my iPad as more matches are available through various apps. The way Roger Federer can hit a backhand while making it look so effortless is a thing of beauty. Serena’s aces? More powerful than a locomotive, and I often realize I’m glad I’m not on the other side of the net as she booms those serves. I can’t imagine trying to return one. My poor WH knows this is not a newfound hobby for me. One year for his birthday, we had convinced my parents to watch Kath (who, at the time, was an only child) so we could get away for a much needed couple of days away. There was just one problem. There had been so many rain delays the gentlemen’s finals of Wimbledon fell on Monday, his special day. Patrick Rafter v. Goran Ivanisevic. He still sighs whenever he remembers his waiting for me until the final ball was struck and Goran Ivanisevic held the trophy high. Yeah, I couldn’t leave with the outcome of Wimbledon hanging in the balance. But the amazing thing is how much you can learn about writing the more you learn about tennis.

Originally I had four points in one blog about what I’ve learned from tennis, but it became a really long discourse. So I decided to chop it up into four different weeks. The great thing about that is it gives me my next four writing blogs.

Keep your eye on the ball. The very first thing my first tennis teacher told me was to keep my eye on the ball. When you lose sight of the ball, you can’t hit the ball and you’ll lose the point. If you ever watch tennis on television, one thing strikes you: the intense concentration on the tennis ball. Even in still pictures sports photographers snap of the players, the players’ eyes never veer from the ball. If you don’t know who he is, google Novak Djokovic. There’s a reason he’s number one in the world. The sheer desire of anticipating the ball and intense focus on striking it back across the net is written all over his face. There’s a reason he’s one of the most entertaining players in tennis, and when he plays Roger Federer or Andy Murray, well, my husband knows I’ll be watching the match.

As a writer, I’ve learned one very important lesson from the best: WRITE. In writing, you have to write. If you lose sight of writing the words or revising the words, you lose sight of the story. If you don’t write them down, you don’t have anything to rewrite. No matter whether you’re the type of writer who can write a strong first draft or if you have to edit your book twenty times, you have to keep your eye on the story. Write, write, write.

There are times it is so easy to find yourself distracted away from the ball/story. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. Oh, it’s so tempting to go spend five minutes here and there on social media and click the yellow circle at the top of my document to minimize the page. But then, I sometimes remember the concentration of the best in their field. Tennis players focus on the ball. In a number of workshops, all the authors say the same thing: write. Get the words in, then you can indulge in social media or ten pages of reading your book.

So keeping your eye on the ball is the first thing tennis has taught me. Next week, I’ll be discussing moving forward. Do you watch any sports? What life lessons have you taken away from sports or some other activity (quilting, cooking, gardening)? Let me know.

Reading Wednesday: Not for a Day but for a Lifetime

images

When we moved into our house, my mother-in-law and father-in-law drove their truck over and delivered boxes of old toys to us. They were tired of my WH’s toys cluttering up their life. It was time for the toys to become part of our cluttered life. For a couple of weeks, we’d paw through the boxes whenever we had the time. We’d laugh at the headless GI Joes and the Han Solo heads, wondering why on earth a bunch of toy figures missing arms, legs, torsos, and other body parts were all thrown in a plastic bag without any rhyme or reason. My in-laws (who are truly wonderful people) had saved Fisher-Price construction play sets and various other toys. When I was young, my father was in the military and we moved around a lot. Many of my childhood toys were who knows where, but through all the moves, my parents insisted on keeping my Dr. Seuss books and I insisted on keeping my Trixie Belden books. So I dug through my WH’ s boxes searching for all the books his parents must have kept for him. I found a couple of Disney books, a couple of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and some others, but nothing like my stash of treasured books that no matter where we went always came with me. And it dawned on me. Not everyone saved his or her childhood books.

When we moved from place to place, there were always books with new characters to read. Those were a constant for me. When I was pregnant with my first child, I dreamt of reading her the stories that fascinated me as a child. Lo and behold, I discovered my child had her own ideas of what fascinated her as far as stories (which is how it should be). While I was into romance novels, mysteries, and biographies, Kath has discovered her own favorite genres and authors. (Whatever you do, never get Kath started on John Green who is her very favorite author, and she will talk about how wonderful he and Hank are.) For a while, though, I was worried. Kath didn’t start reading on her own until she was six. Oh, I read to her. We’d go to the library. She’d pick out twenty books and I’d have to plop down and read until I was hoarse. She loved books. She just wasn’t reading on her own. Her kindergarten teacher listened to my worries and patted my hand. She was sweet as can be and assured me there wasn’t anything wrong with my daughter. We each develop at our own pace, and when reading clicked with her, her reading comprehension would zoom. The teacher was right.

Chunk, my youngest son, is the opposite. He taught himself to read when he was two and has been reading everything in sight since then. At preschool, I had a parent come to me and ask me, “How did I do it?” I assured her that I didn’t do anything other than read to him, but I added something that I thought was much more important. I don’t care what age my children start reading. I care and want them to continue reading all their lives. It’s more important to me that they don’t just read for one day. I want to encourage them to keep reading, keep exploring, keep finding new stories.

If you have children, how do you foster a love of books for them? If you don’t have children and you love to read, then who started you on your path of reading? Let me know.