Monthly Archives: September 2015

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.