Category Archives: writing

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.

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.

Writing Tuesday: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball

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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.

Writing Wednesday: What I learned from a historical site

On vacation, my wonderful hubby and I try to plan family excursions, but sometimes we decide that there are certain activities better suited to older kids and some better suited to our younger ones. Yesterday was one of those days. In the past, I’ve taken our two youngest to our travel destination’s children’s museums while he’s taken our two oldest to someplace else. Yesterday, my wonderful hubby went to the children’s museum while I took Kath and MJ to the Aiken-Rhett house. The antebellum Charleston home was once home to a South Carolina governor. When you arrive at the house, you find it is an audio tour where you’re given a headset and a small MP3 player with a prerecorded tour. The very first stop is in a former storeroom that told the evolution of the house. When it was originally built, it had four rooms on each level. When Aiken bought the house, he built onto the structure, and then another wave of construction brought the house to its current size. At that moment, I realized old houses are a lot like books. The writer in me found her next blog.

Original house. The original house had several excellent features. On the tour, the MP3 player urged me to stop and look at the original foyer and the fine architectural molding near the ceiling. The fine detail was breathtaking in its preciseness and showed the original house’s beauty and grandeur.

So too a first draft has several good paragraphs that might make it to the final version. It has promise and has the barebones of the story. It is the structure in which the author retains what is good and beautiful in the story. There are times upon rereading the first draft where I every so often find a paragraph with the right amount of emotional resonance and description and realize I wrote something worth saving in that draft.

First addition. While the original house had some fine features, some beautiful trim, and elegant rooms, the new owner needed more space and added onto the house. The new owner changed the entrance, moving the front door to a different location. The new owners also changed the configuration of the main floor and built additional rooms.

Authors go through this type of work. I loved the first five pages of one of my books, but more than one trusted critique said I started too early, that the real action began after that. So I changed the “entrance” of the book and in so doing found myself resetting the tone. Now I began with the hero’s POV and delved right into the romance.

Authors also often find a need for a new configuration. Maybe a later chapter worked better earlier in the book. Maybe a whole chapter didn’t move the story forward and needed to go into the edit files (what’s what I call an edit file? It’s my files of everything I delete on subsequent drafts. I go back later and look at what I changed-was it a craft issue? An introspection issue? Not enough emotional resonance?).

And just as Aiken undoubtedly hired an architect and builders for the additions, so too do critique partners and beta readers come into play with this first addition. Sometimes my critique partner tells me I need more detail, I need to make finer adjustments in certain paragraphs. Then I go back to the drawing board and edit, edit, edit.

Final draft. In the 1850s, the owners commissioned an art gallery to be constructed for the house. They took care to make sure skylights were added to only allow natural light to flow onto the paintings, providing them with a backdrop of beauty. All the time, the owners had to be careful to maintain the structural integrity of the house and not make it look like the additions were not well thought out.

So too I have to make sure that any additional scenes flow well with the rest of the book. When I edit based on suggestions from critique partners, I have to try not to lose my voice in the changes. Sometimes I realize I thought I had something in there but find it wasn’t on the read-through. Then I do have to add it, and then go back for another read-through.

Today’s house. No longer is the Aiken-Rhett house a residence. There are no families living there, creating new memories, new chapters. Instead it is a historical site where people pay to tour and reflect on its past history: both the right and the wrong (because the house is located in Charleston, the owners did own slaves, and the audio presentation presents points for the listener to ponder-the living conditions, the cramped quarters, the hard work, the inherent wrongs of slavery.)

So too there is the moment when an author has to accept the book is finished and move onto the next book.

I love touring historical sites. It makes me think about the past, the present, and the future. So too I love writing. I love to think about my characters’ pasts, presents, and futures. What about you? Do you have any favorite historical sites that you’ve visited? Let me know.

Writing Thursday: Why Should I Stay Up Late Again?

I hope you’re having a good week. Mine’s been a little hectic. For instance, last night when I was posting on Facebook, my youngest daughter Cupcake found the can of Pledge and decided her older brother MJ could be a little shinier. MJ yelled to me that Cupcake was spraying him with Pledge. I stopped what I was doing and handled the situation. With two visits to the doctor in the past week for strep tests (one positive and one negative), kindergarten registration, kindergarten assessment, my father-in-law’s seventieth birthday dinner, and various car rides, I’ve had a busy week. Not a bad week, just a busy one. But it begs the question that so many writers seem to ask: how does a writer gather all of her sensibilities together after a hectic day and get the strength to put it all aside for a couple of hours to write?

I admit that I always flock to the writer’s life workshops where other writers talk about how they manage life and writing. I always keep my ear open to try to find out their secret. I’ve listened to authors who have full-time jobs, who are write-at-home mothers, who are retired and are active volunteers, and who have busy lives. Some wake up two hours before the rest of the people in their house and huddle in a corner writing before the stresses of the day weigh on them. Some stay up two hours later than everyone else in their house, using the time to wipe away the stresses of the day, getting their word count in before they fall asleep. Some haven’t watched a television show in years, writing when the rest of the family is watching television and it’s quieter. Some authors type in the car line, waiting for their kids to leave school. To paraphrase what a chapter mate of mine told all of us who were attending her workshop is this: the characters in her books are her friends. We all want to spend time with our friends, and she works hard to make sure she writes every day, catching up with her friends’ lives. Her message, and the message of all the other writers, is the same: they make time for what is important to them, and writing is important to them.

Hearing something repeatedly and putting it into practice are two totally different things. I know I should write everyday, but some days it’s hard to get motivated. What then? How do I put aside a day full of mediating fights, folding laundry, listening to choruses of “Let It Go” from one side of the car along with “It Is Cold” from the other side of the car, and more to do justice to the stories floating in my head?

It’s hard, but I’m learning to write whenever I can. While I work best in a controlled atmosphere with a three-hour stretch of either writing or editing, I’m learning how to grab snatches of time here and there to write. The other night, I was in the living room with one child playing Wii, another child arguing with the child playing Wii, and the third child petting the dog and singing at the top of her lungs. (The fourth was holed up in her room, thankful for high school homework so she had a legitimate excuse to hide away.) I’m on my final run-through of one manuscript, and I had my pen out, making corrections and making sure there was no blood shed. At the end of every page, I’d stop the fight and use my mom authority to ensure domestic tranquility at least for the first half of the next page until the newest crisis began. But at least, I did get five pages edited that way, five pages that wouldn’t have been edited if I didn’t try to get it done.

The inspiration for this post came from another chapter mate’s Facebook post begging for answers for this question. My mind flew through reasons, most of which revolved around approval from others. Finally, I hit upon my real answer. I can’t motivate myself to write for the wrong reasons. I have to find the time to write and the will to write for myself and for my character friends’ stories to be told. There are days it’s flat out hard. And sometimes, I might edit a couple of pages and read a craft book and call it a day. Ultimately, I have to push everything else out and focus on the story and my characters. So I write in parking lots, at playgrounds, in my living room, in restaurants, at libraries, and everywhere else I can, whenever I can.

How do you find time to do the things you enjoy? Let me know.

Writing Thursday: Spring Cleaning

stock-vector-spring-cleaning-icon-eps-vector-grouped-for-easy-editing-no-open-shapes-or-paths-169101809Spring cleaning. Today’s one of those beautiful days that scream spring. I’ve been at the library most of the day working on my work in progress, but it looked beautiful outside. Especially now that the pollen count is down. All around spring is blooming. Flowers are sprouting, the weather is warming up, and I’ve thought about cleaning. The operative word being thought. I asked my wonderful hubby to bring home boxes from work so I can box up old clothes for Goodwill and some books for the library sale. I’ve started going through stuff, weeding through piles of stuff and getting it ready to go out of the house, hoping for the day when I have a clean, uncluttered house. (For those of you who know me, I’ll wait a minute for you to stop laughing.) With spring all around me, I thought about ways writers unclutter their lives in order to become more productive. What can I learn about writing from spring cleaning?

Have a plan. Not just a plan for a book but a plan to increase my productivity. One of the best ways I can do this is to utilize a to-do list. When I don’t write out my goals for the week, I usually don’t get as much done. It’s not enough for me to think about my goals, I have to physically write out my list. When I visualize what I need to do, I attack my list. Today I actually made it to the part where I included blogging and social media. To-do lists often get a bad rap. They’re often seen as signs of a Type A personality when someone hunkers down over his or her work and thinks of nothing else but accomplishing everything on that list to the detriment of everything else in his or her life. In my case, not so much. It’s a way for me to finish my goals so I can dedicate time to my family. Lists don’t work for everyone, but I think they can do wonders for writers. Instead of berating themselves for all they didn’t get done, writers can congratulate themselves on what they did get done. Just like it helps with spring cleaning to have a list of what you want to get done in each room and cross off the deeds one by one, so too a plan can help a writer prioritize what needs to get done today and what can wait until tomorrow.

Get to work. I’m a great procrastinator. Not just good or okay. I excel at it. Instead of Writing Monday, this blog is getting written on Thursday. It’s been one of those weeks. Just as spring cleaning is great to visualize, it doesn’t happen until the sleeves are up, the clutter is put away, given away, or thrown away, and the room is clean. So too with writing. Until I sit down at the keyboard, nothing gets done. It’s great to have the book simmering in my head, but BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keys) works great for getting it onto the page. I have to write every day. For me, the process is multi-fold: I plot out the book, write the book, edit the book, send it to my critique partner, and then edit a lot more.

Double checking the drawers and under the bed. I’m a mom of a teenager, a tween, and twin preschoolers. The four of them all have their own personalities, but they all have one thing in common: all of them love to make messes. One time I found a bottle of opened maple syrup in my oldest son’s room. So I’ve learned I have to double check under the bed and in the drawers when I clean. I’ve learned to go back and start line editing my works. Writing a book doesn’t stop the first time I type The End. Even on my fourth pass of a draft, I’ve found paragraphs where I used the work dark three times in two lines. Today I corrected peeked to peaked. Checking work is crucial: spelling, grammar, word repetition and maintaining one character’s POV can go a long way into presenting a professional looking manuscript. It’s making sure the bottle of maple syrup is outside in the trash rather than under the bed.

Enlisting others to help. Sometimes getting the whole family to help is the best way to make sure the whole house gets cleaned. Encouragement from others is often the best way to make sure the manuscript gets done. Whether it’s a family member, a critique partner, a friend, a chapter member or someone else, a friendly word goes a long way in helping get through rejection or writer’s block or whatever’s in the writer’s path.

 Start another cleaning project. Once the house is clean (once again, no laughter from those who know me best), there’s always another project to tackle: organizing family photographs, planning a vacation, getting kids ready for back to school. Once the book is written, edited and re-edited, then it’s time to start all over. Writers don’t rest on their laurels. I’m always looking to my next book, getting excited over plotting and meeting new characters.

Are you a fan of to-do lists or do you wing it? Let me know.