Excuses: What’s in your Wallet?

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Excuses. Most of us make them at one time or another. I myself make more than my fair share. It’s been easy for me to think that I’ll put off writing a blog because it’s summer. Time for vacation. Time for family. Time to check Facebook one more time rather than write my blog. It’s not that I don’t like to blog. I actually love blogging. But the excuses piled up, and with one life event after another, it was easier to blame something else rather than myself for taking time to blog.

My excuses have run dry. My family vacation and writing conference vacation are over. My children are back in school. And Facebook and Twitter, while wonderful, can do without me for an hour. They’ll be fine. So it’s time for me to reconnect with the part of me that likes to ramble on about subjects I love.

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Writing. For years, I made excuses about not writing. I can’t write a book because I don’t know how. I can’t write a book because it’s too hard. I thought of all these characters and stories, but I also thought of all my excuses and used them as crutches. One by one I began to confront my excuses. One by one I knocked them down like bowling pins. I don’t know how? Join a writing organization. Learn from the best in the field. Read craft books. It’s too hard? Life can be hard. I graduated from law school. Once you’ve had Professor S., anything else is a breeze as long as you go into it with your head held up high. I ran out of excuses. I began to write and finished a book. Later I learned about the advantages of RWA and my local chapter. My first critique was an eye opener in that I learned I had a lot to learn, but to my amazement, the published author laughed at something I wrote and put a smiley face next to the words. Encouragement at its best.

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Reading. I can’t remember ever not being able to read. When I was a kid, my Aunt Julie and Uncle Ziggy visited from Pennsylvania. Instead of a T-shirt or some souvenir from Pittsburgh, they brought me the latest Trixie Belden book. Was I a lucky kid to have such great relatives or what? All my life I’ve always had a book at my side. Even now, I usually carry my Kindle in my purse so I have a backup book with me. My excuses for not reading don’t involve not having anything to read but time. Oh, I need to check Facebook. Oh, I need to respond to this e-mail. Oh, oh, and more “oh”s. One of my wonderful GRW chapter mates delivered a workshop to us in which she detailed why we shouldn’t look at a computer for a certain amount of time before falling asleep. The color saturation and vibrancy hinder falling asleep. And I thought about it. Sure enough, instead of reading before bed, I’m checking Facebook or tweeting when what I really want to do is simply read my book. I’m still bad about not quitting the computer at a reasonable hour, but I’m trying to read more because I love it: the stories, the characters, the settings. No more excuses about not reading. I read night-night stories to my kids. It’s important to read stories to myself.

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Family. Big sigh. I remember when I was six or seven asking my mom to color with me, and she said she had to clean the house. I thought I’d never be that type of mom, but lo and behold, I make excuses here also. I have to fold one more basket of laundry. After I take MJ to Scouts. I’ll be home as soon as I finish editing my chapter. Today they have just all left for school. My oldest is a senior in high school. The twins are entering kindergarten. I know the time flies way too fast. I know there comes a time when Cupcake and Chunk won’t want me to read them bedtime stories. So yes. I’ll be the neighbor with the messy house. So I can watch Curious George with the twins. So I can read them night-night stories. So I can take all of them out for an ice cream cone.

They are all back in school, and it’s time for me to stop making excuses and start writing full time, start reading more, and color with the twins.

Have any excuses held you back from doing something you love? Let me know.

Reading Monday: What’s in your vacation tote?

130890640264ycmYMy family and I went to Charleston last week for our yearly vacation. We loaded all six of us into our minivan and traveled east to our destination. I’m fortunate enough to be able to read in a car. My husband and two of my children can’t read in the car because then they get carsick. So my husband often does the driving, and if I don’t fall asleep, I get to spend mile after mile reading. At least I read my books when I’m not mediating any arguments or reading to my five-year-olds. Most of the time, I tend to read romance novels or cozy mysteries. As a romance writer, I love reading all the different genres of romance: contemporary, historical, inspirational, and even the occasional paranormal. With my lifelong love of mysteries (I was hooked on mysteries the minute I opened the covers of a Trixie Belden novel), I love mysteries series, especially Carolyn Hart’s Annie and Max. Most people grab mysteries and romances when they head on vacation. I grab my presidential and celebrity biographies and hit the road.

This time I spent some marvelous hours in the car with Harry and Bess Truman in their quest to drive cross-country, thinking they’d have some anonymity now that they no longer lived in the White House. In his book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, Matthew Algeo goes into great depth about why that was not the case. Everywhere they went, people mobbed them, wanting to shout “Hey, Harry” or get an autograph. Police chiefs held their breaths until the former president left their jurisdiction. In the days before former presidents were accorded Secret Service protection, they left their Secret Service detail at the White House. Many of the police chiefs where Truman visited would spare officers in order to protect him and Bess as they traveled in their 1953 Chrysler New Yorker.

My wonderful hubby also got to spend hours in the car listening to whole passages from the book as I recounted story after story to him. I’d tell him about people’s reactions when they realized that the man traveling with his wife and stopping at their family’s restaurant or hotel was no other than Harry Truman. I shared with him the passage about the rise of the modern highway system and with it, the advent of the hotel.

When my oldest son fell ill in the middle of the next to last night, my wonderful hubby and I debated whether to head home but decided to stay to give his stomach a chance to settle before a six-hour car ride. My hubby took the other three kids to Patriot’s Point while I wrote the last blog and finished reading Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure. I missed my hubby when I read of the night Harry ate dinner at 21 in New York. Who else was at 21 that night? Thomas Dewey. The manager believed neither knew the other one was there that night thanks to some careful rearranging. In my hotel room, I finished the tale of Harry and Bess’ car trip. It was their last such trip. Over the course of the adventure, they came to realize people knew who they were, and people wanted to talk to them. Harry and Bess could not be any more anonymous than Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower.

Now that I’m home, I’m reading Marie Force’s All You Need Is Love and Jenna Harte’s Old Flames Never Die, a book that combines my two reading loves-mysteries and romance. On my next family vacation, I have a biography of Spencer Tracy that I can’t wait to open.

What about you? What do you like to read on vacation? 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.

Reading Weekend: Childhood Memories and The Wednesday Witch

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. When I was very little, my father served in the military and was stationed in Germany. Even though they barely had two nickels to rub together, my parents made sure they found books in English and started a book collection for me, some of which I still have to this day. My copy of Dr. Seuss’ ABC has British spellings so I always misspelled pajamas as pyjamas because that’s how it was spelled in my book. Through my very early childhood, I was usually found nose to a book, reading through the Encyclopedia Brown series, the Happy Hollisters and all of the Trixie Beldens. Some kids were jealous of their classmate’s bicycle or scooter. Not me. I was jealous of one classmate’s family collection of Cherry Ames novels or one cousin’s collection of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. This past week, I was on Amazon and decided for the fun of it to look up one childhood book that was a particular favorite of mine: The Wednesday Witch by Ruth Chew. Although my parents saved my Dr. Seuss books and I saved my Trixie Belden books through countless moves, I didn’t save a copy of The Wednesday Witch. I found out the book is coming out on Kindle in August. That made me stop and think for a minute. Do I want to reread the book and see what made it so special for eight-year-old me? Or do I want to retain my memories of what I considered to be a really good book intact and not ruin them by rereading the book? When I was in law school, I decided to indulge in a box of Cookie Crisp (a particularly high in sugar cereal). After all, it was one of my favorite things to eat when I was eight. I almost spit out the cereal after the first bite because it was so sweet (and this from a chocoholic with a huge sweet tooth). Same thing with a bottle of Yoohoo. As of right now, I’m undecided, but no matter what I decide, I’m glad the book will be available for e-readers and is being rereleased. Even though my oldest daughter doesn’t share my reading tastes (how can someone not like Rebecca and Jane Eyre?), I’m glad I’ll be able to share this book with my younger daughter and that The Wednesday Witch has a chance to enchant new readers all over again.

What about you? Have you reread any of your favorite books from your childhood? 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.

Writing Monday: Couple Chemistry

Those people who know me know to stay away from two subjects: classic movies and writing. When I start talking about movies or writing, I can get carried away. Just ask my husband. The last time we went to a party, someone casually mentioned they were interested in writing a book. My husband removed his coat and started talking to the hostess. Forty-five minutes later after extolling the virtues of how a few words a day can add up in a hurry, how awesome my local writing chapter is, and how neat it is to type the end, I wrapped up my discussion about writing. My husband graciously escorted me out before I started talking to anyone else about some of my favorite subjects. Needless to say, I’ll discuss the craft of writing with anyone, anytime, anywhere. That’s one of the reasons I blog about it, hoping to spark a tiny bit of interest in someone who might have carried a germ of an idea around in his or her head and wants to start translating those ideas into a book or screenplay. It only made sense to blog about what classic movies have taught me and how I try to apply some of those lessons in my own writing. This is the last in my series connecting classic movies to the craft of writing. And I’m doing so with a bang-chemistry. What helps turn a great screenplay into a truly memorable movie? The chemistry between the leads. What makes a book memorable? Chemistry between the characters.

Movies. Think about some of your favorite movies, whether they’re romantic in nature or not. I bet there is some relationship that caught your attention. If you like romantic comedies, have you seen My Man Godfrey? Classic movie fans immediately have an image of Carole Lombard and William Powell clashing. Carole Lombard was at the height of her beauty, a blonde dithery vision on a scavenger hunt searching for a vagrant to accompany her back to the organizers. William Powell was at the height of his career. He played Godfrey, a man who turned his back on the world and lived on his terms: stubble, dirt and all. It worked because of their chemistry. The remake with June Allyson and David Niven didn’t work nearly as well because the two didn’t reflect the same sparks as Lombard and Powell did. (Don’t get me wrong-Allyson and Niven were both great actors more than capable of great chemistry with the right partner-June Allyson teamed very well with Van Johnson and Jimmy Stewart; David Niven teamed very well with Ginger Rogers and Robert Wagner.)

If you like science-fiction/fantasy movies, what would Star Wars be without C-3PO and R2D2? They may be droids, but their rapport and shtick help not only provide comic relief but also shows how much they rely on one another.

More of an action movie fan? The Lethal Weapon series wouldn’t have been the same without the great rapport between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Even Die Hard benefits from the walkie-talkie discussions between Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson.

Dramas? What about the father-daughter bond between Atticus Finch and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Mysteries? Have you seen Laura? Dana Andrews gives an underappreciated performance in this movie, falling in love with Laura without having ever met her as he is investigating her murder.

In each of these movies, a relationship became even stronger when the characters fed off and learned from each other.

Books. I write romance novels. No matter the heat level in a romance, the leads have to have chemistry. There has to be some bond, some connection that shows in a world of over seven billion (assuming the setting is Earth and it’s not a fantasy romance set in another realm), these two characters are only meant for each other. That’s what a romance author has to capture on the written page: the emotional connection that ties these two people together, no matter the odds, no matter the conflict.

When in doubt about a scene, I sometimes reflect on my love of classic movies. How did two opposites like the bookish David Huxley and the wealthy Susan Vance fall in love in Bringing Up Baby? How did two married people keep the spark alive as well as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man? How did Devlin and Alicia Huberman generate such passion when she believes he only sees her as a fallen woman in Notorious? The chemistry between these couples helps me want to create a strong couple, a couple who overcomes odds and deserves a happy ending.

And that concludes my series tying together two of my favorite subjects: classic movies and writing. Chemistry between two characters goes a long way into a book going on the keeper shelf and a movie staying in my thoughts long after the last reel has faded.

What couples in film or books are some of your favorites? Let me know.