Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Year's thoughts

Only four days until 2009 is gone and 2010 is here. It's been a crazy year and I won't go into details but I'm glad to see it gone. The other day I stumbled across my 2008 writing goals. I didn't remember writing them down but there they were. I looked them over and realized that I did meet each one. Go me! :) Then wondered why I didn't have any 2009 writing goals. When I remembered that, with the downturn in the economy and publishers "griding their loins" (lol), I didn't make any goals and thought I'd wait to see what opportunities opened up. As it turns out I wrote two novels and completely rewrote a third in 2009. (No, I haven't sold them yet-see comment above about publishers. ) I managed to blog on my website nearly every day and keep this Sunday blog filled with writing advice and reviews. I also had a book released and did my first mini blog tour. Mr. Charming spent four weeks on the Wild Rose Press bestseller list. I added Twitter to my social networking/promo. I made bookmarks, book plates and eyemasks as giveaways. I judged several RWA chapter contests and I've set up a second mini blog tour for my next release Dream Man.
Plus, I started a Master's program in Writing Popular fiction. Wow- perhaps I should have goals in 2010 so I don't work so much. lol.
There were many writing disappointments in 2009. A lot of "close but sorry I must turn you away" notes from editors and agents. It is rough out there and yet, I managed to celebrate at least four friends who sold books in this tough, tough market. Giving truth to the thought that dreams can still come true when it feels as if all is lost. As writers, our job is to write and to rewrite, to polish and to query. To educate ourselves on craft and market and not be tugged into a swindle (such as vanity publishing.)
So when you sit down to look at the new year and resolutions and goals, focus on the things you can control. Create realistic goals for yourself and your dreams. Create goals that when reached will improve your life-not detract from it. Be open to opportunities and wary of to-good-to-be-true schemes. Make it your goal to relax-to breathe-to smile- to hug a family member or friend or pet. To let yourself off the hook when things go bad or don't go anywhere and to celebrate your accomplishments big and small.
I wish for you joy, good health, and a wealth of happiness in 2010. Happy New Year!!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Holidays!

With the commotion and fuss of the Holidays, I know you all are busy. So I'm using this space to wish you all Happy Holidays! I hope you are surrounded by love and warmth. And in case you didn't catch it on my daily blog, here is the book trailer for my next romantic suspense, Dream Man, available for pre-order now. Released January 8, 2010.

video

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Setting and season creates mood

I got up this morning and looked out the window at the sludgy snow and ice, the bare black bleak branches on the trees and the weak winter light and it occurred to me that this would be a good time to talk about setting and seasons in our work. When you create a story do you take the time to think about the setting--besides whether it is set in a small town, or city or suburbs? Some stories need seasons for their purpose- example a Christmas story or a Valentine's romance. Halloween is good for a creepy horror story. But even better take a bleak setting for a joyful story or a warm lovely sunny day for a murder. It is the unexpected that draws the reader in.
I wrote a story once where the protagonist came home to ask her estranged father for help. She was desperate. It was the only reason she was even at his door. In the background a storm brewed and she stood staring at him in the pouring rain. They hadn't seen each other in 15 years and her father was a bitter man. She had no where else to turn. Lightning crackled. Thunder boomed. The wind tore at her clothing and rain drenched her back. I thought, wow awesome atmosphere. Will he take her back?
My editor's reaction was very different. She thought the whole thing was too melodramatic and cliche. Did I have something else?
Lesson learned. Contrasting setting lends itself to story questions, tension and suspense. It keeps the reader turning pages. Think serial killer who is a popular teacher at an elementary school. Scary, right?
How much different my story would have been if I set my desperate character facing her father on a bright sunny day at a church carnival with children laughing and running around them. Balloons and cotton candy smells fill the air. Her father could turn his back on her with no guilt. Play with the other children as if she didn't exist. The party atmosphere would have left her feeling isolated and alone and perhaps more desperate then before. She would have to beg in the sunshine in front of witnesses. The happy atmosphere in sharp contrast to her desperation.
Carefully choosing seasons and setting with an eye toward the unusual will create a story that is a fresh and vivid. Think about atmosphere that contrasts mood for a more sophisticated, realistic story. One that makes the reader look around and think--this could be here. It could be now. It could be me.
Cheers!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Building Character

One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make is not knowing who their characters are and why their story is important. Whether you are a plotter or a person who writes by the seat of your pants, as the author you must know your characters deeply. I've spoken about goal, motivation and conflict. I've spoken about starting the story in an interesting place. Neither of these things can be done if you don't know who your characters are. Very simply put, a story is about one thing, character growth or what is called a character arc. If the action does not change the characters, then there is no story--only a sequence of events.
So, before you begin, or even while in deep revisions, ask yourself. How does my character change? Who they were at the beginning of the story and who they are at the end must be different. Some formerly held principle in your character must change.
Many beginning writers will make these changes extreme. They will take a murderer or a prostitute and change them into a suburban mom who goes to church each Sunday. Then they wonder why the editor or agent didn't like their heroine. They say, "but I redeem her in the end." These kinds of extremes--while showing that the author is aware of character arc--are too blatant and leave the reader cold at the opening. Why? Readers like to be the point of view character. If that character is too cold, evil or calculating then a reader won't stay with that character to watch them grow. As an author you need to think of character arc in more realistic terms.
A simple tool to use is the W. Think about who your character is in the beginning and why the reader cares about them. Ex: Harry Potter-an orphan living with uncaring family. Now think of four turning points in their development. Keep them subtle. Ex: things go downhill for Harry with his family until the first turning point for his character-Hagrid from Hogwarts arrives. From there things get better. Harry learns he is more than a mere orphan. His adventure into a new life begins. But things can't stay wonderful or the story would be over. So then next turning point arrives. (Think W --down, then up, now down.) Harry realizes that he must believe in himself even when others don't if he is to help his new friends. The final turning point things turn up-but subtly. In the end Harry returns to being the boy in the closet, but he now knows he is more than that. And that carries him into the next phase of his life.
Each character in your story should have their own subtle W. Whether you plot or write by the seat of your pants, having character W's will help you build a better story.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Celebrate!

It is the end of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo). Stop a moment this week and pat yourself on the back. Celebrate with a nice walk, a phone call to a friend, or a movie. It doesn't matter if you hit 50,000 words or only 500. What matters is that you set a goal and you worked to achieve it.
As writers we tend to look only at the negative. I didn't make my goal. I made my goal but the work is a hot mess, too terrible to edit. The story stinks. The motivations aren't good enough. My characters are too stupid to live. Or worse, I sent it out and am embarrassed/ humiliated/hurt by the rejection. (Even after over 600 rejects I feel this way every time.)
We fling ourselves in despair on the fainting couches in our offices--yeah, right-- and cry out at our lack of success. All that work, all that time, all that effort and people toss it aside like a used tissue. Why or why do I keep doing this to myself? (Okay, so I'm a huge drama queen. You get the picture.)
Let's take a deep breath for a moment--in and out. Sit up and think about it. Something like 90 percent of the population say they want to write a book. That it is their dream to write a book. Only about 20 percent attempt this dream--congratulations that's you! Only 10 percent finish a first draft--again congratulations that is you! Of those with a finished draft only half will revise it and actually send it out to editors and agents. Even fewer will start a second book. Do you see where I'm going here?
So what if you're not James Patterson or Stephen King. You are living your dream.
Celebrate your efforts. Celebrate yourself. You deserve a pat on the back and I'm here to give it to you. So yay!! Congrats on your Nano efforts be they write or revise or query. You go!
Now, get back to work. Cheers!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Now for a commercial message...

We interrupt this craft blog for a few words from our sponsor.
Hi all, with black Friday shopping just around the corner, I would like to remind you that books make wonderful gifts and stockingstuffers. For the reader of romantic suspense, Mr. Charming is available now. Click on the book cover to the right to buy.
Mr. Charming has consistently received 4 star and higher reviews. Night Owl Reviews says, "This is the first book I've read by Nancy J. Parra and wow."

Coming in 2010, Dream Man-
A NO NONSENSE WOMAN--Dr. Eva Stanford wants only to help her patient sleep through the night.
A MAN WITH A DREAM--FBI Agent Nate Cancaid has a re-occuring dream of a woman with dark hair and blue eyes whose murder he is unable to prevent. When the blue-eyed doctor enters his office and asks for his help, the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
A MYSTERY THAT TRANSCENDS TIME--Coincidences grow too complicated for Eva's scientific mind when clues to her mystery patient come straight out of Nate's dreams. Can Eva keep from losing her heart to a man of intuition or has fate already dealt her a losing hand?

Dream Man, will be out January 8th,2010. You can purchase a gift certificate from the Wild Rose Press in anticipation. An excerpt and first chapter are available on my website www.nancyjparra.com.
Also available from the WRP, is a free down loadable cookbook with family recipes from me and other great WRP authors. Download a copy for the cooks in your family, today.
As an added bonus, e-mail me at nancy j parra at yahoo dot com and I will send you an autographed bookplate.
Books make great reads. Buy one today!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The most important thing when writing...

The days are shorter and darker. We are halfway through nano and the Holiday season officially starts in just 11 days. Are you feeling the pressure? I know I am.
I'm going to share with you the number one, most important thing a writer can do for their work-in-progress. It's simple really and very often over looked. That thing is self care. Simple and yet so hard, I know because it's fraught with guilt. Why spend the time in a hot bath or a nice walk when I could be writing, making cookies, sending out cards, blogging, making contacts...etc. Why? Because if you aren't taking care of yourself-daily- it will show up in your work, your craft and your sparkle.

I can't tell you the number of writer's I've seen come out of a deadline bent over like an old man, wearing wrist braces, popping pain pills for bad backs, blinking at sunlight like a mole, their hair a neglected mess, thinking-shower? what's a shower... Food? I mean come on who has time to do anything but eat peanut M&M's while I write... How did I gain 20 pounds when all I eat is the scraps off the kids plates because I was writing? (Sound familiar?) The sad truth is this kind of self abuse shows up in your work. Agents and editors will ask-where's the sparkle? You'll stare at your work so hard that you'll miss obvious things like missing letters in words. You might tell yourself that self abuse is part of the writing life--but that is a lie. It does not make the work better. It will not get you on a bestseller list. So-right here, right now, sit up straight, put you hands on your rib cage, take a deep breath in for three counts and let it out slow. Feel better, don't you? Got blood flowing to the brain- and a sparkle in your eye.

Now- I don't care if you have to make sticky notes and put them on your screen, here are some things you should do every day to improve your craft.

1. Don't sit more than an hour at a time. Get up, take a stroll around your office/home. Set a timer if you must.

2. Hydrate. I don't mean soda or coffee (Sorry, Diet Coke drinkers, coffee lovers.). Get a pitcher of nice cool water and keep it nearby. Add lemon, lime or cucumber slices. Drink at least 8 oz an hour.

3. Stretch. Small things like the stretch of the ribcage mentioned above. Put your arms over you head for a count of ten. Roll your shoulders. Flex you wrists. Point your toes and flex your feet.

4. Nutrition. For goodness sakes, I don't mean diet. Yikes who wants to add that stress to this time of year, but put the candy away and make apple slices, grapes, pears. Stop and eat a real meal-complete with sitting at the table, silverware, maybe even a napkin.

5. Take a vitamin, if you feel a cold/flu think zinc. I keep children's chewables in the desk drawer beside my keyboard. Chomping down on a cherry flavored rino once a day can be fun.

6. Connect with a friend at least once a day. An e-mail, a phone call or even a letter.

7. Get outside for at least ten minutes. Breath in the fresh air. Swing your arms. Take a walk or merely get out on your patio or deck and stomp your feet and take in the view.

8. Pat yourself on the back. Even if you've only written one word and you hate it. You wrote that word which is more than most people can say. Be proud of what you do. Put your critical editor in a box for at least five minutes a day and tell yourself three positive things.

9. Smile. It's the best kind of face lift.

10. Laugh-even if you have to fake it- it helps with blood flow and tightens the core muscles.

Take care of yourself and it will show in your work. (And I get the added benefit of having you in my life that much longer.) Cheers~

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Write, Revise, and Query

When I visited my Grandmother in September we talked about all the bad news in the book market these days--shrinking lists,bookstores closing, publishers hesitant to buy, readers with less cash for books, old trends slipping away while new trends have yet to appear. "I can't do anything about any of that," I flung my hands in the air in defeat.
My Grandmother said to me, "What can you do?"
"I can write. I can revise and I can query. That's it."
My Grandmother who is a second generation American with a 6th grade education said to me. "Then that is what you do. My job was to clean other people's toilets and I did it. Your job is to write. You do it. Do your best at it. Be proud of it. The rest will work itself out." Smart woman, eh?
This is the time in Nanowrimo when people start to wonder if they bit off more than they can chew. If they can really write so many words in one month without editing. If writing the words, "the end" on a manuscript is worth all the hard work and missed television shows. Power through my friends, power through these doubts. Think of it as your job. Afterall, you want to be a writer, right? Then putting words on paper is your job. Do it. Do your best. It's the only thing you can control.
My friend Pamala, (hi, Pam!), tweeted that she isn't doing nanowrimo- she is doing nanorevisemo. That makes me smile. I tweeted back and asked if there was a nanoquerymo, because that's what I'm doing this month. There should be all three. After all that's our job as writers. It's the basic job description and what we have control over.
So, whether you are writing, revising or querying this month. Remember my Grandmother's advice (I wish I could copy her slight Croation accent for you): Do your best. Be proud of what you do no matter what the outcome. Even if you have to go back the next week and do it again- after all, it's your job.
Cheers!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

And away we go...

In November many writers turn to NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. It is a community of professional and amateur writers encouraging each other for one month. This is good for writers who have a tendency to procrastinate or who struggle to find time to put the words on paper- or to finish that novel. Think of it as a giant marathon where thousands sign up in hopes of hitting the finish line.
It's a great exercise. To hold yourself accountable at the end of the year- before the holidays really start-to reach your dream.
If you can't do an entire month of pure writing, you can always try book-in-a-week. Don't let the name scare you- most people don't complete an entire book in one week, but the point is to write your story every spare moment you have for seven days in a row with an eye toward finishing an entire rough draft.
By pushing yourself to put words to paper, you are forced to bypass the evil editor who sits on your shoulder and tells you that that page isn't right, that sentence could be better and causes the story to stop while you repair, repair, repair, thus preventing you from finishing. Finishing is the first key to a successful career. It is surprising how many people don't finish a work in progress.
So take this month of November- whether you attempt nanowrimo or book-in-a-week- to set a goal to finish your wip. Tell yourself it is a rough draft. It does not have to be perfect. The whole point is to finish and type the words, "the end."
I believe you can do it! I'll do my best to encourage you this month and come December 1st, we'll celebrate our successes. Now go....write...and good luck!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Get the Hook

On the Vaudeville stage they used to bring out the hook when an act was bad and yank them from the stage. This was a great attention getter and made the audience react with hoots and hollers.
When writing, a hook is also an attention getter. You need to write something that catches the reader's attention and doesn't let them put the book down. Each chapter, each scene needs to have two hooks. One at the opening and one at the ending. Your job as a writer is to keep your reader up all night because they HAVE to know what happens next. It doesn't matter if you write short fiction (40-60,000 words) or long (90-100,000). In today's market there isn't time for long passages of description unless it has hook. Unless the reader has to know what is around the next corner or what Billybob is going to do when confronted with the truth.
A hook can be action. It can be emotion such as regret, or guilt or fear. It can be confrontation or impending doom. Look for the punch in your scene and start there. Here's an example: Evil preferred the cover of darkness. So it was no surprise when Detective Ryce Alden found himself behind crime scene tape at 3 a.m.
This example sets the tone of the book and invites the reader to wonder what happened and read on.
I'm judging a contest and am surprised by the lack of hook in the entries. It's not about word count, my friends, it's about hook. When working on a partial or contest entry, don't look at page count, don't think that the more words you can squeeze in the better--it isn't. An entry or partial can be short. The goal is to leave the reader/judge/editor/agent wanting to read more. If you can do that, you will be successful in all that you do.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Finding Time

The irony that this post is late, is not lost on me. But I took the time this morning to have brunch with writer friends as prescribed in my Finding Balance blog. So, things got backed up.
The Finding Balance blog showed me that finding time is a difficult thing for writers to do. There are so many other pressing things--family, work, house cleaning, blogging, promo--how do you find the time to write?
I think what really happens is that we get caught up in the idea that it is all or nothing. That writing is not worthwhile unless we spit out at least ten pages at a time. That cleaning house isn't any good unless we move all the furniture and clean from floor to ceiling. That diet and exercise isn't going to work unless we run three hours a day and cut our calories to 900 a day. We have fallen into a binge/purge mentality. We feel as if it's not worth it unless we make it extreme. (TV doesn't help with Extreme Home Makeover, Biggest Loser, etc. In our culture, if it's not extreme then it isn't worth doing.)
I say- Stop the madness! I say- let go of the peer pressure-the pressure from advertisers and television. They have only one purpose in life and that is not to improve yours- they want to sell you something. Stop competing for a moment with Suzy who write 20 pages a day...and with Sally who runs five miles a day...and with George who not only works 12 hours a day but also coaches and does charity fund raisers. It makes your mind spin and you wonder- who has the time?!
How do you find time to have balance? Here are a few tips that work for me--please feel free to leave tips in comments, too. I'm always open to new ideas.
1) Stop. Breathe. Close your eyes and push out the thoughts of what should be and think about what you want to be. Be realistic based on your life- your personality-your preferences-the current market, etc.
2) Make a list of yearly goals: lose ten pounds, write one full book, have a clean house- Don't write sell a book because you have no control over who will buy. List only what you can control-writing a book and sending it out.
3) Break those goals down into small DOABLE daily bits.
4) Give yourself thirty days to get into the habit of meeting these small goals and make them a lifetime thing.
5) Reevaluate every thirty days to see what works and what doesn't. Let's say you can't lose ten pounds no matter how hard you try- perhaps you need to adjust your thinking. Perhaps 5 pounds is enough. ( Ignore the starving plastic photo-shopped women in media. Think about your health instead. If you must lose 30 pounds to lower your blood pressure and help diabetes- think like that. You are making healthy choices- not dieting. It will never be over. You must always take care of yourself because you are the only one who truly can.)
Here are small things I do: A few years ago when my kids were small I felt as if I could not keep up with the housework. So, I broke chores down into days like they did 150 years ago. On Monday I vacuum the whole house-under furniture once a month. This takes about 20 minutes. On Tuesdays I dust the whole house. On Wednesdays I clean the small bathroom. On Thursdays I clean the large bathroom and on Friday I damp mop the kitchen. If someone comes over and the floor is vacuumed but there is dust- well...it's not Tuesday. If it sounds too controlled- relax be flexible when necessary but don't give up. The key is to not give up.
Next, I evaluate my writing goals and review my schedule and my writing style. Then I set up a plan and stick to it as best I can- giving myself leeway for those days when things don't work out...(Notice that I have no housework scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. These are built in catch up days if the week doesn't turn out so well.) Remember a page a day will net you a book a year and a page consists of 250 words on average. If you can't do a page all at once- how can you break down 250 words in your day?
I don't run 5 miles or spin 25 miles any more. Instead I try to take three ten minute walks a day. It's what works best for me right now.
As for promotion-- no one can do it all. There are many wonderful ideas, find two or three that work for you and do them very well and let go of the thought that you have to compete with Sally Promo who spent $30,000 and countless hours on her book promo. Don't let her bully you into thinking you are not good enough just because she is binging.
So, how do you find time? Stop competing. There is always going to be someone writing more than you, promoing more than you, doing more than you with a cleaner better house than you. Let go of the idea you have to keep up. Think small. Think about you--your life and your needs. Think about your process and do a little every day. Forgive yourself when you don't and keep going. I believe that knowing yourself and your process and being realistic about life will help you to write the books you want to write and to build the career you want to have. Finding time to live a life as full as realistically possible for you is the ultimate goal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finding Heart

When asked what it was about her story that caught her agent's eyes, debut author Marilyn Brant said, "I asked my agent that question and she told me that she found the story very human." (Marilyn's book, According to Jane, is in bookstores now.)
I think finding the heart of the story-the theme- the human part of a story is one of the most difficult things for an author to do. There are no rules for that. There are no use-this, not-that, kinds of things. Some people find the theme first. They decide they want to write about love and loss, or second chances or family relationships. Then they create a plot and characters around their theme.
I am not that "lucky." I usually have characters who pop into my head. I "see" a scene and the story starts. I have to write the complete first draft before I am aware of the theme or the heart of the story. Even then it can be fuzzy.
But knowing your theme- your heart is the only way to revise and market your story. You have to understand what it is your characters and you as a writer are trying to say. It has to be about more than character growth and emotional arc. There has to be an over arching theme. Oh, no, you say. I've finished a full book and there isn't a theme. Don't throw it out. There is a theme. It's hidden in your words and it's up to you to discover it.
My latest book, Mr. Charming, has the following themes of forgiveness and acceptance-self forgiveness (Jennifer has to forgive herself for the public demise of her first marriage before she can enter the real world.) Family forgiveness-(Kane must forgive his parents for dying and himself for living before he can create the change he needs in his life.) Self acceptance-that being human with flaws and imperfections is what enriches life and how attempts at perfection lead to isolation and loss. Heavy stuff for a romantic suspense-lol But these themes are universal and easily recognizable to your reader. They can immediately connect with your characters and your story. They are drawn to the human element- the heart of the work.
Once you can state the theme of your story- you can revise with an eye to that theme. Does this scene echo the theme? Does this paragraph enrich the theme? If so, how? If not-edit it out.
Once you know your theme you can market your work to that theme-in your query letter- in your back blurb- in your pitch.
Finding the heart of your story-what makes it human-will make the work shine with possibilities and create a work readers can readily identify.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Finding Balance

One of the more difficult things to maintain in a writing life is balance. Balance between writing and not writing. Balance between family and writing and career. Balance in promotion, and groups and conferences. Balance in the story itself in finding the right amount of conflict, description, dialog and action.
I always get caught up in trying too hard. When I hear friends writing 2k words, or 5 pages a day or book after book, I feel like a slacker and so add pages, stories, words. Pretty soon, all I do is write. I burrow into my office chair and spend hours there working on story or pages or whatever. My relationships slip, after all, writing comes first, right? My housekeeping slips...write or die, right? I don't see daylight for weeks on end...don't get dressed, rarely shower(I know you're glad you're not here.) My daughter has to walk in and physically pull me from the computer. After all, I don't have a deadline. Writing more does not make writing better. But...but, I just know this next idea might be my "breakout" book... You know, breakout or not there will always be another book after it. I get caught up in the idea that if I only try harder, write faster, promote more, I'll be able to make it happen.
Um, no. Story comes from life. If you're not living it, then your stories become weak. If you sacrifice relationships then your characters lose depth. Living life in your head you lose so much and so does your writing. Writing too much is as bad as not writing enough.
Think of your writing career as a story. Stories can't be all dialog. They can't be all glorious rich description. They can't be all action. They have to be a good balance of dialog, action and description. True success comes not from trying harder, but from stepping back and figuring out how to live smarter, richer lives. Relationships add to story. Taking care of your health adds to your writing-let's face it you can't write as well if you're sick or in pain or hungry. But, you say if I live my life then there isn't room for story. Or I'll miss a trend or an opportunity. I say, so be it. Participating in 100 groups might garner you 10 sales. But at the sacrifice of real relationships. Are 10 sales worth that? Catching a trend might sell one book, but two, three, four years down the road the trend is gone and you will be scrambling again. At what cost?
So, I say, make a habit of once a month, stepping away from your writing and looking at it for balance. Am I not writing enough to meet my goals? Did I get caught up in promotion at the expense of my writing? Am I taking care of my health, my relationships? When was the last time I went outside and looked up at the night sky? My last sunrise? My last sunset? Visit my good friend and invest some time in life?
Living a life in balance is the hardest thing to do, but I believe your writing will actually benefit from it. Now, I'm off to spend the afternoon with friends. Cheers!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Finding Story

Where do you get your story ideas? It is the question most often asked of writers. I get story ideas from everywhere. I may be driving in the country and see an old cross of the top of a hill and suddenly I have to know the story of the cross and why it's there. But since I'm driving and may never come back that way...well, I make one up. I might pass an old run down house that looks haunted...yep, new story.
I might over hear a conversation on a bus or the train and suddenly a story comes to mind.
News stories can create stories-for example a man discovered an old Anglo Saxon treasure horde buried on a farm using his metal detector. Boy that's ripe with story- What/who left the treasure? How was it collected? Most of it is male oriented-belts, hilts and souvenirs. Suddenly a Saxon leader is born in my head and the story of how he gathered the horde and what eventually led him to bury it. Or a contemporary story of a treasure hunter who discovers a horde-then instead of turning it in-he hides it...until the bad guys discover what he's hidden...then you have a thriller-
Stories ideas are everywhere. They begin with the questions what and who--what would happen if she left he husband and took a journey around the world. Who would bury a can full of cash under a tree. What if you were the only person alive? Who buried a rune stone under a popular tree in Minnesota?
So, story ideas are everywhere. The key is to discover which ideas have the potential to become books that will sell. The only way to know that is to study the market place. Study the genres you love to read. Study the current trends. Research publisher's guidelines, editor's blogs, agent's tweets and pay attention to what they are looking for. Then figure out which story idea has the potential to sell. Write that story. Cheers!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Dreaded Synopsis

Let me begin by being honest...even after writing 36 novels, I stink at writing synopsis. When I googled "dreaded synopsis" I got 1,430,000 hits. I think I can conclude that there are a lot of writers out there who hate writing synopsis.
In fact, if you want to make a lot of money-figure out how to write a good synopsis and then freelance out the service. A mere classified ad would do: "Need help with your synopsis? Synopsis guru will write it for you for $x..." It's money in the bank. LOL
I think the problem is that there really aren't any guidelines for synopsis-hints and tips, yes-but no guidelines. One agent only wants a back blurb like paragraph. An editor wants a one page synopsis. Another editor wants "no more than five pages." Wait- two pages are standard. No... rule of thumb is one page per every ten thousand words... Then there's a publisher-one I haven't ever been able to break into- who demands a "detailed" synopsis of indeterminate length as long as every emotion, subplot and turning point is in there...(they don't bulk at a 20 page synopsis and in fact would like more detail please...)
These many different vague demands of what the synopsis "should" be have spanned all kinds of classes and workshops on how to write a synopsis. Seriously- google it. The sad part is every single person will tell you theirs is "the correct way."
So- what is a writer to do?
I wish I had the answer. What I do is write several synopsis of varying lengths...then send them out with a wing and a prayer. Yes, so much for my "important selling tool."
That said here are some tips that I use in writing various size synopsis:
1) Start with the annotation or tag line-a fifteen word sentence that tells your story. Think NYT Bestseller blurb.
2) Write a back blurb copy for your story-three paragraphs that sell the story. (A good way to practice this is to go to Amazon or BN and copy some of your favorite author's back blurbs into a word file and then use them as a template for your own story. It's not cheating-it's called practicing.)
3) Write the goal/motivation/conflict for your main character. Then add in your story's turning points and the resolution.
4) keep everything in present tense.
5) Go online and read your targeted agent/editor/publisher's synopsis guidelines. FOLLOW THEM.
Keep in mind that no one really knows what a "good" synopsis looks like. It is as subjective as writing a "good" story. The best thing to do is relax. Give yourself a break and simply write it.
Good luck!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Magical Thinking

Someone tweeted the following this week: "If anyone can talk you out of writing you are not a writer." I sent off an answer that I can't even talk myself out of it...so, I must be a writer. (Which I thought was funny and a bit sad.) The whole thing got me thinking about the arts in general. Human beings are a race of story tellers and craftsmen. Each and every one of us dreams of being respected for our art-whether that is writing, teachings, pottery, singing, quilting or how we craft widgets at the local factory. So, why then do we create boxes in the sand and tell others that if they don't follow our "rules" they can't be "real" writers, crafters or artists?
The other day I turned on the television and watched the last hour of the old movie, "Field of Dreams." Now, let me just say that I am a complete blank when it comes to baseball. I simply don't "get" it. My father used to turn baseball on the radio on long drives to lull a car full of kids to sleep. It worked every time, except for me. Then it was long torturous miles of endless blah, blah,blah.....swing and a miss.... Ball two... statistics....all read in a flat radio voice....ugh. I am blessed to have been able to go to one live baseball game at Yankee stadium. When it was over, grown men wept. It was a close game won in the last moments. I didn't get it...but I thought the umpire was cute. I digress. My point being that I don't watch this particular movie for it's themes of baseball and simpler times. I watch it because I am awed by the magic of a dream. By the passion the lead character has for his beliefs-even in the face of bankruptcy and everyone else saying he was crazy. In the face of unrelenting criticism, he still moves forward until he hits the point where he says, "I've never once asked what's in it for me." "What are you saying, Ray?" "I'm saying, what's in it for me?" lol
With everyone telling you you aren't whatever if you don't whatever... you have to ask yourself...why am I doing this? What's in it for me?
I know the answer. It's simple really. It's finding those magical moments-when the dream swirls in front of your eyes. When you hear the voice and follow where it leads. When you discover other people who dream-other characters and get to, for one shining moment, follow where they lead.
And that- that is what it's like to have passion for a dream. That is what it's like to live a life of magical thinking. The world will tell you that you can't. You aren't. You're crazy. You're not good enough. No one does that. The market isn't ready. No one's buying. You don't have enough education, the right tool set, that no matter how much research you do it's not enough, blah, de blah, blah blah. You aren't a whatever if...
Here's a simple truth. Who cares if you don't do things "the right way?" Who cares if you write one book over 25 years? Who cares if you write 50 books and go bankrupt and never publish. It doesn't make you any less of an artist, any less of a person. So, quit or don't quit. Rest or don't rest. The key-the real key is to recognize the magical moments and revel in them. The world is not black and white but filled with color. Don't let anyone ever convince you otherwise.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Introducing Carolyn Brown and her Lucky series

Every now and again I am lucky to share with you some of my favorite authors and their latest books. Carolyn Brown is a good friend and a fabulous writer. (Isn't her cover wonderful? Sigh. I love cowboys...)
Following is my attempt to interview Carolyn and introduce you to her work:
New readers want to know about your newest book! Can you tell us the basic premise?
First of all, thank you for having me as a guest on your blog today, Nancy. It’s a pleasure to be here. Basic premise? The teaser on the back of the book pretty much sums it up. When hunky rancher "Lucky Beau" Luckadeau accuses spitfire Milli Torres of stealing his prize bull, she promptly shoots at him, triggering a feud that only gets resolved when they discover they share a steamy hot memory from a night long ago. It was a night of passion that has always haunted Lucky. The mysterious beauty he seduced at a cousin's wedding disappeared. He's always been lucky at cards, lucky with cattle, and lucky with land, but he's never been lucky in love. Now Milli Torres has come to southern Oklahoma to help out on her grandfather's ranch. A cut fence and a big, mean Angus bull in the pasture are bad enough, but then she looks up and sees Beau Luckadeau. Great God Almighty, how did he get from Louisiana to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and what in the hell is she going to do if he recognizes her?
Wow, sounds fantastic. What's one scene from this story you loved writing and why?
I loved the scene at the first of the book when they locked up horns over a bull that had wandered from Beau’s pasture over to Milli’s grandfathers because it shows both of their tempers. It lets the readers know that their journey searching for the Holy Grail of romance, which is happy-ever-after, is going to be an emotional roller coaster.
How about a little excerpt from that scene?
He pointed his finger at her. “Don’t you lie to me. You’ve cut this fence and thought you’d take advantage of my prize bull. That bull is worth a whole pasture of those ignorant cows and I don’t let him breed nobody’s cattle for free. Not even Jim’s — even though he’s my neighbor and friend. Either that or you’re lying your way through an attempted rustling.”
She slapped his finger away. “Get back on your land. And don’t point at me or yell at me again. I didn’t cut the fence, but I’m damn sure going to repair it so your horny bull won’t be on Lazy Z ground again. And I am not a cattle rustler.”
She shoved her hand in the pocket of her tight blue jeans and hoped it didn’t burn a hole right through the denim. Just touching him brought back memories she’d buried and long since tried to forget. It all went to show just how damn fickle her body could be. One touch and she was a melting pot of passionate hormones again.
“You ain’t repairing a thing. I’ll fix the fence as soon as I get my bull back in my own pasture.” He turned abruptly and stomped back to his three wheeler, crawled into the seat like it was a saddle and started toward the fence. Where had he seen her before? When she touched his finger, desire shot through his body like he’d only known one time before. But that wasn’t possible. That had just been a drunk man’s dream that set him firmly on the sober wagon for all eternity.
She pulled a .22 rifle from the sheath fastened to the side of her saddle and before he had gone ten feet, she fired twice, dusting up the gravel in front of him. That got his attention.
He growled deep in his throat. “You stupid bitch. You could have killed me. Put that gun down right now.”
There was no way that spit fire of a woman had been in his dreams. Maybe in his worst nightmare, but damn sure not in any sweet dream like he remembered when he thought about a night in paradise with a lady named Amelia.
“If I’d wanted to kill you, you’d be dead. And if you want to be dead, you just tell me what part you want shot first and where you want to drop and I’ll make it as painless as possible. And don’t you ever call me a bitch again. You get a warnin’ the first time but the second time I just let my anger have its way.”
(Love this!)
So, who comes to you first, the hero or the heroine?

In Lucky in Love they came to me at the same time. Together and arguing about who had the most important point of view. While I wrote their story, Milli sat on my shoulder and Beau stood behind me with his arms crossed over his chest. Imagine writing all day with that sexy hunk behind you! They lived in my mind while I wrote their story and believe me sometimes they were very vocal about the way they wanted it told.
I love funny romances and I happen to know you write with an Erma Bombeck sense of humor. Do you include humor in this romance? Can you give us an example?
I include humor in every thing I write. Laughter is good for the soul. Example? I’m thinking about one that wouldn’t spoil the story for the reader. How about this one?
One minute Milli was pushing Katy in the swing and listening to her squeal. At least she could enjoy the exuberance of her daughter, the sweetness of her grandparent’s love, and the mid-morning summer breezes. By afternoon it would be so hot the horny toads and grasshoppers would be carrying parasols and canteens. (LOL)
You’ve written a number of wonderful books for more than one publisher. What is one piece of advice you would give to a new writer starting out?
One word. Write! You can’t sell anything while it’s in your mind. It’s got to be written so write, write, write. Everyday! And when you get the rejection slips and they will come (I have enough to paper the White House and I’m not talking about that little two holer down at the end of the lot, either. I’m talking about the big one that has a Pennsylvania Ave. address) you are only allowed fifteen minutes to wallow around and whine in disappointment. After that you sit down and write some more. (so true!)
What is your favorite writing craft trick/tip?

I don’t know that I have a favorite. But I do urge new writers to never give up. That’s a major failing in the business. One rejection slip and they toss the rest of their ideas in a box and put them on the attic. Dear hearts, editors and agents don’t make house calls and scrounge around in your attic. At least they never have at my house. If they do at your house tell them to call me thirty minutes before they are due to arrive and I’ll make a chocolate cake and put the coffee pot on.
So true and the cake sounds great. I've never been able to choose just one favorite food, but what are some of the foods you love?
Oh, my, I do love food so that is a difficult question. More than just eating I love to cook. I love fresh yeast bread and the way it makes the house smell when it’s cooking. Then there’s cheesecake, blackberry wine cake, fried chicken, hash brown casserole, fettuccine alfredo, and the list never stops. I’m hungry now … I’ll be back later!
HA! Thanks for sharing. I am so looking forward to buying this new series.
You are so very welcome and I hope all of my readers enjoy reading the new series as much as I enjoyed writing them. They were a complete hoot to write. Remember when you get to the end of Lucky in Love that the fat lady has not sung yet … One Lucky Cowboy will be on the stands Nov. 1 and Getting Lucky, Jan. 1, 2010! I’d love to hear from those of you who read the series! Did you like Milli, Jane and Julie? How about Beau, Slade and Griffin? Did the children in the books make you laugh?
You can reach Carolyn at http://carolynlbrown.com/ or e-mail her at ccbrown66@att.net

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Labor Day


This weekend is Labor Day for people in the United States. History.com describes it as "the celebration of the value and dignity of work, and its role in the American way of life." Which is how it's viewed today.
But in reality, Labor day came from the struggles of workers in the late 1800's/early 1900's to demand better working conditions and a livable wage. "With the long hours and terrible working conditions, American unions became more prominent and voiced their demands for a better way of life. On Tuesday September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from city hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first-ever Labor Day parade. Participants took an unpaid day-off to honor the workers of America, as well as vocalize issues they had with employers."
It's a different work force today. I don't think we can truly imagine the rough conditions. I know they still exist in many countries where people have no rights to protest. They even exist here in secret sweat shops staffed by illegal immigrants. But for the vast majority of our workforce, they are unimaginable. Labor day becomes an end of summer celebration, a bank holiday, the beginning of school and football and harvest. Perhaps that is a good thing. Better still to remember the history of the Labor movement, the struggles of the industrial revolution and those brave souls who spoke up, put their lives on the line and made a difference for all workers.

As writers we understand long hours for very little pay, but we do it out of love for our craft, love of story. We do it in comparatively cushy environments without supervisors standing over our shoulders docking our pay. We can take a day off (baring looming deadlines). We can get up from our work and return later. We can breathe clean air, take a sick day, have a life. Find balance when we remember there is more to life than catching the next trend, creating the next bestseller, following a dream. So, on this holiday perhaps it's a good time to stop, put down your work, look around and celebrate the fact that you have the freedom to do so.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Marketing yourself and your work-blogs

In the movie Julie and Julia, Julie has a friend who sold her blog to HBO as a series. Julie then creates her own blog The Julie/Julia Project as a way of showcasing her writing talents and as we all know, that became a book and now a movie. I understand that Diablo Cody-who wrote the movie Juno-was discovered when writing her stripper blog. It would seem that blogging is the way to fame and fortune... or is it?
There are millions of blogs out there now. The chances of being "discovered" blogging are the same as an actress being discovered working in a mall in middle America. So, why blog?
Blogging is a good way to meet readers, other writers, to create buzz, to showcase your work, and to build a community.
But all I want to do is write books, you say. Do I have to blog? Answer in a nutshell-blogging is smart marketing for you and your books, but only if it's done well. If you can't devote time and thought to your blog...updating it at least once a week. Don't blog. You're wasting your time and readers will lose interest.
If you want to blog, here are a few tips for good blogging:
1) Post at least once a week on the same day. Example: I update this blog every Sunday. Be consistent. Some people blog on M,W,F. Others blog T,Th. Set a schedule and keep it. This way you will become a part of your readers routine.
2) Create a theme for your blog and reflect it in your blog title. Example: In Julie and Julia she titled her blog- The Julie/Julia Project and created a blog with an over all goal in mind- cooking her way through Julia Child's cook book in one year. If you are a regular reader of this blog, hopefully you've noticed my theme is writing-craft, marketing, and reviews that I try to center around writing and story telling.
3)Think of your blog as a newsletter/magazine. Create a calendar, a schedule, have a plan for what you want to say up to a year in advance. That way you're never caught wondering what to talk about when your day comes around.
4)Most importantly-ensure that what you say has what marketers call "value added" content. It offers your readers something they can use. For Julie it was hints, tips and the ugly truth of a "servant-less housewife" attempting to prepare French cuisine.
Lastly, 5) Get involved in the blogging community. Take the time to visit other blogs and leave comments. A blog by itself- no matter how good- will be lost in the Internet unless you let people know its there. Here's how you do that: link your blog to other blogs, create a blog roll, follow other blogs. Leave comments with a link to your blog or website under your name. Create links inside your blog.

For example: this last week, the wonderful and talented Jane Kennedy Sutton of Jane's Ride blog awarded this blog a Superior Scribbler Award. Blog awards are a great way to link to other bloggers and bring in new readers. By giving me this award, Jane brought a number of new readers to my blog. (I have Google Analytics attached to this blog and check my reports once a week to see which of my blogs created the most interest for my readers and what sites send readers my way.)
It sounds like a lot of work. It is. A good blog offers no promise of a television, book or movie deals. But a good blog can offer in reward- new readers, interesting and fresh craft and market information and above all good friends.
Below are just a few of the great blogs I follow check them out for examples of what a blog does:

Spunk on a Stick's Tips
Jessica Nelson's Booking It
Ann Victor author
Marilyn Brant's Brant Flakes
Boxing the Octopus
Linda Kage Blog Page
Sia Mckye's Thoughts Over Coffee
Cindy Proctor-King's Muse Interrupted
Morgan Mandel's Double M

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Writing Dialog

One of the biggest complaints I've heard from new writers over the years is that writing dialog is difficult. Some people have a natural "ear" for it. They are the kids who when playing make believe would tell you what to say..."Now you say, no, don't go!" And I'll say..."I have to go to save the farm." Then Suzy says, "We'll all go together." You remember those kids--perhaps you are one. If so, this blog is not for you.
If, on the other hand, you are a writer who grits their teeth every time you must write dialog, here are a few tips to train you writer's "ear."
1) Sit in a public place with pen and paper or notebook computer in hand and eavesdrop. Write down what people say. Pay attention to how they say it. Notice the difference between two guys speaking, a guy and a girl speaking, and two girls. People use different words, tones and styles of speech depending on sex and age of their partner in the conversation.
2) Pull your favorite fiction novel off the shelf and flip to the scene that really worked for you. Write down only the dialog--no tags. Now read it. Can you tell if it is a male or female speaking? Compare ficiton dialog to the notes you took of real dialog. Yes, there is a difference. Fiction dialog must have meaning in each word. In your book, you don't waste time with hellos, goodbyes, small talk. You must zero in on the meat of the discussion--the reason to talk at all and ensure you get that in the dialog. Pay attention to how this author did it. Take the time to flip through a second or third book--copy a snippet of dialog. Compare. Some of the best textbook examples of writing are found on your favorite books shelf.
3) Write your scene. Then highlight the dialog of the characters with a different color for each. Read only the dialog aloud. Can you tell which character is speaking? Can you distinguish their sex and age? If yes, congratulations you are successful. If not, go back and try again.
Writing dialog takes practice, patience and a trained ear. Think of a successful singer, they have trained their ear for proper pitch and expression through years of practice. While you may not have a coach with you, you will find yourself in public places. Take a moment to pay attention to the dialog around you. After a while it will become second nature and your characters will speak to you. Good luck and happy writing!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Writing Tension and Conflict

Two weeks ago I talked about plot being two dogs and one bone. What that means is plot is essentially conflict and conflict causes tension. It keeps the reader turning pages because they want to know what happens next. Afterall we all slow down at the scene of an accident because we want to know what happened or if we can help. Whether you are a plotter/outliner or a pantser (free style writer), you need to keep an eye toward tension and conflict in each scene.
There are many different kinds of conflict and tension. First there is the story conflict--you have this in every book of every genre. You have no story without an over arching conflict whether that is looking for a happy-ever-after, solving a murder, surviving a bad guy, winning an epic space battle, or making it out of the 5th grade. Each work of fiction begins with an over all story conflict. Make sure you have one. It's not enough to simply have a cool setting or funny characters. The reader wants to know what happens and why they care.
Next there is relationship conflict/tension. I'm not talking about only romance. Relationship tension works in all genres. Think Harry Potter and Professor Snape, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. A story really hums when you set up opposites, and pit them against each other, give them the same goal. If you find that you have a sagging or dull middle to your book, look at your character relationships and make things worse, ie. the bad guy is winning, your character just crossed a personal line they thought they'd never cross, someone they love gets hit by a bus, or thrown in jail and the character can't fully participate in helping. Tie them up in emotional knots or real knots and make them watch while others hurt/fall/struggle.
No where are we watching characters in day to day activities...getting dressed, making dinner, paying bills... unless it adds to emotional or physical conflict and tension. They have nothing appropriate to wear, their boss is coming to dinner and it burns or there is not enough money for all of the bills.
I recently read Jeffery Deaver's Roadside Crosses. Here are some examples of tension in this book: 1) overall story- someone is hurting people escalating to killing people and leaving a roadside cross announcing they are about to do so. (The roadside cross in advance of the crime gives the feeling of a ticking clock which hurries the plot along. The escalation of violence from kidnapping to torture to murder also speeds the plot-things are getting worse.) 2)conflict between heroine and her part time partner is two fold- they work well together, like and respect each other, there is sexual tension...and yet he is married. Plus he has his own cases to work. 3) heroine's mother is arrested for murder unrelated to the case and heroine can't devote all her time to helping her mother because more people are getting killed creating guilt and another strained relationship. 4) heroine's boss comes down on her for political heat he is getting on the case. 5) Another man enters the picture who helps with the case and shows romantic interest-but will her children approve? Is she willing to let go of her feelings for the married guy? 6) There are protesters-zealots ready to picket and mob anyone that opposes their views.
These are great examples of story question/conflicts/tensions large and small that create pacing, and keeps the reader turning the pages. These characters are feeling conflict at every turn. They are having a string of bad days...bad days that eventually work themselves out.
So, if you're stuck with a sagging middle or you don't know what happens next, think conflict, tension and problems great and small. Let the bad guy win. Let a deadline lapse. Let them fall for the wrong person. Let conflict carry you through.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie and Julia a movie review


I was going to write about craft and tension today but then I went to see the movie Julie and Julia yesterday. And I thought it was time for a good review.

Meryl Streep is a fabulous (but we knew that) as Julia Child. Stanley Tucci is wonderful as her husband. Amy Adams plays an ordinary woman turning 30 wondering why her life isn't what she dreamed...The film is warm and funny. The theater was filled with laughter and at the end- applause. You don't get a lot of that these days in movie theaters.

For me, it made me laugh-in a good way- at the dream of being published and how the journey unfolds. It made me cry, at the part where Julia's cook book is ultimately rejected. She tells her husband..."eight years of my life and they hate it...eight years...(I know this feeling) Oh well, poor me. It started off as something to do... I guess that's all it was."
I feel this way every darn time I get a rejection letter...sadness...why? Because of the scene before that...the scene where after 8 years of work she is boxing up the revised book to send to the publisher...and says "this is the best time. The time when all things are possible...when you can imagine that they will love it and the book will sell millions of copies..."
The work, the blood, the sweat the tears...the time away from family...the hope when they want to read a partial... the dream when you send in the full... the incredible waste when they reject the book...(for her and lately for me "rejected for economic reasons.") The pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try a new publisher... another revision... a new story type, and of course she was ultimately published. This is what it's like to be a writer.
Oh- then...the food in the movie! :) It made me realize that no one eats like that anymore. We're preprocessed, low cholesterol, low fat, lucky if we get a flavorless grilled chicken breast with our nasty over steamed frozen convenience veggies. Why? So we can live longer? Julia was in her 90's when she died. Be skinnier? People are more obese today than ever with our fake sugar, fake eggs, fake butters... (But then again who can afford to be a lobster killer or eat fresh duck? I know my kids grew up on "American Boiled Dinner" - hot dogs, frozen veggies and buttered egg noodles. It's what we could afford.) Still would it be so bad to eat one good, fresh home cooked meal a month?
To me, this movie showed two things:
1) The writer's journey-and no most don't have the story book Hollywood ending of bestseller and movie rights...sigh.
2)We've forgotten how to live...cook fresh real food, dress up in real fibers, set a table with napkins, table cloth and china, enjoy dinner with family and friends.
So, see the movie if you can, it's big fun. But more importantly-create a life with passion and romance, "a big mess on the floor..." and "never apologize... after all who's to know if you mess it up."

Cheers!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Revising/Editing 301, going beyond grammar

Over the passed fifteen years, I have read many lovely, lyrical, funny, pages for critique that I have had to ultimately ask the writer..."As lovely as this is--how does it advance the plot?" The answer is, it does not and all those pages must be cut. Pages like this are found not only in the beginning of the book but sometimes in chapter 10, or chapter 5 or chapter 15.

Revising and polishing is more than spell check and grammar check. It is more than taking out repetitive words and passive verbs. These are the easy things-the things 90 percent of critique groups find. In other words, revising/editing 101.

Revising/editing 201 is when you ask questions like--in Los Angeles is it called Forensics Services or Crime Scene Investigation; and questions like--is that physically possible to do that? You look at each scene for point of view and adding textual details like smell, touch, sound and taste.

The harder stuff--revising/editing 301--comes from experience- lots of experience and a basic understanding of plot and tension. When editing 301 you have to be willing to be ruthless with your baby. To look at your work with a critical eye and to cut, cut, cut- rewrite and rearrange. (Hint: I put the cuts in a separate file. It helps the sting to know that all those wonderful words- all that hard work is not "lost forever." But the truth is I rarely, rarely ever use what I cut...which means I did my job when I edited my work.)

Lets start:

1) Each chapter must open with a hook. Each chapter should end with a hook. Hint: start in the middle of something. End in the middle of something. Beware of putting in action for action's sake. Make each action count. (Think about television shows...have you noticed how often characters dialog while walking? It's a visual cheat that creates the feeling of action and tension while imparting important information.)
2)Look carefully at each scene- is your character getting dressed? cut. Showering? cut. Making dinner? cut. Driving a car from here to there? cut. What?! Why?? You ask? Because the key to good pacing and page turning drama is asking yourself..."does this advance the plot?" Does this help the reader fall asleep or keep the reader up all night? (Again-pay attention to your favorite authors or TV shows or movies...if they are in the car-is there a chase scene? Does it have purpose? A shower scene... does it have purpose? Immediate action? Sex?)
3) Think tension in each scene. There are many different kinds of tension- sexual, internal, external...all create conflict. Conflict keeps the reader turning pages...makes them burn dinner...stay up all night...think about the characters for days afterwards. And best of all-makes the reader say-"When is your next book coming out?"

But--you say, what about my word count? Surprisingly, I have found that once the dead wood is cut it is easy to see missing bits in the scene or chapter and words flow. I usually end up with more not less when I do deep edits.
What about downtime? Transition? Yes, it's true that you need dips in tension and action to give the reader time to breathe to have the moment of relaxation before the next scare-think horror movie...the relaxing scene in the boat at the end...right before a hand reaches out and grabs the heroine. Keep these scenes short- give them purpose-if the protagonist is sleeping, show that they sleep with their windows closed and a gun on the nightstand. If they are driving, have them see something, or discover something that advances the plot.

Editing 301- deep editing/revising is important. It can take your work from sparkle to diamond shine. In my opinion it is the most important kind of editing. Copy editors will catch grammar and factual details, but only you can advance the plot. Good luck!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Mr. Charming Releases!

Hi All!

I am happy to announce that my eighth book and first romantic suspense, Mr. Charming, is out today from The Wild Rose Press.

It is the story of a single mom who believes that hiding out in the suburbs will make her safe, but soon discovers that love and death can walk through your door at any time.

Go to my website www.nancyjparra.com to read an excerpt.

Cheers!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Simple Craft-Starting without an outline

In a recent seminar the speaker intoned the following words, "professional writers always begin with an outline."
Hmmm- so after nine books sold, I am still not a professional writer? Wait, what? Pronouncements like that are ridiculous. As I've said in past blogs, every writer has their own individual process. Even some NYT best selling professionals don't begin with an outline--imagine that.
The problem is that if you don't have an outline, your opening pages can wander and you can end up writing 10, 20, 50 sometimes even 100 pages that go no where, do nothing and must be cut. Which is okay if that's your process. I've learned a few simple tricks over the years that help me to avoid wandering. I'm going to offer them to you right now to put in your tool kit, play with and see if these tricks or some version of them work for you.

Trick one: Write down your character's full name and a brief description-plus one quirk and a secret fear. Ex. Jennifer Sumner is a single mom who works at home. She has blonde hair, blue eyes and an average build. She likes really spicy food--the hotter the better-- and is afraid of toads.
Trick two: Write down your character's most elemental story goal, their motivation and the story conflict. Ex. Jennifer wants a safe place to raise her son. Her divorce splashed across the tabloids made her vow to do whatever it took to keep her son out of pubic scrutiny. A favor for her brother, finds Jennifer tangling with a man whose life (and supposed death) is tabloid fodder.
Trick three: Create a simple W plot. (Nothing has to sparkle here-this is merely a general guideline which is fluid and can change.) A W plot is this~ opening incident. Then things go quickly downhill to plot point 1. Things improve slightly to plot point 2. Things get much worse to plot point 3. Finally conflicts resolve to end. W plots are great because you can connect a bunch of W's for longer plots or subplots.
Now with these three simple things you can start your story and see where it goes from here. The tricks are not too time consuming. They won't bore you and there is no outlining necessary.

The examples above were used for my book, Mr. Charming, which releases this Friday from The Wild Rose Press. Following is a small bit about the book:

After a painful public divorce, advice maven Jennifer Sumner vows to stay out of the glare of the limelight, but then she makes the mistake of saying yes to her brother’s request for assistance.
Kane McCormick loves his playboy lifestyle, using his fame and fortune as a barrier around his heart until the day the world assumes he’s dead. Then Kane learns that he had it all wrong.
As Kane discovers that Jennifer and her young son are the family he’s been looking for, his would-be killer discovers his whereabouts and threatens to kill them both. Can Kane convince Jennifer to step into his public life and escape the clear and present danger? Or will she stubbornly keep to her vow and take his heart to her grave?

Look for it at www.thewildrosepress.com Cheers!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Randomness Rules Our Lives

Answer: Perseverance; doggedness;persistence; tenacity or in my case out and out stubbornness...
Question: What is the most useful tool in a writer's toolbox.

This week I pulled a nonfiction mathematics book off the library shelf and brought it home to read. Crazy- I know. The title of the book is "The Drunkard's Walk How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow. It is a book about probability and the rules of randomness. He starts off telling the reader something very comforting. "The human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can therefore have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated or random factors." (It's not you- it's your genetics.)
What does this have to do with writing? From page 9: "Suppose four publishers have rejected your manuscript for your thriller about love, war, and global warming. Your intuition and the bad feeling in the pit of your stomach might say that the rejections by all those publishing experts mean your manuscript is no good... But is your intuition correct? Is your novel unsellable? We all know from experience that if several tosses of a coin come up heads, it doesn't mean we are tossing a two-headed coin. Could it be that publishing success is so unpredictable that even if our novel is destined for the best-seller list, numerous publishers could miss the point and send those letters that say thanks but no thanks? One book in the 1950's was rejected by publishers, who responded with the comments as "very dull,""a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions," and "even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject (WWII) was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it." That book, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, has sold 30 million copies making it one of the best-selling books in history."


Are you smiling yet?

Page 10 of The Drunkard's Walk is full of examples of rejections for authors like Sylvia Plath, George Orwell and Isaac Bashevis Singer. "Before he hit it big, Tony Hillerman's agent dumped him, advising that he should "get rid of all that Indian stuff.""
Then there is the other side of the coin- the many talented authors who quit after 5, 7 or 100 rejections letters. Mlodinow gives the following example: "After his many rejections, one such writer, John Kennedy Toole, lost hope of ever getting his novel published and committed suicide. His mother persevered, however, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces was published; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has sold nearly 2 million copies.
There exists a vast gulf of randomness and uncertainty between the creation of a great novel...and the presence of huge stacks of that novel...at the front of thousands of retail outlets. That's why successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set--the set of people who don't give up."

The upshot is those who keep writing-perfecting their craft- working through rejection- create more opportunity for success and those opportunities increase the probability of success. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, Act 5 Scene2:"...the readiness is all."
For every writer who tells you they sold their first manuscript there is another who sold on her tenth or 15th. For every debut NYT bestseller- there is another NYT Bestseller who toiled for ten years before hitting the list.
New York Times bestselling author and wise woman, Julie Garwood said, "Never believe your own press." That works both ways- don't accept the bad press or the good. Keep writing. It's what writers do.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The writer's journey

I was asked to write an article for my local Romance Writer's of America chapter and tell my journey to publication. So, I sat down and did my best to give the short version of a very long tale. It came out a tad bit tongue-in-cheek, but nearly accurate and it got me thinking about the subject.

Everyone's journey is unique- like snow flakes. Some people like to qualify and quantify them. It is human nature I suppose to put the journey into some sort of pecking order based on publisher, quantity of books sold, type of book, amount of money made. As in-so and so sold to Harlequin- 30 books, but everyone knows those are throwaway formula books, they don't count. So and so sold to Avalon- those are libraries books and there's no real money in them...they don't count. So and so sold to Kensington's debut line. Everyone knows that's not a career builder...and on and on it goes. Everyone comparing journeys as if this is some kind of hierarchy. (Ah, the human ego is a crazy thing.)

After reading my writer's journey piece a good friend of mine said the writing life is like a roller coaster, with great highs and plunging lows... some people come off the ride and say-"No way, I'm done." Others get back on. This time closer to the front of the roller coaster and as the cars start to climb think to themselves..."What the heck have I done?!"

I think the writer's journey is more like the original "Willy Wonka." You begin by being excited by the possibility of finding a golden ticket. Then you join in the hunt - working your craft, doing your best, joining groups.

Then you win the ticket!! Joy! Jubilation! All congratulations.

So you find yourself in the magical candy factory filled with wonders and oompa-loompa's and their fabulous warnings. It's fun, it's magical... until you get on the boat ride... and things get a little nuts. There are those crazy spinning circles and colors and noises and Gene Wilder's voice warning..."There's no knowing where you're going..."

Will you be dashed to bits on the rocks or make it safely to the fudge room? :) It truly comes down to the luck of the draw. (Wouldn't it be nice if all the bad "nuts" got carried away by squirrels leaving only the good writers? Too bad real life washes away the good and the bad the same.)

This is why long time writers tell newbies, if at all possible, do something else. If you can't--if you are compelled to tell stories despite the warnings--you will be far happier if you can hold tight to this sage advice. Don't take anything personal...and more importantly... enjoy the ride!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reading in Genre

Last week, I wrote about how a good writer can write in any genre as long as they read, read, read in that genre. I think it's true. As Mike Arnzen said if you read a lot in a genre you learn the "deep structure" of the genre. Or what I like to think of as the necessary story elements a reader of a genre is looking for.
Readers of a genre are voracious and exacting- you can surprise them a little, but they come to a genre read with certain expectations and those expectations must be met in order to be successful as a writer of the genre. So, let's say you have a fabulous idea for a novel, you're not sure where it belongs in genre-it could be horror or paranormal or steam punk or urban fantasy... how do you know what it is you're writing? The best way is to take six weeks and dedicate yourself to reading in those genres, say a book a day. By the end of that time you will have a better understanding of where your novel idea fits and what elements you will need to be successful.
While the bestsellers like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson can pull a reader into a genre. They are not who you want to read when studying a genre. Why? Because bestsellers can break genre rules. They can write how they want. People buy them not for the genre but because as readers they have developed a relationship with the body of the bestseller's work. As a new-to-genre writer, you don't have the advantage of relationship. You have to build it. The only way to build it is to write a solid novel following genre readers' expectations. You want them to finish the book and say- "Yes, this writer gets me. I want to read more of what they write."

If reading bestsellers isn't a help- then who do you read? Read every debut novel in your genre. I know, the writing will be debut level- but and this is an important but- these are the stories the editors are buying now. (Well, actually they were bought two years ago. But you can see trends in genres and what editors are looking for in debut novels like yours.) While you are reading debut novels, you might also want to slip in a classic genre novel or two to get a feel for where the genre started compared to where it is now. Where it may be going tomorrow. Revisiting classics like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Zane Gray's westerns can help you understand how genre elements evolved.

Most writers write in their favorite genre. So they have a background in the genre story elements. If this is you, then steep yourself in your market. Know the difference between a Harlequin American series and a single title romance. (It's a big difference in both tone and length and reader expectation.) A solid understanding of your genre can only come from reading. But reading can give you the leg up in targeting your work and in the end selling the work. And that's what writing is all about, isn't it?


Monday, June 29, 2009

Genre writing

"A good writer can write in any genre." - Mike Arnzen, SHU ~ "As long as they read, read, read in that genre."

When I heard this at my Master's residency this week I thought, "YES!" You see, after writing 33 romances and only publishing 9 -- 7 western historicals and 2 romantic suspense--I have begun to wonder if I would be more successful in another genre. So, I've immersed myself lately in YA and thrillers/mystery. (Sorry Mike, no horror for me...yet. Although I came close with a dark urban fantasy I wrote.) My immersion in other genre's has met with some resistance by other writers. They smile kindly to my face and whisper-"Good luck with that" behind their hands. Because the prevailing wisdom is choose a genre and stick with it always. There is some truth in this-you really learn the market and you build an audience that translates into better sales with each book. (so the theory goes.) It's smart. Think of the old cliche- "jack of all trades master of none."

But I've been writing romance for 15 years- I've published 9 and really haven't found my breakout point. Once you hit this level of experience, it's not necessarily a bad thing to explore other options- many famous novelists do- Steven King, and Nora Roberts to name a few. (And no, I have no illusions that I'm at their level.) But that doesn't mean that exploring other genres isn't the right thing for me to do at this point in my career.

I knew this- I believed this- and I am doing this despite the whispers behind my back- LOL- Still it was good to hear someone else agree with me. When you break a solid rule, sometimes it's nice to hear someone else validate your reasons for doing so.

Point being- no matter what genre you write- read, read, read- in that genre and others and don't be afraid to try something new. Cheers!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer!


Today is the Summer Solstice--the longest day and shortest night of the year. In honor of the celebration I'm posting some interesting information. (Writer's take note--cool story ideas come out of old traditions.)


Summer Solstice Fun Facts:*

Awed by the great power of the sun, civilizations have for centuries celebrated the first day of summer otherwise known as the Summer Solstice, Midsummer (see Shakespeare), St. John's Day, or the Wiccan Litha.
The Celts & Slavs celebrated the first day of summer with dancing & bonfires to help increase the sun's energy. The Chinese marked the day by honoring Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.
Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids' celebration of the day as the "wedding of Heaven and Earth", resulting in the present day belief of a "lucky" wedding in June.

Pagans called the Midsummer moon the "Honey Moon" for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice.Ancient Pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump.Midsummer was thought to be a time of magic, when evil spirits were said to appear. To thwart them, Pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called 'chase-devil', which is known today as St. John's Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.


Enjoy the first day of summer!! Maybe even build a bonfire if you are able--eat a s'more or two and remember the darkness begins it's return tomorrow... (Cheery thought, isn't it?) Cheers!


*Thanks to Chiff.com for the information on the 2009 Summer Solstice.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flag Day

Today is Flag day in the United States. Most people don't even blink. They go about their day as if it is any other. But as a veteran of the US Air Force, I have particular pride in the flag and what it stands for. I see the millions of men and women who have stood behind it and fought for what it stands for - home, civil rights, freedom from tyranny. Yes, I'm a patriot. Having moved a lot in my life, I don't really have a "hometown." But where ever I go they all wave the same flag. So, I'll leave you with the following taken from the official U.S. Flag website - I know, who knew the flag had it's own official website. :)

"Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, delivered a 1914 Flag Day address in which he repeated words he said the flag had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself."

Inspired by these three decades of state and local celebrations, Flag Day - the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 - was officially established by the Proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson on May 30th, 1916. ...(and on) August 3rd, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day.

Yea for the Stars and Stripes. Long may you wave.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Your Creative Process or The Importance of Abandoning Crap

I wrote in one of my daily blogs this week about finding a great link from twitter to a series of videos of Ira Glass speaking about the story process. I promised I would write more about it on today's blog.
Hopefully you can follow my thought processes on this...I was on twitter when I saw this tweet by @ThereseWalsh "Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap." Ira Glass on Storytelling http://bit.ly/lTz1O. I thought- BINGO- the importance of abandoning crap. So many would-be writers spend years on the same story- the same few chapters-not moving on until they get someone to tell them those chapters are perfect and will garner them an immediate sale and NYT bestseller listing... except it won't. It doesn't work that way. Some people cling to a story thinking it is the only one they have in them... maybe it is... most likely it's not. The point being to finish the story-it's imperfections are what make it unique. Then move on to a second story. You can revise story one and query for it once you start story two.
What? you say, no!-- one thing at a time... Listen trust me. Stories need to peculate or cook. Finish story one and then start story two. Give story one time to cook. Then go back. You have to write more than one full book to discover your story process...to learn, to grow. Each person's process is different and that's OKAY. Really.
Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, writer's are superstitious. Due to the vast subjectivity of what gets published, what gets marketed, etc. This superstition leads us to search out "rules" that will give us instant success...like searching for the perfect diet that will make us all slim, beautiful and young for life... Which leads to a lot of so called "rules of craft" out there. Now, don't get me wrong most of these are valid and important to learn. But following them does not mean you will be published and dazzle with your talent and hit the Times list the first time out. No matter how many people tell you "it's a rule."
A few years into my "writer's journey" I had written five full manuscripts, hired an agent, fired an agent, I was told by a "published author"..."Your problem is you write too fast." What? "You write too fast. You skip too much. You're all over the place." Huh. An unpublished critique partner of this author nodded. "That was my problem. I wrote too fast. I've since slowed way down and really take care with my words." (To this day she is still unpublished.)
My point being- DON'T LET ANYONE TELL YOU THAT YOUR PERSONAL PROCESS IS WRONG.
How does this relate to Ira Glass?-- in the video, he said that what people don't talk about is how much time it takes to find a good story. How many stories you have to sift through to find the one that sparkles. This hit me. That is what I do. (Thank you Ira for validating my process) My writing process is fast because I'm exploring the stories in my head, sifting and creating, searching for the one that will draw you in and entertain you. Or sifting through the ways to best tell a story that I know is good, but I've just not written it right yet. It's MY process. And yes, I have learned "the importance of abandoning crap." Some of my stuff is crap. *shrug* It's a process.
But you can't know it's crap until you write it-all the way through. Think of it like cooking. You see a recipe-sounds good- you try it. It tastes bad. You throw it out. BUT- a good cook will think about what made it taste bad-over cooked, too much salt, a wrong ingredient...and try again. It's part of the creative process. No one just cooks the first dish perfectly-there are too many variables-oven temperature, humidity, etc. And no one-no one- can be a chef if they don't ever finish a recipe all the way through.
Write the entire book...write another... learn your process... abandon the crap that doesn't work...use your process as the basis for your career and you will succeed. And more importantly if you need a published author to validate your process- I'm here, right now to tell you that when you finish a book-no matter how you finished the book- your creative process is valid. Now- go write another.

(Ira Glass speaks on story telling using video-but his words work for writing as well. A special Thank You to Therese Walsh for the link.)