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-'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!