One of my Lenten goals…

March 9, 2012

If you ever take note of the sidebar you probably see that Emilie and Tricia’s tracker are usually moving right along as they work on their writing. And then there was mine that sat there at “zero” words. The past year I didn’t write anything. I was busy, yes. I was working about 60 hours a week between three jobs and trying to start up my soap business (this was on top of three jobs). At the end of the day I just didn’t seem to have any energy to write.

Also, I was stuck between two stories. I needed to rewrite The Schoolhouse Disappearance. I’d finished a rough draft of it and gotten feedback on its problem spots. I had a new outline and was ready to get to work on it. Every time I tried to start I’d put it aside and do something else. As much as I wanted to revise this novel so I could start sending it out to publishers, my heart wasn’t in it. I love the 1830s, but my brain was sick of all things historical. So, I made excuses and just kept putting it off.

Part of the problem was I had another story on my mind—Avrina (currently untitled), an adult semi-dystopian science fiction novel. Avrina was the second novel I ever wrote. The novel was awful (almost as bad as my first), but the idea had so much potential. About the time I finished The Schoolhouse Disappearance (TSD) I started to world build and plot Avrina’s story. I ditched the original story keeping just the concept of the world I’d created and the characters. I even started to write it before I got overwhelmed with work. From there it went downhill. I felt like I should work on revising TSD but I wanted to write Avrina. The result I just didn’t write. The longer I didn’t write, the harder it was to get back into it. Until a year had gone by and the only writing I’d done had been for work or this blog.

The New Year rolled around, and I promised myself I’d get back into writing. I even pulled out my “World Building Bible” (the best thing I’ve ever created. I think I should try it for my historical novels too…in fact that might have to be a near future post!). I didn’t write. Then before I knew it Ash Wednesday was upon us and I made this Lenten goal: To take at least half an hour every day to write. The first couple days were torture. Somehow I ran out of time during the day and the only time I had to write was at night. Instead of that hour of TV it became an hour of writing. But now a third of the way in to Lent and I’m suddenly a quarter of the way through my novel. And if I keep at this pace should make it to the halfway point by Easter.

It’s amazing to rediscover writing after practically a year off. I love getting caught up in my story. I love the little (and sometimes big) twists and turns that have appeared, I love the new characters that have made appearances, and I love the fact that my main character has become someone I never imagined. She just kind of took over and said “this is how I’m going to be,” and what could I do but listen? My little word tracker was dormant for way too long. It’s time to keep it moving. To keep writing. Even when I don’t always feel like it. It might have taken Lent to get my back into writing, but hopefully now my love of writing will keep me going.


Damsels in Regress and Distress

December 7, 2011

Please join me in welcoming our first ever guest blogger! Meg Mims, a fellow graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program, writes historical mysteries and romantic suspense. Take it away, Meg!

My novel, DOUBLE CROSSING, skims the YA edge with a heroine one month away from her 20th birthday, so Lily Granville is a traditional “damsel.” I love historicals – reading them and writing them, so chalk one up for “regress.” And one basic rule of writing is conflict in the plot – which is where the “distress” comes from, because without conflict, there is no story!

But one important point about writing conflict in your YA or mystery or romantic suspense is having the heroine rise to the challenge and face the antagonist – and defeat him/her. Years ago, I read books where the hero rode in to save the day, but no more. I much prefer books which empower young and old female readers to battle and succeed. So while a hero is still important – he can help, he can teach, he can inspire – but remember that Dudley Do-Right and his pretty Nell is a cartoon.

Not that a hero like Ace Diamond can’t expect to ride in and save the day – but you’ll have to read DOUBLE CROSSING and find out just how much help he gives Lily. In fact, Ace hinders her at one point which spices up the tension. It’s always fun to involve a little tug-and-pull (and I don’t mean clothing!) between the hero/heroine – so beef up the internal conflict with doubts and secrets, those little annoyances in verbal and non-verbal ways that can aggravate. Readers can get pretty bored if it’s a heroine/hero “lovefest” from the beginning.

Here’s an excerpt from DOUBLE CROSSING that illustrates this point:

“Ace Diamond? That ruffian who crashed through the window last night?” Aunt Sylvia’s demanding voice had returned. “Why would he be coming?”

Raising my chin, I met her direct gaze. “I hired Mr. Diamond to protect us on the journey to California.” Charles dropped his newspaper, his mouth open in shock. “Someone searched my pocketbook and my valise yesterday. It could have been the man who killed my father.”

“But I’m here to protect you, Lily,” Charles said. I caught wounded pride behind his spectacles while he folded his newspaper. “You don’t trust me?”

“Of course I do, but—well, two men are better than one,” I said lamely.

Aunt Sylvia shook a finger at me. “The last thing I expected of you, Lily Granville, was being a shameless flirt. First Charles Mason, and now a Texas hooligan who brawled in the street and ruined your dinner. By his name alone, he must gamble at cards.”

“I admit Mr. Diamond may have an unusual name,” I said, “but you cannot assume that he’s a gambler.”

Charles frowned. “I think your aunt may be right—”

“It’s Lady Sylvia to you, Mr. Mason,” she said. “And of course I’m right.”

I refused to defend Charles or challenge Aunt Sylvia. Kate studied her gloved hands, fidgeting beside me, while I packed my sewing kit away. My stomach churned. If Diamond failed to arrive, I knew I’d strangle my aunt and ‘Sir Vaughn’ within an hour of leaving Kate in Cheyenne. Gritting my teeth, I took out my sketchbook. The train’s final warning whistle sounded a few minutes later but I fumed in silence….

The train started slow and then built up speed, skirting the river until the tracks curved west. Kate nudged my elbow and leaned close to whisper.

“I guess he did take the money and run.”

So how do you balance out the conflict, the emotional ups and downs and the reveals through the dialogue exchanges? With gritty, vivid imagery that pulls the reader back in time and makes them “live” the adventure right along with the characters. I love infusing realistic research like pearls dropped along the path – the smell of horse manure, the taste of greasy potatoes and doughy biscuits at the station eating-houses along the railroad, the sight of black steam puffing from the train’s balloon smokestack, the sound of screeching wheels or clattering horses’ hooves and the softness of suede beneath the heroine’s fingertips.

Get in on the Goodreads’ Giveaway for a print copy of Double Crossing! Here’s the link, and best of luck!

DOUBLE CROSSING — A murder arranged as a suicide … a missing deed  … and a bereft daughter whose sheltered world is shattered.

August, 1869: Lily Granville is stunned by her father’s murder. Only one other person knows about a valuable California gold mine deed — both are now missing. Lily heads west on the newly opened transcontinental railroad, determined to track the killer. She soon realizes she is no longer the hunter but the prey.

As things progress from bad to worse, Lily is uncertain who to trust—the China-bound missionary who wants to marry her, or the wandering Texan who offers to protect her … for a price. Will Lily survive the journey and unexpected betrayal?

Thanks, Meg! If you don’t win the contest, DOUBLE CROSSING can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Astraea Press. For more information on Meg and her work, check out her website.

The Other Side of the Story

September 19, 2011

In ninth-grade English, I had an assignment to re-write a fairy tale from a different point of view.  My partner and I chose “Snow White” from the point of view of the mirror.  While it’s interesting on its own to write from the view of an inanimate object, that exercise was an eye-opener.  Each character in a story, no matter how large or small a role they play, sees the story’s events from a unique perspective.  Perhaps the most important of these perspectives, next to the protagonist’s, is that of the antagonist.

The well-done antagonist has a mind of their own.  They participate in many of the events that the main character does, but they see them in a completely different way.  Sometimes the antagonist is just plain evil–the various stepmothers and kingdom usurpers of fairy tales, villains of fantasy stories, outlaws in westerns.  But sometimes the antagonist isn’t so much evil as just using their point of view to see things differently from the main character.  Because of their past, or their present vantage point, they want something that’s in conflict with what the main character wants, putting the two of them in conflict.

My work in progress is more along those lines.  The antagonist of the book is actually the protagonist’s grandmother, to whom she is very close.  The grandmother loves the protagonist as any grandmother loves her first-born grandchild.  She wants the best for her–but her view of “the best” comes from a very different place than the protagonist’s.  And it goes deeper than a teenager trying to strike out on her own.  Events in the present parallel events in the grandmother’s youth, and the grandmother sees the current events through that lens.

As I forge ahead with my third draft of this book, I am forced to look at every scene from those two points of view.  My protagonist’s view of her grandmother doesn’t take into account all these past events because she doesn’t know about them until much later.  But, unlike in my first draft, the grandmother can’t suddenly start seeing things that way when the main character makes her discoveries.  She sees things her own way from the beginning.  Not only that, but she deals with cultural shifts toward matters such as divorce, high school dating, and abusive relationships.  These things are handled differently than they were when she was young and dealing with them.  It’s been a wonderful challenge for me to keep these things in mind even as I’m writing a contemporary novel.

Have you ever thought about your story (or someone else’s) through the eyes of another character?  What do you discover about the story?

Free Association Exercise

September 6, 2011

What do you think of when you see the following words or phrases?

  • Vietnam
  • So you think you know the Arab world?
  • War of 1812
  • The Manhattan Project
  • Rivers: The Foundation of Civilizations

Where did I come up with such a list?  From Carus Publishing’s new magazine theme lists.  Carus publishes many magazines for children, and four of them are devoted to social studies.  Calliope focuses on world history, Cobblestone on US history, Faces on world cultures, and Appleseeds on general social studies for second through fourth grades (the other three are aimed at the middle-grade reader, grades four through eight).

Each issue has a theme, and it’s up to prospective writers to come up with articles, short stories, poems, or activities that relate to this theme in some way.  I think of it as a free association exercise that I do every August when the theme lists are released.  My one published article in this set of magazines is about the Dutch Resistance Movement during World War II.  The theme for that issue of Faces was simply “The Netherlands,” but that’s the free association my brain made while reading that list.

There’s a fine line, of course, between steering clear of the obvious associations (the Vietnam War for the issue on Vietnam) and not going too far off the deep end (an in-depth look at Napoleon because he did have something to do with the War of 1812).  But even though my rejections for these magazines have far outweighed my acceptances at this point, this free association is something I look forward to.  It’s fun to dig into a subject you thought you knew, only to discover new things and then try to pare it down into 600 words.  And you never know when your random thought will become an editor’s “ah-hah!” and you’ll be able to share your insights with kids across the country.

A Title by Any Other Name . . .

July 12, 2011

While at Barnes & Noble recently I overheard a conversation between two teenage girls in the Young Adult section. It went something like this:

“You know how they say you can’t judge a book by its cover?” Girl #1 said.

“Yeah?” Girl #2 said.

“That’s so not true. You totally can.”

“I know, right?”

I agree—at least as far as being able to judge whether a book is the kind you generally like to read, which is what I think these girls were talking about. The content, of course, has to be read to be judged fairly.

Today I want to talk about book covers and more specifically, book titles. Cover art is usually not something an author has any control over. And while publishers do change titles, at least there’s a chance that they might actually like your original title and stick with it. Especially if it’s catchy and attention-getting.

For example, a YA novel by Lish McBride has a title I love—Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. I have no idea if it’s her original title or not. I checked the book out from the library just because of the title. It’s paranormal, I think, or maybe just horror, and that’s definitely not the type of book I usually pick up. But with a title that good, I have to read it. I also think the title is funny because I doubt most teenagers even get the joke. (Please forgive my ageism!)

So how do you come up with a catchy title? I don’t know. Maybe that’s something for creative marketing people to do. But I figure a writer should give it her best shot. A title needs to reflect the genre and tone of the story. With my historical fantasy novels, An Inherited Evil and Magic’s Lure, the titles came relatively easily. I just played around with theme and the ideas in the stories. With my contemporary YA romance, Counting Winks, the title jumped out at me while I was writing. I wanted it to be fun and maybe whimsical, and I hope it is. But it also suggests romance.

Still, as much as I like these titles, I’m keeping an open mind. Who knows if a better idea might come along? Or if a future publisher will ask for several more options for titles?

Finding just the right title isn’t always easy. Many writers struggle with this. We work and brainstorm, yet still nothing seems to fit. But take heart! There are a lot of resources out there. Sometimes you’ll find the perfect title through a classic novel—Pride and Prejudice, anyone? (How many variations on that title are there now?) Or poetry, or the bible, or Shakespeare. The bard’s words boast an amazing number of book titles—The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Perchance to Dream by Robert B. Parker, The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, and tons more.

So, writers, how do you come up with titles for your work? Where do you go when you’re stuck?

Finishing the first draft

June 13, 2011

“You gave up what?”

I’ve always been a “write when I can” type of writer. In other words, it took me a long time to get anything done. But back in January, I made a commitment to write every day that month. I was working on the first draft of the YA contemporary novel I’d started last summer, but had put on hold while I revised another book. This seemed like a great time to get the novel done. So I spent January through March committed to writing every day. And except for two or three days each month, it worked. I finished the rough draft the first week of April.

To accomplish that I needed to give up a few things—keeping up with the bills or the laundry—and I only vacuumed when there was so much dog hair that I could knit a sweater. If I knew how to knit. But I digress.

The more I wrote, the easier it was to keep writing. I discovered I could fit in more of those daily activities I had given up. Except for one thing. Reading.

Yes, I know how important it is for a fiction writer to read fiction. My reading in previous years had averaged a book a week. But somehow, I knew I shouldn’t read while working on my current book. I felt terrified that I’d be sucked into someone else’s great story and would feel more pull to read than to write. I only read whatever my critique partners sent me and snippets of published books to see how other writers handled things like point of view or transitions within chapters.

My to-be-read stack. (Not counting ebooks or books I still need to get.)

In those down times, the moments where I normally would have read fiction, I read magazines or watched TV or played four-deck Spider on my cell phone in an attempt to ruin my eyesight. I created new habits. There’s only one problem. I read two books in January as I started this process. It’s now June and I just started the novel I’ll review for the Damsels in August.

I lost the habit of reading. And that just won’t do. Yes, I’ll have to give up watching television shows that are new to me because I didn’t watch them during the spring. And perhaps watch only one episode of MI-5 or Battlestar Galactica a week. But it’ll be worth it. My to-be-read pile is currently a foot high—not counting ebooks—so I have plenty of books ready and waiting.

I have no idea if I’ll give up reading when I write my next book. I’ll have to see what feels right.  So tell me—have you ever given up reading to finish a draft? If not, what things have you given up?

NESCBWI Annual Conference

May 18, 2011

I hadn’t missed my local conference since I started attending writing conferences in 2007, but this year I contemplated not going. I’d been really frustrated with my last couple of conferences, getting very little out of them. It’s only because of my mom (gotta love moms) that I ended up going, and I’m really glad I did! This year was “big”! NESCBWI was celebrating its 25th consecutive conference, and did so in style with a great line up of keynote speakers that included Tomie DePaola, Stephen Mooser, Lin Oliver, Harold Underdown, and Jane Yolen.

Saturday started off with Jane Yolen’s great keynote on rejection. The highlight of the speech for me was that we have to remember that rejection isn’t personal, and that even though we (as writers) have left our heart and soul on the pages we submit, the editor only sees the words and is only rejecting novel, not us. I also picked up a few “writer” acronyms that (I’m not sure how) I didn’t know about! My favorite being BIC or Butt in Chair! Something I need to do more of right now!

I wasn’t too enthusiastic about my Saturday workshops when I signed up for them, but I ended up really liking them. I got some good information and the speakers were very good. I ended up taking two nonfiction workshops: Research Techniques for Nonfiction and Using Photographs in Nonfiction. Both were taught by Loree Griffin Burns (who’s a great speaker) and I walked out of the workshops knowing more than I did going in—that’s the best kind of workshop!

The third workshop I took was by Tami Lewis Brown called Levitate Your Fiction. She talked about seven “magical” tools for levitating your fiction. Note: I can’t list all of them here with explanations because we were asked not to repost presenters’ work without their permission, but I can highlight a few of the points that really spoke to me. The first thing we need to do as writers is find the incredible (the “beyond belief”) element in our novels. It is our job to make the unbelievable element real. We have to ask ourselves what element is “beyond belief” and how we will make it “credible.” If you can convince the reader this element could be nothing but “true,” it will levitate your fiction to the next level. The other point that really stayed with me was that we need to “hire a skeptic.” We need someone to ask the hard questions, create obstacles, and raise doubts. And it doesn’t just have to be your reader; it can be in the form of skeptical character.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we were privileged to hear Lin Oliver, co-founder and Executive Director of the SCBWI, and Stephen Mooser, co-founder and President of SCBWI, speak. I knew nothing about the history of SCBWI and how it was founded. Lin, Stephen and Jane Yolen started the first SCBW, the “I” was added soon after when illustrator Tomie dePaola joined. It really was a treat to hear all four keynote speakers talk about the history of SCBWI.

I also submitted a very rough draft first chapter of Avrina for a critique. I’ve never written science fiction before, and I was hoping just to get some feedback that would help me as I wrote the first draft. My critiquer, Stacy Whitman, is WONDERFUL. I have never had an editor take so much time and put so much effort into 10 pages of mine. She gave me lots of useful feedback that has already given me ideas for how to reshape the first chapter and pull her comments through the entire novel. Sunday I had a two-hour intensive workshop on World Building with her that I really enjoyed. I’m definitely on the right track with my world building, and I have a renewed passion to keep writing Avrina now. This was what I wanted, but had been missing from past conferences—that desire to write! I’m so glad I didn’t skip this year. I’d have missed out big time!