Wednesday, May 31, 2006

This week's quote and why writers are like athletes

"For a lot of years, I made my bed hard, and it was tough to sleep in it." -- Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, a recently deceased football player who overindulged in food and booze until he ruined his career.

What made this quote jump out at me? First, "I made my bed hard" -- what a concise way to describe the destruction of his life and that he's responsible for it. The "tough to sleep in it" let's us know that he suffered for his choices. He took a cliche and made it fresh and unique to his experience. Pretty impressive, and it makes the ruin of his life even more poignant to me.

It also made me think this would be a good guideline for a certain type of hero. Not the hero of the book I'm about to start, but the sort of bitter, resentful hero who's made bad choices. Or a heroine who's done that, too.

This is the second time a line from a professional athlete has appealed to me, and it got me thinking about the similarities between professional athletes and professional writers. Obviously, in many ways, we're different. Nobody actually watches me at my work, for instance, and I don't have to run around while I do it -- thank goodness! But in many ways, we're the same. For one thing, we get judged by our performance, and that also determines how much we get paid.

And professional writers and professional atheletes have to have talent to succeed. I know there are plenty of people who will say that anybody can be a writer if they keep trying and work at it long enough. Frankly, I don't think so. Desire and persistence are keys to succeeding, but I also believe at least a spark of talent -- an innate creativity -- is required.

During the Olympics, I learned that the body of the captain of the Norwegian men's cross country ski team at the Lillehammer Games used oxygen at twice the efficiency of a "normal" person. Now, all the training and all the desire in the world can't impart that to another person. He had a fortuitous combination of genes, and he got involved in a sport that enabled him to utilize that gift. I think the same holds true for selling writers. We have a creativity that simply can't be taught. If we're lucky, we're able to use it. If not...well, I suspect that's why some people always seem to wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Whew, baby, hotter 'n Hades!

Okay, so what's Mother Nature got against me? Last weekend, we nearly froze to death at the cottage. Now, it's hotter than Hades!

We went to see the new X-Men movie on the weekend. I do love Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Well, to be really precise, I love his back. That man has some muscular back! All my heroes have backs like that, at least in my mind. Alas, I didn't get to see much of it this time out. Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie. I would have liked a bit more about the big blue guy, though. My daughter had to give me his backstory later. And it was a good thing I'd been forewarned about staying to the end of the credits. That was in the first paragraph of one review, and I read no more. I've stopped reading reviews of movies I plan to see, because all too often they give away a key plot element. I hate when that happens in reviews of my books, and I really hate it when something "secret" is given away in the back cover copy. Fortunately, the latter's a rare event.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Revisions a-go-go!

So I spoke to my editor yesterday, and hooray, she liked MY LORD'S DESIRE. I confess I was having a few moment's of doubt after getting emails that said (a) she'd read it and (b) she'd be calling with some revision suggestions. Nothing about the story, or if it was good, or anything. I tried not to panic, but let's face it, what I really hoped for was "I loved it! It's wonderful! You don't have to change a word!" Or "I liked it! I have a few suggestions, though."

Fortunately, she did like it and she was impressed with the "mystery" aspects of the plot. This was extra good to hear because I'd made a conscious effort to "beef up" the plot activity in this book. As I've said before, and will surely say again, I don't pay attention to all the reviews or criticism of my work -- I couldn't, because it can be contradictory and basically drive you nuts. However, the Publishers Weekly review that called my last book "touching but predicable" had me thinking about plot. (What the reviewer surely didn't know was that I was extremely thrilled by "touching," because I'd been working really hard to make my stories more emotional.) Now the trick is to keep the emotion while also making the plot less "predicable" -- something with more twists and turns. It sounds like I've succeeded.

But there is more work to be done. Alas, it seems I cut out too much of the heroine's backstory; I was worried I'd be giving her too much "baggage" and instead, didn't give her enough, so she seems less "deep" than the hero (who my editor quite liked -- yeah!). I also need to do a little revising of the love scenes. Not the scenes themselves per se, but where they are in the story.

I know some writers get very tense about revising their work, but not me. I'm glad to have a fresh perspective and a chance to revise. That's when my editor is invaluable. I'm sure she's doing lots of other necessary things with regards to my books and my career when she's in the office, but this is the one that's most obvious and important to me; as far as I'm concerned, this is where she really earns her salary.

But that's not all the revising I'm doing these days. I also "revised" my weeping mulberry this afternoon. If ever a tree needed pruning...! I've also gotten one of my molar's "revised" -- a chunk broke off it over the weekend.

And last but not least, I'm revising the synopsis for the next book, THE NOTORIOUS KNIGHT. It's due next week. So far, the synopsis is about 18 pages -- just about right, I think. I've got the main conflicts, the main secondary characters and the subplots. I think it's "good to go," but of course, the final say is up to my editor. If she has questions or comments that lead to changes, fine by me!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

24's Man of Honor

I came late to the series 24. I missed the first season, although I have since purchased the DVD to catch up. Talk about yer adrenelin rush, although there are times when the plot goes beyond my capacity to suspend my disbelief. Nevertheless, I enjoy it, and I especially enjoy Kiefer Sutherland's voice. Mmmm...raspy.

But there's one character who I, and many others, have come to care about deeply, and that's the Secret Service guy, Aaron (wonderfully played by Glen Morshower). I believe he's one of the few cast members to be in every season, although I'm pretty sure he didn't actually have a line in the first. This season was his "break out," due in no small part to the relationship he had with the First Lady (also wonderfully played by Jean Smart). Oh, man oh man! You knew he cared about her; you knew she cared about him, and yet, they never said much beyond the "general" and there was but perhaps one small touch of their hands. Yet it was obvious they cared deeply about each other. Indeed, I think their relationship came across much more powerfully than Jack and Audrey's; I know I certainly cared about it more.

Nevertheless, I was glad Aaron and FL didn't actually kiss. That might seem strange coming from a romance writer, but it makes perfect character sense to me. Aaron is too honorable to kiss/express his love for a married woman, even if her husband's a despicable criminal.

Aaron's all about integrity and honor, and he certainly has the strength of his convictions. You know that for him, duty and honor aren't just abstract terms, but absolute codes of conduct. Chivalry, in its best form, is not dead; it's alive and well in Aaron. To have such a man's respect is no small thing, and to lose it....well, Aaron calling the president by his given name may just be one of the greatest "disses" in TV history. Take note, all those who think you need a string of obscene epithets to make your point.

I also note that the First Lady, who was set up as mentally incompetent, came to Aaron's rescue. Go, FLOTUS!

That relationship was also appealing because neither the First Lady nor Aaron are young, nor is Aaron what you'd call a hunk, yet the sparks were certainly flying. And it was also easy to believe that if they could have a relationship, their devotion to each other would be deep, and far more than physical desire. That's the kind of relationship I try to create between the hero and heroine in my books.

Aaron and the FL demonstrate the power of well-written secondary characters. Their story could also, though, be a cautionary tale showing how secondary characters can take over a story line -- not that I'm complaining! I would love to learn, in the next season, that Aaron and the First Lady are together.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Quote o' the week -- listening (or not) to "constructive criticism"

"It is what it is and it did what it do." -- supposedly said by Rasheed Wallace

Driving home from a chilly weekend at the folks' cottage, I wound up listening to a sports radio call-in show, and the DJ was talking about this statement. I don't know if Rasheed Wallace, who I gather plays basketball (I am no sports fan), actually said this, but it tickled my funny bone. It also made me think again about something that's been on my mind for the past several days, and that's the nature of "constructive criticism" when it comes to writing.

I gather this has been a hot topic on some message boards, and as always, plenty of people are of the opinion that when an author submits his or her work for publication, s/he should have the ol' stiff upper lip when it comes to criticism. Fair enough. You send your work out into the big wide world, you can't expect everybody to love it, or even like it. You can hope that your efforts and you, the author, will be treated with some respect or even common courtesy, as everyone who ventures outside their front door hopes, but don't count on it.

However, the term "constructive criticism" implies (at least to me) that the person doing the criticizing believes they are right. That they are more right than you, the author. That they know more than you, or are more "expert". That there is, indeed, a "right" way to write -- and so there is, if you want to appeal to that one person. If you follow his or her advice in the guise of constructive criticism, you will probably please them more next time. But -- and this is major -- you may also be doing the very worst thing to appeal to another reader.

Does that mean one should ignore criticism? No, but it doesn't mean I should listen to it and/or follow any advice, whether well-meaning or otherwise, either. After all, it's not the critic's name on the book, it's mine. And even if I were to try, the same book can get different reactions, and then what's an author to do?

That said, I don't just ignore criticism or reviews, even though some of it can be very difficult to hear. I'll often bear some of those opinions in mind with the next book -- but only if I feel the comments were "on the money." In other words, if I agree the criticism has some merits. Otherwise, I ignore it. I have to. I'd go nuts trying to "please all of the people all of the time."

So for me, the bottom line has to be: I write what I write; it is what it is; it does what it do. I hope people like it. If they don't, that bothers me, but when it comes to the next book, the person I have to satisfy first and foremost is me.

Coming soon: why I was glad Aaron and FLOTUS on 24 didn't kiss. Why I now fully understand the appeal of the night cap (as in clothing, not the drink). My latest outlining method (I swear I have a different one for every book!). And possibly the Saga of the Broken Tooth (still being "written").

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Quote o' the Week - beginning again

"It's as if writing were a high dive, and during the earlier stages we were just climbing the ladder." -- Bruce Holland Rogers

"The earlier stages" Rogers is referring to are such things as outlining, research, imagining story details, listing character traits, etc -- whatever a writer does before actually writing the first sentence of their novel. That's the stage I'm at now for the next book. Actually, I'm at the point where I've told my editor the equivalent of, "I'm going to do a high dive. There will be a ladder, and there will be a platform, and I will dive into a big tub of water." In other words, she has a (very short) synopsis of the story, noting the main characters, the main conflicts, and the general gist of the plot.

Now I've got to write a longer, more detailed synopsis -- I've got to describe the ladder, the platform, the water and possibly my costume. Then I'll send that to her and hope she likes it. If not, changes will be made. Once that synopsis is approved, however, that's the end of the "climing the ladder" stage for me. I will dive off the platform and start writing the book.

I will not have done a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene outline. I will not have done any sort of outline at all, except for that synopsis. I will not have written character descriptions beyond what's in the synopsis. I will not have described all the activity. I tell myself I like to leave myself open for "surprises" -- developments that come along the way that energize me. That doing too much prep will mean I'm bored with the story before I even start to write it.

The truth is, I'm impatient.

I know full well I could save myself tons of effort and rewriting if I outlined more. However, I simply can't wait to get my characters talking. I love dialogue, and I've yet to see any writing how-to that suggests you write several pages of dialogue before you begin your book. They're all about narrative and/or charts or other diagrams. This is one reason why I will sometimes break one of those so-called rules and put dialogue in a synopsis. I simply cannot help it.

This is also why I find coming up with physical descriptions of my characters kind of a pain -- I don't see them so much as hear them. I remember sitting in the theater at the start of "Gladiator" and realizing that Russell Crowe's slightly raspy voice sounded exactly the way I'd imagined my latest hero speaking. Never mind what he looks like, that's The Voice!

Fortunately, and unfortunately (because it means I'm even more impatient to get to the actual book), I've already met the hero of THE NOTORIOUS KNIGHT. He's the brother of the hero of MY LORD'S DESIRE, so I've already heard him speak and I can hardly wait to get him talking more -- and unlike many of my heroes, he's not reticent! Most of all, though, I can hardly wait to get him talking to the heroine. And trying to make her see his point. And listening to her refute his point, or ignore his point, or tell him to take his point and... well, you get my drift. That's what I love about writing. That's what excites me, and thrills me most about writing.

That's why I smile, throw out my arms and dive.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

I'm back from New York. I finished my book before I left, with literally minutes to spare (printed last page at 8:20 p.m., car arriving to take me to airport at 8:30). I happily related this tale to my editor, who I think went a wee bit pale. I probably should have explained it was the sixth draft of the book. And most of the hard work was not in the last chapter. Not to say the book might not need more work. I expect it will. But at this point, I really need "fresh eyes" to point out things I hadn't seen in six drafts, so likely wouldn't see in six hundred.

Unfortunately, by the time I left for New York, I was already exhausted. I don't sleep well in hotels, so I had a serious case of what's known in the world of The Amazing Race fans as "killer fatigue." That meant by the time I'd had all my meetings, I was about as lively as a limp rag. I literally couldn't keep my eyes open during the second half of The Odd Couple. Which was pretty good -- Nathan Lane was a very good Oscar-- but dated? Oh, my.

I also saw The Three Penny Opera (which was weird) and the 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, which was a lot of fun (and by then, I'd had more than four hours sleep the night before, hotel notwithstanding).

I've been recovering since returning, catching up on sleep and various other things, although my office remains a mess, and the garden...well, we won't discuss that.

On another note: Can The Da Vinci Code please open and be over with? Geez, I'm sick of the PR/hype. Which once again has me wondering, Why is it that something that's already "big" and famous gets so much publicity? Shouldn't that money/effort go to something that's not so well known? This is one reason I really don't understand marketing and PR, because I totally don't see the rationale here.

And now, off to work on the synopsis/outline for the next book while I wait to hear from my editor about MY LORD'S DESIRE. I've had a week off...time to get back to work!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

And later, perchance, to nap....

It's amazing what you can get done when you wake up before the sun rises. Because, yes, boys and girls, that is what happened today. This isn't unusual when I'm nearing a deadline. However, it's not worrying about the book that makes sleep elusive; it's all the other stuff I've been putting off because I've been working so intensely on the book.

So before 8 a.m. I'd had breakfast, read two newspapers, sent two faxes, filled out two forms, prepared other stuff to take to the bank and checked my email. I suspect come about 3 o'clock I'll be in a zombie-like trance, so I may just take a nap. But it feels good to have gotten some of the nagging "secretarial" work out of the way.

Right now, though, it's time for another cup of tea (and not decaf).

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Is it worth it?

There's a bit of a buzz among romance writers at the moment concerning an at-home study course offered at Write A When I was first told about this site, the instructor claimed it would help you write a book in three days. That's since been taken out, along with certain other items. I heard third hand why, but because I don't have first-hand knowledge, let's just say, the site's undergone some changes recently.

The instructor still offers, via the course called "The Magic Formula," to teach you all about writing romance, saving you years of time and effort. I quote: "You can use The Magic Formula home study course to cut 20+ years off the time it takes you to go from aspiring romance writer to published romance author because I have already done the research for you, already put in the thousands of hours of study – so you don’t have to, so that you can come into the industry a few steps ahead of the game."

She has published one romance, by a publisher I've never heard of before.

The price? $197 plues $12.95 shipping and handling.

My take on this: What she actually purports to teach isn't terribly innovative; it's the sort of thing offered in countless other how-to-write books and writing workshops.

She's only got one published novel under her belt, by an obscure publisher, but I've seen a lot of how-to-write books written by authors I've never heard of, so she's not particularly unique in that. I still think it takes a lot of nerve to call yourself an expert under those circumstances, though.

It was the price that really made my eyes bug out. You can get books from the library that can tell you a lot of what she offers. And several authors, myself included, offer similar information for free on our websites. If she was charging $9.95 or even $19.95, that'd be different. Perhaps she's comparing her material to a weekend worshop. She says it's over 100 pages. Just for the record, Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain, comes in at 330 pages, so over 100? Not so impressive.

And of course, using the word "formula" when referring to romance writing is like telling every romance writer in the world that she's not creative and not talented. Heck, just plug in the words according to the formula, and there ya go. If it were truly that simple, the world would be full of published authors.

Because the bottom line is, a book, or a home study course, can tell you what can work, and what might work, but it takes talent, hard work and dedication to make it work. It's the difference between doing a paint-by-number and an original work of art. Both use paints, but one is art and the other is not.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Quote of the week - Priorities

"I felt like you can write forever, but you have a short time to raise a family. And I think a family is a lot more important than writing." -- Ken Kesey

Amen, brother!

I wish I had a buck for every time I've heard a writer say, "When I'm writing, I tell my kids not to bother me unless somebody's bleeding" or variations thereof (blood is always factor, though). I understand the motivation -- they want me to understand how dedicated they are, how disciplined, how important their writing is to them.

Writing's important to me, too, but I've never said this, or even thought it. If one of my kids has something to tell me (even if it's not "important"), I want to be interrupted. The writing will still be there, but those golden moments when your child wants to interact with you? They are precious.

Does that mean you don't teach your children to respect your writing as work? No. This will happen if you treat it like work, if you approach it with some degree of discipline and determination, and whether or not you get paid.

I've been doing much work on the Manuscript That (Almost) Ate New York. I wound up cutting 72 pages. Yikes! That's a lot, even for me. And surprisingly, it's not outrageously short now. Still, I'll be adding bits here and there, and especially smoothing out the "choppy" bits.

But now, it's a beautiful, warm day, and I've been cooped up in the house for the past couple of days working, so I'm going for a walk. As I noted last week while on a walk with the hubby and Daughter, some women train for marathons. I train to walk around Manhattan!