On the Road Again

Now that my children are back in school, my summer of traveling is over. For our vacation, we loaded up the minivan and headed off to St. Louis, Missouri, a wonderful family vacation spot. The City Museum, the Gateway Arch, and barbecue and thin crust pizza. Even if I hadn’t specified St. Louis, one of those clues would have filled you into my destination. I was also fortunate enough to fly to Denver for a writing conference. While I didn’t get to explore the town, I did see the Rockies, the Paramount Theater, and the Tabor Building. As a writer, I would have loved to explore the cities more, talk to people, get a feel for the local flavor. Settings in a book, when well done, often become like a character and add an extra layer of adventure for the reader. Here are two ways I think a writer can bring out extra details in the setting.

Sensory Details. Writers have a huge opportunity with a setting to use sensory details so the reader can feel as if they are in the same town as the main character. If I’m reading a book set in a beach town, I want to feel the breeze in my hair, taste the salt on my lips, and hear the ocean waves lick against the sand. If I’m reading an urban thriller, I want to hear the police sirens and smell the police precinct. When I was in St. Louis, it was hot and humid, and I could taste the sweat on my face and feel the humidity like a wall of bricks around me. For lunch one day, we indulged in ice cream, the sweet sugary goodness going a long way when we exited the restaurant into the humid air.

Local flavor. I read a book recently and when I reflected on the book, I had no idea what state the small town was in or what differentiated this town from any other. While writers should go past the stereotypical details, a little local flavor can go a long way. When I went to Denver, I asked for unsweet tea and the man next to me laughed and asked if I was from the South. So while it might be stereotypical to include sweet tea in a book set in the deep South, a writer can go a little deeper and evoke emotion from the local flavor. Maybe your main character hasn’t returned to her family home in years and that’s the first sip of sweet tea since her grandmother’s funeral.

Sensory details and local flavor are two ways a writer can play up the setting for more realism and depth. What are some of your favorite settings in a book and how did the author make you feel like you were there in the setting?

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Care Bears and KitKats; tennis and writing

Unknown-20.jpegDifferent people have different guilty pleasures. Some binge watch their favorite show on Netflix. Some find a new favorite computer game and play for hours. Here’s my admission: I love watching professional tennis. The commentary, the athletic feats, the players’ different characteristics. There’s something about a good tennis match that has me sitting on the edge of my seat, watching the action, listening to the announcer’s commentary. This year’s Wimbledon was beyond extraordinary, especially the level of the men’s semifinals with phenomenal efforts from Novak Djokovic, Kevin Anderson, Rafael Nadal, and John Isner. Over the two-week period of the tournament, heartwarming stories of comebacks and struggles stayed with me as I watched while I ate breakfast, folded laundry, and more. As a writer, I listened to post-match interviews and I also read quotes from players. As a write-at-home mom, I drew inspiration from Serena Williams’ road to the finals and her interviews about being a tennis player and mother. Tennis and romance writing have much more in common than only the word love. Here are some writing tips based on quotes from tennis players at the 2018 Wimbledon Championships.

 

I’d fight a bear for you. Not a grizzly bear. Or a brown bear. Or a panda bear. But maybe like a Care Bear. Yeah, I’d fight one of those.” Bethanie Mattek-Sands, talking about her doubles’ partner, Lucie Safarova.

 

A little tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless a great quote that can easily refer to the importance of a great critique partner, accountability partner, or support group. Many writers tend to be introverts; I myself am an introvert, but I would fight a bear for my critique partner. Okay, like Bethanie Mattek-Sands, I’d also qualify my bear opponent to be a Care Bear, but I totally get this quote. My critique partner has read my work. She reminds me when I need to add emotion, but she also inserts smiley faces. For me, a support system of writers who encourage me is essential. Once you find people who are with you on your writing journey, it becomes a little easier to sit down and write.

 

After each win throughout these ten days, I’ve had a KitKat. I’m not going to change that now.” John Isner, men’s semifinalist.

 

Superstition and rewards. As a writer, I can so totally relate to this. I like the concept of rewards. When I hit my week goals, it’s nice to be able to look forward to a KitKat or a Ghiradelli Dark Chocolate Caramel square. If I don’t hit my weekly goals but I accomplished something I didn’t have a week ago, it’s nice to look forward to a Hershey Miniature like a Krackle. Rewards are such great motivation. Don’t beat yourself up if you set a goal and don’t reach it, but at the same time, don’t let yourself get complacent if you chose to goof-off. If I don’t meet my goals because I chose to watch both men’s semifinals in their entirety (which, for the record, I didn’t), then maybe that’s not the week to reward myself. But if I worked hard and I made progress, I can enjoy that episode of Death in Paradise a little more.

 

Trust in yourself. Trust the process.” Novak Djokovic.

Ultimately, whether it’s via a support group or with the positive reinforcement of rewards, a writer has to learn his or her process, write, and trust that process. There’s a reason so many writers often repeat the mantra of BICHOK (bottom in chair; hands on keyboard). Because that’s the only way you can learn to trust yourself as a writer and learn your process.

 

Thanks to all the incredible players and matches that were so fun to watch. Thanks to the commentators and players for inspirational quotes that helped me reflect on life as a writer. Only a couple of weeks until the US Open. I’ll be listening and watching. That is, once I sit in the chair and write for the day.

 

 

 

 

Are Writing Conferences Worth the Investment?

Of course, the wishy-washy answer to the question about whether writing conferences are worth the money is “it depends.” But there’s more to that question and, as I’m preparing to go to a huge writing conference this month in Denver (RWA18), I’d say there’s a lot more to the simple answer of “it depends.” Writing is often a solitary experience. As I’m writing this, I’m at my keyboard all by myself. However, in a little over two weeks, I’ll be surrounded by romance writers, eager to soak up information about the craft and business of writing and eager to network until they return to their writing caves. For me, as for so many writers, a conference’s cost is not only weighed in terms of money, which is a huge factor, but also in terms of time away from my family. So, are writing conferences worth the money? While everyone has a different experience, I’ll give some reasons why they’re worth the cost, the time, and the commitment.

 

A shove in the right direction. While the cliché states “a push in the right direction,” a conference can be a huge wake-up call about the publishing industry. And while expensive, it can wake a writer up to whether or not she is willing to commit to writing as a career, or keep it as a hobby. In 2013, I attended my first writing conference. I’d attended five Georgia Romance Writer programs before that, and the topic of RWA being in Atlanta had come up during the business portion of the program. Wanting to pursue a career in writing made my mind up. My husband and I saved our pennies (and cleaned out the couch to find a couple of dimes), and I commuted to the conference. This was a wake-up call for me. Attending workshops and listening to conversations around me, I learned I had a lot to learn. For a couple of days, I was overwhelmed, but then I used the tools I’d learned about productivity, about craft, and about networking and I went to work. I had a lot to learn, and I still continue to have a lot to learn, but that first conference made me hungry for learning from others, reading books in my genre, and for sitting down and actually putting the stories in my head on paper (or in my case, on a hard drive and on back-up drives).

 

Networking. RWA2013 provided me with more than just a hunger for learning about the industry and the craft. Since it was in Atlanta, I ran into writers I had met at Georgia Romance Writers. One writer had also joined in January, same as myself, and we found ourselves at some of the same places at the hotel and in some of the same workshops. We agreed to exchange notes and ideas about the different workshops, and within a few months, we exchanged chapters of our books. That writer is now my critique partner, and if I hadn’t gone to RWA2013, we might never have talked as in-depth as we had. One of the workshops at RWA that year that I was unable to attend but that my critique partner did was a talk about writers who had formed a writing blog. My critique partner told me about Seekerville, a writing blog, and I began to follow the blog where I’ve made some genuine connections with other writers. Even the “ships-passing-in-the-night” conversations have made an impact on me. I’ve sat at lunch tables with writers from Australia, France, Canada, and more. Hearing their stories of their travels and their stories about their writing experiences have inspired me to make sure I have one lunch or meal where I pick a table where I don’t know anyone and introduce myself.

 

Those are two reasons to think about going to a conference. There are so many great conferences in every part of the country. They are a commitment. They cost money, and some involve travel. But your characters deserve a commitment to make their story the best you can right now in your writing career. Writing conferences, though, are often a step outside a writer’s comfort zone as many writers, including myself, are introverts. Yet stepping outside your comfort zone is sometimes the best way to make your writing that much better.

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Blogs, Podcasts, and Craft Books, Oh My!

When I started writing, I’d go to the library and work on my romance novel. The concept of trying to find other writers and learn from them didn’t dawn on me. So, I started off not knowing about writing blogs, podcasts, and craft books. Instead, each day after I dropped off my children at school, I’d travel to the same library, open my word document, and write. Without letting anyone read my work and without editing, I made twenty copies of my voluminous novel and sent them to agents and editors. I received nineteen rejection letters in short course. Then, I found out I was pregnant with twins and stopped writing every day until they entered preschool. When they started Mother’s Morning Out, I knew I had to write again. My fingers were itchy, the stories had been brewing and, more than anything, I wanted to write a book. This time I heard about a writing class offered at a local bookstore. When I attended the class, I discovered a new world. The authors defined literary fiction and genre fiction, and I knew I was a genre author. Equally as important, the authors talked about local organizations and I resolved to attend one of these local programs to find out about romance writing. Fast forward almost six years and now I see so many offerings to writers of all levels. Everything from craft books to blogs (exactly like this one) to podcasts to conferences to websites and beyond. There are so many writing tools an author could get lost in the “dos” and “don’ts” if she’s not careful (although I’d like to say that no one way to write is the right way. What works for me might not work for someone else, and what one author might consider a rule of writing might be something that another author learns so she can break the mold). With every tool that’s out there, what is worth an author’s time and what isn’t. Here’s some advice for writers of every level.

  1. Bottom in chair, hands on keyboard. Yes, it’s important to work on your craft and learn from other authors, but it’s important to have something to work on. Writing a book is hard work, and it requires day in, day out perseverance. Otherwise, there are enough podcasts for you to do nothing but listen to podcasts rather than producing words.
  2. Find writing groups whether in person or online. Writing is solitary. When it comes down to it, it’s your imagination and you sitting down at a keyboard (or pen and paper) and writing. Writing friends can get you through the hard times and understand what you’re going through in ways no one else can. Whether you have a critique partner, a street team, faithful beta readers, or a local writing chapter, it’s important to have another writer you can open up to, brainstorm, share good news and the bad, and celebrate typing “the end.”
  3. Know yourself. I like reading craft books a little at a time, and I seek out recommendations from friends. I’ve discovered I love reading James Scott Bell’s writing craft books. For me, he’s easy to relate to, he explains concepts in an easy-to-understand manner, and his observations are worth the investment and time. As far as blogs, there will always be certain bloggers you read a couple of times and then you want to shout from the rooftops, “A-ha.” With podcasts, I like to vary my time between listening to a writer or motivational speaker and listening to something for fun. I’ve rediscovered radio programs, such as the Lux Radio Theater, where actors and actresses would act out a recent movie. These are a great way for me to pass the time in traffic, but they have the extra advantage of making me think about acts, character arcs, and plots. Hearing a movie as a radio program makes me listen to the dialogue and think about what I like or don’t like about the characters. By knowing how much time you have for learning about the craft and knowing your schedule (for instance, you might travel an hour to and from work every day and might want to listen to a podcast one way and an audiobook or a radio program or music on the return route), you’ll get an idea of how to prioritize according to your learning style.
  4. Try something new. If you like reading craft books, reading blogs for a couple of days might be able to help you target an area of writing where you’re having trouble. If you like podcasts, an audiobook might be a nice change of pace or vice versa.
  5. Don’t break the bank. Libraries are great places if you want to check out some different craft books, and many offer audiobooks to download if you have a library card. Blogs are free, and many blogs will give you a free writing book if you sign up for the author’s newsletter. Along with not breaking the bank, decide beforehand how much time you have each week to read about the craft of writing or about marketing your book and stick to it, making sure not to cut into your actual writing time.

Regardless of what fits your learning curve the most, thank you for taking time to read my blog today. If you’re a beginning writer, reread your favorite book taking note of how the author writes her characters and uses strong verbs. If you’re a writer who just published his or her first book, read blogs about marketing books and making good use of your time before a book launch. If you’re a more experienced writer, continue to learn.

And please feel free to share your favorite blogs, podcasts, or craft books below.

 

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Write-at-home mom

Write-at-home Mom

I stole this phrase a while back. I immediately identified with it and started using it. There’s only one problem with it. I rarely write at home. During the school year, I write anywhere except home. I’ve tried to write at home, but there’s always a load of laundry to fold or a dishwasher to unload. When I’m at home, my loving Basset Hound, Vera, believes my purpose is to pet her (or make her a sandwich, if I would be so inclined, instead of feeding her kibble) and pay attention to her. If the kids have a day off, they conveniently stay out of my way if I’m cleaning, but the second I open my WIP, there are problems galore that only Mom can solve. So, I’ve learned to write at libraries, at Panera Bread (a huge thank you to all the employees who kindly let me wear out my welcome, and I do leave at peak hours), and in the parking lot. The question then becomes where to write.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is a little known gem called Ellery Queen. A precursor to Murder, She Wrote, this mystery show followed the adventures of a mystery writer who helped his father solve murders. Why it was only on for one season astounds me. There’s one episode that features Ellery working furiously to finish a book before a deadline. He only had a couple of days to finish forty pages and he had hurt his finger which was wrapped up and unable to be used to write or type. (One other aside: the show is set in 1947 before word processors and computers.) With a busted finger, he hired a secretary, one Miss Margie Coopersmith with a “C,” to write down his dictation. At eleven thirty at night, Miss Coopersmith asked Ellery if he would like to continue writing at the automat. Ellery looked at her as if she were crazy. “Writing? At the automat? It’s too noisy.” He told her he wouldn’t be able to get any work done in the noisy confines of the automat, instead preferring the interior confines of his New York City apartment.

Unfortunately, I’m the opposite. When I’m at home, it’s too busy. Writing in the busy atmosphere with four kids, two pets, one husband, and a myriad of chores is almost impossible for me. The good thing about writing at someplace other than my house is that it gives me a couple of minutes beforehand to think about my writing for the day: where I’m at in my outline, dialogue, setting, POV, and so on. The bad thing is that it eats up time as I travel to different places.

What’s important for me, more than where I write, is working on consistency. Writing deliberately every day is crucial for me to get the character’s story on the written page. This summer, I’ll be the one at the library or Panera with my gaze glued to my computer screen.

Where do you like to write?

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Where’s the Beef?

When I grew up, I either had to get up off the couch to change the channel or watch the commercial. Often I had a book nearby so I’d just crack open the book while the commercial played on. Nowadays it slightly amuses me that as many people watch the Super Bowl for the ads as watch the game itself. Nevertheless, I remember hearing the catchy slogans as I turned the page of a Trixie Belden novel. Where’s the beef? Silly, rabbit, Trix are for Kids. Tastes great; less filling. Those are three slogans I can recite off the top of my head. Even today when three of my kids look at me and say “not me” to the question of who left the towel on the bathroom floor, I often want to burst into the jingle from Oscar Mayer where my bologna has a first name and it’s O-S-C-A-R. All of these slogans, though, show my age. Nowadays, slogans are even shorter and to the point: Just Do It. Think Differently. Coffee Inspires Everything. While some slogans stand the test of time (such as M&M’s Melt in your mouth, not in your hands), advertising executives come up with new slogans for new products and new companies. As a writer, however, I have to be careful that my twenty-five-year-old heroine doesn’t spout a slogan that probably stayed in the eighties or nineties. The same applies to certain words that apply to fads or past products. Memorex? Album? Floppy Disk? Those were all part of my vocabulary a while back. Now? Not so much. Our vocabulary changes and adjusts to the times. If you’re a writer, you need to adjust and know what your character would and wouldn’t say. In the same regard, if you’re writing a book set in 1985 or earlier, your character would look at you with a blank stare if you brought up an emoji or claimed you were hangry or refer to the web as anything other than something a spider weaves. Even phrases that refer to a person’s type changes with the times. When I was a teenager, a boy might be asked if he was a Ginger or Mary Ann type of guy. A while back, I’d heard this had changed to Betty or Veronica. I just googled it. Thanks to Riverdale, the question of Betty or Veronica is still in common usage.

Popular slang words or phrases or slogans change with the times, but they can just as easily reveal a person’s age. What word or phrase or slogan do you catch yourself saying (let’s keep it clean, please) where your child or teenager looks at you as if you’re from another planet? If you’re a writer, let me know what phrase your character said that you had to delete during revisions because you realized someone younger than yourself wouldn’t say that?

How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 3)

Television is more about than great characters. It can also transport you to places around the world: the outback of Australia, the islands of the Caribbean, the peak of Mount Everest. While cameras, technology, and budgets sometimes allow for on location shooting of some shows (think Downton Abbey or Death in Paradise among others), many television shows are still shot on a set in a different part of the world. Yet a good show gives a sense of the setting, and the setting enriches the show’s atmosphere, tone, and mood. Writers too can use the setting of their book to provide a rich layer, almost to the point of creating a character.

Atmosphere. I didn’t watch every episode of Downton Abbey, but from the time the dog appears on the screen and a rolling list of actors’ names flickers on the screen, the viewer gets the sense this is not a sitcom. The lack of bright colors, the staid splendor of the upstairs, the stark contrast of the kitchen all point to high drama. Writers of historical romance can evoke a similar tone with details of a world long gone. Writers of women’s fiction can evoke the setting and use the weather and time of day to layer in more sensory details. Mystery writers especially can use setting for atmosphere. A cozy mystery heroine is far more likely to inhale the smell of old books or coffeehouse coffee whereas a hardboiled detective may note the smell of a police precinct or inky coffee from an ancient coffeemaker. Don’t lose a chance to evoke atmosphere with sensory details such as the smell of the setting, the weather surrounding the characters, or the feel of objects around them.

Tone. Theme songs can often tell a lot about a television show. For decades, catchy theme songs often set the tone for the show. Who could forget that Gilligan was on a three-hour tour? Or not laugh at petite Lurch, neat Uncle Fester, or sweet Grandmamma Addams? Books, however, don’t have theme songs, but a writer’s voice and pacing can add to the tone. Fast, action scene? Your theme song then has punchy, short sentences. Other times you might want long, lyrical paragraphs when it’s a longer piece of exposition with description.

Mood. I’m not a huge fan of overbearing laugh tracks, but when someone else laughs, it’s easier to laugh along with them. When Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) picked himself off the floor after falling over the ottoman, all while having a smile on his face, we knew we could laugh with him at whatever happened to Laura or Ritchie or Sally or Buddy. When a character laughs at himself or shows his or her sense of humor, we can laugh along, and in romantic comedies, that’s a plus. By setting the mood through the characters’ actions and by their surroundings, a writer can help the reader bond to those characters and relate all the more. When Penny and Leonard and Sheldon all share takeout with Bernadette and Raj and Howard, the viewer knows it’s okay to laugh. When Beckett was called to a crime scene with Castle on her heels, the viewer knows she’s not going to rest until the real killer is apprehended and justice is served. As writers, establishing the mood and the tone can set the stage for the reader and hook the reader into the story all the faster.

Watch your favorite television show and notice how the writers incorporate the setting to create atmosphere. Whether it’s the Addams’ museum of a house or Central Perk or the Caribbean shore, the setting will help tune the viewer in to what type of show and add layers to the show, making us appreciate the show all the more.