The Secret Handshake



I hope the title caught your attention, but the sad truth is there is no secret handshake in writing. When all is said and done, a writer has to sit down and write the words whether through a computer and keyboard or pen and paper. However, there are lessons I’ve learned since I’ve started writing, and I wish I’d known some of these five hints when I first sat down with a laptop and typed in the words, Chapter One.

  1. Literary or genre. There are English majors who could debate the definitions of these two categories until the cows come home. To oversimplify it, genre fiction tends to gravitate toward happy endings and can be broken down into different categories, such as romance, mystery, science fiction, and more. Literary fiction tends to be character driven with vague or unhappy endings that delve more into truth and thematic purposes. Both defy exact definitions, but I found my niche when I discovered I like reading romances with happy endings and cozy mysteries with the search for justice complete. That meant I’d be happiest writing genre fiction.
  2. Writers’ Associations. If you know off the bat you want to write a romance or a mystery, there are writing organizations that can help you learn some of the tricks of the trade. While there may not be a secret handshake, there are certain expectations from readers of the romance and mystery genre. For example, a romance needs a happy ending, and a cozy mystery needs justice. Romance Writers of America (RWA) and Sisters in Crime are wonderful places for you to meet other writers and start your writing journey. Within RWA, there are local chapters and online chapters. If you live close to a local chapter, that’s a great way to meet other writers and ask for tips or find someone to critique your work.
  3. When you open a craft book, there might be initials on the page. This is one place where I can do a little fist bump with you and help you learn some common writing acronyms.
  • POV=point of view. See number 5.
  • RUE=Resist the Urge to Explain.
  • TSTL=Too Stupid to Live
  • WIP=Work in Progress
  • HEA=Happily Ever After
  • HFN=Happily For Now
  • GMC=Goal, Motivation, Conflict
  • ARC=Advance Reader’s Copy
  1. Genre categories. Within the world of genre writing, there are also sub-genres. In romance, writers are often asked, “What type of romance do you write?” When I was asked this at my first local writing program, my eyes widened and my pulse accelerated. There were different genres within the genre? I listened to other people and figured out I wrote contemporary. In terms of romance, there are a number of subgenres: Contemporary Short, Contemporary Single Title, Historical, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, Romantic Suspense, Inspirational, Erotic, Erotica, Mainstream with Romantic Elements, Women’s Fiction, and more depending on who you talk to. Mysteries are often broken down into thrillers, suspense, and cozies.
  2. Point of View. Books can be written from either an omniscient POV, where there’s no specific narrator (think Harry Potter) or from deep POV, where the story is told from the perspective of a certain narrator. There are also different viewpoints. There is first person, where the story’s narrator uses I or me. Second person isn’t seen much in genre fiction, but this person uses the word “you.” Third person is when the narrator uses he or she. In romance, deep POV allows the reader to view the scene from one person’s point of view as if you are in the shoes of that character. Head-hopping refers to scenes which alternate back and forth between different characters’ POVs.

These are five of the tips I wish I’d had when I first started writing. I’ll be writing five more next week. Happy writing.

Pursuing a Dream


A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about resolutions. I’m not big on them. Rather than wait for a specific day on a calendar, I’m in favor of taking action. But what is a resolution? In my opinion, it involves taking stock of your life and instituting change. A while back, I looked at myself. All my life, I’d been jotting down stories or dreaming up characters in my head, but I’d never taken steps to live my dream. In this age where we have the world at our fingertips, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in life and not think about whether it’s too late to pursue a dream. For some people, it’s playing the guitar or another instrument. For some, it’s painting or sculpting or some artistic expression that satisfies their need to make the world a more beautiful place. For still others, it’s traveling and experiencing the world from somewhere beyond their backyard. For writers, however, it’s getting that story out and putting it on paper. So, how do you make that dream change from a wisp of an idea in the mists of your mind to reality?

Contemplation. Being truthful with yourself is a great place to start. Truthfully, I’ll never play on Center Court of Wimbledon on Championship weekend. While some people love to dance, it makes me self-conscious. What I do love is coming up with a new story and new characters. So while I won’t be a championship ballroom dancer or a professional tennis player, I can make writing my career and work hard to achieve my dreams.

Action. If creating art is your dream, check out community colleges and your local YMCA. If recreational sports are your dream, check out USTA or your local YMCA. Don’t sit around waiting for something. Make your dream a reality.

Writing. If you’ve always dreamed of becoming a writer, there are easy steps you can take. Check out local writing organizations or online ones. Romance Writers of America is a great resource for romance writers, just like Sisters in Crime helps mystery writers. Read. Read a craft book about writing and read in the genre you want to write. If you want to write a family memoir, go ask your local librarian for some good local memoirs and read those books to get a sense of the tone, style, and tempo of the book. Most importantly, sit down with a blank page in front of you and write. If you can do this day in and day out, you’re a writer. If you’re a beginning writer, I hope you’ll join me over the next couple of Tuesdays as I discuss some of the basics of genre writing. What does BICHOK mean? What are some commonly used acronyms? What is POV and what does head-hopping mean?

Even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll take some time to dust off your dreams and figure out how to make them a reality. Sunrises represent a fresh start to a new day. Make today the sunrise for your dreams.

How are your 2018 resolutions coming along?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. I’m a believer in if you want to change something, it’s better to start right now rather than waiting for a date on a calendar. To quote Nike, just do it.

Yet, a while back, I joined my local romance writing chapter, Georgia Romance Writers, in the month of January. Since then, I’ve found out that GRW has a spike of visitors in January when a new crop of writers come to see what writing a book is all about and see what GRW is all about. (Sounds a bit like the Hokey Pokey really). For me, it was where I found other writers who wrote genre fiction and loved talking about it. I knew I had to go back, and I did go back in February of 2013. For some, a January GRW program is the litmus test about whether they want to actually write a book, sit down and make that fantasy in the back of their head a reality. Some go on to finish their book; others don’t.

Resolutions come in all shapes and sizes. For some, it is sitting down and writing a book. For others, it’s losing the holiday weight. According to one website (I’m using Martin Armstrong’s list from his article on If you want to see it for yourself, here’s the link: ), the five most common New Year’s Resolutions for 2018 were eat healthier, get more exercise, save (more) money, focus on self-care (for example, getting more sleep), and read more. Do any of them sound familiar?

For writers, starting a book or finishing a book or increasing their word count are often mentioned in late December as worthy resolutions. However, writing in itself is solitary. When it comes down to it, a writer has to practice BICHOK (bottom in chair, hands on keyboard). So now it’s February, and I’m here to ask. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions and if so, how are they going? How is your book coming along? Are you going to the gym more often?

If you’ve succeeded, great. The question then becomes what made this year different? For me in 2013 (even though GRW wasn’t a resolution, I did join in January), GRW was a great way for me to meet other writers, learn about writing a book, and I felt like I’d found my home away from home. I became involved and I held myself accountable for my writing.

If you haven’t followed through with your resolutions, you don’t have to wait until next January to exercise more or eat healthier or write that book. Figure out what happened. Maybe that flu bug hit your household and you weren’t able to go to the gym. Maybe your dishwasher went kaput and you couldn’t add to your savings. (Okay, our dishwasher is currently broken so it was the easiest savings-busting scenario I could come up with).

So did you make a resolution? Let me know.


Photo courtesy of Alamy Stock Photos.

Writing Tuesday: Climbing into the Stands

There’s something almost intrusive about watching an athlete after he or she wins a championship or event. No matter the sport, the winner usually seeks out his or her group. In golf, the winning golfer may hug his caddy (or jump in a lake). In baseball, the teammates rush the mound. In tennis, the player may climb into the stands to hug his coach, team, friends, and family. This summer, after the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic and Flavia Pennetta both made their ways to their player’s box where hugs abounded between the player and his or her support staff. Even in individual sports, athletes depend on their team to push them the extra mile and support them when no one else may even expect them to be victorious. Writers can appreciate those elements. Writing itself is solitary. An author sits down by him or herself to capture the words on some sort of device, whether laptop or pen and paper or something else. No one else will do it for him or her (from here on, I’m just going to use herself). Rainy days. Sunny days. The writer must find that inner burning in her innermost self to sit down and capture the characters and the story. At the same time, there is something about a support team that can be an invaluable tool. Writing is hard. There are rejections, bad reviews, and naysayers. A support team won’t turn a rejection into an acceptance, but your team can give you hugs and even the occasional ice cream cone. How does a writer build her support team?

Friends and family. Over the past couple of years, I’ve realized how lucky I am to have people who support my writing journey. I’ve talked to writers whose spouses demean their writing, wondering why they don’t spend more time with their families. I’ve talked to writers whose friends keep calling during their writing time. I’m fortunate. Cupcake, my five-year-old often tells me that when she is a publisher, she will publish my books. Chunk used to give me eleven kisses before I went to my local chapter’s writing programs. And my WH believes in me. That says it all.

Fellow writers. Some writers love critique partners, and most rely on some form of beta readers. Whether it is a fellow writer giving encouragement or giving advice, the words and wisdom of those writers are, in and of itself, the meaning of support. Knowing a writer has been rejected one hundred and five times before getting the call gives me a boost. His or her perseverance in the face of rejection sends a positive message that it is possible to get better, it is possible to fulfill your goals. As a member of a local romance writing group, I call the monthly programs my pep rallies. They invigorate me and help me connect with other writers, some of whom are celebrating their first sales, some of whom are celebrating their fortieth sales, and some of whom received rejections. As the chapter president says, a rejection can be good news because it means you’re getting your work out there and continuing to persevere.

Online bloggers and online writing friends. Online writing friends are invaluable in that they understand the joys and the frustrations from sitting at a keyboard trying to form a story that is not only coherent but also fun to read. Whether through social media or online blogs, it helps to check in on online writing buddies to gain perspective or to read a funny meme or learn something new about the craft of writing. Sometimes when I go to conferences, I run into someone and I’m convinced I know them. It usually turns out we read the same blogs or are friends on Facebook. We have a shared thread and are able to talk about writing. Online writing friends are often great resources because they don’t have any preconceived notions about you, and they want to encourage you as much as you want to encourage them. It’s usually a win-win for both of you.

All those dedication pages you read in books? They’re there for a reason. They’re writers’ versions of climbing the stands and giving their support team a hug.

Do you turn off games and sporting events before the celebrations or do you watch them? Let me know.

Writing Monday: Vary your Shot Selection

As I watched more than one match from the US Open, the absolute dedication and training of the players struck me more than once as a sight to behold. It was an exciting two weeks, and I only witnessed the matches from the comfort of my home. What a thrill it must be to actually step onto Ashe Stadium or any of the courts as a player. No matter whether the player lost in the first round or progressed further, each has an accomplishment to be proud of, their hard work paying off with entry into one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world. As a tennis fan, I loved listening to the commentators and watching the matches. And what matches I enjoyed, among them possibly the biggest upset in tennis history, an improbable but entertaining women’s final, and a truly astounding men’s final. And more than once, I heard so many great life lessons, most of which can be applied to the craft of writing.

Vary your shot selection. One of the joys of watching the men’s final was watching the great skill and mastery of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best ever. Whether he spins it in, slices it, or nails it down the line, there is always a glimmer of his intelligence and foresight into the how he is trying to manipulate the point. Federer has incorporated new shots into his game, including what was termed the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger). Even though he has won seventeen Grand Slam matches, he’s still trying something new.

Throughout the tournaments, there were forehands or backhands, volleys or lobs, some with spin, some without. Players vary their serve, some going down the line, others going out wide. They vary their shots and their shot selection. They know when to settle into an exchange and when to press and hit a winner.

In the same way, an author varies his sentence structure. It would be very boring to read a bunch of simple sentences that all have the same pattern. So, too, an author should have variety in his arsenal. Sometimes a stretch of dialogue is needed for banter. Sometimes short, terse sentences are needed to convey tension. Sometimes long, meandering sentences are needed for a break from continuous action. Authors know when to vary their shot selection.

Authors can also learn from the sneak attack play. Whether an author is a plotter or a pantser, an author can take a page from Federer’s playbook and throw in something when the reader least expects it. I recently read Mary Connealy’s Swept Away. (Spoiler alert for an event 60% into the book.) One very likeable character was Big John, a Texas Ranger whose job was to deliver a wanted criminal to the proper authorities. Did I see him getting attacked by the prisoner and being left for dead? Not a bit. Ms. Connealy snuck up on me and placed one of her characters in mortal danger when I least expected it. Whether an author follows the three-act play format or breaks down the book into quarters, throwing in something completely unexpected, but still within the boundaries of the book, can help to vary the shot selection and keep the reader turning pages.

For example, to keep advancing the hypothetical romance from my last blog (quick reminder: romantic suspense, hero detective in France falling for sister of art thief who happens to work at the museum where the painting was stolen), as an author, I want to keep moving the plot forward and vary the shot selection. In the tense scenes, I’d use short, compact sentences with sharp, pointed verbs. Then say, a quarter of the way, I would make sure there is a surprise to add to the conflict. Say the hero discovers the heroine is the sister of the thief. Then halfway through, I might choose to kill off the detective hero’s partner who got too close to capturing the villain. This also would amp up the conflict between the heroine and hero.

Surprises and sentence variety can go a long way to hooking the reader.

What are some of the favorite surprises in your favorite books? Let me know.

Writing Wednesday: Move the Story Forward

In my last writing blog, I shared my enthusiasm for the professional side of tennis. With the US Open happening as I write this, it’s an exciting time to watch a Grand Slam. On the men’s side, the field is deep with several strong contenders, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. Several commentators have noted Federer’s recent play where he’s attacking the ball off his opponent’s serve. The man has won seventeen Grand Slam tournaments, Olympic gold, and umpteenth other tournaments. You would think it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels and coast from here on out. Not Roger. Last week at the Western and Southern Open, he attacked his opponent’s serve and moved forward to the net, displaying grace and agility to win the tournament. He kept moving forward, and it paid dividends. On the women’s side, everyone is watching Serena against the rest of the field with experts agreeing Serena has an excellent opportunity to win the calendar year Grand Slam, becoming the first person to do so since Steffi Graf in 1988. I’ve already watched a couple of hours of coverage, getting quite a lot of laundry folded in the process. Last night as I watched some of the Andy Murray/Nick Kyrgios match (and rooted like crazy for Andy Murray), there were several points where the commentators talked about moving the ball forward. For a tennis enthusiast who happens to be a romance writer, I thought of the importance this advice plays for writers and readers everywhere. How does this translate to writing? Quite simply it’s important for the writer to keep his or her eye on the ball and push the story forward.

Move the ball forward. The author should always be conscious of trying to move the story forward. There’s a saying in writing: No more sagging middles. Think about your favorite books. There was probably some twist or some plot point that made you keep reading. In the book I am presently reading, the author totally surprised me in the middle. She diverted to an alternate storyline with a huge fight leaving one character in the dust. I wasn’t sure if the character survived or not. Here I was reading the book while walking on the treadmill wanting to yell at my Kindle for Big John to live. No sagging middles for that book (for anyone who is curious, the book is Swept Away by Mary Connealy).

In tightly knit books, the author doesn’t wander all over the place. Instead, the author moves the story forward and advances the plot.

Let me come up with a hypothetical story: a romantic suspense set in Paris covering the theft and recovery of a French impressionist painting where the hero’s twin brother stole the painting and the heroine works for Interpol. Since I’m a romance writer, the hero and heroine will live happily ever after with the twin brother in jail (I’m more on the sweet side of contemporary) and the painting is back at the museum.

Near the climax of the book, the author (in this case, me) is not going to weigh the book down with two chapters of the characters eating croissants at a French café. The author is going to have lots of action and lots of scenes that stick to the plot and the characters recovering the painting. In the scenes with the most tension, there will probably be short, terse sentences conveying action and intrigue. The author will move the story forward, or at least would if this were a real story.

I myself struggle with moving the story forward. I love to meander with my characters and have them go out to eat, talk to their friends for no good apparent reason, or think about their pasts. During editing, I’ve had to say good-bye to scenes that do not advance the main plot, do not increase the conflict, and do not convey some critical aspect of a character. If it doesn’t increase the conflict, the scene has to go. Some of these scenes have some of my very best writing, but they are left on the cutting room floor because they slow down the story.

What are some of your favorite books? How does the author move the story forward and avoid the sagging middle? If you have any suggestions or comments, let me know.

Writing Tuesday: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball


I love to watch professional tennis on television. Now I can even watch even more tennis on my iPad as more matches are available through various apps. The way Roger Federer can hit a backhand while making it look so effortless is a thing of beauty. Serena’s aces? More powerful than a locomotive, and I often realize I’m glad I’m not on the other side of the net as she booms those serves. I can’t imagine trying to return one. My poor WH knows this is not a newfound hobby for me. One year for his birthday, we had convinced my parents to watch Kath (who, at the time, was an only child) so we could get away for a much needed couple of days away. There was just one problem. There had been so many rain delays the gentlemen’s finals of Wimbledon fell on Monday, his special day. Patrick Rafter v. Goran Ivanisevic. He still sighs whenever he remembers his waiting for me until the final ball was struck and Goran Ivanisevic held the trophy high. Yeah, I couldn’t leave with the outcome of Wimbledon hanging in the balance. But the amazing thing is how much you can learn about writing the more you learn about tennis.

Originally I had four points in one blog about what I’ve learned from tennis, but it became a really long discourse. So I decided to chop it up into four different weeks. The great thing about that is it gives me my next four writing blogs.

Keep your eye on the ball. The very first thing my first tennis teacher told me was to keep my eye on the ball. When you lose sight of the ball, you can’t hit the ball and you’ll lose the point. If you ever watch tennis on television, one thing strikes you: the intense concentration on the tennis ball. Even in still pictures sports photographers snap of the players, the players’ eyes never veer from the ball. If you don’t know who he is, google Novak Djokovic. There’s a reason he’s number one in the world. The sheer desire of anticipating the ball and intense focus on striking it back across the net is written all over his face. There’s a reason he’s one of the most entertaining players in tennis, and when he plays Roger Federer or Andy Murray, well, my husband knows I’ll be watching the match.

As a writer, I’ve learned one very important lesson from the best: WRITE. In writing, you have to write. If you lose sight of writing the words or revising the words, you lose sight of the story. If you don’t write them down, you don’t have anything to rewrite. No matter whether you’re the type of writer who can write a strong first draft or if you have to edit your book twenty times, you have to keep your eye on the story. Write, write, write.

There are times it is so easy to find yourself distracted away from the ball/story. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. Oh, it’s so tempting to go spend five minutes here and there on social media and click the yellow circle at the top of my document to minimize the page. But then, I sometimes remember the concentration of the best in their field. Tennis players focus on the ball. In a number of workshops, all the authors say the same thing: write. Get the words in, then you can indulge in social media or ten pages of reading your book.

So keeping your eye on the ball is the first thing tennis has taught me. Next week, I’ll be discussing moving forward. Do you watch any sports? What life lessons have you taken away from sports or some other activity (quilting, cooking, gardening)? Let me know.