Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
From all of us in the Rockville8, we wish you and yours a very happy holiday season filled with all the joys of family and friends. May the year ahead overflow with blessings and grace to keep you encouraged and fulfilled. Peace be with you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Almost

As I write this (a day late) it is almost Christmas, for those who celebrate. Almost the end of 2010, for those who might want to celebrate that. There were years, oh yes, there were years, where I didn't so much ring in the new year as kick out the old one . . . and good riddance to bad rubbish!


But 2010, thankfully, was not one of those years. 2010 brought me an agent and a grandbaby and I am thrilled to pieces about both of them.

The Rockville8 will be doing a bit of summing up in January, so more to come on that. But in the meantime, I leave you with a couple almost perfect links.

First, The Popcorn Dialogues, which is a podcast from the FABULOUS Jennifer Crusie and Lucy March. They watch a movie, then record themselves (and sometimes special guests) discussing the movie from their writerly perspectives. For a structure-hungry student like myself, it's almost as good as sitting in a classroom with them. It took me a long time to start listening to the podcasts, but now that I have, I'm hooked.

And then there's this animated Xmas card, featuring a poem by Neil Gaiman. It's not even almost festive, but I'm including it here anyway because I love it and because it captures something of my own personal mood this time of year almost perfectly . . .

Have a holiday, y'all!

Whether you want to or not . . .

Image purchased from istockphoto.com

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Creativity Well revisited/Moving Eve: A Love Story in Brief

A few months ago I blogged about my creativity well, the old farmhouse and grounds my grandparents inhabited for over forty years. I returned at Thanksgiving, knowing that the place had sold, steeled to say my good-byes to this once immutable touchstone of my life. My mother told me she knew the couple who ended up purchasing the house were it because the day they viewed the property, the husband sat on the bench of the breakfast nook in the spot my grandfather had always claimed as his.
This man looked through the multi-paned wavy-glass windows to watch the birds at the feeders, studied the enormous white birch that pops like a torch from the thick patch of grey-brown-green trees along the road, and gazed out at the three-seater outhouse hugging the ravine that leads down to the river. Perhaps he conjured up a story exploring the wherefores and whys of that peculiar structure. Then he relaxed into the cushioned bench seat as though he'd been groomed to take over stewardship of that particular piece of Earth's real estate. In the space of a minute or two, the Three and a Half had become his home.
And while I am sad, sad, sad to lose the physical demesne of my creativity well I know two things. One is that its magic will flow, zesty and sparkling, through my veins the rest of my life. And second, I am grateful beyond imagining that the new owners, this husband and wife I know only through a few words from my mom, "get" just what a marvel they have in store for them. The dreams they will dream. The times they will have. The stories they will create together and share with others. What an adventure they have in store! What an adventure.

Moving Eve: A Love Story in Brief by J. Keely Thrall
"Judy," Gib said, taking hold of his wife's hand. In a fresh set of pajamas, he was once again in bed lying next to the lady he'd loved with all his soppy heart the last seventy odd years.

"You awake?"
"Where were you? Are you all right?" Judy's warm fingers squeezed his. Her voice had faded along with her memory, but his cool blonde always knew him. Always needed to know he was okay.
"Fine, fine. Just soaked through my PJs. Damned night sweats." He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. Earlier in the year the doctors determined the bladder cancer had disappeared. Buggering cells had simply decided to migrate, taking up new residence in his lung and kidney. Not much the medicos could do about it. His heart was too weak to undergo vigorous or invasive treatment. A damn shame the spirit of his heart hadn't imparted its robust strength to the muscle. Suppressing a sigh, he kissed Judy's knuckles again before tucking their arms, still linked at the hand, under the covers. Even in a warm house, the Michigan December leaked inside. It wouldn't do for either his lady or himself to come down with a sniffle. "We're moving house today, sweetheart, remember?"
"Now?" Judy's voice rasped into the darkness, at once detached and fretful.
"No, no. Later. We're going to live with Megan and Jeri, downstate. We'll have Christmas there."
"That's right, that's right." She patted his hand as though to reassure him. About what, he couldn't tell, but any kind of pats and pets from his wife were welcome, anytime, any-why, anywhere. Sex may be a non-starter at this point, but a little skin to skin was all right by him. Even if it was just snuggling in bed with his best girl, holding hands.
"This will be our seventy-third Christmas together." What was the point in being a retired mathematician if he couldn't throw down a few facts and figures every so often?
Judy chuckled. The sound of bells on his ear. "Mother was fit to be tied when that Halsted boy let on that you and Eddie were out in the car Christmas Eve."
"We'd just about frozen our nuts off when Howie came and got us."
"Language, Gilbert."
He grinned into the darkness. Change might be coming, but some things stayed constant.
"That night was the beginning of a grand adventure, wasn't it, dearheart?"
"It was?" Judy asked, vague again but willing to be persuaded.
Irritation spiked in a rush of heat. Anger at the aging process that had stolen his mate in snatches and gulps over the last few years drew a flush to his neck. The contrast to the cool night air made him shiver and he shrugged the blanket up to cover his shoulders.
"Yes," he declared, unwilling to cede way to personality's thief. "Sixty-six years and nine months of marriage. Four children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Travel, foreign and domestic. This home." His voice cracked and he swallowed. Sentimental slob. Blinking moisture from his eyes, Gib cleared his throat. "And our next adventure begins tomorrow."
"Well, maybe you should get some sleep now so you can be rested for this new adventure of ours, hmm?" Tart and unexpected, the zinger triggered a second round of tears that needed to be blinked away. The moments when his dry, witty blonde stepped through the haze of dementia to tweak his pretensions came with less frequency but, man, they still carried a punch.
"All right, dear. Good night." Gib squeezed his wife's hand.
"Good night." His hand was squeezed in return.
In the country four am was dark no matter the season. But in the depths of a northern winter, the black outside the windows felt especially heavy. As though Dawn might not be strong enough this time to roll away her brooding brother Night.
"I said good night, Gib."
Gilbert laughed and turned onto his side, facing Judy. He wiggled to find a comfortable spot, then hunkered down and closed his eyes. He'd trust Dawn to flex her might and usher in the day that would bring his and Judy's next grand adventure.
And in a few days, they would celebrate another Christmas Eve together. His blonde may or may not come out to play, but his Judy would be there, holding his hand, loving him as deeply as he loved her. He was a lucky, lucky man who could still claim rights to the grandest adventure a man could hope for: true love.

The above is an exercise in trying to put myself in another's shoes, as writers are wont to do. In this case it's my grandpa and how I imagine the night before he and Nana leave their home for a new one might unfold.
In thinking about the ways in which one could examine a life and reflect on the ups and downs and curve-balls one encounters, it seems to me that we have an infinite choice in how we address our baggage. First, do we call it baggage? Scars? Experience? Adventures?
Language helps craft our attitudes and our attitudes help form our emotions. I deliberately chose to imbue this narrator (my fictional version of Grandpa) as taking strength in looking to his future with bright expectancy. This move is the Next Big Thing. Something to look forward to, to anticipate. He deals with the cancer, he lives for the brief glimpses of the woman his wife used to be even as he loves the woman his wife is now. But he's not dwelling on the crap. He's looking up and out.
Aside from the personal journey portion of this post (can we say coping mechanism, everyone?), I'm realizing it was really useful as an initial character sketch. Now, I doubt I'll ever write a story in which my grandpa is the hero per se.
But the determination of spirit in the face of adversity? Hmm.
Someone who loves not just from habit, but from nuanced choice as circumstances change over the course of a life. Hmm, hmm.
Someone who sees life as a grand adventure? Hmm, hmm, hmm!
Who do you think would be the perfect match for that hero?






Sunday, November 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Sherry Lewis on Conflict, Part II

Welcome to Week Two with our guest blogger, author Sherry Lewis.

Sherry’s career path toward being an author didn't exactly follow a straight line. Sherry has worked such prestigious jobs as manager of a convenience store, Christmas tree decorator, poinsettia dresser, keyboard player/vocalist in a band, secretary in an insurance office, secretary in a bank, and finally secretary and administrative assistant for an attorney who eventually became a federal judge. In late 1993, Sherry sold her first three books to Berkley Prime Crime. By early 1994, she'd sold her first book to Harlequin Superromance. CALL ME MOM was published in January 1995, with NO PLACE FOR SECRETS following in July. In 1996, Sherry gleefully left the court to pursue a full-time writing career.

Still as much in love with books as ever, Sherry writes for Berkley and Harlequin. She’s a long-time member of Romance Writers of America, where she served for four years on the Board of Directors, including one year as President. She's also a member of Novelists Inc., KOD, and Sisters in Crime, and is a deliriously happy grandmother.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

External conflict should rear its ugly head for the first time at the beginning of your story. Readers want to be in on the trouble from the beginning. If the trouble’s been going on for a while, your readers will probably feel cheated and wonder why you’re bothering them with it.

Maybe you’re writing about a woman who grew up poor. Maybe about a woman who was left at the altar by her fiancé. Maybe you’re writing about a man who found his wife in bed with his best friend. Or about a woman whose best friend was killed in an accident. Maybe your hero went through a particularly bitter divorce. There are infinite possibilities, but readers won’t really care about the past unless there’s some real connection to the present.

Readers really begin to care about the character’s past when they perceive a threat of the past being repeated. Growing up poor doesn’t matter much unless your protagonist suddenly finds herself in desperate need of money or she starts to fall in love with a wealthy man. . . or a poor one. Her financial background isn’t really an issue unless the current conflict makes it one.

Likewise, with internal conflict, timing is everything. Your heroine who has sworn off men completely isn’t likely to spot that hot hero and suddenly start worrying about the fact that he lives in L.A. and she lives in Paris. The idea that they live on opposite sides of the world doesn’t even become an issue until later, after she’s resolved some of her internal conflicts so they can develop some kind of relationship.

As I start planning layers of conflict, I ask myself a couple of questions repeatedly: “What if this conflict were resolved? What would keep my hero and heroine from getting together (or my protagonist from achieving his goal) then?” If my protagonist is searching for the kidnapped scientist and the missing formula for a biological weapon, what will keep my protagonist from saving the day if he finds the professor on page 150? Either I need a new conflict to arise at that point, or I need a twist on the original conflict. And if that conflict is resolved on page 200? Again, I need either a new conflict or another twist.

The more layers of conflict you can find to torment your characters, the less chance you have of running into saggy middle problems or endlessly repeating yourself. Each book will be different, of course. In one book it may work best to introduce the conflicts during the first part of the book and resolve them at the end. In another book, some conflicts may only arise after another is resolved.

Figuring out how and when to introduce, heighten, and then resolve your conflicts is a function of your internal editor—that much maligned, but endlessly useful part of ourselves that we too often try to keep chained up and out of the way.

Your internal editor understands the necessity of logic in a way that your creative self doesn’t, and faulty logic can be the death of an otherwise remarkable piece of fiction. Your characters might be brilliantly drawn, your setting painted beautifully, your voice crisp and unique, and your plot well thought out, but you can kill all of that with illogical actions/reactions, by introducing goals and forgetting to let your characters actually pursue them, or by creating “conflict” that sounds good but never actually creates a problem for the character.

Your logical internal editor is crucial to conflict resolution because the key to believable conflict resolution lies in being able to think through the conflict logically from beginning to end. Once you understand the steps you must take to resolve the conflict successfully, then you can plan in advance how you’ll work those steps into your novel, or you can write your first draft and revise afterward to make sure the conflict has followed those logical steps to eventual resolution.

Remember that in your book:
  • There must be at least one problem that must be solved. If the resolution doesn’t matter, none of the conflict you make up for your character will matter, either.
  • Your viewpoint character(s) should be the only one(s) who can solve the problem. If someone else can or should do it, readers aren’t likely to care much about your character’s efforts.
  • Your viewpoint character(s) must take active steps toward solving the problem as the book progresses and the forces working against them (whether internal or external) must increase in strength and/or urgency.
  • Actual conflict is always stronger and more interesting than anticipated conflict or remembered conflict.
There’s no quicker way to kill the tension than to indulge a character’s urge to think endlessly about something that might happen in the future. Even the biggest problem is going to bore your readers to tears if the characters only think about the problem and never actually encounter it. By the same token, the urge to avoid a difficult scene can also deflate tension in the blink of an eye. Some of us take it a step further, by combining the two—a sure way to let the air out of your story’s balloon.

We write scene after scene in which the heroine thinks about what might happen if the hero finds out about her sordid past. The author mistakes these scenes for motivation, believing that all that angst is necessary to explain why the heroine continues to lie to the hero. Finally, just when the reader would rather gouge out her eyes than read another “I can’t tell him or I’ll lose him” monologue, the heroine decides it’s time to come clean.

She squares her shoulders, lifts her chin, and sets off to tell the hero the truth. The scene fades to black, and the next time we see her she’s picking at her Cobb salad over lunch with her best friend. While we struggle to make ourselves care, she regales her friend with the details of her encounter with the hero.

What’s wrong with that you ask? There’s absolutely no tension in the scene. The confrontation is over. The conflict is past. Instead of getting to sit in on the discussion and experiencing the heart-stopping fear when the hero learns the truth, we learn about it after everything’s been decided. Anticipated conflict and remembered conflict are slightly better than no conflict at all, but not by much.

Good conflict is what makes a story worth reading. We need internal and external struggles to create tension and force characters to make choices that matter. If we can provide those, readers will not only keep reading this book, but they’ll come back for more.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
We're having a drawing at Dancing on Coals. Purchase any of our workshop booklets during the month of November and your name will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of "In and Out: Putting Characters in Conflict" coming in December.

Each booklet contains the full text of the Dancing on Coals workshop by the same name. Booklets currently available are:

Mastering Scene and Sequel

Spinning Straw into Gold: The Art and Craft of Revisions

Riding the Emotional Roller-Coaster

Creating Characters with Character

Plotting the Organic Way

Your name will be entered once for each booklet you purchase. For more information, visit us at http://www.dancingoncoals.com/ and click on the "Booklets for Download" button

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Guest blog: Sherry Lewis on Conflict

For the next two weeks we have the honor of hosting author Sherry Lewis and the good fortune of having her discuss conflict.

Sherry’s career path toward being an author didn't exactly follow a straight line. Sherry has worked such prestigious jobs as manager of a convenience store, Christmas tree decorator, poinsettia dresser, keyboard player/vocalist in a band, secretary in an insurance office, secretary in a bank, and finally secretary and administrative assistant for an attorney who eventually became a federal judge. In late 1993, Sherry sold her first three books to Berkley Prime Crime. By early 1994, she'd sold her first book to Harlequin Superromance. CALL ME MOM was published in January 1995, with NO PLACE FOR SECRETS following in July. In 1996, Sherry gleefully left the court to pursue a full-time writing career.

Still as much in love with books as ever, Sherry writes for Berkley and Harlequin. She’s a long-time member of Romance Writers of America, where she served for four years on the Board of Directors, including one year as President. She's also a member of Novelists Inc., KOD, and Sisters in Crime, and is a deliriously happy grandmother.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks for inviting me to visit your blog. I’m excited to be here and to talk about one of the most profound things I’ve learned about writing over the course of my career: Conflict.

Everyone reading this is probably aware that there are two basic types of conflict: internal and external. We hear about them almost from the moment we make the decision to become a writer. In almost every book we write, we’ll probably work with both types of conflict, but getting the mix just right is sometimes tricky.

We all know that internal conflict is a war that takes place within a person, while external conflict is a war that takes place outside the character, on another stage. Both types of conflict should be ongoing, active, and changing as the story progresses.

Every one of us lives through moments of conflict on a daily basis, but they’re rarely interesting enough or strong enough to work in a novel. I might want the prime rib for dinner, but I can really only afford the ground sirloin. Which one to choose? Those shoes are so stinking cute, I’d love to buy them, but if I do that, I can’t pay the water bill. What to do? My daughter and I can’t agree on what to watch on TV or where to go for dinner.

Realistic? Yes. Interesting? Not so much. Compelling enough to keep me glued to the page when the kids are screaming and dinner’s on the stove? Ummm. No.

To craft a strong, compelling novel, we need to carefully select internal and external conflicts that will dovetail as the story progresses and ultimately push the characters to make a choice that’s going to rock their world.

Your romance novel heroine can agonize for 300 pages over whether she’s willing to give her alcoholic mother another chance, but unless she’s facing an external conflict that makes her decision absolutely necessary, nobody’s going to care about your heroine’s angst. Your romance hero might be locked in a competition with his arch-rival for the promotion he wants, but if getting that promotion doesn’t put another area of his life in danger, their competition might just be a big yawn.

Compelling conflict must force the character involved into a decision she really doesn’t want to make. Climb the mountain or risk death in the snow-covered valley. Risk becoming involved in a new relationship or give up forever the dream of having a wife and kids. If the choice won’t change things in a major way, the decision probably isn’t interesting enough to keep readers interested. Go after the promotion that will mean moving to NYC but will also provide the financial stability he’s always longed for, or stay in Portland to be near his daughter.

When you’re making a statement about your character’s internal conflict, make sure you’re forcing them to make a choice:

John wants success in his career and financial stability, but he also wants to stay in Portland to be near Chelsea. Which one will he choose?

Nellie’s fear of heights has paralyzed her for years. Now she’s faced with a choice: climb the mountain or wait at the isolated crash site for someone to find her before she does. Which one will she choose?

David always wanted a traditional family—wife, two kids, and a dog. He even thought the picket fence looked pretty good. But after his fiancée betrayed him, his parents divorced and his older brother cheated on his wife of fifteen years, David’s not sure he believes in marriage anymore. When he falls in love with the pastor’s daughter, David has a choice to make: marry her or lose her.

The choice of the right characters is crucial to making conflict come to life. In David’s case, just meeting a new woman isn’t enough to put him into deep conflict. He must meet and fall in love with a woman for whom it’s marriage or nothing. If David doesn’t have to make the tough choice, his story won’t be nearly compelling enough to keep readers turning the pages.

A common mistake I see is when an author introduces “conflict” that isn’t actually conflict at all. A woman whose ex-husband cheated on her and who has sworn off men is not in conflict—not even when the hot, hunky hero walks into the room. Her distrust of men is simply a statement about her current emotional condition. It’s potentially one-half of a conflict, but it’s not conflict unless there’s something equally strong pulling her in the opposite direction at the same time. Sadly, even the hero’s incredible hunkiness is not sufficiently strong to create a strong, believable conflict for this woman.

Nor is his hotness enough to motivate a woman who’s truly determined to avoid men to seek out the hero and spend time around him.

What would put her in internal conflict? What would motivate her to take a chance?

I’m sure we could come up with countless possibilities, but let’s say this woman is also driven to find the man responsible for destroying her father last year. If she believes that the hero has information that could help her, she’ll seek out the hero and her reasons for doing so will feel realistic and believable to the reader. Once you’ve created a chink in her armor by creating a pull that’s every bit as strong as the push, you can believably motivate the character to take the risk she’d rather avoid.

One of the best places I know of to look for strong conflict is where the character’s childhood teachings are at odds with an adult need. Maybe your heroine longs for children of her own but doesn’t see marriage in her future. Her strong religious beliefs won’t allow her to explore alternative options for conception, so her longing for a baby will compel her to work through her trust issues when the hero moves in next door. Her story isn’t just about the conflict between woman and man it’s also about the conflict between her moral beliefs and her human longing.

Or maybe she has a bit too much to drink one night, has a one-night stand with some guy and finds herself pregnant. Is she in conflict now? In an historical novel, maybe. In a contemporary, not so much ... unless she also has deep-seated beliefs against abortion and adoption and also believes that a child needs both parents to grow up happy and healthy. By itself, the fact that she grew up without a father doesn’t put her in conflict, even after she meets the hero. But if she’s backed into a corner by an unplanned pregnancy, her own needs will be in conflict with the needs of the child.

Maybe your hero chooses to stay in a loveless marriage so his sick wife doesn’t lose her health insurance. His desire for happiness is in conflict with his sense of duty. He can either leave her and find a new love, or he can look himself in the mirror, but he can’t do both.

Or maybe he was taught as a child that compromise is a sign of weakness and now he’s forced to compromise to save someone or something important to him.

Every one of us is carrying beliefs from childhood around with us, and our characters should be no different. Those beliefs are probably a huge part of who you are, whether they’re relatively unimportant like the “right” way to decorate a Christmas tree or something more integral, such as what we believe about religion and spirituality, politics or sex.

Beliefs that come from our childhoods are often so powerfully embedded we continue to believe them even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even in middle age, the things we were taught as children can hang us up on the paths we’ve chosen as adults.

One of the big mistakes authors make is when we don’t let our characters hold onto their beliefs. We write about people who change life paths because of one conversation with a stranger. About people who abandon the teachings of their youth because of a set of soulful eyes or the touch of a hand. We write about people who throw away everything they believe because their best friend tells them to change things up over chicken salad croissants at lunch.

When you’re creating internal conflicts for your characters, don’t short-change them. Your characters must hold to their belief system just as you cling to your own. It’s the other side of the internal conflict that creates the chink in their armor and allows change to happen—eventually. But even with that chink, they’re going to need something close to an internal earthquake to shake them from their original beliefs. The hero who feels responsible for his wife’s death isn’t likely to go chat up the perky redhead standing by the elevator no matter how green her eyes are—unless he needs something else as badly as he needs to protect himself.

Remember that internal conflict is a two-edged sword. It forces the character to make a difficult choice. We write the story to find out the answers to the questions that arise from those conflicting desires. Readers read the story for the same reasons. Without the questions, there’s no reason for the reader to keep turning pages. Force your characters into a corner and give them a life-changing choice to make—a choice they can’t avoid. If you can do that, your readers will become invested in the character’s journey every time.

Join us next Sunday for Part 2.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We're having a drawing at Dancing on Coals. Purchase any of our workshop booklets during the month of November and your name will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of "In and Out: Putting Characters in Conflict" coming in December.

Each booklet contains the full text of the Dancing on Coals workshop by the same name. Booklets currently available are:

Mastering Scene and Sequel

Spinning Straw into Gold: The Art and Craft of Revisions

Riding the Emotional Roller-Coaster

Creating Characters with Character

Plotting the Organic Way

Your name will be entered once for each booklet you purchase. For more information, visit us at http://www.dancingoncoals.com/ and click on the "Booklets for Download" button

Monday, November 15, 2010

Are Books Scary?

Years ago, I shared a flat with a non-reader. In fact, Carmen went so far as to say books scared her. She would cast my five sets of bookshelves a wary glower, then retreat from my room to her world of chrome and found objects. One day, I returned from work to find my cookbooks piled in the closet. Carmen knew in her gut that books did not belong anywhere near the kitchen.

She isn't an ignorant person. She can read; she's an artist and an incredibly creative person. But books - and reading - hold no interest for her. And the physical inactivity of reading bores her silly. (And believe me, she is silly enough.) Information and entertainment, for her, comes from televisions, movies and music. Not books.

I, on the other hand, am a reader. My five bookshelves have grown to eight. Books are my crack and my solace and my teachers. Barring an emergency, I cannot make it through a day without 45 minutes (minimum) in the morning, drinking my coffee and reading (or re-reading) a book.

I've spent the last month working on an estate sale in Georgetown, in a house that has been in the same family for 120 years. And there in the entrance hall was the most beautiful 7 x 8 foot set of mahogany and glass bookshelves. Full of the books a family collected between 1890 and 1950. Mostly novels, some books of knowledge, and of course the pre-requisite mid-century Readers Digest condensed volumes.

The vast majority of these books were charming children's novels from the early part of the last century. And tucked amongst the pages were little treasures - postcards, birthday cards, and other mementos. These books were read. Enjoyed. Treasured and saved for nearly a century in that phenomenal glass and mahogany home.

I understand these people. I am still, 10 years later, puzzled by my former flatmate. Non-readers are as foreign to me as, well, seafood on a pizza. It doesn't make sense. People who don't need to read the book because they saw the movie. People who don't read because they had to read too much in school. People who don't read because they just don't have the time. People who don't read because they are too busy writing. People who don't read because books are scary.

It's a fundamental divide. As elemental to me as religion. And though I try to have compassion on these people, I find it a trial because I have no empathy for them. Only pity. It's a puzzle. Maybe there's a book out there that will help me understand them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

To NaNoWriMo or Not? That Is the Question.

This is the first year that I’ve done NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. For those who don’t know what that is (and I’m betting most, if not all of you, know more about it than I do) it means that you sign on at www.NaNoWriMo.org and vow to write 50,000 new words on a new manuscript. You cannot start until November 1 and you must end on November 30.

I almost didn’t do it. I’d just spent a whirlwind Halloween weekend going trick-or-treating twice, being in a Halloween parade and sewing a Saint costume for my child to wear in the All-Saints Day service. So, the last thing I wanted to do as I sat in the recliner at 11 PM on Sunday night, gasping for air and zoning out on the Real Housewives, was add another thing on my to-do list.

But, as I scanned my emails, I thought of NaNoWriMo. I’d been talking to the Rockville 8 about it, what exactly you do for it, etc. at our last meeting. Now, I was feeling guilty. I’d told myself that I’d do it. I’d promised myself I’d widen my horizons this year by trying it. Yet, at the moment, I was sitting in my recliner like an exhausted, used-up lump.

That’s when it hit me. I’m exhausted all the time anyway. I’m always used up. I’m always too busy. So, if I’m going to be all those things I may as well add one on the heap for myself. So, I logged onto the website and joined. As I did it, I questioned my own sanity. But I guess there are others who have questioned theirs as they added their names to the list.

It was also exhilarating. I was finally a part of something I’d heard others talk about. As of Sunday, November 7, I have 7,179 words. I should be at 11,669 words if you figure the 1,667 word a day pace. So, I’ve got some catching up to do. By my own reckoning I need to do 1,947 words each day from here on out to make it. So far, I’ve done an average of 1,026 words each day. This includes the day that I spent all day at my child’s competition. The day I had a deadline at work and dragged myself home. The day the traffic was horrendous on the way home. The day I had a headache and thought my head would explode. I’ve literally done something each day. Even on the hardest days.

Here’s the secret I’ve discovered. I may have started out exhausted when I was writing but many times I forgot my fatigue and stress by the end of my words. My husband has been supportive. My child played nicely with various toys. The dog sleeps on her rug under my desk and warms my feet. They’ve all pitched in and done their part.

And, when it didn’t get easier as I wrote, when it felt like pulling teeth, I still did it. It may not have been pretty but something made it to the page.

Last night, after all day at my child’s event, I felt like I’d been sucked dry. I really, really didn’t feel like it. So, I gave myself a carrot and wrote an exciting scene that I’d brainstormed just that morning. When I looked up, I’d written about 1,400 words. It felt effortless.

There’s another thing whispering in the background. The Rockville 8 goals for 2010. I seem to remember something about having a complete rough draft of a new book by August 2010. Did I really say that? Can I make it at least by the end of 2010 with the help of NaNo?

So, maybe I won’t make 1,947 words per day. Maybe I’ll only get 30,000 words for this month. But, then I say “only 30,000 words” and laugh. That would be a really good thing because it would be 30,000 I might not have had.

Tell me about your NaNo war experiences. What worked? What didn’t? Any advice?

So, this post is 692 words. Can I count this toward my daily NaNo goal?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghost, Ghouls, and Spirits



I adore ghost stories. When I travel, I try to pick up books that chronicle local ghost stories. But my favorite new ghost story is total fiction--Jenny Crusie’s Maybe This Time. What follows is a mini-review and then an invitation for you to share your favorite ghost story with me!

Maybe This Time, Jennifer Crusie’s nineteenth novel, published in September, is a tour de force contemporary gothic romance. Commitment-phobic heroine Andromeda (Andie) Miller journeys to a remote English estate relocated in Ohio to play governess to her ex-husband’s troubled wards. Once there, she falls in love, first, with the kids, then, with her distant ex-husband, North Archer, when he steps in to fix her problem with the resident ghosts who are attached to the two-hundred-year-old house.

Crusie’s Ph.D. roots show in this book as they do in all her works. She uses references, both literal and metaphoric, to Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, and Mary Stewart. She taps in to the rich literary history that laid the ground work for popular fiction today--those seminal works that gave birth to both the popular romance genre and the popular horror genre.

On her website, Crusie says she “pays homage” with Maybe This Time to Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, a Victorian ghost story. Maybe This Time is a contemporary gothic romance which combines equal parts romance, a woman’s journey tale, and a creepy ghost story. At its core is a love story where second chances are possible. Yet, it’s a riveting, scary ghost story, at times, where no one is safe. The children are in jeopardy and anyone who tries to save the kids are a target of an elusive ghoulish murderer. While this novel is a romance at heart and we know the happy ending is a trope conventional to the genre, the reader worries until the very end if the hero and the heroine will ever reconnect and stay together permanently. It isn’t until the most dangerous and manipulative of the three ghosts, who wants North Archer for reasons that finally become evident at the end, invades Andie’s territory and threatens to take over that we understand what’s truly at stake and why it matters.

Who could have guessed that revisiting the classics of old could be quite so funny, entertaining, sad, scary, or hot for contemporary readers? In Crusie’s masterful hands, a ghost story is all that and more!

Okay, so now you’ve heard all about my new favorite “published” ghost story. (I say published because two of my critique partners--one local and one from school--have wonderful ghost stories pending publication.) Go, grab a copy of Crusie’s Maybe This Time. You’ll love it. I promise. Now . . . tell me all about your favorite ghost story. I dare you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Interview with NYT Best-selling Author Roxanne St. Claire

The Rockville 8 is ecstatic to host New York Times Best-selling author Roxanne St. Claire for an in depth interview as her newest book - EDGE OF SIGHT- hits stores on October 26th. One lucky commenter's name will be chosen at random to receive a free copy of the book - the first in her new series "The Guardian Angelinos."

Welcome, Rocki! Thanks so much for stopping by for a chat!

Thank you so much for inviting me to visit one of my very favorite blogs! I’m delighted to be here and happy to answer any questions you can throw at me!

1)What brought you to writing as a career choice? What keeps you going and has anything ever seemed like a large enough obstacle to make you reconsider? (For example, a really cruddy R letter)

I’ve had my fingers on a keyboard since I was ten, writing love stories from day one. Quite honestly, I never burned to be a published author – I had no idea that was something mere mortals could do. In the late 1990’s, one of my brothers decided to write a legal thriller, which was published in hardcover by Doubleday. (DEADSPIN by Gregory Michael MacGregor.) Going through the draft and sale process with him was truly eye-opening for me. My very own brother sold a book – why shouldn’t I try? I’d been reading romance forever, and finally decided to write a manuscript for fun, to see if I had it a “real” book in me. The most amazing thing happened about twenty-five pages into the book…I loved writing. I was having so much fun, it became the only thing I wanted to do. But I had my own PR business and two young children, so writing certainly wasn’t the only thing I had to do. Still, I wrote late at night, early in the morning, whenever I could sneak in a few words, and finished the manuscript in less than six months. Only then did I discover RWA and all that organization has to offer an unpublished writer.

And that would be the answer to what keeps me going: my writer friends, our shared experiences, the knowledge and inspiration and information that I gain from RWA and similar organizations. From the first rejection to the most recent revision letter (both can be cruddy “R letters!”) I depend upon a network of like-minded (read: insane heavy drinkers) to help me through. Obstacles that make me reconsider this career choice rear their ugly heads on a daily basis: a particularly impossible plot knot, a crappy review (another bad R), a horrific cover, a strangling amount of book piracy, disappointing sales, a miniscule royalty check (and yet another bad R)…the professional challenges are frequent and daunting. But this is my job now, after almost thirty books and nearly ten years, and I can’t imagine quitting, no matter how tough the job is.

2. Within the Rockville8, we have an ongoing discussion about writers’ Ur (or origin) stories. At the RWA National conference Jayne Ann Krentz (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle) spoke about the importance of a writer finding her core story and Suzanne Brockmann touched on it in her session on theme. What do you consider your core story? What are the themes you explore as you write?

What a great question! I was in Suzanne Brockmann’s theme workshop, and I remember giving my own “core story” some thought at the time. When I look at my “wall of covers” and try to see if a theme emerges, I find that discovery and reconciliation is huge for me. My characters are invariably trying to find something/someone or need to forgive something/someone – and sometimes I can combine those two themes in one book. For example, I’ve written six novels that have a story or driving subplot that has to do with an adopted child searching for, running from, or reconciling with birth parents. Reconciliation with a former lover, or the always popular “reunion romance” is another story I love, as well as forcing the hero and heroine to work together to “find” something – whether that something is a person, an artifact, a clue, a killer. Of course, what they’re really searching for is love. Like many writers, I don’t really think about the theme of a story until I’m finished writing the book. Usually, I’m far too caught up in the character arcs or the action of the plot to consider something as lofty as a theme. But the theme emerges organically and the “core story” can be identified when the book is done.

3. Who and what are your inspirations and how do they influence your writing and career choices?

My career and “life” inspirations were and still are my very successful and wonderful siblings, all of whom are high achievers and focused individuals. I’m the fifth child of a happy, stable family, raised by parents who believed all of us were capable of anything. That kind of confidence is invaluable in any high burn-out, competitive, difficult business. My mother was a lover of books and the written word, introducing me to great novelists as early as sixth grade. And by great, I mean Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Sydney Sheldon, and Judith Krantz. I love entertaining, commercial fiction that keeps me up all night, lost in an unforgettable world with remarkable characters.

In our business, I have a few mentors and sources of inspiration. I met Debbie Macomber early in my career and her drive and professionalism has been a beacon for me, reminding me that no success comes overnight and that you make your own luck by setting goals. She taught me how to set, track, maintain, and achieve goals; we meet every January for lunch to review the previous year’s goals and lay out what we have in mind for the year ahead. That woman is simply amazing. I’m also inspired by my close writing friends who are encouraging, forgiving, and forthcoming with wine in times of need. You know who you are!

4. What elements of Romantic Suspense attracted you and made you decide to write within that framework?

I’ve always read and loved Romantic Suspense. I tried to write a straight contemporary as my first manuscript, but without thinking about it, I introduced an element of danger to up the stakes. After I sold my first few single titles, all romantic suspense, we were still living in the dark ages of “only one book a year” (that would be 2003). I could write faster than that, so I drafted a contemporary category book that didn’t interfere with my option clause and discovered that I really could write a book without villains. I wrote nine category books and loved every one. I write romantic suspense now, but know that there are many other types of books in me, including a Young Adult novel that I’ve sold to Delacorte Press for release in 2012. But, I do love me a bad guy chase, as well as the balance of life-threatening danger and heart-stopping emotion, so I plan to continue to write Romantic Suspense as long as it is selling.

5. Series are wildly popular among readers. Discuss the Bullet Catchers and your new series – how did you develop the concepts? What was the push behind branching out into a second series and how will the two series differ?

I was not a series reader before! I’m the kind of person who can’t stand to think I missed something, so when I’d read a book with a reference to a married characters, I’d worry I missed that story. I’d worry so much, I couldn’t concentrate on the book in my hands. I also thought recurring characters were kind of arrogant on the author’s part, making the assumption we’d read everything she’d ever written. Well, I was wrong. Series took off, and after I wrote three unrelated, stand-alone romantic suspense novels for Pocket, my editor was nudging me to come up with a series idea. I didn’t have one, but while researching executive protection for a new novel, I came across the slang term “bullet catcher” for a bodyguard. It really was like a creative lightning strike – I instantly knew I had the idea for a series and the cool name to go with it. I had no idea if the series would go beyond three books, but I was fortunate to write eight novels and two novellas under the Bullet Catcher umbrella.

When I moved to a new publisher, they wanted a new series, and I admit I was bereft. I didn’t really want to end the Bullet Catchers – I felt so comfortable and at home with those guys. I thought about what elements of the series “worked” for me and what was missing. I loved the idea of what the Bullet Catchers did (protection, investigation, security) because it created a great foundation for suspense stories, but wanted to add a new element that wasn’t in that series: family connection. There’s so much emotion to mine in a family! That’s when I came up with the big blended Italian clan, and the concept of a grittier “start up” organization called The Guardian Angelinos. I made these folks distant cousins to Johnny Christiano, one of the Bullet Catchers, and set the first book up to show how the little company was formed (the hero, wounded in battle, was turned down by the Bullet Catchers for a job). I’ve written three of the Guardian Angelino books and really love these people as much as the first series. And I’ve added some “cameo” appearances for Bullet Catcher fans.

6. What can we expect from you in the coming years? (Yvonne saw a post somewhere that suggested you are considering dusting off your first MS and selling it as a Kindle download…?)

I hope to do more Guardian Angelino books. The second and third books are coming out back to back next spring – SHIVER OF FEAR in April and FACE OF DANGER in May. And I have my first YA, tentatively titled DON’T YOU WISH and I am so ridiculously excited about writing in one of my very favorite genres. I love that story and hope readers do, too. I’m not so sure about that first manuscript on Kindle. It didn’t sell for a reason…if you get my drift. We’ll see…I’m open to anything!

I am also excited to let readers know that I have a “FREEQUEL” for EDGE OF SIGHT up on my web site now – a short story that tells the backstory of how the heroine and hero first met, their torrid affair, and heartbreaking goodbye. Called “Taken To The Edge” this is a meaty read that gives readers a fun flashback that sets the tone for the story and the series. Go to http://www.roxannestclaire.com/ and visit the “Free Reads” page.

I’ll be in and out all day to answer questions or comments, so please ask away! We are giving away a signed copy of EDGE OF SIGHT, so leave a comment or a question and we’ll pick a winner!

Thank you so much for having me, ladies. I’ve been a fan since I met most of you in Washington, DC for your retreat, and I’m tempted to become a distant member of your oh-so-fun chapter [Washington Romance Writers http://www.wrwdc.com/]! Being here is the next best thing!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Last night, I dreamed I was Michael Bublé's mother . . .*

In my defense, I'd gone to sleep thinking about how it was my turn to write the blog. Wait.  There's absolutely no connection there at all, is there? Hmm. Deborah had it all figured out this morning, but now I can't remember how she did it!

Oh well.  In my defense, I just got home from a writing weekend. Twenty-one pages in 1.5 days. My brain exploded and dribbled out of my ears about 1:30 this afternoon. Now? I got nothin' . . . Except links!

Sweet, fun, informative links! And at least one that sings . . .

My first link comes from Candy, proving the good sense of your trusty Rockville8 because we meet (most of the time) at Panera's—reportedly the healthiest fast food chain around. Also, one of the friendliest to writers.

Though not as friendly as the Novel Cafe, which I've never been to, but I learned about from the Murderati—who were blogging, recently about where they write—which I learned about from Do Some Damage, who copied them. If you, like Michael Bublé's mother, find that kind of thing interesting, here's one more to explore. 

And if you're the kind of weirdo who finds looking into other writer's offices interesting, you'll probably like this, too.

Oh you want one.  Admit it.

In my defense, I actually am old enough to remember typewriters that didn't have USB ports.

Though not, thank gawd, old enough to have mothered Michael Bublé.

CoughTechnicallyCough.

And I wish I wasn't old enough to remember posting this.  Because I am very sad to have to tell you, kittens, that I am in fact still watching way too much TV.  Er.  I mean TVD!

In my defense, I . . . no . . . are  you kidding me? 

There's no defense for that!

But wait!  Before you go, I've got two more links!

This one, here, is the money shot.  It's the best program I've found, for down and dirty racking up the words.

And this one, from one of my favorite authors does, as promised, sing!

Man.  This linking stuff took almost as much thought as an actual post.  What was I thinking? 

Well, in my defense, I wasn't. 

Twenty-one pages.

1.5 days. 

Did I mention?



*You're welcome, Marjanna!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stacked -- the Slacker We-Were-at-the-Beach Post


Here are (some) of the Rockville 8.  From left to right, you've got Yvonne, Marjanna, Candy, Keely, Nichole, and our lovely guest, Julie.  We are gathered outside a diner in Delaware where we were about to have breakfast this morning after spending several blissful days at the beach.

Lisa & Michelle, we missed you!!!

One of the things we did at the Beach was watch a few episodes of the all too limited television series, Stacked, starring Pamela Anderson. 

It's a sitcom, set in a bookstore owned and run by two geeky brothers.  One of the brothers is a writer.  We loved it for the laughs, but we also related to a lot of the angst.  A LOT of it!

So look for a more thoughtful post here next week.  In the mean time, if you're a writer or you've ever worked in a bookstore, I urge you to check out Stacked.

You'll be glad you did!

Monday, October 4, 2010

V is for Verb – a love letter in two parts


Part One - V

In high school a friend of mine pointed out that the very best, most dazzling words – words filled with vim, vigor, vinegar and vitality - begin with the letter V.
I quickly realized the truth of her statement and forever after the letter V has held sway in the ventricles of my heart, the veins of my body, and the velvet of my soul.

Yum.

I make my case below:

Virtuous vixens vex vapid viscounts with verve.

Venal villains vacillate between vaporizing vagabonds and viewing viscera.

Vintage vampire vivifies vengeful Vulcan.

Victorious valedictorian vehemently vaporizes vigorous vegan voles voluntarily in vats of verdant vodka.

Oh, yes, I could go on.

V is for Valentine, viticulture and...vocabulary.Which brings us to...

Part Two – Verb

How many times has a critique partner or contest judge circled the various forms of To Be on a page of your writing and suggested you use a stronger verb?

Some of that is first draft-itis, right? Get it out, even if it's complete shite, because, as la Nora has said many a time, one can fix a broken page but heaven help trying to fix a blank one.

And some of it comes down to lack of vocabulary. A small pool of words to choose from leaves you limited in nuance and at the mercy of the dreaded and dreadful adverb.

For instance: She walked across the room.

Huh. Yawn.

There aren’t a lot of clues in the sentence to set tone.

So let’s try a different verb:
Maybe she sauntered across the room.
Or scooted, swayed, skipped, sidled, slipped, slithered, stepped or shimmied.

Just a random assortment of S verbs that move your character across the room...but, wow, do they impart different visuals and moods, right? If she's sauntering, maybe she has a reason to gloat or is feeling confident. If she's slithering, is she the villain? Does she sidle when she’s scared or on a mission or wants to remain unnoticed?

When you choose a load-bearing verb, you cut down on the need to explain – it’s already there in the writing. You can trim the fat until you get to the lean meat of your story.

Another example:


He ate lunch.

Double yawn.

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes a guy just needs to eat his lunch and move along. But you can convey so much when said guy shovels lunch down his gullet. Or drinks it. Or masticates each bite forty times before swallowing. Take advantage of our English lexicon. It’s there for our benefit and our readers’ pleasure.

If you find yourself using the same verbs (or words) over and over (the R8 calls these 'echoes' and we all suffer them, alas), I have two suggestions that might help.

First, while at your revisions, try keeping your computer's thesaurus open alongside your WIP. When you run into a morass of to be’s, to have’s, to do’s, or to make’s, start playing with the thesaurus to see if another verb can pull the freight instead. You won’t (and shouldn’t) replace all of the to be’s, etc., in your writing. But, with vigilance, you can guard against their proliferation.

Second, take a dictionary to bed with you. Stop laughing! (Guffawing, chortling, snorting, giggling and in general pointing your finger at the screen and sniggering). I'm serious, grab a lightweight dictionary, open at random, read a page or two. Not only will you expand your vocab and thereby increase the color options in your palette, but...it'll probably put you to sleep PDQ.

Two birds, one stone. No more insomnia and a head stuffed with delicious new words. Of course, my advice is to turn to the V section first. Vs rock.

So tell me, what's your favorite V word? Or verb? What verbs do you tend to overuse? What's a broken sentence you drafted then fixed in the revision?

V is for Verb – a love letter in two parts


Part One - V

In high school a friend of mine pointed out that the very best, most dazzling words – words filled with vim, vigor, vinegar and vitality - begin with the letter V.
I quickly realized the truth of her statement and forever after the letter V has held sway in the ventricles of my heart, the veins of my body, and the velvet of my soul.

Yum.

I make my case below:

Virtuous vixens vex vapid viscounts with verve.

Venal villains vacillate between vaporizing vagabonds and viewing viscera.

Vintage vampire vivifies vengeful Vulcan.

Victorious valedictorian vehemently vaporizes vigorous vegan voles voluntarily in vats of verdant vodka.

Oh, yes, I could go on.

V is for Valentine, viticulture and...vocabulary.Which brings us to...

Part Two – Verb

How many times has a critique partner or contest judge circled the various forms of To Be on a page of your writing and suggested you use a stronger verb?

Some of that is first draft-itis, right? Get it out, even if it's complete shite, because, as la Nora has said many a time, one can fix a broken page but heaven help trying to fix a blank one.

And some of it comes down to lack of vocabulary. A small pool of words to choose from leaves you limited in nuance and at the mercy of the dreaded and dreadful adverb.

For instance: She walked across the room.

Huh. Yawn.

There aren’t a lot of clues in the sentence to set tone.

So let’s try a different verb:
Maybe she sauntered across the room.
Or scooted, swayed, skipped, sidled, slipped, slithered, stepped or shimmied.

Just a random assortment of S verbs that move your character across the room...but, wow, do they impart different visuals and moods, right? If she's sauntering, maybe she has a reason to gloat or is feeling confident. If she's slithering, is she the villain? Does she sidle when she’s scared or on a mission or wants to remain unnoticed?

When you choose a load-bearing verb, you cut down on the need to explain – it’s already there in the writing. You can trim the fat until you get to the lean meat of your story.

Another example:


He ate lunch.

Double yawn.

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes a guy just needs to eat his lunch and move along. But you can convey so much when said guy shovels lunch down his gullet. Or drinks it. Or masticates each bite forty times before swallowing. Take advantage of our English lexicon. It’s there for our benefit and our readers’ pleasure.

If you find yourself using the same verbs (or words) over and over (the R8 calls these 'echoes' and we all suffer them, alas), I have two suggestions that might help.

First, while at your revisions, try keeping your computer's thesaurus open alongside your WIP. When you run into a morass of to be’s, to have’s, to do’s, or to make’s, start playing with the thesaurus to see if another verb can pull the freight instead. You won’t (and shouldn’t) replace all of the to be’s, etc., in your writing. But, with vigilance, you can guard against their proliferation.

Second, take a dictionary to bed with you. Stop laughing! (Guffawing, chortling, snorting, giggling and in general pointing your finger at the screen and sniggering). I'm serious, grab a lightweight dictionary, open at random, read a page or two. Not only will you expand your vocab and thereby increase the color options in your palette, but...it'll probably put you to sleep PDQ.

Two birds, one stone. No more insomnia and a head stuffed with delicious new words. Of course, my advice is to turn to the V section first. Vs rock.

So tell me, what's your favorite V word? Or verb? What verbs do you tend to overuse? What's a broken sentence you drafted then fixed in the revision?

Monday, September 27, 2010

I DON’T GET NO RESPECT By Susan Donovan

The Rockville 8 is proud to welcome NYT bestselling author Susan Donovan. She writes contemporary romance with a trenchant wit and a melted-chocolate heart. But even with these two sterling qualities (among the many), she’s learned that the life of a romance writer is not all bons-bons and slavish devotion. And what’s up with that?

Susan Donovan

I remember the exact moment I realized I’d become “A NOVELIST” – an honest-to-goodness professional writer with an agent and a publisher and an option for my next book. It hit me while attending my first RWA National Convention in 2002. Upon my return home, I sat everyone down at the kitchen table and explained that things had changed. Mommy had a new career. This was serious business, I told them. Someday I would be a New York Times bestseller. I would earn a good salary. I would make a major contribution to our family’s future.

I asked my husband and children to respect this new reality. I told them that when my office door was closed they were to give me privacy to write. I told them I’d display a sign on my office door so there’d be no mistake. The sign would say, Mommy’s Writing.

“Does everyone understand what I’m saying?” I asked.

Two sets of little eyeballs blinked into the overhead kitchen light. My
husband cocked his head curiously. Crickets. . . I got nothing but crickets.

That next day, I taped my sign on the office door and attacked my WIP with a renewed sense of determination. Not five minutes had passed when I heard snickering out in the hallway, which was followed by scratching sounds and more snickering. I got up and opened the door. My kids were rolling around in the hallway holding their sides in hilarity. They’d defaced my sign. The word “writing” had been scratched out and replaced with “farting” – Mommy’s Farting.

Thus began my career as a romance author.

Of course, that stuff happened more than eight years ago. Those little snickering cuties are now a senior and sophomore in high school, respectively. My husband is now my ex-husband. I’ve hit the New York Times extended list three times. I’ve sold twelve novels and four novellas. I’m earning a good salary. Is this where you’re expecting me to say everything has changed? Sorry to disappoint.

I ran into an acquaintance at the post office the other day, someone I used to socialize with on a regular basis. She asked me if I was still writing or if I’d found a job. A relative asked me last week if I were still doing “those sex books.” During the legal proceedings that ended my marriage, my spouse said via his attorney that he’d prefer that I sought employment but that he’d allow me to pursue my writing “hobby” out of the goodness of his heart. (This was after I’d become a USA Today bestselling author and got a RITA nomination.)

And only late last week – oh yes, she really did – Danielle Steele told the world that she was not a romance writer. To an interviewer she explained, “I write about the situations we all deal with. Loss and war and illness and jobs and careers, and good things, bad things, crimes, whatever. And I really write more about the human condition.”

At times like these, a girl needs something greater than herself to turn to. I turned to Rodney Dangerfield. I imagined him in an old black-and-white TV clip, nervously tugging at his skinny necktie, sweat on his brow, his head twitching and his eyes bugging out as he shared his mantra with the world: “I tell ya – I don’t get no respect.” It helped to calm my temper and remind me that I can’t take myself too seriously. The truth is, all any of us can do is love what we do, do it to the best of our ability, and let it go.


Once I recovered from Danielle’s knife in the back, I tugged at my necktie and went back to work. And – is this a coincidence, or what? – the romance novel I’m working on right now happens to be about situations we all deal with, good things, bad things, crimes, whatever. It’s about the human condition.

How about you? What have been your most egregious "Just call me Rodney Dangerfield" moments since you began writing?

Don't forget to mark Susan's upcoming release schedule on your calendars:

NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, December 2010, St. Martin's Press
"Gail's Gone Wild!" -- part of the HQN Spring Break-themed anthology THE GUY NEXT DOOR, with Lori Foster and Victoria Dahl, March 2011
THE COURTESAN'S GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR MAN, with Celeste Bradley, June 2011, St. Martin's Press

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Make Mine Well Done

One topic has kept the Rockville 8 buzzing all week: Stakes.

Global stakes. Personal stakes.
Good novels have both. Juicy stakes enhance characterization, fuel conflict, and keep elements like pace on track. But what I’ve recently realized is, the novels I love embed one stake in the other. And if you and I want readers to sink their teeth into our books, maybe we need to embed one stake, like the personal stake, within the other as well.

Pick a novel. Any novel.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde. Patricia Cornwell’s Body Farm. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Harlan Coben’s Long Lost. Their authors all know the trick of linking personal stakes to the global ones.

So let’s look at three novels. You’ll see what I mean. If you haven’t read the following books – SPOILER ALERT – consider skipping to the comments section. But better yet, keep reading, pick up these books, and see what you think...

Carl Sagan’s Contact
Influenced by her father who died when she was young, Ellie grows up to be a scientist, searching the skies for signs of intelligent life. She and her colleagues receive an extraterrestrial signal: build a device and the conversation will begin. Talk about a global stake!

But Ellie’s personal stake is tied up in the success or failure of the project. Why? Her father taught her listening to the stars was to listen to those we’ve loved and lost. The grown Ellie knows this can’t be true, but she dares to hope she might speak with her father once again. However, as terrorists threaten the project, both the global stake, and Ellie’s personal one, are at risk and the action is nonstop — because one stake is embedded in the other.

Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me
Global stakes don’t have to be about saving the world from nuclear disaster. But are global stakes compatible with a genre like romance? You betcha! Global stakes apply to the world. Any world.

When we read Bet Me, we watch prickly Min Dobbs reluctantly fall for Cal Morrisey. Min has clear-cut personal stakes. But what is going on in the wider world Min inhabits? Her beloved sister is getting married. And Min’s determined Diana will have the perfect wedding before living happily ever after. That’s quite a global stake.

Every time Diana’s happiness, the global stake, is in jeopardy, Min must accept Cal’s help to make it right. So her personal stake rises in relation to the global stake. Since the stakes are linked, they make for a fun book that stays with the reader.

Kathy Reichs’s Fatal Voyage
For me, Fatal Voyage, more than any other novel, demonstrates the power of connecting personal stakes to global ones. It opens with global stakes. Forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan must identify the cause of a plane crash, otherwise, other travelers may be in jeopardy. That’s a great global stake. But an error in the recovery mission could cost Tempe her job, her reputation, and her career. This has personal stake written all over it, and it’s linked to the global one.
Tempe turns to her lawyer ex-husband for advice, and unfortunately, a night of comfort. Now, he wants to reconcile. When her would-be boyfriend arrives, he ups the global stakes by revealing his partner died in the crash while transporting a witness, and he ups the personal ones.
When the error begins to look like a cover-up to hide a crime, both sets of stakes jump again.

The stakes leapfrog at least one more time before the satisfying ending to this novel. And that ending has stayed with me. Because of the interdependence of the stakes.

Now, I’m determined.
In my own work, when it comes to stakes, I want to make mine well done. Now, the Rockville 8 wants to know...
What do the stakes in your favorite books say to you?