Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Brush With Rejection

I painted the kitchen the day I gave up writing. Anything to keep me from the stories nobody wanted to buy. Rejection letters were pouring in like rain, and I was drowning.

I don’t remember the exact date I reached saturation point, but it was at least five years after my last sale. I’d had two books published by Silhouette Intimate Moments in the early 1990s, both containing as much mystery as romance. Since they were the second and third manuscripts I’d completed, I thought I was on my way.
Boy, was I wrong.

So I painted the kitchen, then I took on the living and dining rooms. By the time I got to the upstairs halls, even the possibility of rejection was preferable to throwing on another coat of paint!

I had an idea for a romantic comedy, a completely new genre for me. The story flowed from me; then I wrote another. And another.

Within a year or so, Harlequin Duets called with an offer for the first story. In November of 2000, almost exactly seven years since I’d last had a book on the shelves, FORGET ME? NOT was published by Duets.

That’s not the end of my story.

I kept selling – to Duets, Dorchester Love Spell, Avalon and Harlequin Temptation until finally landing at Harlequin Superromance. AN HONORABLE MAN, my May 2010 release from Superromance, is my 29th published book. My 30th book will be out in October, also from Superromance.

Ironically, I’ve come full circle. I may go back to comedy some day but AN HONORABLE MAN contains a mystery, just like my early books from Silhouette and some of those rejected manuscripts.

So if anybody out there is feeling rejected, take some time to wallow, then keep on writing. I wouldn’t have made sales three through thirty if I hadn’t persevered.

Man, am I glad I hate to paint!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reading for Writers

A rainy day, a pot of tea, and a good book... Life doesn't get any better than that, does it? Not if you're an avid reader. And not if you're a writer, either.

I love to crack open a book that's new to me. Heck, I love to crack open my old favorites. After all, what better way to learn to write a novel than to read one?

Writers, I believe, should read two types of books: good ones and bad ones. The good ones can highlight what you're doing wrong. The bad ones can confirm what you're doing right.

Within those two types, writers should read three kinds of books:
1. Books within your genre
2. Books outside your genre
3. The classics of yesteryear, not just new releases

Whether you're a beginning writer or a twenty-novel veteran, reading with a critical eye can help you push your craft to the next level. By critical eye, I mean ask yourself what about the book makes you marvel. Then, ask yourself how the writer made that aspect of her work so awesome.

Maybe a writer's dialogue blows you away. Maybe it's her description. The element you admire most may change as your skill set changes. In any case, your bookshelf can be a never-ending classroom. Here are the top ten books that have taught me.

Nic's Top Ten Most Influential Books

10. Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi
Grafton bent noir without breaking it. She made the genre into something else. In doing so, she made it her own. And I admire her for it.

9. Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters
This high Victorian serial caught Charles Dickens' eye. And no wonder. The symbolism is sometimes blatant, sometimes
subtle. But it always works hard to carry a larger message.

8. Carla Negger's The Cabin
Now I get it: Peanut butter is to chocolate what romance is to suspense!

7. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Need I say more?

6. Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
Structure is the object here. In a sense, this novel is a story told in duplicate. Each character, each motive, each setting has its equal and opposite counterpart. Together, these parts tell a poignant tale, delivered to the reader through structure.

5. Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man
This Depression Era novel packs a punch even by today's standards. How? Hammett can convey a dark truth in a single sentence. You get the whole picture in just a few words.

4. Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night
Sayers is a study in theme. Like all of her novels, Gaudy Night's theme is constant throughout - and can be summed up in one word. In this case, that word is "love."

3. Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem
Crais is a master storyteller, working point-of-view not just to
gradually reveal the pertinent facts of his mystery, but also to naturally trigger an emotional reaction from the reader. Joe Pike, I love you from the bottom of my heart.

2. William Gibson's Pattern Recognition
My heart sings each time I read this novel. While the book may seem topical, its characters are really on the universal quest
we all pursue. To my mind, that's the most beautiful thing a novel can do.

1. Frank Herbert's Dune
I first read this book when I was fourteen years old. And it rocked my world. Published in 1965, Dune is an amalgam of messages that seem to sum up where we've been... and where we're going. I can only hope my work will do half as much.

The more I write, and the more I read, the more my list changes. I hope you'll keep reading while you keep writing, too. In the meantime, tell the Rockville 8: Which are your favorite books? What do they teach you about the craft?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Magic Ring of Myth: The Stories We Tell and Why We Tell Them

“Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Last weekend, I sat and watched Leap Year which had been newly released to DVD. Okay, so I didn’t just watch it once. I replayed it probably half a dozen times or more. As I studied Amy Adams’ and Matthew Goode’s unlikely courtship on the screen, I tried to figure out why I loved this story so much. Especially since critics had panned the film. The movie had a shelf-life of, what, three days on the big screen? Finally, it struck me late Sunday evening why I’d fallen in love with Leap Year. Something about the romantic comedy tapped into one of my Ur-Stories. These are those myths that are at the core of each story we read, listen to, watch . . . or write. They help us understand the random events of our lives.

I’d first heard of the Ur-Story last summer when mystery writer S. J. Rozan spoke on the topic at Seton Hill University. She addressed the stories that fiction writers
tell. Not just the mystery, romance, fantasy, horror, or science fiction dramas you see played out between the pages of so many genre books these days, but the deeper myths that lie at the core of those stories. “Life is what it is; fiction tries to tell you what it’s about,” she said. “The Ur-Stories behind crime fiction, the myths on which it’s based, are two epic battles: between chaos and order, and between good and evil. . . . The stories that interest me, though--the pieces I lift out and present to you--are the ones where order is a mask for evil, where for good to prevail the world has to explode into chaos and not everyone finds a happy ending. That’s like life, and amazingly, it echoes the process itself; the writer’s job is to make order--fiction--out of life, which is chaos.”

t did Leap Year tell me about my own Ur-Stories? I still didn’t know. So I pulled out my copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces to figure it out. How could I be so wrong about Leap Year? I loved this movie. It’s the modern-day self-actualized Cinderella who goes on a quest to an enchanted land to propose to her Prince Charming only to find she’s been mis-cast. She’s really more a Beauty who heals the Beast she finds along the way. And, well, Prince Charming doesn’t really love her. He loves the idea of her as Cinderella. Okay, these are archetypes I enjoy. Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast. But so what?

That’s when I stumbled across Campbell’s discussion on the monomyth and the role these myths play today. He says, “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dreams. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.” So this myth at the core of Leap Year spoke to me. It resonated with the private, secret myths I clutch close to myself as I journey through life. I explore these same messages of transformational love and healing, and enjoy using archetypes like Beauty and the Beast, the tortured dangerous hero, the feisty empowered heroine in my own writing. No big surprise then that I’d discovered such an affinity for Leap Year.

Does everyone do this? Seek out stories that affirm their core beliefs? Or is it just me? I started to look around at the people who surround me. Yes, they did it, too. It’s why I write romance novels and why my best friend reads fantasy. It’s why my eleven-year-old is drawn to the lyrics of Owl City’s Fireflies and my scientist father-in-law loves Asimov and old science fiction movies. We’re drawn to these myths like magnets to an invisible electro-magnetic field. You don’t have to look far to see the evidence. It’s there in the books we read, the music we listen to, the DVDs we watch, the fairy tales we tell our children, and the stories that we as writers write. So why are these myths so important? And how did they get there?

Myths capture our imagination. And without even trying, we seek them out. Myths help us order our world, manage chaos, and draw meaning from what appears to be random occurrences. We find kernels of truth in the myths that populate our lives. But what’s their ultimate purpose? Joseph Campbell says these myths help us cross difficult thresholds, allowing us to transform the way we think, both consciously and subconsciously. They help us arc and overcome the barriers in our own lives that hold us back that keep us mired in the muck. They’re the stories that remind us of our past and inform our future. They keep us from remaining static. They spur change. “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward [to] counterac[t] those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back,” he says.

So where does that leave writers? Do we try to shape the myths at the core of our stories to get across a particular message? I’m not sure we can because our privately held myths have shaped us. Our stories rise from this magical spring of myth, whether we like it or not. We can’t help it. The words that spill out of our mouths when we speak and from our fingertips when we craft our stories are already part of our personal mythology. It’s individual truth made universal in our characters and novel themes. Writers are what Campbell calls the “artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of this time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought--single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.”

As writers and scholars of humanity, we need to understand the role of myth. How our past has shaped us. How myth draws an audience to a certain underlying story within a specific genre. If we can identify the story behind the story in our own work, we will better understand what rings true for our characters and their struggles. We can even begin to help our agents and editors know how to market our books. We’ll begin to piece together why Jane Q. Public loves a Regency-set marriage of convenience story while she stays far away from the roller coaster ride of modern-day suspense. But more than that, as writer-readers, when we begin to analyze what our literature says about our generation, we can tune our ears to the heart cry to which we’ve grown deaf. By reading popular fiction (mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels) and the lyrics of our modern-day poets, singer/songwriters, we can become adept at translating life chaos into orderly, saleable fiction.

So how does this help me understand why I loved Leap Year while no one else liked it? I understand the myths that have shaped me and I’m able to track my own personal journey as a writer. I see my overriding Ur-Story. My characters always experience a life-transforming love that makes them want to risk it all. They choose to leave behind their controlled comfort zone in order to grow and change. And because they risk it all, they always find their happy ending.

Does knowing this make me a better writer? I think so. Not everyone cares to reflect on life, to grow, or change--in real life or fiction. Change is hard. But I choose to be one of the heroes Campbell mentioned who believes that knowing the truth will set others (and me) free. So I will listen. I will hear the mythos of our generation as it echoes through our popular fiction because I care to know where we’ve been and where we’re headed. And as Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lyrics say so well, yes, each of our hearts does know the way. “It’s worth it all learning at last . . . The future begins with the past . . . We’ve traveled so far to be here.” Will you open your ears? What does your Ur-Story say to you? I think it matters. How about you?

We’ve Traveled So Far
by Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Age of Miracles

I found myself wondering today
Why do some go and some stay
Do each of our hearts know their way
Through valleys of sorrow and tears
Across oceans of longing and years
And the sound of it all in my ears

I traveled
I traveled so far
I traveled so far to be here

It’s worth it all learning at last
The future begins with the past
Step out of the shadow it casts
And let the sun shine on your shoes
Kick ‘em off in the rain if you choose
There’s nothing like nothing to lose

We traveled
We traveled so far
We traveled
We traveled
We traveled so farWe traveled so far to be here

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On Becoming a Finisher

I've been a member of the Romance Writers of America and the Washington Romance Writers for years. More than a decade. That's a long time. But I wanted to become a member when I first discovered them in the Washington Pink Pages during the short duration of my very first job at age 16, cleaning for the Writers' Center, then housed at Brookemont Elementary School, because I wanted to be a romance writer when I graduated from college.

And how many years ago was that, I hear you ask. Rudely. Longer than I've known you, would be my tart reply.

My high school English and Creative Writing teacher gave me a terrific piece of advice when I told him I wanted to become a writer: he told me to read. Novels, short stories, plays, poetry. And not just who I wanted to read, but to read truly gifted writers. Shakespeare, Austen, Browning (both), Joyce, cummings, Porter, Becht, and on and on went the list. It was a long list. (Some of it was very boring.) Dr. Galvin's sentiment was later echoed by Prof. Michael Alexander when I asked him why there were no writing courses at British universities like in the US; he told me, you cannot teach someone to write; you can only learn to write by reading other writers.

And it's true. You can only learn to write by reading.

So, I read (or tried to in the cases of Dickens and Dostoevsky - but I think that's a gender thingy). In high school, I supplemented the reading list with Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Carole Mortimer, Charlotte Lamb, Nora Roberts and Douglas Adams. And my writing changed from the then unknown world of fan-fiction (at that time, I was borrowing from Anne McCaffrey's Pern and making free use of her Dragon Riders), to the glam world of Harlequin Presents. Where men were distant and women were pliant. (Kinda like Pern.) I wrote about car accidents, amnesia, unplanned pregnancies, European financiers and lots of sardonic looks. And I kept reading. I wrote character profiles. I kept my chapbook up-to-date.

Because I was going to be a writer.

After college, my world was forever changed by Jayne Ann Krentz, Laura Kinsale and Julie Garwood. Their alpha heroes did not remain assholes until the final 2 pages of the book! The more I read, the more my own writing changed. Alongside these romances, I discovered Seamus Heaney, Barbara Kingsolver, Sandra Cisneros, Stevie Smith, PG Wodehouse, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, and Dashiell Hammett. To this party was eventually added Elizabeth Peters, Janet Evanovich, Marion Keyes, Helen Fielding, Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I read, I learned about both the lyrical and comedic voices. I learned about delving into the emotions of characters and giving them arcs.

But you see, there was something neither Dr. Galvin nor Prof. Alexander hammered home to me. Something I didn't quite catch. Missing from their advice was something so essential, so vital to any writer embarking on a successful career. Perhaps it was too obvious to these learned men who spent their days writing poetry or translating Anglo-Saxon for fun. All I know is my career was going exactly nowhere. That what I had to offer, the editors didn't want. And why was that?

Because editors of reputable publishing houses want to edit, purchase and publish finished manuscripts.

When I joined Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, I rolled my eyes every time an editor would tell us to finish the book when asked to give her best advice to an aspiring author. I was writing the book! I was revising the chapters! There had to be something more! Trends? High concept? Mischievous elves? Fewer exclamation points? !!!

Yes, yes, yes, there are trends and high concept and mischievous elves that all catch the editors or agents eyes and encourages them to read on. But nothing gets their goat more than an aspiring author querrying or pitching an unfinished manuscript. It wastes their time. It makes them twitchy. They delete the querry. They grow silent in the pitch session.

I know this. I've been there. I've annoyed senior editors because I had not finished the book I was pitching.

A week ago, I re-connected with a friend on Facebook. Someone I hadn't seen in donkey's years. He wondered about my writing career. Cos I'd talked about it with him... in 1992. 18 years ago. Eighteen. Years. Ago. And it hit me. I am not a finisher! The reason I am not published is not for lack of talent, not for lack of contract, nor the fact that the agents simply don't understand my voice and senior editors are big meanies.

The number one reason why Marjanna isn't published and settled onto the extended lists? (Tell us, Richard!!!) She hasn't completed a single novel-length manuscript!!! (ding ding ding)

So, I am going to tell you now. And I am going to tell you the truth. As I work on the final 30 pages of my current Work In Progress, the only way - and I mean THE ONLY WAY - that I or you, dear reader, will ever EVER get published, the only path to take, the only short-cut to ever acknowledge, the only quick-fix for your novel, the only way over the transoms, through the slush piles, across the editor's desk and onto the shelves of a bookstore (or sent as a download onto an e-reader) is to finish your book.

Don't just write the damn book, finish it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Three and a Half, aka My Creativity Well

I sit in the living room of the Three and a Half, my maternal grandpadres' house. The deep blue of twilight shoves the solid black, leaf-fringed trees to the foreground as I gaze through the window. Peeps and trills remind me I'm in the country while a police-procedural on the TV upstairs and the steady heartbeat of the clothes-dryer in the basement reassure me that this old farmhouse is sufficiently electrified for this city woman. My mom relaxes in the wing-backed chair beside mine, her feet resting on a cushioned ottoman, a new-t0-her author's book in her hand.

Everywhere I turn my eyes to evokes a sensory trip down memory lane, physical, auditory, olfactory that tells me of my family, my roots and the origins of my story-telling life.

On the window bench, beneath the oval, hand-tinted photograph of my sailor-suited, three-year old grandpa, he told me the first ghost story I ever heard. I can't stand at the kitchen sink without thinking of my aunt and I, the two little princesses in the dungeon, forced to do dishes in punishment for being so beautiful. There is a brass-rubbing of a knight from a church in the north of England that hangs in the hayloft. How many battles has he fought - and won or lost depending on my whims - in the hundreds of years since his death?

I shot a documentary of my Nana for my graduate school thesis. The baskets she wove - that helped me weave her life into a narrative - decorate the nooks and crannies that abound here. Dollars to donuts, if you look underneath one of these baskets, you'll find a note, a name, a date. A reference about who should inherit it or why she used that pattern, those materials. If you're not courageous enough to peek at the bottom, a swift glance into a basket's belly could lead you to magazine clippings about opera, stray woodworking tools, or a collection of string (because who knows when you'll need a little twine?). Whatever the treasure trove, it always becomes the jumping-off point for another day dream.

What if the short flight of brick stairs and its archway were a portal to another time and place? Do you think the kettle-pot in the stone fireplace was a witch's cauldron once? What were the names of the horses that were stabled in the dining room back in the day? Did any of them compete in the Kentucky Derby?

I cannot remember a time when this magical kingdom was not my intimate playground. I feel I know each secret and special space yet that there is still so much to discover, to create, to name, to claim, to love and cherish. I could go on and on and on. The chair Nana and her brother used as a nutcracker. The fridge of endless grandchildren. The barn of mouse turds, race cars, and art. The three-seater outhouse on the banks of the river. This story-well, this imagination emporium, never runs dry, never runs out of stock. It is an endless tap of creativity and I remain grateful for its place in the shaping of my life.

Do you have a story place? Or maybe a collection of them? Did your family collaborate in your childhood what-ifs or did you stumble across the borders of make-believe as an adult? Where or how is your creativity rejuvenated? What or who helps?

Come on, gimme a story about your stories. I promise you - I'm listening.