Monday, September 27, 2010
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
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.
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.
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?
Sunday, September 12, 2010
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passages that simply seemed to its editors like a good idea at the time.
One of these (the one Arthur now came across) supposedly relates the experiences of one Veet Voojagig, a quiet young student at the University of Maximegalon, who pursued a brilliant academic career studying ancient philology, transformational ethics and the wave harmonic theory of historical perception, and then, after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what had happened to all the ballpoints he'd bought over the past few years." (from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)
"Lula and the couch were almost identical shades of brown, with the exception of Lula's hair, which happened to be cherry red today.
"I always feel sort of anemic when I stand next to Lula. I'm a third-generation American of Italian-Hungarian heritage. I have my mother's pale skin and blue eyes and good metabolism, which allows me to eat birthday cake and still (almost always) buttoning the top snap on my Levi's. From my father's side of the family I've inherited a lot of unmanageable brown hair and a penchant for Italian hand gestures. On my own, on a good day with a ton of mascara and four-inch heels, I can attract some attention. Next to Lula I'm wallpaper." (from Seven Up by Janet Evanovich)
"She started to laugh. She couldn't help it, she had to, and then she couldn't stop, even when Shane knocked on the door and said, "Agnes?" she still couldn't stop, and he rattled the door but she'd locked it, so he kicked it in and came in and held her and said, "It's okay," and she held on to him and said, "I know," and cried and then after a while she stopped, and he kissed the top of her head and patted her back, and she said, "That was bad," and he said, "Yeah," and she said, "I won't do it again," and he said, "I thought you meant the shooting," and she said, "That, too," and let go of him and got dressed and put on her glasses.
"When she had herself together again, she went out to the kitchen and got Rhett a dog biscuit in case he'd been traumatized. "At least is won't ever get any worse than this," she told him. He seemed comforted by that.
"Then as Brenda's goddamned son of a bitch ugly black grandfather clock gonged midnight in the front hall, she went out onto the porch to wait for somebody named Carpenter to come and clean the blood out of her kitchen." (from Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer)
Voice. I've quoted above four of the most distinct voices in 20th or 21th century fiction. Certainly not the only authors I could have selected, but four that I happened to have on my bookshelf and four of whom I actually read on a fairly regular basis. Dylan Thomas, Douglas Adams, Janet Evanovich and Jennifer Crusie.
Voice. Can you hear it? If I lined up Brian May, Eric Clapton, The Edge and Mark Knopfler, I might make Yvonne's ears bleed. But as well, I could tell you within 2 chords, if it took that long, which of those four men was currently playing. Even if they each were playing the one song I've conquered on the guitar - Jamaica A E-minor C - I'd recognize their individual guitarist's voice.
Voice. What is it? Barbara Samuel tells me, "Voice is the potato, style is the French fry." Voice is the ingredients that I have shopped for literally all my life. It is in part my grandfather's humming and stacking and restacking cutlery at the dinner table and my grandmother's yearly family reunions; it is my eldest siblings learning Spanish when I was two, teaching my absorbent mind to count to 10 in Spanish before I could in English. It was my minister's Welsh accent and my weekly Scottish Country Dance lessons with an English neighbor. It was the first book I ever read by myself, Fraidy Cat, and the first song I learned in another language, "Frere Jacques."
Voice. What is it? Kathy Gilles Seidel tells me, "Voice is the result of everything -- who you choose to write about, where you set your books, what you notice in your descriptions, your values, your interests, pretty much everything about you as a person/writer."
Voice. Can you figure out someone elses? When I read Dylan Thomas, I can hear the sound of the sea in his language, in the rhythm of his words which comes from the rhythm of the Welsh language and accent. But what about in popular fiction or genre fiction rather than literary poetic-prose? Can I hear Cambridge in Douglas Adams' voice? Or the Fens? Did he listen to the Rolling Stones and the Yard Birds? How obvious is the Mid-West in Jenny's writing or Jersey in Janet's. At least if Jenny's weren't situated in Ohio or Janet's in Trenton?
Voice. Can it be nurtured? Can it be killed? Because Style is different than voice, an author's voice should shine through no matter what he's written. Be it an opinion piece he wrote for Entertainment magazine, his memoir On Writing, or Cujo, Stephen King's voice resonates through all of his writing. What if he hadn't written Carrie, though? What if he had tried a different genre? Cozy mysteries. Fantasy. Romance. Would he still be Stephen King, multi-million selling, bestseller-writing author? Or did he stumble onto a style that fit his voice?
Voice. Do I have one? It is one thing to write about myself and my opinion and another to write about a fictional character or world. As an author, I must try and fail and try again and experiment in order to discover where my voice best fits. While I'm fairly certain it isn't in tech manuals, and I hope it isn't in hard science fiction as I have no interest there, the rest is as yet unsettled.
What about you? Can you see or hear your distinct voice? Have you ever thought about where it came from? Or do you think it's all hokum, and an author just needs to write a good story?
Monday, September 6, 2010
I've been crabbing for most of my life. Not as a livelihood as many of my ancestors have done but as a hobby. Since right now is high holy season for blue crabbing I've been going a lot lately. The other day as I was lowering my net to catch a large crab clinging to the dock, it occurred to me. Crabbing has a lot to teach me about writing.
Crabbing requires patience. If you're catching crabs from the pier on a line using chicken necks (chicken-necking) you have to toss the baited line in and wait for that first gentle tug. Let the crab get interested, relax in to it, before you pull him up and towards you. With writing, you have an idea. It germinates, you get comfortable with it, and you allow yourself to develop it before you decide it's "the one." If you push it too hard, too soon, the story won't develop properly and you'll lose enthusiam for it. Just like the crab will let go if you pull the line in too soon.
You have to be fearless to pursue your catch. Watermen (those who catch crabs for a living) have to go out in all kinds of weather to get their catch. When the crabs are running you have to give it your all or you've lost your opportunity. When inspiration strikes you can't be afraid. You have to give over to it and let it take you, even if it's to someplace you've never been before. Don't be afraid to let go on the paper. If it's not right, you can revise it later. As a perfectionist, this is one of the biggest lessons I've had to learn. Let it flow and don't self-edit. If it's junk you can clean it up later. But you can't revise what you don't have.
Even more frightening is when inspiration doesn't come. You don't feel like writing. It seems harder than it should. Then you have to push yourself. Do it anyway. Be brave enough to keep going until something works.
Learn to Cull
Culling crabs involves taking a look at your catch and judging which ones to keep. Throw back the ones that aren't yet legal size. Let the sooks (mature female crabs) and she-crabs or sallys (immature female crabs) go so they can lay their eggs to maintain the population. It's hard to do this because you've put a lot of effort into catching them. You're sweating and your back hurts. Same with your writing. When you're done, be selective when you review your first draft. Sure you've worked hard but is it really what you want your manuscript to say? Is it right for the characters? The plot? Remove it if it doesn't move the story forward. And perhaps, like the females that you threw back to help preserve the crab population, the parts that you removed may develop into future projects.
Don't Throw a Shadow
Good crabbers know that you catch crabs looking into the sun so that you don't throw a shadow on the water. Crabs have a strong survival instinct. If they see any movement above the water, they'll dive to the bottom where you can't see them. The first time I took my child crabbing off the dock, I wasn't having any luck. Several watermen nearby kept teasing me that I was getting "skunked" (not catching anything). I wanted to prove to my child that it could be done. I changed my spot on the dock and laid down on my stomach to pull the line in. Eventually, I caught something and my critics melted away. With your writing, don't let others keep you from your vision. Don't let them tell you that you can't if it's what you really want. Don't let them throw a shadow on your dreams. And, more importantly, don't throw a shadow on your own dreams. In many cases, we are our own harshest critic. Writing is hard. Don't make it harder by listening to naysayers, be they external or internal.
Be Willing to Change Your Approach
There are many different ways to crab - chicken-necking, crab pots, crab traps or trot lines to name a few. You can also change your bait, your time and your place if you're not having any luck. Be willing to switch it up and keep it fresh. Take classes, go somewhere different to write, talk to new people, read books, visit a place you've never been before or even buy a new pen. Shake it up and see what happens.
And a few last words...
It's such a rush to watch the water sluice out of the net and see a blue crab left kicking inside of it. Just like the feeling of getting a really good scene down on paper. Chase the thrill. Ride it and see where it takes you.
Finally, when you're done, it's satisfying to look into the basket and see it filled with your catch. Then the effort it cost you fades in the face of your accomplishments. Just like looking at a stack of pages and knowing your hard-earned words fill each and every one of them.