Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Convenient

* Prologues are big, bad no-nos
* Begin the story when the action and/or change occurs
* Avoid backstory and infodumping like the bubonic plague

The following three writing guidelines brought to you by every thing I've ever read on how to get published.

If you want the reader to get hooked, you need to drop him or her right in the heart of the action so they feel a part of the story rather than just an observer. No set ups allowed; any critical bits of history need to be sprinkled carefully throughout the remainder of the story in such a way that the reader absorbs them subliminally. No quicker way to turn your manuscript into a form-letter rejection than to include the phrase "when she was young" anywhere within the first 100 pages or so.

I understand the rationale. Really, I do. I've been known to skim or skip many a passages that go on and on about the hero's evil mother and her shenanigans, shenaningans that have nothing to do with the hero's story other than making him such a roguish, rakish, devilish sort of guy.

Problem is, sometimes lack of set-up or backstory can turn an otherwise good book into a real wallbanger for me. Sometimes, if I'm not supplied with a key bit of history, what happens in the story comes across as a whole lot of contrivance and/or convenience.

This is especially true in the paranormal subgenre, but not limited to it. For example, my current read - which will remain nameless to protect the innocent - has me rolling my eyes nearly every other page because so many things are just so darned convenient. The heroine has been locked in a room, with the only escape a hatch in the ceiling. Dang good thing she once went rock climbing in the Rockies. Hero needs to get out of Dodge fast because the bad guys have surrounded him. Wow, what a relief that he just remembered that he has the ability to turn himself into a hedgehog and can scamper right between their legs. The heroine has just encountered some bizarre fantastical creature that no-one's every heard of and she'd always thought was only a myth. Just so happens she knows all about this creature because her relative is a professor in mythical creature studies.

Granted, it's impossible to set up all the parameters of an imaginary world or to list all the available abilities of the characters up front, like some sort of Dungeons and Dragons inventory. Little aspects about the people in the book and the world they live in need to be woven into the tapestry of the story in such a way as to create a pleasing picture.

But if some form of set up doesn't occur - some sense of planning ahead - what ends up happening is a tapestry that looks more like a picture colored with only the 8-count box of Crayons. Need to add an eggplant into that still life but don't have the proper color of aubergine to pull it off? Somehow whipping out the standard purple and hoping no-one will notice it's glaring obviousness just won't cut it.

I need to be made to believe that what happens is possible, not because I all of the sudden learn a new fact about something that just so happens to come at the most convenient time. The dreaded "oh, yeah, I just remembered that I know how to pick locks and happen to have a lock picking set here in my purse" phenomenon.

Too, there comes a point when jumping into the story mid-action makes me feel left out. Like I missed some of the party or have been left out of the in-joke. Diana Peterfreund summed the whole deal up quite nicely in her RTB article, Post Medias Res. I'm one of those people who needs a little bit of forplay before the big moment, and if you skip straight away to the good stuff, the experience loses a lot of intensity.

I suppose you've figured out I'm a fan of prologues. Or rather, I'm a fan of prologues that add something to the story by helping me understand a certain situation or some key aspect of a character's background. I have a story in which the hero is emotionally scarred when, as a teenager, the woman he loves and who he believes loves him betrays him in a brutal, cruel way. The scene is intense and emotional and explains why he is so unable to trust women or allow himself to love anyone at all. And including this in the story brings about a lot of showing how and why he is who he is instead of relying on telling the readers that something in his past has made this guy slightly mysogenistic and hoping that they believe it enough to give him a pass rather than just think him a big, fat jerk.

However, the story begins many years later, so that scene is 90% backstory with about 10% character introduction, since the villianess comes into play much later. It's what I consider prologue material.

Prologues can set up a world in such a way that I'm not grimacing when a character pulls off some feat to solve some problem in what appears to be a total deus ex machina on a personal scale.

Suzanne Brockmann has a nice way of using prologues to such an advantage. In her Troubleshooter titles, she always begins with a prologue showing her hero on a mission so we can get an idea of what he does, how he operates, and any key information we might need to set up the story premise. In The Unsung Hero, the prologue shows hero Tom Paoletti on the mission that nearly killed him and left him in a coma, suffering from severe head injuries. So when the story opens with a Tom who's being forced to take a month leave in order to make sure he's mentally stable, we have no problem believing his fears when he thinks he sees a wanted terrorist in his tiny hometown and isn't sure if what he's seeing is real or some sort of paranoia.

All of this comes about because I'm in the midst of some serious world building, and I feel compelled to plan for any contigency my characters might encounter. Faced with drowning in a submerged car? I need to know before hand if my people can swim or have had survival training rather than having them recall as the car fills with water that summer they spent as a life guard at Lake Schaeffer Beach. And I need to work this fact in early enough in the story that it doesn't come as a convenience when I need it.

Because, dang, nothing more annoying than finding out your girl-next-door heroine is actually a superhero who can do everything with a hair pin when you were led to believe she was normal. Somehow your fears for her safety and the outcome of the story fall really flat when you know she'll pull out just the skill needed to get her out of any mess.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Oops. Did I Copy?

I just learned via HelenKay about the latest scandal concerning accusations of plagiarism by young writer Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel contains so many nearly-verbatim passages from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings it's a wonder they didn't just save some cash and simply print up new covers to slap on McCafferty's print sheets. If I sound a bit bitter, it's because I just loved Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, so feel personally affronted on behalf of McCafferty, despite the fact the woman doesn't know me from the grocery store produce stock girl. Or, I suppose maybe McCafferty feels some tinge of pride that another writer thought her work good enough to repeat. Somehow, I doubt it.

However, as much as I don't really buy Viswanathan's statement-cum-apology - that all of the similarities between her book and McCafferty's originals were purely unintentional and subconscious - I kind of see what she's saying. Sort of. In a non-forgiving way.

See, I'm terrified of unintentionally plagiarising someone else's work. I'm scared to death that when I'm humming along at the keyboard and some particularly clever or perfect line or phrase comes to mind, that the reason it is so clever or perfect and, even more, came so easily is because I've read it before somewhere else and my subconscious retained it. Maybe the reason it feels so smooth and right is because it was smooth and right when some other writer wrote it first. And it had made such an impression the first time it now resides in a part of my brain that I don't even have control over, only to pop up and present itself as my own original brilliant idea. Kind of like a memory that you aren't certain is a real memory or maybe something you dreamt.

And it's not only exact wording or phrasing that worries me. It's entire story ideas. I'll come up with what seems to be an amazing story idea, unique and original (or at least as original as any story idea these days, when everything has been done and redone and redone again only in plaids instead of stripes), only to read a blurb on the back cover of some book I'm perusing a concept similar enough to my idea that my blood runs cold. Have I just spent weeks/months working on a story that has already been done exactly the same way, and I didn't even realize I'd already read it myself?

I know writers are supposed to be prolific readers. In order to know what readers want, what sells in the industry and what publishers are looking for, you have to do research in the form of reading what has already succeeded. I'm now dabbling in the paranormal subgenre, so it only makes sense that I should glom as many well-written paranormals as I can get my grubby little hands on, so I can see how to do it right. Get an idea of the ins and outs, the must-dos and taboos. I need to study that which I would create myself.

Except, I'm afraid that my work will be influenced by what I read. Maybe I'll unintentionally skim ideas off the stuff I really liked. Maybe a character or two of mine will take on shades of another character that I loved when I met him or her in another writer's work. Maybe some aspect of worldbuilding in the book I'm currently reading will burrow its way into my own imaginary universe that I'm supposed to be creating completely from scratch, with all of my own ideas.

Maybe readers of my stuff (someday) will furrow their brow in confusion, thinking that they'd read this before...only to discover that they have read it before, elsewhere. In another book. Not mine.

Now, I'm not worried that I'll ever be accused of plagiarism. I would never, ever do such a thing as steal another writer's work. Not only do I believe it a crime right up there with spam and virus production in terms of hateful behaviour, but it completely negates everything I aspire to be. If you don't have the ability to come up with your own words, you aren't a real writer. You are a copier. And you are really, really stupid to think you won't get caught. Did Bill Clinton teach you nothing?

But I do always have that nagging fear in a back corner of my mind that what I read will influence what I write a little too much. So I avoid reading in the genres in which I want to write. Because I can honestly say I've never copied something I haven't read.

Meanwhile, I think I'll head over to the bookstore this afternoon and pick up McCafferty's third book in the Sloppy trilogy, Charmed Thirds. It's in hardback, which will really mess up my matching set since the other two are trades. But I want to give Megan my support.

Monday, April 24, 2006

So Totally Cool

Have you all discovered Google Earth yet?


Not only does this program - which is free to download for the most basic version - offer up bucket loads of coolness in what it can do (I could see my own house! down to the playset in our backyard!!), it is a research tool of epic proportions for writers.

Say you want to set a story in a location where you've never been, which - face it - is 90% of us, you can go to Google Earth, rotate the world around in the palm of your hand until you find your place, zoom down as close as possible and check things out.

Granted, the resolution for much of the world outside the United States is pretty blurry. I mean, you won't be able to navigate the streets of Podunk Village, Argentina. But you can at least check out the general terrain and learn such things as whether or not there are mountains or rivers or lakes nearby, how close such-and-such a place is to the ocean, where centers of population are located, major roads and highways, that sort of stuff. And if you do choose a large city, you can cruise down the streets to a certain degree.

Even better, if you set your story someplace in the United States (and again, leaving out towns with populations roughly the size of a large high school), you can really get the lay of the land. Find out where shopping centers are located, and parks and schools. Scale to the tops of mountains and wander along beaches looking for lighthouses and harbors.

Which is all extremely useful in that it saves you from having your heroine live someplace in New York City and having her take a nightly jog through Central Park only to discover that she'd actually have to take a ferry and a bus and walk 27 blocks to get to anywhere near Central Park. Or giving your hero the career of mountain rescue specialist/champion ski instructor only to discover the nearest bunny hill is some three hundred miles away.

Plus, it is just so cool to actually see a place that you've only read about in research. No, you still don't get the scents and the sounds and the sights of the people and scenery that you'd find if you actually went on location. But for those of us with real-life incomes and real-life commitments, it's often the closest we'll come and a heck of lot more real than two-dimensional pictures in a book.

Think I'll head on over to Hawaii.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Lust, Yes. Love, Not So Much

Okay, deep confession time for someone who tends to - in general - enjoy the romance novel and plans to make writing them her career.

I don't believe in love at first sight.

I do believe in lust at first sight. It's human nature to be physically attracted to those one finds, well, physically attractive. After all, at one point in our evolution it was a biological imperative to choose the mate best qualified to give us strong offspring, and feeling a desire to mate with such a person before even the first grunt was exchanged simply demonstrated natural selection in action.

And I've said it before. We may have overcome them, but you never entirely outgrown your most basic instincts.

So I can appreciate the "from across the crowded room, their eyes met" scenario presented in oh-too-many a romance novel. Naturally when Hero McStudMuffin gets a load of the pretty face and stunning bod of Heroine O'HotPants and vice versa, the two would be thinking of getting naked at the first opportunity. Hearts would pound, palms would grow sweaty, bosoms may begin to heave, and blood might begin to flow away from the brain towards parts southward. Again, good old biology at work. Such physiological reactions are purely sexual, preparing the body to (hopefully) get busy passing on the genes to a worthy recipient.

What I'm having a hard time with is when a writer pushes the scene to the envelope and beyond by having the hero and heroine notice things about each other that simply wouldn't be noticed upon first meeting, and then uses this fact to imply love at first sight.

For example, if McStudMuffin were to ruminate on O'HotPants shapely physique and lustrous flowing flaxen locks, I'd be okay with it (in a neutral, non-victim, non-person who hates the objectification of women sort of way). But when he begins looking deeply into her cerulean eyes flecked with golden, silver, and titanium sparkles and muses how her lush mouth must have been made to be ravaged and how he's never felt anything like this before and yada yada yada, all without having even learned her name, I start feeling the itch to book-hurl.

Because noticing a person's eyes and waxing poetic about lips and feelings indicates something much deeper than mere lust. Unless, of course, said person does, indeed, happen to have eyes that are a supremely unique color. I mean, if I ever did run across a man with golden eyes, I have no doubt I'd notice them immediately, no love necessary.

But most humans are not unusual looking. Even taking into consideration the statistically improbable number of gorgeous people populating Romancelandia, heroes and heroines seem to be noticing minute details about each other long before I would imagine their first feelings of lust morph into deeper feelings of love. I find it perfectly natural that a hero would, perhaps, not notice his future mate's pretty, normal-bluish eyes upon first meeting, as focused as he was on getting her to remove her clothing. But after getting to know her much better, her eyes become prettier and he does begin to see those gold and silver and titanium flecks as he gazes into them.

Maybe it's only since I've begun writing myself that the cliche of having the hero and heroine have a bizarre, intense reaction to each other has worn so annoyingly thin. Again, let me repeat, it's not the physical reaction that I mind. Although, I do fnd it very eye-roll inducing when the hero and heroine first meet only to go on and on and on for paragraph after paragraph about how hawt they find the other person like co-eds at a Ft. Lauderdale Buds and Babes Beach Blowout.

But the second the writer starts to attach Significant Meaning to what amounts to physical attraction is when I get annoyed. At this point in the relationship - not even the beginning but something more akin to the pre-possibility of a maybe potential semi-beginning - the thoughts each character would be having about the other would be purely impersonal.

"He's got a great ass."

"Wow, what a nice set of hooters."

And as far as I've experienced, neither of these sentiments have anything to do with love.

I suppose it could be the case that either hero or heroine or both have found themselves in such a place that they haven't felt any desire for any other human being in, say, forever, and that finally feeling lust for this new arrival signifies something pretty big. But in that case, which already stretches the suspension of disbelief pretty thin because, let's face it, even the most happily of married and sexually-satisfied couples still have the ability to find others attractive and a turn-on, such unexpected lusting doesn't signify love. Maybe it signifies that something has finally been pushed to a breaking point. Maybe it just means that hero or heroine or both need to get some because it's been waaayyy too long.

I suppose this little rant demonstrates my overall problem with the speed that relationships develop within the romance genre. Meet on Tuesday, have sex on Wednesday, propose on Friday, get married on Saturday. Real world just doesn't work in such a warp-speed fashion, unless you're talking about buxom blonde bimboes and 90-year-old-gazillionaires on life support.

And I know fiction isn't reality. I don't expect it to be. But if I'm supposed to buy that the hero and heroine live Happily Ever After and not suspect that the epilogue really should be that how in two years the couple parted bitterly after ten months of negotiations between their divorce attorneys, then I'd better believe that whatever fictional love was found was something deep and true.

I just don't get deep and true love out of "from across the crowded room, their eyes met..." I need a little wining and dining and conversation before I'm ready to walk that couple down the aisle.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Please, Don't Repeat That

I've been on a re-reading glom of late. I have no idea why, when I have some 100 plus books I've yet to read sitting on a shelf, getting dusty. But the last five books I've read have been ones from my keeper shelf.

One writer in particular has caught me up in her web yet again. I'm not going to say who, because although I love her stuff, I've now noticed something that didn't catch my attention during my first read-throughs. Something that, while it doesn't detract from her great stories, still picques me enough to discuss here. Because it's proof that just because you've attained success, you can still make some mistakes that seem avoidable.

She really tends to repeat herself.

Not so much in plots or characterisation, which she kind of does but I forgive because she's writing a certain subgenre which by its very nature implies repition of plots and characters. I firmly believe that there are no new stories, simply rehashings of the old.

When I say that this writer repeats herself, I'm talking about certain phrases and descriptives that I now realize I've read in pretty much every single one of her books. Words and phrases she uses so frequently they've become her very own cliches I recognize immediately when they appear. It's almost become a game for me to find the usage in every book because I'm sure it's going to be there somewhere.

In the past, I always rolled my eyes when I'd read advice and how-tos that tell writers to be very wary of using the same words more than once or twice on a page or in a story. There are only so many words in the English language, so limiting the number of times you can use a word in a 100,000 word novel is really asking a lot. Besides, I'd always reasoned, do the readers even realize that you've used a word or phrase more than once? I don't remember exact words from the beginning of a book to know if they've shown up at the end again unless the word is very bizarre. This seemed to me to be simply another one of those craft rules that was meant to be broken.

Except, it's true. Readers do remember stuff they've read, within a story and between stories. Specifically. Especially with a colorful turn of phrase or a particular way of describing something. Which is kind of ironic, really. The writer has done such a good job of expressing something so uniquely that she's ruined the ability to use that phrase again because it stands out so clearly.

In the case of my current re-reading glom, this particular writer has a handful of phrases she uses that I've not come across in other works, so I would consider them uniquely hers. Except she uses these phrases in every. single. book. Almost like she puts them on a list when she thinks of them for future use, then refers to her list when she needs to describe the same thing in her next book.

Now, I suppose if you only read one of her titles this wouldn't be any big deal at all. It's when you read all the titles that the problem becomes clear. It's almost as if the writer has gotten lazy or is taking shortcuts. She's become successful and has determined that what worked so well in Books A, B, and C should be slotted into any subsequent title that comes along. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

But those phrases yank me out of the story because I've read them before, someplace else. And I'm no longer reading a descriptive that applies to what I'm currently reading but rather some kind of stock imagery that also described a similar situation/person/place/thing in previous books I've read. Which means the characters in Current Book are no longer unique or special.

I suppose I'll be a bit more understanding once I've got half a dozen or more titles on the shelves and I'm struggling to find fresh new ways to describe the same old thing. I suppose it's this kind of complaining by readers that gives writers reasons for their huffy "If you think it's so easy, why don't you try doing it?" outrage. I suppose it's this challenge that inspires so many successful writers to repeat over and over that it's all about learning the craft and practicing it well if you want to make it in this industry.

I'm not saying I don't feel for this writer in how hard it is to come up with something new each and every time when she's got something perfectly serviceable left over from earlier works.

I'm just saying that I find it kind of sloppy. And lazy.

And that I definitely notice it. And whenever a reader notices the writing, the writer has a problem.

No one said writing was easy.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006



Okay, I know I'm not the first writer ever to invent this. In fact, I might be one of the last to discover this method and use it. But, dang, I have just had a revelation that has blown me away.

I've been world-building over the past few weeks for a fairly complex world in which I'd like to set a trilogy (or more) of paranormals. Problem was, aspects of my world kept shifting. I'd determine to do things one way, only to second guess myself or decide that things were getting too complicated. Or I wouldn't be able to work out a particular aspect or figure out how one thing was going to work in respect to another thing, only to get all confused and forget what the original goal was in the first place. In short, it was all a big muddled mess of ideas mixed up in my brain and refusing to make any better sense when I'd put it on paper. Overwhelming was an understatement.

Yesterday morning, in the shower (naturally), I came up with the idea of having a brain dump in the form of one character asking another character any question that came into her mind. The character-in-the-know explaining down to the last detail everything the character-not-in-the-know should know. God imparting his omnipotence on the ignorant. It's the kind of scene that any writer worth their salt would cut in an instant because it's 100% infodump and 0% moving story forward.

But in putting the entire world-building into the context of a conversation, with questions and answers that could be asked and answered in some reasonable facsimile of real thought processes, I ended up with twenty pages worth of material. All of it makes sense. All of the tangles I'd had fell into perfectly logical strings that lead in perfectly logical directions. Things that I'd originally planned but that had seemed far too complicated now have become explainable, some things that I'd originally planned unnecessary and now on the mental trash heap. New ideas have surfaced, better ideas. Exciting ideas.

So, yes, it's nothing new to the writing world. This method of interviewing as a process of getting it all down and organized. And I certainly know that 99% of what I've written will be unusable in its current form and that there is no way I can afford such an indulgence as this in any real book. I plan to distill what I've written into an outline format or some such that acts as a reference, to see where I still have holes. Basically, out of the 20 pages I wrote, maybe one paragraph's worth is usable in a real book and the rest nothing more than background only important for me.

But the cost of one afternoon's worth of work is miniscule compared to what I've gained from the process.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

X-Men Discovered

Thanks to this post by Meljean Brook a few weeks ago, I was motivated to finally check out the X-Men movies. I'm a fan of the big-name superheroes - Superman, Spidey, Batman - but can't claim much excitement over what seems to me to be the secondary tier - Fantastic Four, X-Men, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Hellboy and their ilk. In other words, I'm not a true superhero geek. If you'll notice, the first three have had some pretty awesome, pretty successful movies made in their names, which for me helps tremendously. I can become a pretty devoted fan after just one good flick.

As a little aside here, if you click on any of the superhero links to Wikipedia, isn't it funny how much information you can find on comic superheroes? Does this prove the level of fanatical geekiness involved in the world of comic fandom? I'm just saying...*g*.

Anyway, because of Meljean's picture of Gambit, I decided maybe I could become a fan of the X-Men if I watched a really great movie about the crew. Sadly I noted that Gambit is not in any of the film adaptations, but since Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine, and I'd heard how hot he is in that role, I figured the trade-off was fair enough.

I did like the movie. I liked it well enough that I rented the second X-Men movie, X2. And as predicted by the critics, I actually liked the second film better than the first. I may even fork over the babysitter money to catch X-Men: The Last Stand when it hits theatres late May. I don't know that I'll hunt down all things X-Men, but they've really got something there, in a world created where everything and anything can be explained away by mutation. Talk about working within rubber walls.

But about the whole Hugh as Wolverine. I was hoping to love Wolverine. I did like the character - tortured, misunderstood, bad-boy with a heart of pure gold - because he's right up my alley as the perfect hero-type. I just could not get past his hair, though. Every time Hugh came on screen, I had flashbacks to Fonzie and the fifties, and I kept wondering if we were supposed to think that his hair just naturally grew that way or that he spent hours styling it every morning. Except he even woke up with that doo....Instead of finding Wolverine a terrifying force, I tended to giggle over his hair style. And after the flick, I had to go cruising the net to find images that reminded me that I do think Hugh is a very nice looking man, because I just wasn't seeing the hotness in Wolverine. Maybe it was the mutton-chop sideburns...

Too, the romance in the first two films comes in the form of a love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Jean's husband, Scott aka Cyclops. The set-up is classic Romance Novel 101; Wolverine arrives in a near-death state, awakening to attack the first person he sees - Jean Grey, who has been taking care of him. He's all sorry and so forth for attacking her, she's all forgiving, and the attraction between the two is instantaneous. But Jean is already married and in love with Scott so what she feels for Wolverine and he for her must remain unconsummated. The tension between Wolverine and Scott as they vie for Jean's affections is thick, the two super-studs constantly bickering as they size each other up to see who has the biggest...ahem...superpowers.

Warning - SPOILERS ahead....

In movie two, Jean gives in to her urges and kisses Wolverine. But since she's a superheroine, she begs for mercy from him because she loves her husband and really, really doesn't want to stray, despite the overwhelming desire to do so. Wolverine, being that bad boy with the heart of pure gold that he is, gives poor Jean a break and backs off.

We viewers, however, get to enjoy the brief thrill of a possible Wolverine/Jean pairing when that tricky Mystique (aka, a very blue, very naked Rebecca Romjin) takes on Jean's form and tries to seduce Wolverine. He's a smart one, though, and figures it out before anyone gets naked.

But, since a happily ever after is always impossible for all parties involved in a love triangle and poor Jean will never be truly satisfied with either choice she could make, she decides to make the Big Sacrifice when it's needed for her to save the rest of her X-Men teammates. As you would expect, both Wolverine and Scott are devastated.

I'm a fan of a good love triangle, except for that aforementioned impossible to have a truly happy ending thing because someone is going to end up hurt or dead. I can't say that it worked for me so much in the X-Men movies, but I think this is more a function of lack of character development, thus lack of me really caring or seeing any true sparks and conflict in the situation. When you're making a movie about a bunch of mutant superheroes, including the Big Bad and backstory and action and governmental interference and the like, it's only a given that the romance will get short shrift.

I will say that Hugh and actor James Marsden, who played Scott, did a fine job in acting devastated after losing Jean. I didn't quite feel their pain, but I believed that they felt it.

So, I'm wishing big time that Gambit would show up in X-Men 3 and light up the screen with chemistry with Rogue, worthy of Meljean's shipper-ness. I'm in need of a good 'ship right now since I'm not getting anything anywhere else.

Gads, I'm turning into one of those comic superhero geeks. *G*

Monday, April 17, 2006

You Just Had to Be There

The story idea I'm currently working on and that I've committed to finish by end-of-summer is set on Cape Cod. The town in which it takes place is fictional, but I've set it down in a real place, a place where people who live there or who have visited there will very easily be able to claim foul if I muck it all up.

I've been to Cape Cod. When I was nine. So it's been...oh, a few years ago. I've been doing some major research on the area via books, the internet, and Google Earth (coolest program ever!) to get a general feel for the area, history and the like.

But it's not even close to the same as visiting.

So yesterday I came up with the brilliant idea of taking a trip to Cape Cod. To check it out, take some photos, drive up and down highway 6 and get a sense of the place, the way it smells and sounds, how it looks during different times of the day. I honestly think this is critical if I want my story to ring true.

Problem is, I can't make such a trip until August at the earliest, more likely not even until October. Which leaves me in kind of a pickle. Do I plod onward with the book, ignoring or faking setting until I have a chance to take my trip, after which I can come back and rewrite accordingly? Or do I refocus my energies on a different story, putting my current WIP on the backburner until I have more of this fundamental research completed?

I've been focusing on how important setting authenticity is for me in a story. If I'm not familiar with a location - city, country, environment - I'm really forgiving if the writer gets it all wrong. After all, I certainly don't know any better.

But when a writer places a story in a town I am familiar with, I either smile and nod happily when I recognize things, or I shake my head in disappointment when she (or he) gets it all wrong. Via Sara Donati's Storytelling I found Beth's rant about the pseudo-familiarity of Chicago implied in The Time Traveler's Wife to reflect my own general opinions. The writer seems very familiar with the city, but a consistent mis-use of Chicagoan terms jars those of us in the real know enough to distract from the story. I haven't read TTTW to be able to agree or disagree with Beth on this specific example, but I do agree with her assessment about the way it *should* be for it to ring true to a person actually from Chicago.

It's not just physical descriptions of locations or putting landmarks in their correct geographical place or even getting the local vernacular accurate that poses a challenge for writers. There's something about capturing a place's soul, it's overall feeling that makes such a difference. In a bizarre way, there's almost a responsibility for a writer to "get it right" if only because those not familiar with an area might form expectations based on what they've read. True, those who base their thoughts about a place based on what they've read in fiction rather than checking out non-fiction sources don't deserve much credit on the intelligence scale, yet it happens all the same.

I've said before that although I absolutely loved Lynn Viehl's If Angels Burn and Private Demon books, the one issue I've had with both was her portrayal of Chicago as some kind of menacing place where people live behind closed and locked doors and windows for fear of going out. Certainly there are parts of Chicago where one doesn't wander on purpose, but for the most part, the city is a warm, welcoming place, full of happy, smiling people who are glad to see you. The Chicago Viehl describes is simply not the one I know, and whenever I come across a phrase or descriptive where I feel she's gotten it all wrong, I feel both disappointed and a tad bit angry that others who don't know my city might actually be getting the wrong idea about it based on these books.

Back to my Cape Cod situation. I have in my mind what I imagine Cape Cod - and living there - is like. However, what my imagination invents versus what is real could be completely different. If I were to write an entire story based on my assumptions, I could be looking at a lot of egg on my face. Or, what if I wrote an entire novel only to find out that the setting I've chosen is entirely wrong for the mood I wanted to create? What if I set my couple on a beach that I think is romantic and peaceful - say, Honolulu's Waikiki Beach - only to find out it is actually ridden with crowds of tourists, lined with towering hotels that block out scenic beauty, and has so many strolling vendors hocking cheap souvenirs as to make you want to run screaming? Not that I'm saing Waikiki Beach is like this, but I really have no idea. So setting my couple there might not be so wise.

Anyway, all of this to say I think if a writer wants to write about a place with which she is not familiar, it might behoove her to become familiar. Granted, I don't see it within my power financially or time-wise to take any long trips across the English and Scottish countrysides in order to help me with some historicals I have in the queue. Sometimes research has to be good enough if there is nothing for it.

But for my own situation, I think a trip to New England is doable.

And, dang, what a hardship. Nice, long romantic weekend away with the hubby all in the name of research? Wonder if I can write it off as a work expense, or do I have to sell first?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

So What If It's Not Accurate?

Over at Smart Bitches, SB Candy let loose a spectacular mini-rant about naming of characters and how it irks her when writers of historicals get it all wrong.

Now, I will not argue that using modern names in historical romance is a sure-fire way to demonstrate that accuracy is not a priority on your writing to-do list. Gals named McKenzie or Bailey who worry about what the Ton will think if anyone discovers they've left their long, white gloves in Lord Austen's barouche really don't inspire a reader to get lost in the era. Just because you've always wanted a daughter to name Brianna but only had sons doesn't mean it's okay to name a heroine Brianna if she lived any time before 1995.

Also, I'm perfectly understanding that some readers really do want accuracy in their stories. Any kind of anachronism pulls them too far out of the story, and no writer wants to do that. So I do understand that the opinion I'm about to express is entirely my own, and by no means do I intend to negate the thoughts of those who feel differently.

That being said, I do believe there is a line where creative license should be permitted to step in. If one had the energy to go searching, I'm sure that one would quickly learn that the most common male names in, say, the Regency era, might be along the lines of Johh, William, James, Charles, and the like. We'd find a lot of Marys, Annas, Emmas, and so forth. So, if a writer wanted to get it right and name her characters with realistic names per the era in which they live, she'd probably end up with a lot of men named John and women named Mary. Good, solid names, but nothing exciting.

From what I understand, part of the appeal of escaping inside a good book is to explore life beyond the mundane. After all, if real life were interesting enough that we didn't turn to fiction for entertainment, we'd all be thrilled to tears while watching our husbands mow the lawn on Saturdays and near giddy with anticipation over driving the minivan to the nearest Olive Garden on Saturday night, right?

So what's wrong with spicing up a story by giving the characters names that inspire the imagination? Not that a guy named John can't be a total hottie, but I have to admit that when presented with two closed doors, behind one of which is "John" and the other is "Lucien", the choice isn't exactly a tough one as far as which one would be my ideal romance novel hero.

Romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be above the ordinary. Not necessarily over-the-top unique, but something about them is interesting enough to inspire a story that pulls us in and keeps us turning pages. It makes sense to me that such people would have interesting names, names different than the most popular ones that represent reality for the time period.

Besides, the number of names that people used back in the day seems fairly limited. I'm sure every town had a healthy quantity of Johns and Williams. If a writer intends to remain true to the era, I would imagine her characters might get confused with each other.

"Didn't you just love that John from My Wild Heart?"

"Oh, yes, John. It was so sad that his leg got blown off during the Battle of Waterloo."

"No, you're thinking of John from My Savage Love. I'm talking about rakish John. The one who's mother was a big 'ho."

"Wait, you mean John who watched his father get murdered right before his eyes?"

"Nope, that's tortured John from My Tormented Soul. You remember. The one who had sex with Mary in the broom closet."

"Oh, I loooved Mary! She was so spunky."

"No she wasn't. She was one of those blue-stocking types. I think you're thinking of Mary from My Wicked Passion. She was pretty spunky. Or maybe that Mary was the one everyone thought was a courtesan but was actually a virgin even though she'd been married and widowed."

"No, I think the virgin widow was her sister, Anna."

"Whose sister?"

"Mary's. Except, John also had a sister named Anna. She ran off with William."

"William, the guy who became a duke when his brother was killed in a duel?"

"No, William, the one who wanted to be a minister but whose father insisted he become a barrister."

"I thought William was the servant."

"He was. I'm talking about the other William."


Anyway, I guess my point is that I'm willing to sacrifice historical accuracy in the interest of creativity. Certainly, I don't want my Civil War heroine to hop in her Model-T Ford and head off into the sunset, but I can handle a few naming anachronisms without being yanked out of the story. If my entertainment consists of romances that are larger-than-life, which most published romances are, I expect that the heroes and heroines will have names that go beyond the norm of the day.

Because, somehow, I'd be more apt to get the giggles reading about how Henry and Alice got busy than I would if it were Lucien and Isabelle.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Sorry for the spotty posting of late.

When I started this blog, I had hoped to blog 5 days a week, weekends off. Unless, of course, I had something to say. Honestly, in a million years I never imagined I'd run out of things to chat about. Hand me a microphone and I'll chat your ear off, no worries.

But lately I've kind of dried up. Or rather, the events in my life have been of such that they haven't been blog-worthy. I'm trying to avoid endless chatter about the kids or my excruciating routine of glorified bus driving because that's not what I want this blog to be about. I'm trying to stick with writing, reading, and the occasional forray into the world of entertainment. Except after a time, you start to wonder if it hasn't already been said. Unless I, borrow...topics from other blogs, I'm coming up dry topic-wise these days.

Too, I've set down my writing goals in a very precise format. Following Holly Lisle's guidelines on her The Magic of Goals workshop (bless that woman!!), I have a nice, concrete map which, if I follow it religiously, should leave me with a finished manuscript by the end of July and something to send out come fall, when school starts up again. I've committed to myself that these goals I've set are my top priority - after kid-care and RL commitments, that is - so the blog falls to the back of the line. Yesterday, I had every intention of posting, yet I found myself so absorbed in my world-building (yes, it's on the schedule) the day slipped away like silk.

Which, I suppose, means I need to structure my calendar such that I leave a portion of time for blog writing and reading. I do enjoy it. Except I find that hours slip away with nothing to show for them, and this is simply something I must stop if I hope to become a productive writer.

Monday night, when I arrived at my son's T-ball practice, two of the other mothers whom I've befriended were in a deep discussion about careers. One currently stays home with her kids while the other is a high school math teacher. The SAHM was feeling kind of blue because she'd just turned down an offer for a full-time job that would have meant some extra cash for the family, an outlet for her stagnating professional talents, and the chance to interact with grown-ups on a daily basis. But, the job was in a fairly distant suburb, she has three boys, one of which is still a toddler, and things weren't such that she felt she could take this job offer. The negatives outweighed the positives.

But turning it down left her with a healthy dose of regret, which is perfectly natural. At some point, all of her boys will be in school, and one imagines it's only reasonable that she'd return to the work force. After all, how does one fill those hours between 8:30 and 3:00 if one isn't working? Maybe turning down this bird in the hand isn't so wise, because who knows if there will be any birds in the bushes when she's ready to...go bird-hunting again.

So the question posed to me Monday night as I walked toward the backstop was if I planned to go "back to work" next fall, when my youngest enters the 1st grade. I didn't have to think for a nanosecond about it.

"No way!" I snorted. "I cannot wait until I have all day to myself."

The SAHM smiled. "Are you still writing?"

I nodded. "And next year is the year I make it my real job. When I get up in the morning, get dressed, and sit my butt down to do it without any interruptions. This fall, I finally get to have a real go at making it work."

Both moms nodded their heads in understanding.

"Besides," I continued, "by the time my husband starts asking me how, exactly, I fill all of my free time and suggests that, maybe, I might want to think about doing something to contribute to the retirement account and the kids' college funds and the necessities, like, you know, food, I want to be earning something with my writing so I can call it my job. I don't ever want to have to commute again, if I can help it. My goal is to work in my sweats and t-shirts."

To which, the conversation turned to passions and doing what you love for a living, and if that's even possible. Because no matter how much you love something, once you have to do it, it becomes a job. And jobs always have downsides, no matter how great they might seem on the surface. I already anticipate a major downside to becoming a professional writer in having to be creative on someone else's schedule. That's a tough one. Oh, and the fairly meager earnings of the majority of published writers. But I'm crossing bridges I get to...

Which is why, on Tuesday morning, I sat down and made a plan. I created a calendar with daily goals. I imposed my first deadline on myself. By the end of this year, I need to have at least one manuscript out on the street, looking for a home.

Otherwise, in the not-too-distant future, I'm going to be looking at resumés and commutes and leftovers packed in tupperware for lunch. Not to mention dealing with annoying clients, only two weeks of vacation, and trying to juggle the chaos of working outside the home while managing the schedules of two busy kids from a distance of who only knows what. Not something I relish.

I've found my incentive. And it's bigger than simply having fun.

Friday, April 07, 2006

For Ages 9 to 99

I volunteer a couple times a month to help out at the library at my kids' school. Mostly I help the children check out books properly, process returns, and reshelve armload after armload.

What blows my mind is the shere volume of books out there. My kids' school is not very large - 500 students in 5 grades - so the library is not monumental as far as libraries go. I assume it's average or above for an elementary school library. But dang, it holds a lot of books.

When I find myself with bits of empty time, I'll pick up books that look intriguing. Yesterday, I perused a stack of books that had received a Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award nomination for 2007 to see what stood for good reading these days. One title - Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings - caught my attention, and I spent a good half hour or so reading it. I was completely absorbed, to the point I plan to purchase the book so I can finish it.

Anyone who dismisses children's literature out of hand simply because it is written for a young audience is really missing some amazing storytelling. Some of the best books I've ever read are considered books for youth. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. The entire works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And of course, the Harry Potter septilogy (I think I made that word up). Just like those who sneer at romance novels for being formulaic fluff with no redemptive value have no idea what they are missing, anyone who walks away from a kids' book because it's a kids' book is missing some good stuff.

That's all I need, though, to start adding children's literature titles to my TBR pile. I can't keep up within one or two genres as it is!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Woe Is the Friendless

I have no friends.

Wait. Let me rephrase that before you all think I'm a complete loser.

I have no writer friends.

Okay, once again, need to clarify.

I have no writer friends who exist in three dimensions. No one who shares my passion for writing that I haven't met on and communicate with primarily via the Internet.

Many of my non-writer friends know that I write, or at least know that I "dabble in writing, as sort of a hobby to fill those boring hours between picking the kids up at school and waiting for the dryer to finish so I can get the whites out before they wrinkle". These friends are always interested enough to ask me if I'm still writing or how the writing is going, to which I always offer up an embarrassed "slowly." In other words, I can't blame them for not taking me seriously because I don't act serious about it with them, but rather as if I'm ashamed to call myself a writer without any writing to actually show them as proof.

Anyway, I have non-writer friends; friends I've made with things in common that have nothing to do with writing. Mothers of the kids who go to school with my kids, with whom my conversations are limited to pretty much school and kid-stuff.

Friends I inherited when I married my husband, through his work and a couple of guys he's known since high school. When these buddies of his got married, I acquired their wives as friends, so a boon for me.

And I have a handful of friends I've retained from my own professional life. These are people I talk to every once in a while, always with the promise and intention that we really should get together soon and catch up. Except, when we catch up and then find we don't have work in common any longer, somehow it becomes easier to delay those get-togethers for longer and longer stretches of time.

In the end, though, I don't have any friends who I can relate to on a purely intellectual level that live close enough to meet for lunch once or twice a week or month. No one who I can bounce ideas off of over a cup of coffee. When I talk writing, it's via e-mails and comments on blogs and the like. There's no face to face involved. I'm not ready for a writers' group or critique partners, so I haven't looked yet.

Thus, after wracking my brain, I could come up with no one who would want to go with me to the Jennifer Crusie/Bob Mayer booksigning that's scheduled at a bookstore only a couple of suburbs away from mine at the end of this month. None of my friends that I can imagine would think I wasn't off my gourd for waiting in line to have some writer sign a romance novel (which goes to show what most of my non-writing friends think of the genre of my heart).

I've never been to a book tour appearance before. Except the time when I was working at Barnes and Noble and Greg Louganis came to our store for a booksigning and I got to meet him and was actually sent to fetch him some dinner from the Burger King right down the street.

Part of me loathes the idea of going. I hate crowds, and I'm imagining a person of Jenny Crusie's stature will draw crowds. I hate showing up to stand in line all alone, feeling as if I look really pathetic. I already experienced this the first time I waited in line at midnight to pick up Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. If I knew that there would just be a handful of people milling about and that I could easily approach the table, have Crusie and Mayer sign my book, and slip away, I'd go in a second.

Because I'd just love to meet Jenny Crusie. To see in the flesh a person who represents the dream I have for myself. Plus, I think I might already be in love with Bob, just from reading his half of their dueling blog.

So, maybe I'll go. Maybe I won't.

Either way, I'm thinking I need to get me some writer friends who are local. These cyber-relationships leave me a little lonely.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Suffering of the Successful

This week, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer embarked on a five week book tour to promote their first collaborative release, Don't Look Down. I've been a big fan of their dueling blog, He Wrote, She Wrote, in which the two have taken turns in teaching/commenting/whining/arguing about the life and process of writing a book together. They remind me of a brother and sister poking each other in the back seat on a very long car drive: "Mom, he's touching me." "Am not!"

I do admit that as much as I love these two, I was a bit dismayed about how openly they've expressed their distaste for the promotional side of being successful writers. Not that I'm surprised by their feelings, mind you. I share them entirely. The idea of having to perform day after day in front of audiences of complete strangers when I'd much rather be holed up in my cozy house writing is kind of distasteful to me, too. I'm not what I'd call a "people person" by any means, and as far as sales go, I probably couldn't sell water to a man crawling through the desert. If I ever become successful as a writer, it's going to have to be on my talent and the quality of the books I write because it won't be my ability to push my product on the unsuspecting public.

But I would imagine when you are as successful as Bob and Jenny are, touring would be a lot of fun. Sure, they spend five weeks in hotels, but I would wager they are at least decent if not downright nice hotels, given Jenny's status in the book-writing world (NYT best selling author and all). I'm guessing that the bookstore owners pretty much trip all over themselves to give Jenny and Bob the star treatment, and I would assume that their appearances are to packed houses rather than the stragglers who wander over from the Starbucks café to see who these people at the table are. Doing interviews with radio DJs and newspapers and the morning talk show hosts in each city is kind of like having some of the fame without any of the annoying paparazzi. And meeting fans who most likely gush all over you has to be some kind of validation after sitting month after month in the vacuum of a writer's existence, when feedback is limited to the cat.

So to hear (or read) these two successful writers express their non-anticipation about this book tour kind of set me off. At first it gave me that old "Geez, if I had your success, I'd never complain about things like that. I'd be grateful beyond belief to have a publisher who arranged a five week book tour to promote my latest release!" kind of reaction. Similar to the feeling I get when movie and TV stars tell Barbara Walters how annoying they find it that they can't go to the grocery store without someone recognizing them. You're beautiful and rich and people are clamoring to even breathe the same air you do, and you're whining about it. Boo-effing-hoo.

But after a few minutes of wallowing in the sour grape juice, I started to think about what it really would be like to go on a book tour. Five weeks of living out of a suitcase, never in one place long enough to even unpack, clothes constantly wrinkled and the supply of clean undies becoming desperate. Five weeks away from my family and my own bed. Five weeks of always having to be someplace on someone else's schedule. Five weeks away from writing, feeling that frustration of itchy fingers and knowing there is simply no free time where I can just curl up with the laptop for a huge brain dump to relieve some of the pressure.

I suppose it's all a matter of the grass being greener. I'll bet the first book tour is pure heaven. Or at least, you make the best of all the pain-in-the-ass stuff that happens because you expect it to be heaven and are determined that since you've finally achieved your dream - having produced something successful enough to warrant a book tour - you are going to enjoy it, dammit, even if it kills you. But after a time and a handful of tours, the blush is off the proverbial rose, reality sets in, and like every single human in every single industry in the world, you realize that it's a job.

Like when I got that part time gig at a Barnes and Noble and figured I'd found my work Nirvana. Surrounded by books. How much better could it get? Except I had to put away the stacks of books patrons took to the café to peruse and left strewn about. And I had to help people find the book they couldn't remember anything about except that it was yellow. And that after hours of exposure, those thick espresso fumes wafting from the Starbucks weren't so much the fragrance of intelligentsia but something more akin to burning coffee beans and scalded milk. And when I worked the closing shift, I had to take my turns cleaning out the ladies bathroom and vacuuming acres of industrial-grade carpeting. Nirvana, not so much.

Assuming that all writers have a few things in common, or at least have general tendencies that may slide along a continuum, I imagine one of the top five least desirable tasks for us to perform involves days/weeks/months out in public. If writers deserve any of the stereotype which places us in dark, lonely rooms where we pound out reams of rubbish while chain smoking cigarettes and having no company save the Chinese take-out delivery boy, it makes sense that shoving us into the fluorescent glare of bookstores across the country would give us panic attacks. Kind of like asking a person who's squeamish about blood to perform open-heart surgery, smiling the entire time.

So I have some sympathy for Bob and Jenny. They've got a long few weeks ahead of them, and it'll be interesting to see if they can keep their cool. I'll be reading to find out.

Note I said I have some sympathy. Because if I ever am so successful I have to pack it up and take in on the road for five weeks, I swear you'll never hear a word of complaint out of me.

You know, some people in the world would kill for those brussel sprouts, young lady!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Who Invented Spring Break?

Spring Break is over!

Do you all hear the chorus of angels singing "Allelujah!"? I do. I mean, really. What were the school administrators thinking when they put Spring Break at the end of March, when the weather here in northern Illinois is likely to be really crappy, thus forcing the kids to be inside and completely nuts with pent up energy? Today is the first day in over a week where I've actually been able to sit down in a house devoid of any noise whatsoever. Pure bliss.

I remember those days when my own Spring Breaks were ripe with possibilities. I never did the Fort Lauderdale college-girls-go-wild thing. Closest I ever got was junior year, when my roommate and I loaded up my blue Ford Escort and trekked some twenty-hours to stay with my grandma in Tampa. We came back with some pretty wicked sunburn/tan lines but not really any stories we couldn't share with our parents. I wasn't what you'd call a wild child.

My husband, on the other hand, fondly recalls his senior year in high school, when he and a handful of buddies piled into a conversion van and headed south. They didn't have any hotel reservations or any idea of what they were going to do with themselves once they got there. What blows my mind is that his parents not only let him go, his mother helped him make his fake ID. If you could meet my mother-in-law today, you'd know that he must have put some kind of voodoo curse on her, because I have no doubt she'd vehemently deny any such contributions to the delinquency of a minor.

Then again, my MIL has a gloriously selective memory when it comes to my husband's growing up years. Granted, he was a fairly good kid, never once calling from jail to ask for bail money. Even so, he did his fair share of partying. But to hear the MIL tell it, her golden boy spent all of his free time with his neat bunch of friends who were all wonderful boys who wouldn't dream of causing any trouble. He had her so snowed.

But, to her defense, I can kind of understand how it might happen. My own little golden boy is about to turn six years old, and he is a handful. Problem is, he's also very cute and very charming. I say this knowing that I'm biased to the extreme as his mother, but I think I'm being fairly objective when I claim that my son does have a way of cranking it up a notch when necessary in order to get himself off the hook. He just gives me a grin or a hug and all is forgiven. I have a feeling he'll get away with a lot of antics at school because he's just too good-natured to be mad at. He's a charmer, and he knows it.

Anyway, Spring Break is over, and I'm back to the normal. But know what puts me in a cold sweat? When my daughter points out that it's only a short 9 weeks away from Summer Vacation.

Anyone know where I can get a cheap prescription for Valium?