Archive for March, 2011

My apologies for being absent from so many of my favorite blogs and visiting with everyone. I’ve been neck-deep in reading through the copyedited version of LITTLE GALE GUMBO, and let me just say, to all the copyeditors out there, I raise my glass to you.

As a moviegoer who can’t help but notice when a certain actor’s drink is half-full in one shot and then miraculously filled to the rim in the next, I was determined to take great pains to keep any continuity issues out of my novel. Copyeditors catch those (among other things) and I am in awe of what they do. How they keep it all straight (dates, ages, names, eye color–you name it!) is a mystery to me, but I’m so grateful to them for it.

Every lily has its thorns? (Or something like that...)

But before the copyedited manuscript arrived last week, I was making a bit of progress on my WIP when, oh jeez…I found myself stalled again. Remember the same fella who was giving me pause? Well, he’s at it again.

Twenty pages in, I realized he wasn’t just coming off as flawed, he was coming off as, well, not very likeable.

Sounds like a job for “the scene”! You know, the one that reveals the soft, smushy, maybe even lovable underbelly of your character. The one that confirms to your reader that this person deserves their attention and their sympathy (when called upon, of course).

Now I know there are umpteen debates on whether a character has to be likable to be enjoyed. For me, I not only have to like a character to read them, I REALLY have to like them to write them. Otherwise I find myself wondering why we’re spending time together. Sure, they should be flawed, make bad choices, the works. But at their core, they MUST have a good heart to lead my story. Now, don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying EVERY character has to glow from the inside–just the ones your reader is supposed to care and root for.

You can’t assume your reader will simply like your character. Like any person we want to get to know, or feel for, we have to learn about them. We have to see them in action over time (or pages). Case in point, I once had dinner with a guy I was newly dating (and liking) only to have him berate our poor waitress because she’d neglected to serve my sandwich with mayo. (And by berate, I don’t mean “point out gently”, I mean “raise voice and throw up hands”.) So much for Mr. Nice Guy. I knew before the check arrived, I didn’t need to know anything more about this guy except how to get away from him as fast as possible. And we all know our readers won’t even wait for the check.

Now I’m not suggesting you need to have your character pull a busload of puppies from a live volcano, or that a flashy show of concern will miraculously erase twenty pages of schmuckness. Like anything believable, the reveal of character should be as natural and genuine as possible.

Writers, have you found yourself in a similar state of conflict with a character?

Readers, have you recently encountered a character who left you a little cold when you were supposed to be warm and fuzzy?

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Saying it in a song

I am in awe of songwriters. While I need/take 80,000 words to tell my story, they need only a matter of lines to tell theirs. And when it’s done well…Oh, wow. That one song can make you cry, smile, reflect with all the intensity of any book. As a writer, I can think of no better tutorial than listening to the lyrics of the greats (and the up-and-coming greats) and hearing how they craft the “scenes” of their songs to tell their stories.

Songs like…

Paul Simon’s haunting tribute to the confusion of facing adulthood in “America”

Neil Young’s heartbreaking tale of love begrudgingly released in “Expecting to Fly”

Dolly Parton’s plea to her husband’s  lover in “Jolene”

Joni Mitchell’s unabashed declaration of love in “A Case of You”

Carly Simon’s reminiscence of adolescent yearnings in “Boys in the Trees”

Bill Withers’ lonely lament in “Aint No Sunshine”

Bonnie Raitt’s bad day turned around in “All At Once”

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s touching account of sisters moving apart in “Only A Dream” 

Dan Fogelberg’s perfect capturing of the angst, wonder and regret of reunited lovers in “Same Old Lang Syne”

and the list goes on and on and on…

Now it’s your turn:
What songs move you as deeply as any favorite book?

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With book 2 simmering on its digital back-burner, I’m looking to my next project, and it’s shaping up to be yummy. Lots of emotional umph. A bit of mystery. A lot of romance.  Even an exotic locale or two. The only thing I’m a wee bit torn about is my lead character.

He’s a, well…a HE. 

Don’t misunderstand–he’s a great character, I can tell that already. But as someone who writes women’s fiction, am I breaking some kind of rule by having my main character be a  man? 

I don’t know that I am. I can think of plenty of novels where the lead was a man–Prince of Tides, comes to mind at once–that were every bit as compelling and emotionally-rich and, even more importantly, relevant to women. Admittedly, Prince of Tides would not be categorized as women’s fiction, but the point is that plenty of women read it and loved it.

Then why the hesitation on my part?  

Okay, help me out here, friends. How much does the gender of the lead affect your reading choices? Some, none, all? Do you feel that genres must stick to certain structural codes in order to be relevant–or is that all hogwash?

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Some days you want a flourless torte, some days you want a trifle, some days you want a four-layer Red Velvet.

And some days you just want a good yellow cake.

Writing can be the same way. Sometimes we get so fixated on a “hook”, on coming up with the twist or ending that no one saw coming, that we forget the power in a straightforward, well-developed story.

We can feel as if it’s a competition, to see who can come up with the plot/genre that no one’s thought of before.

Vampires in the dinosaur age?

What about time travel by way of a fast food drive-thru?

It makes me think of the recent trend in the culinary world to kick it up a notch with escalatingly-odd flavor combinations. Sea salt and cumin ice-cream?  Rosemary and espresso potato chips? Sure, why not?! Who cares if it tastes good–it just SOUNDS so cool, right? But the fact is that the flavor is everything,  just as all the twists in the world can’t elevate a story with hollow characters you can’t care about.

Butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt and milk.

Characters who want something above all else and are thwarted in their goals.

The recipes aren’t so far apart.

Sure, I like roulades and I like tiramisu. I might even like sea salt and cumin ice cream. But yesterday I craved a basic yellow cake. 

And getting back to the basics never tasted so good.

Care to share any over-the-top flavor combinations (or fiction couplings?) you’ve sampled (or turned down) lately?

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Just Walk Away

The other day, my oldest daughter was drawing and growing increasingly agitated by her work. I offered encouragement, but I could see the pot of frustration was nearing a rolling boil. Sure enough, within minutes, the drawing was slashed with colored pencil marks and then, just to be clear that it was indeed not working, crumpled and pushed off the side of the table, out of sight.

In the first few seconds after its dismissal, my daughter seemed okay with her decision, then the tears began to flow. Now, she said, she had nothing. Of course I’d tried to intervene at one point, suggested the drawing was wonderful and to maybe set it aside and move on to something else, to not throw out the baby with the bath-water, etc, etc. All those very helpful cliches that everyone loves to hear after they’ve eviscerated their paper doll.

It’s not so different when we write. I think one of the hardest things to do when we are writing is to know when it’s time to walk away from something that isn’t working. Sure, we tell ourselves, “fight through it!”, as if taking a breather from work that is clearly not going well is some sort of failure. I disagree. After decades of crumpled pages, I think sometimes the best (and the hardest) thing you can do is to step away from that screen.

And the greatest part is, you don’t even have to go very far. Sure, if you have the time/space/opportunity, go right ahead and march around the block, but it can be enough just to step out of the room, to put a wall between you and that page, and let the words mellow.


So whatever you do, don’t delete that scene just yet, and don’t abandon that WIP.  I promise you it’s not as bad as you think it is. But of course, you can’t know that until you get up and just walk away.

And you might be surprised at what you come back to find.

How about you? Are you able to just walk away–or does someone have to come over and pull the plug for you before you can bear some distance?

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Before I get into this post, I want to take a moment and just say how very lucky I am. Two very dear bogging friends, with not-to-be-missed blogs of their own, Teri and Downith, checked in with me after my posting absence to see if I was okay. Wow. We’ve never met face-to-face and yet they made a point to check in. Thank you, ladies. Truly.  You can’t know how kind that was.

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? The flu of the century landed at our house and even after I put the damn pineapple at the foot of its bed, it still wouldn’t leave. So rude. Anyway, I can tell how long it’s been by the fullness of the box wine in the fridge and the number of empty tissue boxes stacked on the counter (Seventh Generation products, but I still feel badly for not going total-green and using hankies, but frankly I don’t want that gunk in my washer, so I ask your forgiveness yet again, dear trees.) .

But in between coughs that could be mistaken for seal mating calls, I have managed to be nearly done with a draft of my WIP, and can I just say: My characters think WAY TOO MUCH! Now I know I’m an analytical person who can over-think a wrong number, but my characters really need to, as Carly says: “turn down the noise in (their) mind(s)”.

But then I stop them thinking those seque-less bursts of self-analysis, and I realize the reader STILL wants and needs to know what they’re thinking, just not in such a way that pulls the reader out of the scene like a commercial break.

So I have them reveal their thoughts in as an unobtrusive a way as possible, while they are doing, the way we all do (unless we are in an actual conversation about our thoughts which happens a lot in real life, but can really kill the mood in a book)–ie, the dishes, walking the dog, making dinner, etc., so the thoughts come out in little pieces, enough to suggest their thoughts, ideas, maybe even their backstory, without usurping the pacing of the scene.

It’s not always easy. Especially when we find we’ve let those thoughts go unspoken and we feel the need to purge them in a single scene over several paragraphs like dumping old files when we realize we’ve overloaded our desktop.

So how about you all? Ever find your characters think too much?

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