ON WRITING
On Writing
Plot Twists
Balance
Public Speaking
Agents
Show, Don't Tell
Outlining
Getting Started
Rejection
ON WRITING

One of my favorite things about writing is chatting craft with other writers. I do it in person, on the phone, on line, as often and in as much detail as possible. There's nothing like hashing things out with another person who understands the joys and frustrations of writing, and the challenge of getting a passage to work "just so." 

Sometimes we hit it right, sometimes we trip up. And just when we think we've mastered one element, along comes another one for us to learn.

I've written fifty books, and I still struggle to get the words right. Quite frankly, I hope I'll always struggle to get the words right. Because that means I'm still learning. Years after I wrote it, I can see how to improve my first novel. Years from now, I'll probably laugh or cringe at some of the mistakes I'm making now.

But that's what we do. We write the very best story we can with the knowledge and talent we have at the time. If we continue working hard, that knowledge will increase and our talent level will rise as we explore new ways to bring characters to life on the page.

And there's no right and wrong. There's no how-to manual. Actually, there are about a thousand how-to manuals. But none of them are definitive. No single manual, workshop or writing course works for all writers. If it did, we'd have a much saner business. We'd know exactly what to produce, how to produce it, and how to sell it. But we'd lose so much. We'd lose our diversity, our creativity and the flat-out thrill of learning that our work speaks to other people in the way we'd dreamed. 

So, embrace the chaos. Learn to love the uncertainty. And enjoy the relationships and friendships you build with your fellow authors while you learns along the way. Like me. I'm a fellow author. If I'm a little further down the road than you, or if you think I might have some insight to share on your next step, send your question along. Or just send me a quick hello. Let's enjoy the insanity together!

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BALANCE

One of the most difficult things for new writers, or established writers for that matter, is finding the balance between their writing lives and their regular lives.​​​​​

New writers have all the normal day-to-day obligations that everybody else copes with. They may have a family or a job that demands a good deal of their time and attention. There's also grocery shopping, meal preparation, bills to pay, gardens to weed, community events to volunteer at, homework to help with, and maybe a little social life, some exercise and some sleep to shoehorn in.

Established writers find their time eaten up by revision, edits, promotion, travel and teaching. Personally, I have all of the above. I have a family, a full time job, a writing career and volunteer work in the arts sector. My family still expects to be fed (can you believe it?) and to at least to be able to see the living room floor. And I'm one of those unfortunate souls who needs eight hours sleep a night, or else... Well, believe me, you don't want to hear the "or else."

What I've found works the best is turning writing into your primary "down time" activity. Whenever you're not working, taking care of children, cooking, shopping, exercising or eating, put yourself in front of your computer. Don't sit down to watch a sit com. Don't pick up a book to read. Don't call a friend or surf the net. Do something, anything, related to your latest manuscript. Write a new scene, revise an old scene, work on your synopsis, read a craft book. A little on-line research is okay, but don't get distracted by interesting web sites. You can also use the time to read work from a critique partner or compose a query letter. The trick is to keep your mind focused on your writing career during all those moments of spare time. Pretty soon it becomes a habit. If you try to do something else, you get fidgety, and something feels wrong and out of place. You head for your computer, and suddenly everything feels right again.

A writer friend once called this the Energizer Bunny method. You just keep going and going and going. Eventually, you're there!

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PLOT TWISTS

​​A plot twist is anytime something unexpected happens in a story that changes its fundamental direction. Where the characters and the plot are moving along in a direction that feels predictable, and then something happens to alter that predictability, that's a plot twist.

For example, suppose two characters are climbing a mountain in an extreme race challenge. They are being pursued by other teams of two, all trying to be the first to get to the top and win some money. The expectation of a reader is that the challenges faced by the two characters will be the mountain terrain and the other competitors. If one character fell down a slope or twisted an ankle, or even if another team sabotaged their gear, this would not come as a huge surprise to the reader.

However, if our characters discovered a terrorist plane had crashed landed on the mountain, and the terrorists then stole their climbing gear and their radios, putting them in jeopardy, this would be a plot twist. It's unexpected, and it totally changes the direction of the story.

A caveat on this advice, plot twists work best when they're unexpected yet reasonable. For example, if a reader is expecting our mountain climbing story to be an action adventure, and suddenly zombies appear in a cave halfway up the mountain, this is not going to work as a plot twist. It twists the plot, sure, but it also fundamentally changes the type of story we're writing. And that's not fair to the reader. 

A good example of plot twists from one of my novels comes from THUNDERBOLT OVER TEXAS, which I wrote for Harlequin Desire. In that story, the heroine, a museum curator, asks the hero to enter into a marriage of convenience so that she can display an antique brooch that is traditionally presented to the bride of the eldest son. While trying to convince the hero to go along with her plan, she discovers the brooch is a fake. The story twists from the heroine asking the hero to help her, to the two of them trying to find the real brooch. In a second twist, the heroine discovers the hero's grandmother faked the brooch herself. Now, along with trying to find the real brooch, the heroine is trying to protect the grandmother's secret.

These plot twists change the direction of the story in an unexpected yet plausible way. If zombies had stolen the brooch, I suspect I might have had a few upset readers, not to mention an upset editor.

The key is to get creative, but not too outlandish. Try brainstorming some ideas with a few writer friends, and see what you come up with for your own stories.

As always, have fun!

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AGENTS

If you're writing category romance fiction targeted to Harlequin, then an agent is entirely optional. Harlequin editors will accept queries and submissions directly from unpublished authors. However, you should consult the guidelines on the Harlequin web page in order to get specifics for each line.​​

If your work is targeted to one of Harlequin's single title programs or to other publishers, then it might be wise to submit it through an agent. Many publishers will not accept submissions directly from unpublished authors. Again, it's wise to consult the company web sites to find out specifics.

When querying an agent, there's no substitute for doing your homework. Talk to other authors for recommendations. Read on-line articles. Join Romance Writers of America. It's a good source for agent and other writing information. And if you attend writers conferences, you might listen to the agents that are speakers or try to get a short appointment with one to see if you're compatible. You can also check the Predators and Editors web site to see if there are any concerns with a particular agent in order to avoid scams and unscrupulous behavior.

Remember, agents are paid through a percentage of your advances and royalties. They don't get paid unless you get paid, so there's an incentive for them to sell your manuscripts as efficiently as possible. Manuscripts should not languish for months in an agent's office. Although bad agents can be a problem, good agents are a powerful member of your professional team.

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SHOW, DON'T TELL

I think it's important to remember that "showing" doesn't only refer to the visual elements of a scene. It means letting the action unfold in front of the reader instead of telling it in narrative.

​​I find it a challenge to picture and describe visual elements. Where some authors give fascinating detail about the physical surroundings of a character, I'm very spare in what I describe. In my scenes, you're lucky to know there is a carpet, never mind the color, the texture or the wear pattern.

What I try to ensure in my scenes is that I "show" the characters actions and reactions to the events around them in a way that draws a reader into the story. For example, in MARRIAGE TERMS, I wrote:

     The raindrops practically sizzled against Daniel's heated skin. Amanda was the sexiest, most amazing woman alive, and it was all he could do to keep from taking her in the next five seconds.
     He gulped in mouthfuls of salt air and steeled himself against the onslaught of desire.
     "I've missed you," she whispered.
     A steel band tightened around his chest until he thought it might explode. He cupped her face, kissing her sweet lips, absorbing her taste, reveling in her feel. "Oh, Amanda. This is so..."
     "Real?"
     He nodded. 
     Her hair was tangled with wet sand, her makeup was smeared in a rainbow, and droplets of water trickle over her cheeks. 
     He'd never seen a more beautiful woman, and sensation wash over him with the beat the of waves. "I remember."
     "Me, too," she sighed. "I remember you were wonderful."
     "I remember you were beautiful."

In my opinion, this is an example of "showing" an event. If I was to "tell" the same event, I might write something like:

     After dinner, Amanda and Daniel made passionate love on a rainy, windswept beach.

It doesn't really have the same power, does it? Telling forces the reader to fill in the blanks of the character interaction. Whereas showing takes the reader along on the journey as the action unfolds. The reader still learns that Amanda and Daniel make love on a rainy, wind-swept beach. But it's in a much more interesting and compelling fashion that enriches your story.

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PUBLIC SPEAKING

After publishing, many writers find they are invited to speak and present workshops at a variety of events. Speaking can be fun, and it can also be a great way to connect with other writers. Of course, having fun in front of an audience requires getting rid of your jitters. And for most people, getting rid of the jitters means solid preparation so that they're confident while they're speaking in public.

Up front, when deciding on a speech or workshop, I think it's important to chose a topic that interests and excites you. When you project energy and enthusiasm, which you normally do on a subject you enjoy, the audience is more likely to engage in the talk.

I've done a number of workshops over the years. I usually choose craft topics because, in my opinion, craft is the foundation of a successful writing career. You can have the most brilliant story ideas in the world, but if you don't understand the craft of bringing them to life on the page, you'll probably never sell.

I have friends who prefer to talk about the challenges of the writing life. And I have other friends who like to talk about the business end of writing--contracts, marketing, publicity, etc. Once you've chosen a topic, I think it's important to make your subject matter as interesting and as organized as possible. I like to use overhead slides. They help keep me organized as I speak, and give the audience a frame of reference throughout the presentation. I also think it's a good idea to balance theory with real life examples. And, unless you're giving a straight speech, it's a good idea to make the talk interactive.

If you have some willing volunteers, friends or family, you might test out the presentation on them. There's nothing like a live run-through to work out the little glitches. It's also a good idea to start with smaller regional events where your audience might be smaller and less intimidating. But above all, you should have fun with speaking. Given your success so far, it's obvious that you love the craft of writing, and that love will shine through when you talk to others.

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REJECTION

If agents or editors are asking to see more of your story based on a query letter, it means you have an interesting, potentially saleable idea. However, if they don't suggest revisions and specifically ask to see the manuscript again, then you shouldn't requery the same agent with that particular story.​​

Continuing to work on an idea or moving on to something else, is an individual choice. But while making that decision, it's important to remember that every chapter, every manuscript, everything word you write has an important purpose in the development of your career. Not all stories are destined to be published. But that doesn't mean they haven't done their part.

I wrote a manuscript in 1999 titled AFTER THE KISS. The complete was requested by an editor. It got me signed with an agent. And it won my first Golden Heart award. It was never published, but I don't regret one second of the time I spent writing and rewriting it. Nor do I regret any of the time I spent writing the three manuscripts that came before AFTER THE KISS. They taught me to write, and they taught me to craft a saleable story.

Consider working on any identified weaknesses in your writing. At the same time, when you're ready, look at moving on to the next piece. Very few novelist sell their first novel, but they all write one. Packing up your first novel, thanking it for its contribution to your career, and putting it under the bed is a sign of growth and development as an author. It's the end of an important phase, but the beginning of an even better one.

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OUTLINING

To outline or not to outline, and how extensively to outline… This is a debate that has been raging as long as anyone can remember.

Some authors work from a very detailed outline. They like the certainty of creating detailed characterization, working out plot problems and defining story turning points all up front. Then they're free to relax and write the book.

Other authors hate outlines. They find it stifles their creativity and drains all the energy out of the story. They can't get excited about writing a book where they already know everything that will happen. They love to fly into the mist. And in extreme cases, they write scenes all out of sequence and somehow link them together at the end.

Still others find they need a light outline, just the major plot and character points to keep them on the right track. But they also need the characters to be walking and talking on the page before they discover the what the story is all about.

All three of these approaches are perfectly correct. Outlining is a personal decision, and it depends largely on the innate style of the writer. I think most people fall into the third camp, those that need some kind of an outline, but for whom many things will change during the course of the writing.

Personally, I need to know who my characters are up front, and I need to know the general set up of the story situation. However, I discover most of the important story elements during the writing. In scene, my characters act and react in ways that surprise me. Or a secondary character will show up unexpectedly and take the story off in a new direction. 

I often don't know my black moment or the resolution until about the three-quarter mark, and this can make synopsis writing very tricky. I swear, someday I'm going to send my editor three chapters and a little note that says, "Trust me. It'll turn into a story somehow."

I have read marvelous stories by authors who outline, and I have read marvelous stories by authors who do not. If you're unsure, try doing it each way and decide which suits you the best. The good news on this one is there's no wrong answer. No matter which way you choose, or if you come up with your own unique hybrid, rest assured, you are doing it "right". My own guess is that people who outline tend to be analytical, and people who don't outline have story structure burned into their subconscious, so it comes out on its own. 

Pick the one you like. And most of all, enjoy the writing process. In the end, that's what will shine through on your finished product.

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GETTING STARTED

There are two things I try remember about writing. One is that it should be fun--hard work, but still plenty of fun. And two, nothing needs to be, nor should it be, perfect the first time through. ​

When you set out to write a scene, by all means write the scene that seems the most vivid and exciting to you at the time. Many writers write sequentially, but many do not. It's fine to write scene number two, or scene number twenty, or the final scene first, and then fill in the blanks afterward. 

Write what excites you, what you're seeing and hearing inside your brain at any given time. Make sure you let the characters take the lead in the scene, and see where they go with it. Writing is a strong subconscious process, and you shouldn't let your conscious editor stifle your creativity, particularly in the first draft. You can clean up a whole lot of stuff during revision and polishing. 

My approach is to come up with a couple of characters and their back-story, making sure I understand their feelings, wants and needs of the moment. Then I let them run wild on the page, saying and doing whatever they want. Sometimes it works, sometimes I toss it away, because it's not going to be right for the story. But it's always interesting, and it's usually fun.

I think writers block is a stress reaction that can sometimes be brought on by over-thinking both the story and the writing process. Relax and give yourself permission to write crap--as little or as much of it as you want. Gradually, you'll realize it's not crap that you're writing. It's a scene and a story.

I promise. If you're enjoying the writing process, odds are others will enjoy the reading process.

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