Do the Work

Y’all, I don’t usually talk the writing stuff much anymore, but I can’t help myself this time. I had company in town this past week, and while I took some time off to do things with her — some shopping, some lunching — I also sat myself down at my desk and did the work. I may be my own boss, but I still have a job to do and jobs don’t get done when you lollygag.

So what do you think happens when writers tell me they just can’t get the work done? That they have to watch their favorite shows, and do all their Facebooking and Twittering, and yes they have a deadline screaming toward them at light speed, but they’re probably going to miss it because, well, it’s football season! Or Downton Abbey is on. Or it’s spring and they have to plant the bulbs.

If you guessed that I probably turn apoplectic, you’d be right. It’s infuriating when someone asks me how I manage to write so much while wringing their hands and hoping I’ll give them the secret formula that will suddenly make words pour onto the page.

And I do give them the secret, but they don’t listen. The secret is this: DO THE WORK! If you want to make a career of this, if you want to be a published author and have people read your stories, then you have to turn off the television — or whatever distracts you — and do the work FIRST. Do it! Stop talking about it, stop wringing your hands, and stop making excuses.

Your shows can be DVRed. You can watch them once you meet that deadline. I don’t know what to tell you about sports, since that’s not my hang up, but I’m pretty sure you can’t watch every darn game Thursday through Monday. You can’t do everything. Make a choice. And if you choose the football, don’t whine about the writing. You chose it!

Seriously, the only way you get ahead in this job is to make it a priority. Writing does not come last. Writing does not come after you finish everything else. Writing must be a priority. Yes, your family is the most important thing. I don’t disagree with that at all. There’s a saying you might have seen before: “Happy wife, happy life.” It’s cute, right? But I think it should also be expanded a bit. “Happy family, happy marriage, happy life.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s closer to the truth, I think.

So this is my rant for the day. If you’re a writer, if you want to make this a career, you need to make sure you’re willing to do what it takes. You can’t write when you feel like it. You can’t build a career or gain readers if you take such an approach. If you want this — really want this — you have to work for it. It’s still a job, and it still requires you to put in the time.

So put down the remote, stash the coupons for the mall, and get your work done first. Your work ethic is vital in this business. If you don’t have one, if you’re easily distracted, then you aren’t going to succeed.

But if you get that work done, you’ll be surprised at how everything begins to flow. Make writing a priority, and you might just be amazed at how much you get done. Good luck and get to work! That’s what I’ll be doing… ๐Ÿ˜‰

There are no musts

Thanks everyone for your comments! Using the Random Number Generator, I came up with #6, which is Amber! Amber, you can send your 5 pages to me at Lynn AT LynnRayeHarris DOT com.

Okay, maybe there’s one: Thou shalt not bore thy reader.

Aside from that, all rules are rather like Captain Barbosa’s view of the pirate code: they’re guidelines. Guidelines exist for good reason. They are meant to keep you from making the kind of mistakes that others have made before you. They are a set of guide posts to help you along the way.

But they aren’t set in stone. They can be flouted if you feel the need. (But make sure you know why you need to flout them.)

Why did this post come about? Because yesterday, under the hashtag #pubtips, someone on Twitter said that you must not ever change point of view during a scene because you wouldn’t *ever* sell your book if you did. That’s a pretty intense statement.

And it’s simply not true. Many authors jumped in to say how they’d sold 10, 20, 30 books to their publishers without following that particular “rule.” Now, on the other hand, I think I know what the person who said it meant. She was judging contest entries and POV was all over the place. It was jarring for her.

That is a problem. If you are jarring the reader with your guideline flouting, then maybe you need to take another look at the guideline and try to see why it is one. People don’t make these things up just to give you a hard time. They do exist for a reason.

And maybe you should learn how to control POV with one per scene until you’ve got that down so pat that you can then make deliberate choices on when to exercise the option of switching to another character’s head. Merely a suggestion.

Me, I’m pretty much a purist. I believe, for me, that POV is best done one character and one scene at a time. It’s just the way I roll. I think it makes for a more cohesive story, and for a better bonding experience with the viewpoint character. It’s hard for me to care about someone whose head I leave after a paragraph.

However, even I, the purist, have been known to make a mid-scene switch. I can’t remember which book I first did it in, but it might be my 3rd or 4th. The scene started in one POV. It needed to continue in the other. Usually, I have no problem with a scene break in the middle and then continuing right on. But this time, the scene break was jarring. This time, the scene was so highly charged that the only way to keep the tension up and make the switch was to simply make the switch.

I have, to this day, not gotten ONE piece of mail or one review that claims I did it all wrong, or tells me I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to write. Not one. Remember that. (And if I get one after this, I’ll know one of you is messing with me.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

Unfortunately, when we are still unpublished, we are searching, searching, searching for what might be holding us back from obtaining the brass ring. It’s really, really hard to take a good look at your work and realize that maybe the problem is your story. So we search for reasons why we were rejected without realizing the story isn’t quite right. Having a story rejected doesn’t make you a bad writer. Not at all!

When I go back and look at some of the things I did before I was published, I see it now. I see what was wrong that I couldn’t see then. Yes, I was a POV purist and yes, my book was written in Courier New 12 point font with exactly 25 lines per page, and yes I kept the backstory to a minimum and didn’t dump it into the first chapter.

But that isn’t always enough! I wrote some technically perfect things. But they are lacking in life and spark. They lack what I’ve learned since, which is that good story is far more than technical perfection. You must know who your characters are and what they want. You must know why not getting what they want is a very bad thing. And you must know why you won’t give them what they want but will make it all work out anyway.

Do not write with rules in mind. Write with the story in mind. Write with the goal of creating something compelling and uniquely yours. Yes, in my line there are a zillion marriages of convenience. Yours won’t be like any of the others because yours will be in your voice. Right? You won’t imitate, and you won’t slavishly follow a set of rules someone gave you.

There is no secret handshake, friends. There is only hard work and growing your craft. You can write your story in Arial or Times New Roman. (It should really still be double spaced when you submit it, but it doesn’t have to be when you’re writing if that’s what you prefer.) You can let Word figure out where to break the page (I do turn off Widows and Orphans, however). You should still put a header up there with your title, name, and the page numbers. Just in case someone prints it out and gets things out of order somehow.

You can change POV in a scene, even multiple times (though I’d be careful — do not jar). You can make your heroine a CEO and your hero a construction worker (though probably not in Presents, I gotta tell you). You can do just about anything so long as you do NOT bore the reader. You don’t have to start your story with dialogue. You don’t even have to have both characters on the first page together. But there are certain conventions in a category romance, and you really should know what they are if that’s what you want to write.

A hero and heroine who don’t meet for 3 chapters just isn’t going to work in a category romance. Though I’ll bet there’s a published author out there who did it so well that she sold the book and never looked back. It’s entirely possible. I still don’t recommend you do it, however. ๐Ÿ™‚

Now go forth and write compelling stories with characters readers will care about. If you need to switch POV, switch it. If you need to drop some backstory in, do it. But know WHY you do these things and make sure you couldn’t do them better by doing them another way. Just don’t ever say that you absolutely must do something a certain way or you won’t publish. I can promise you no editor is going to read your story, be super excited by your characters and premise, and then get to a POV change and drop the book in disgust. “Too bad, we would have loved to publish this if only she hadn’t made that switch.” Not gonna happen.

In my March book, Strangers in the Desert, the hero and heroine aren’t in the same room together until page six. There might even be POV changes somewhere in the book, though I can’t remember. And talk about taking the usual theme and twisting it? There’s a secret baby — but it’s the heroine who doesn’t know the baby is hers. You can do anything so long as you motivate it well and tell it compellingly. (This book is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick for March, so something worked!)

Now tell me, what rules have you been told are absolute? I’m going to award a prize to one lucky aspiring author. I will read and critique your first scene, no more than five pages. Simply leave a comment on this post. I don’t ordinarily read uncontracted work, for various reasons, but I really believe in helping people so I’m going to break that rule today. I’ll choose a winner sometime this weekend, and you’ll have 24 hours to submit your pages. Must be a romance, though can be any subgenre. My expertise is category and contemporary, so remember that. ๐Ÿ™‚

Let’s talk!

What not to do in your stories

I never criticize other authors because, quite frankly, I know how much work goes into a story, and even if the story didn’t work for me, I know it worked for someone else. That’s the nature of the beast – not everyone will like what you write, some will actively hate it, and some will think it’s the best thing ever written.

But, yesterday, I was goofing off at a point where I didn’t quite know what came next in my WIP and a headline on CNN caught my eye: Making New Friends as an Adult. Sounds interesting, right? I thought so, therefore I clicked.

Let’s just say that what came next was a head-shaker. If you want an example of how NOT to write your stories, look at this article. The writer starts off talking about cheese sticks, finally meanders to the one lunch date she had with a coworker that was perhaps a tad awkward, and back to cheese sticks.

Cheese sticks! She was trying to use them as a metaphor for something, but honest to God, the miss is a mile wide. For once, I don’t mind saying so because a) everyone in the comment trail thought the same things* and b) we write in two entirely different genres so that I’m pretty sure the writer won’t pop over here and see me using her work as an example of what not to do.

Remember when starting your stories that you’ve made a promise to your readers. You should know who your characters are and what their core problems are, and that’s what you should write about. Don’t spend the entire first chapter in setup before you get to the meat of the problem. This article that was supposed to be about making friends as an adult was more about cheese sticks and their affect on the author’s life than about making friends. It would have been okay, maybe, if the reader had thought she was getting a story about cheese sticks — but she thought she was getting a story about how to make friends.

Don’t promise your readers a story about a man and woman falling in love and then give take them a meandering side trip through the history of viticulture. If your characters own a winery, fine, use some of that information in weaving the framework for the main story. But for goodness sake, don’t spend those valuable first pages on it. The cheese stick writer wasted valuable space talking about cheese sticks instead of her core topic and lost a lot of readers as a result. Don’t do that, friends. Start with a bang and keep your story focused on the main problem. Cheese sticks are fine so long as they don’t take over and become the main topic. Or, if they are the main topic, don’t mislead readers with a story about something else entirely.

I suppose the cheese stick story would have been fine if I hadn’t expected a tale about how to make friends, but it was so far off base from what I was expecting that I was irritated with the writer for misleading me. Two-thirds of the article is about the cheese sticks. One-third is about her lunch date and how it didn’t go quite the way she was expecting. Big miss.

Do not do that in your writing! Thus ends today’s mini writing rant. ๐Ÿ™‚

*Comment trails on articles in public forums are usually enough to get my blood pumping in all the wrong ways, but this time, I agreed with the basic sentiment, which was “Huh?”

It’s All About Character

I did not watch the new Two and a Half Men with Ashton Kutcher because once I heard they were going to kill Charlie Harper, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t care for Charlie Sheen, but Charlie Harper was rather loveable in a way. He had a heart of gold beneath all that wildness. He might have been a womanizing jerk, but he was also a good guy when it counted.

I’ve watched a lot of this show in reruns because it happens to be on at a time of day when the Hubby and I are relaxing together once he comes home from work. I admit it took me a little bit to warm up to the show, but then I began to see the humor in it.

And I liked all the characters for who they were. They were always true to themselves, no matter how screwed up they might be. Alan messing up a relationship with a woman because she told him that Judith said Herb was the best lover she’d ever had. Charlie wanting so desperately to keep random women on the string but cutting them all loose because he truly loved Chelsea. Herb and Alan finding common ground through their relationship with Judith.

I probably haven’t seen any of the last season’s episodes, so I can’t say whether or not the show was growing stale, but I’m really irritated at what the writers did to get rid of Charlie. They weren’t true to his character, no matter how funny they tried to make it. Charlie Harper was a good guy. But they forgot they were supposed to be writing for Charlie Harper’s exit and instead wrote one for Charlie Sheen. Because Chuck Lorre was pissed at Sheen and wanted to prove he was the guy in control.

Well, yeah, he is the guy in control. But I think he’s shot himself in the foot with this one. You have to be true to the character. And he wasn’t. I’ve read the reviews, and apparently the funeral was a big joke. Alan didn’t cry? Really? The guy who cried when he got sex for the first time in ages didn’t cry when his brother died? And Jake might be nothing more than a teenager who wants to eat all the time, but he actually loved his Uncle Charlie as a kid. Would he really not feel even a shred of remorse? Or how about Charlie’s mother?

She was always portrayed as a cold bitch, but would the woman who once stood on Charlie’s balcony and told him that she was going home because he’d just said he loved her and he could only screw it up from there really only be concerned about selling his house?

I just can’t buy it, and I won’t be tuning in. If I’d been in charge, I’d have replaced Charlie Sheen with another actor. I’d have let Charlie Harper go on living and fornicating and doing all the usual stuff he did. I can like Charlie Harper without liking Charlie Sheen (who I believe is not a nice man at all). Soap operas had a knack for replacing characters. At the beginning of an episode, they would announce “Today, the part of Storm Handsome-Moneybags is being played by Joe Fabulous.” And the show would go on.

Maybe Two and a Half Men is done. Maybe it was already growing old and stale and its time was up anyway. But it’s definitely up for me. I can’t watch it now because I can’t forgive the writers (Lorre in particular) for cheating their character and making it personal. It just isn’t the same show anymore, no matter how young and handsome Ashton Kutcher is (without the long hair and beard – don’t know what’s up with that, but it’s not flattering).

Maybe replacing Sheen with another actor wouldn’t have worked either, but at least Charlie Harper would have still had a chance to get things right in his life before the show ended. The lesson here for writers, I believe, is to think long and hard about what you do to your characters. Make sure it fits their character and is fair to who they are. I’ve killed off my characters when I was sick to death of them, but that was only for me because I deleted all that stuff and continued on with the story.

You have to be true to your characters! You’ve set them up to be someone, with flaws and wants and needs, and you can’t thwart that at the end or you risk alienating your readers. I suppose it’s different for television writers, when an actor becomes the embodiment of the creation, but the viewers still fall in love with the characters and expect justice for them in the end.

I don’t like what they did to Charlie Harper, but I had no say in it. Now, for God’s sake Chuck Lorre, don’t you dare kill off Sheldon or Leonerd or Raj or Howard or Penny! Or Amy or Bernadette!

Why Manners are Important to You as an Author

Inspired by my friend Jean, who writes the most wonderfully witty posts about Southern manners from time to time, I’ve decided to write about some things that have been bugging me lately. I’ve noticed a disturbing lack of social nicety lately, and I think remembering a few manners might help.

Yes, writing is often a solitary pursuit. It’s creative and, according to one article, requires the kind of high level concentration that a master chess match might demand. Writing also attracts a lot of introverts, as we are people who would rather play with our imaginary friends than have to talk to our real friends sometimes.

That said, if you are writing in hopes of being published (or if you are published), this is also a business. A BUSINESS. And there are certain ways one behaves in public and when conducting business. It’s called manners. You need manners. They don’t have to be my Southern manners, but you should have some knowledge at least of business etiquette and how to behave. That said, I give you my top tips for how to behave:

1. Be nice to EVERYONE. No, not just to those people who you think can do something for you. Everyone. I’ve seen this one a lot, folks, and it isn’t pretty. It’s not nice to exclude people just because you think they can do you no favors. How do you know that person won’t be the bestseller someday? Not only that, but it’s just rude to treat people differently because maybe they aren’t published and you are. Never make the mistake of thinking someone isn’t worth knowing because you can’t perceive they have anything to offer you. They do. Everyone does. Take the time to be nice to everyone, and you may learn something.

2. Don’t boast. This one fries my bacon. Maybe it’s because I’m Southern and I’ve been raised to think boasting about oneself is impolite. Of course I think you should crow to the rooftops about your contest finals and bestseller list placements! Of course you should celebrate and be happy! I do it too, even though I am often uncomfortable saying, “Lookie here, my book is a bestseller!” But that’s a fine achievement and worthy of some snoopy dancing. Heaven knows we get beat up enough in our writing lives not to rejoice a bit when we have the chance. But if you find yourself saying on a daily basis about how fabulous your CPs or editor think you are, or claiming that you are the most innovative thing to come down the pike since Nora Roberts, or constantly needing to one-up your fellow writers with pronouncements about your fabulosity, then you need to step back and remember that nobody likes a braggart. We love to celebrate when someone gets good news, but crow all the time about everything you do and people will start to cringe whenever they see your posts/tweets/blogs, etc. You don’t want that. It’s hard to be happy for someone who so desperately needs attention that he or she can’t shut up about themselves for one damn minute. You might think you’re at the center of a stage, clearly the most important person around, but you are deluded. I’m telling you this to do you a favor. You are not super special. Thinking you are will get you in trouble eventually. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. Count on it. Remember that a little humility goes a long way.

3. Don’t trash talk about your fellow authors. This one continually amazes me. There’s a difference between a critical review (which I am not comfortable doing as an author, but others are and that’s fine) and trashing someone because you don’t like their book. Never get caught up in this. The internet has a long memory.

4. You should already know this one, but don’t argue with reviewers. Ever. If someone hated your book, even if they said mean things, the only appropriate response is either no response or a thank you if you feel inclined to give one. I usually go with no response.

5. You will get asked to do things. Give an answer one way or the other, but don’t leave anyone hanging. We often want to do everything we are asked to do, but the truth is we can’t. Not if we expect to meet our deadlines and have time with our families. Pick and choose the things you do, and don’t be afraid to say no when you don’t have time. But always, always do it politely.

6. This applies to the published people — now that you are published, don’t make the mistake of thinking you know everything. You probably don’t. The newer you are, the more you have to learn. I’m still learning. I can tell you what I know based on my experience – and I do have strong opinions about some things – but I’m not by any means the oracle on the subject. And I don’t think I am either. There is no single way to do things.

7. Don’t make absolute statements. This kind of goes with making the mistake of thinking you know everything. But telling people things like, “You don’t need an agent for category,” or “You absolutely need an agent for single title,” or “Self-publishing is the only way to go,” or “One should never, ever change POV character mid-scene” is really a bit silly. And arrogant. Who died and made you boss? Everyone’s experience is different. Now, if you want to say, “I decided I needed an agent for single title because I don’t feel capable of negotiating (or want to negotiate) those contracts” or “I personally don’t like to change POV characters mid-scene because I think, for me as a reader and/or writer, it’s jarring,” then that makes perfect sense. That’s your experience.

Okay, this post is getting long enough now, but you can tell I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately. An unpublished writer told me once that an author who had been snotty to her in her RWA chapter didn’t realize that she’d not only lost the writer’s respect, but she’d lost her as a reader. This writer will never, ever pick up that author’s books. Is it worth losing a potential reader (not to mention a potential friend!) just because you think there’s nothing this person can do for you or that they are somehow beneath you? Be nice. It’s all you have in the end.

Any bad behavior you’d like to add? Anything that fries your bacon? Any experience you’d like to relate? Any tips you’d give that I left off?

Dear Snooki

I know who you are because you are because you seem to pop up in entertainment news and celebrity gossip quite a lot. I also know that you are a very, very tanned person. So when I read in an article recently that you would never have plastic surgery because you are afraid of needles and anesthetic, I had to shake my head sadly.

Here’s the thing, my dear. You are young, in your 20s I think, and so all that tanned skin is quite supple and tight right now. But you just wait. When you hit 35, 40 if you’re lucky, you may start to think differently about surgery. Because tanned skin is damaged skin. The only way the skin can react to UV damage is to brown. As brown as you are, that’s a whole lot of damage to those delicate cells. It’s going to sag, trust me. I’ve seen it in my tanned friends who looked awesome at 20, and then looked like they were over 50 when they were barely 40.

Your skin is going to sag when the collagen fibers stop doing the job of holding it up, and you may be looking at plastic surgery in a whole new light then.

On the other hand, there’s another danger of which you seem either blissfully unaware or you think it won’t or can’t happen to you. Skin cancer. Tanning beds concentrate the UV light, and more and more younger people are presenting with skin cancers these days. You are dark skinned and have dark eyes and dark hair, but that’s not a guarantee, especially the more you subject your skin to intense UV light. It’s not just the tanning beds, of course. Sun exposure does the same thing.

And if you do get skin cancer, guess what? Surgery. If you get the worst kind there is, melanoma, the surgeon will need to take margins. You will probably be knocked out for this surgery, though not always. There are definitely needles involved.

Either way, Snooki dear, I think surgery is in your future. I’m sorry you’re afraid of needles and anesthetic, but I think you need to realize that if you continue the way you’re going, surgery will become a distinct possibility at some point. The damage is already done, considering how brown you are, but I do hope you will think twice about so much tanning. Taking care of your skin now could lessen the impact of the damage. Besides, with your money, can’t you afford a really great spray tan?