I feel like I've been traveling for weeks, but in reality it was only for two weeks. First up, I went to the Caribbean and took a cruise with the family. Then I came home for three days before boarding a plane again and heading to New York City for the PASIC conference. I met fellow Presents author Jennie Lucas in the airport (we've timed our flights that way twice now, and fortunately it's worked both times) and we shared a car into the city. By the time we got to the hotel, I had only minutes to change for the industry reception taking place at Sardi's later that evening. Not because we were late, but because I was meeting my agent first and going over to the reception with her.
So I mad-dashed upstairs, did a quick freshen up, ditched the travel clothes, and slid into a black sheath and sparkly Steve Madden heels. Back down to the lounge where I met my agent and had drinks and conversation for an hour, then off to the reception a block and a half away. Later, after the reception, Jennie and I changed and headed out into Times Square for a quick tourist moment. Here I am enjoying the sights.
I love New York, and I regretted that I hadn't arranged to stay longer. I'm a bit of a Broadway junkie now. I'd love to just spend a week going to shows, but alas there was no time. The conference was two full days of information so good that my head is still spinning from it all. But I did manage to have a fun time with my fellow authors. For instance, here's a group of us running to the Shake Shack for a quick lunch. The restaurant was so crowded we took the food back to the conference room and had a picnic there.
From L to R is Jessa Slade, Angie Stanton, Jenna Black, Moi, Jennie Lucas, and Erin Kellison. Laurie London took the photograph.
Finally, on Saturday evening, several of us got together for dinner and then went to see Alan Rickman starring in Seminar, a play about writers. Here I am along with Jennie and Laurie London at Cafe Un Deux Trois.
Alan was lovely, as usual, with that gorgeous voice of his, and the play was very interesting. Afterward, we took one last look at Times Square, and then it was off to bed for early flights the next morning. I was at the airport by 7 a.m. and home by about 1:30 that afternoon. I'm already plotting another trip to New York so I can see more shows (Ricky Martin in Evita!) and eat more fabulous meals that aren't from chain restaurants.
Finally, if I have a takeaway thought from the conference (for writers), it's this: the times, they are a-changin'. Educate yourself. You can no longer rely on things being done the way they've always been done. Educate yourself.
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.) 😉
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. 🙂
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. 🙂
I suffer from them quite a lot, it seems. Writing is like always having PMS in some ways. There are highs, lows, and oh em gees that make you want to hide your head until it all goes away. I believe this is normal, and yet I despise it.
It's really easy to look at someone else's career and think they have it perfect, but the truth is they probably don't. They probably suffer from the same doubts, fears, and insecurities that you do. I think if you aren't worried about your next book, worried that you are making it the best you can make it, then you probably aren't digging deeply enough. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the way I feel about it. If something doesn't hurt while you're writing, then I'm inclined to think something's wrong.
Unless, of course, you are writing humor. Maybe humor doesn't hurt, but deep emotion certainly does. Or should, at least in some way. If you aren't touched by what you're writing, how do you expect anyone else to be?
So maybe I'm feeling the blues because I've turned a book in and I'm waiting for the inevitable revisions. Believe me, it needs them. If my editor didn't give me any, I'd really be worried!
Or maybe it's all the gloom and doom in publishing today. Every day, there's some new article about the death of the bookstore and the predatory nature of a certain online retailer.
I'm sure it's any number of things, but the truth is I'm just at one of those low points in the cycle where I think maybe the gig is up and my editor is going to figure out that I don't know what I'm doing. And that my agent is going to quietly stop answering my emails and start avoiding me at conferences.
Oh, I also believe at these times that I couldn't write a good story to save my life. This is not the time to look at reviews, I tell you. Because someone definitely agrees with that assessment (though thankfully there are plenty who don't!). Every idea I look at in my file seems trite. That single title manuscript I'm supposed to be revising? Lame, lame, lame.
Times like this, I just want to say, “I quit.” But I won't. It's like that old Lynn Anderson song: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. There is no rose garden in publishing.
So what can we do to get past the writer blues? Here's my imperfect list. Feel free to add suggestions in comments!
1. Realize that this too shall pass. All moods are temporary.
2. You really aren't as important as you think you are — which means there is no giant conspiracy of people out there talking about how awful you are either. 🙂
3. Do not read reviews. Yours or others. If you can be disciplined about not reading yours, but you still go see how Suzy Author's praises are sung to the high heavens, that's going to make you feel bad too. Don't do it, at least until this mood passes.
4. Disengage from negative people. There will always be those who make you feel worse simply by their own complaining and whining — whether it's about writing or life, it's still going to get you down.
5. Go back through your praise file. You do have one, right? That file where someone told you how wonderful your story was (and if you are unpublished, this could be your CP's comments or a contest judge's), the good reviews you did read and keep (RT Book Reviews, for instance), and your editor's praise about something you wrote (if you don't have an editor yet, see aforementioned CP and judge comments).
6. Go for a walk or a run or something that gets the endorphins flowing.
7. Read a good book (unless that depresses you too). I love reading a good book because it always makes me say, “Oooh, I want to do that!” Good books never depress me; they motivate me. Though don't read Suzy Author's book if you went and read her fab review and you're feeling bad about it. Read something else. Save Suzy Author for later when you feel better. 🙂
8. Indulge in a hot shower or a nice hot bath. Or go get a pedicure. Something to pamper you as the person, not you as the author.
9. Find something good about your work and celebrate it. Champagne (or sparkling juice, etc) is always appropriate. Finished that awful chapter? Celebrate. Wrote 1K today? Celebrate. Realized that scene doesn't work and you have to cut it? Celebrate, because you recognized something important about your writing.
10. Remember that everything is in cycles. Next time, Suzy could be the one reading this list because she's feeling the blues. A career trajectory is not straight to the top like a rocket blasting off. It's more like one of those barnstorming planes, with high climbs, dizzying dives, loop-ti-loops, and a lot of screaming.
So that's my list. And you know what, I already feel better by writing it. How about you? What are your suggestions for staving off the writer blues?
As I come to the end of another book, I've been thinking about epilogues. They aren't always necessary, and can even sometimes be a bit annoying, but as I looked back at my books, I realized that I do them more often than not. I'd rather have the reader get that final taste of the characters being happy than to end on a whopping dramatic note and then nothing else further. Tastes for epilogues definitely vary, however, and there are probably a couple I could have done without. Examining the epilogues I have, I'm going to try to remember why I did them. (These aren't spoilers, because I think we all know that every couple of every book will end up together, no matter how hopeless it seems during the course of the story. These are romances, after all!)
Book 1: SPANISH MAGNATE, RED-HOT REVENGE – Epilogue. It wasn't necessary, but since it was my first book I think I thought I needed it. It doesn't add anything to the story.
Book 2: CAVELLI'S LOST HEIR – Epilogue. This one had a purpose, which was the show the heroine settling into her new life and being happy. There was also a thread about her mother that I tied up here.
Book 3: THE PRINCE'S ROYAL CONCUBINE – Epilogue. Once more, this one had a purpose. Since Cristiano and Antonella were on opposite sides of conflicting nations, and their relationship affected their countries, I wanted to show them a couple of years later and show how relations between the nations had changed.
Book 4 (a novella) – KEPT FOR THE SHEIKH'S PLEASURE – Epilogue. It's a year later and I needed to show how Genie was doing in her new life. Not only that, but Zafir had some things to get used to about her job, so that's in there too.
Book 5: THE DEVIL'S HEART – Epilogue. It was necessary to tie up a thread from the book. Also, I believe it takes place two years later.
Book 6: BEHIND THE PALACE WALLS – No epilogue. The story was complete without it, though I did move ahead in story time by about a year in the last scene, so I technically had an epilogue-type wrap up without the epilogue.
Book 7: THE MAN WITH THE MONEY – Epilogue. There were a couple of threads from the story that needed tying up. No time jump. It takes place right after the last chapter.
Book 8: STRANGERS IN THE DESERT – Epilogue. It's needed in this book to answer a major question that the story raises.
Book 9: CAPTIVE BUT FORBIDDEN – No epilogue. It's all tied up without it, though I do give a quick summary of the next couple of years in the last paragraph.
Book 10: MARRIAGE BEHIND THE FACADE – No epilogue. The story is all tied up without it and there's nothing left to resolve or explain.
There are other books which I've written that haven't come out yet, but I'm not going to talk about those. Clearly, I have a predisposition to write epilogues. I think I just like knowing that the characters are going to be all right, and I figure my readers like to know that too. If the relationship has been particularly rocky or in question throughout the book, I think an epilogue showing how the characters have adjusted is appropriate.
Not everyone agrees with me. Some writers like to end on that high dramatic note and then that's it. Some readers don't seem to mind at all. But I do. As a reader, I really want to know it's all going to be okay. I want to see them together and happy, and know it's going to work. Just because this is a romance with a happy ending doesn't mean I believe the happy ending will last if I'm not comfortable with how the characters are as a couple throughout the story.
Once more, that's a personal preference. So now I want to know what you prefer. Epilogue or no epilogue? Do you have any favorites in books you've read? Any that were totally superfluous (like my first book)? Any you hated?
Yesterday, I saw a link to this post on Twitter (Why Programmers Work at Night). I can't remember who tweeted it, but they compared it to writers — and a bell went off for me. Basically, the writer says that the mind is a busy thing and it's easy to get distracted during the day. But at night, when the mind is tired and everything is dark, it's easier to sit down and write code because you're too tired to play.
And I thought, Yeah, that sounds right. Because I've always seemed to work better at night than I do during the day. I can sit and stare at the computer, write some words, surf a bit — and then it's time for the hubby to come home and I'm making dinner, etc. If I'm on deadline, I go back to work after dinner. And work gets done. Much work.
When I first started writing, I was working retail and I had the usual crappy shift. I went to work at 1:00 PM and worked until we closed the store. This usually meant I got home sometime after 10:00. And then I went straight to my computer and often worked until 2 or 3 in the morning. If things were going really well, I'd be at it until 6 or 7. I got a lot done, but I hated the schedule.
Fast forward a few years, and thankfully that retail job is long gone. My schedule is my own. And yet, though I get up early and start to work, I often don't hit my stride until afternoon. And sometimes not until the evening.
So I sent this link to my husband and told him that this was so me. His response made my jaw drop — and made me think. He said, “Bullshit.” He pointed out, quite rightfully, that I work best under pressure. If I have a deadline, I will meet it. I will write non-stop until I do. (I always have a deadline these days, but how far away it is determines my level of panic and productivity.)
And then he pulled out the big guns. He said, and I'm still cursing him for it, “Nora Roberts would say that the best time to write is right now.”
Damn and double damn. I have apparently mentioned La Nora and her amazing schedule one too many times. He's right, curse him. The time to write is now. Not later, not when you feel like it, not when the sun and moon and stars are all in perfect harmony. You may have a natural rhythm, and that's fine — but you have to be able to adapt too. Sometimes your schedule gets thrown off — life gets in the way. Hubby says that if we all relied on the “right time” to accomplish tasks, nothing would ever get done.
He's so right. Doesn't mean I can't make the most of the times I feel super-productive, but it also doesn't mean I have to wait for those times. The best time to write is now. My only problem is getting this damn beginning right. Yes, I am still waffling over how and where to begin this latest book. Some books start perfectly, others reveal themselves slowly. This one is probably the slowest yet. But when it's right, it'll be RIGHT.
In other news, there are some sales on a few of my books. If you missed Behind the Palace Walls, or just want to give it as a gift, you can get it on your Kindle for $2.74 or in paperback for $2.88. And The Devil's Heart is an amazing $1.37 in Large Print paperback!
The Man With the Money is $2.70 on Kindle and $2.70 on Nook. And The Prince's Royal Concubine is free to borrow if you're a Kindle Prime member.
How's that for Happy Holiday shopping? 😉
Yesterday, I started a new book. I had the perfect opening line, I knew where the scene occurred, and what was going to happen. But less than 200 words into it, something felt off. It took me a while to figure it out, but I'd started in the wrong place and the wrong POV. Even when I'd been thinking of it for days and was certain this was right, it wasn't.
Beginnings are tricky creatures. You have to establish so much in the first few lines. You have to establish that there's a problem and a sympathetic character. Sympathetic in that the reader wants to know more about this character and how he or she will handle the problem, not sympathetic in the respect that it's the world against the character (though that can certainly work too!).
In the short category format, you don't have a lot of room for build up. You have to establish the problem pretty early (like immediately) and get those characters moving toward the resolution. It's challenging, and so incredibly important to get right. Personally, I like to jump into the action with dialogue and the characters face to face — and yet in my published books, about half of them do that and half don't. Not because I didn't try, but because the story just didn't work that way. It doesn't always have to start with dialogue, or with the characters in the same room.
But it does need to start with a dilemma. In my first book, SPANISH MAGNATE, RED-HOT REVENGE (Aug 2009), the heroine has just gotten off the phone with someone who informed her that her company has been taken over. A few lines later, her phone rings again and it's the hero. Naturally, he's the one who bought her company — and they have a past together. By contrast, in THE DEVIL'S HEART (April 2011), the hero is being held at gunpoint by the heroine (not that he knows it's her) who was once married to him. In BEHIND THE PALACE WALLS (July 2011), Alexei hears a scream. A few minutes later, the heroine barrels into him as she's running across the dark, snowy cobbles of Red Square. In STRANGERS IN THE DESERT (March 2012), the hero learns that a woman resembling his dead wife, whose body was never found, is living halfway around the world and singing in bars.
See, instant trouble, whether or not it starts with dialogue or both characters together in the same space. No one is getting out of bed in the morning, getting into the shower, thinking about their day, making breakfast, driving to the office, etc. If your character needs to get out of bed to start the story, then maybe the other character needs to crash through their roof and land on the bed seconds later. (That's a joke.) 😉
Believe it or not, you have plenty of time to get the whys and wherefores into the story if you launch with immediate problems. You simply feed it in as necessary to establish what's going on. Think of it like this: if you were walking along in the mall and saw a fight break out in the food court, would you need to know why the fight was happening or would you be instantly intrigued? You, and a bunch of other people, would probably stop and watch while mall security raced to the scene to stop the fight. You'd listen to the participants yell at each other, watch the struggles as they tried to break free of security, and wonder what was going on.
You wouldn't need to know up front that these were former best friends who'd become enemies because one of them stole the other's husband, and that the husband and the thief were now getting married, and that the ex-wife has two children at home that belong to the husband. You wouldn't need to know the fight started because the thief taunted the ex-wife as she was walking by, or that the ex-wife is struggling to make ends meet and this was the last straw for her tonight.
You'd only need to see two women in each others' faces, shouting and coming to blows, to be intrigued.
Remember that. Start with a problem that hooks the reader in and then give them just enough information to keep them hooked. Don't show all your cards at the beginning, but don't hide everything either.
I'd started with the wrong character but I didn't know it until I wrote 200 words. It was fine, but not dramatic enough. So I moved the scene to a new location and put it into the hero's POV. This is a man who is supposed to be on top of the world, who has everything going for him, but who feels dead inside while everyone around him thinks he has the perfect life. He doesn't, and I needed the reader to know that before I could go on. The heroine is on the scene now, and everything is about to slide sideways. I love that moment, when the characters meet and nothing goes as they expect. It's so delicious it gives me a thrill to imagine what I'm going to do to these people today!
1. Beginnings should be compelling enough to hook the reader in, but you don't have to hit them over the head with a fight or someone crashing through a roof. Problems, problems, problems – that's the key.
2. A sympathetic character isn't necessarily a character for whom everything is going wrong or who is downtrodden. No, a sympathetic character is also one for whom everything seemed fine (or nearly fine) until recently. Downtrodden works too, of course. The heroine who is homeless and has a baby to feed probably didn't get that way overnight (though it'd be interesting if she did!). You won't want to detail every step that got her here, but you'll want to hammer it home pretty quickly that she's in a bad spot. Likewise, a heroine who is on top of the world until she gets a phone call that her company has been bought out from under her is also sympathetic because we've just watched everything change in the space of a heartbeat. Change is the motor that drives the beginning.
3. Don't be afraid to shift the beginning if it's not working. Sometimes the perfect line is perfect — but not the right place to begin. The line I had for this story will remain, but it will be the first line of the scene in which I shift to the heroine's POV. Still there, but moved. Never be afraid to shift, or to start over completely if it's not working.
4. Trust your gut. If you find yourself piling on words in an effort to explain that perfect beginning, then maybe you need to listen hard and realize that it's not perfect and that you need something that doesn't require so much explaining. You need the metaphorical equivalent of that mall fight, something that intrigues and causes rubber-necking and the need to know what's happening.
5. Don't think up something huge and dramatic just to hook the reader and then the rest of the story isn't like that. The beginning needs to fit. Don't put in a car chase or a skydiving mishap and then the rest of the story has nothing to do with either of those things. Sometimes, the most dramatic opening isn't correct. In CAPTIVE BUT FORBIDDEN, out now in the UK, I originally started with the heroine at her father's funeral and the hero coming to kidnap her because of a threat against her (he's been hired to protect her). It was dramatic, but wrong for the characters. Now, the story starts with the heroine hiding from the public and her responsibilities, just for a few moments, but the hero intrudes on her private time. Before she can get rid of him, she's forced to rely on his expertise when the lights go out. A much more fitting opening to who they are and their situation.
And that's it for the moment! My wisdom, such as it is, on beginnings. Questions?