Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Magic of Books

I'm reading the memoir "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank" by Thad Carhart.

Not only does it transport me to Paris and remind me of the quirky traits of the French, but it successfully captures the essence of the hobbyist musicians and the complexity and personality of pianos. This is one art I have attempted to understand and even with world music and music appreciation classes. I have never bridged that gap.

Some writers slowly build believable worlds with words, worlds that you accept, but some authors can instantly transport you to the protagonist's side as if by magic.

Thank you, Thad, for the magic.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Work habits

Any young or new writer must develop work patterns that work for them. I think the same is true for any project. The methods of how we work are unique to individuals.

I found myself inspired to write different scenes for my different characters and as a young writer, I never knew if this would be effective or not.

I started a big binder and wrote every scene on looseleaf paper and organized them in chronological order according to when the scenes happened in the story. This lead to some wonderful scenes, but I never got around to writing the "between bits."

In my current work, I don't allow myself to skip around for this very reason. It feels like I get off track.

But sometimes, when conditions change and you need a fresh outlook or a pause, skipping around on a storyline can help you reconnect with a character.

I have rewritten chapter fifteen of Courting Apparitions three times in the last week or so. Now, to propel myself through the changes in that chapter that made it difficult to write right, I am ALSO writing chapter seventeen.

Chapter fifteen is her point of view.
Chapter seventeen is his.

So looking at both side's simultaneously, even if his chapter is a couple days in the future, is helping me understand her behavior and what she needs to do to make his reaction what it is in chapter 17.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Earlier this week, I started work on my most recent chapter and discovered, as I moved forward, that I wasn't sure how this chapter would fit in my new outline/draft structure.

I thought I knew where they were going/ what they were doing and -- most importantly-- how it furthered the plot.

But then... Oh then... My female heroine (Basilie) did the unthinkable. In her pregnant hormonal state, she has thrown the male hero (Étienne) out! She threw him out five days before the wedding.

This has stunned me so much, that I have written merely a sentence a day.

Don't you hate it when characters have their own plan? Sometimes it works, sometimes you have to reign them in.

Interestingly, my life has gotten similarly complicated, although my husband did not throw me out.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Details: The Right Pair of Shoes

I spend an enormous amount of time on the details in my novels. It may be "throw away" detail that the reader skims over and soon forgets, but it's the details that make a story a believable interaction with the real world.

My characters have money. Most of them work in fashion. I have a main character (Étienne) who likes to shop for shoes: for himself, for his wife, for his employees.

When I mention what shoes he recently bought, it can be an anchor in time. The first novel in my Fashion and Fiends series takes place in fall 2002. The shoes on the main characters' feet support this.

I once had a professional reader chide me for mistreating a napkin. Apparently she collected linens, and felt it was a terrible thing that my main character was ironing his napkins. This is apparently dangerous for old linens. Except these were everyday modern linens. But she noticed, and it killed my credibility for her. (Which in all honesty, I think I deserve some slack on that one since I didn't have him ironing his grandmother's lace. And besides-- he's a fashion designer, a dressmaker, linens aren't his specialty.)

So maybe it's excessive that I spend a half an hour looking for the perfect pair of shoes for my heroine to fight her battles in, but maybe not. I think the details-- if used correctly-- paint an accurate picture of who these people are.

Let's test a paragraph/scene:

They traveled the rest of the way to the car without speaking. Once Basilie lowered her bottom into the leather seat and turned on the warmer for her back, she kicked off her black patent ballet slippers. She massaged the sole of her foot, thankful she had worn flats. Étienne peered to her, then down to the shoes, one on its side, the other clearly displaying its pale innards and YSL logo.
“You scuffed those today,” he said.
“Can you polish them?” she asked. “I’d like to wear them to the party tonight.”

I like that Basilie doesn't mention, even in her own head, that these are Yves Saint Laurent shoes, until her husband looks at them. And even then it's a minor reference.

What's even more amusing to me is that Basilie is eight months pregnant and just survived a sword fight, and yes she fought the bad guy with a sword, and she's not concerned about her shoes but the upcoming party.

And she expects Étienne to polish them, to fix it, so she can continue looking good and feeling comfortable.

I could continue analyzing this, but you get the idea.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Moving Forward

My characters just finished a big battle with the bad guy and they won this round. I've been itching to keep going but... I haven't perfected my plan.

Since this is a second draft, that I've changed the trajectory on, I don't want to waste effort doing something in this chapter that doesn't move the plot forward. I have taken the outline I revised and sketched out the chapter as I suggested, but I noted that there's no action in the chapter. Nothing happens. It sets up several items for later resolution, but nothing happens in the actual chapter.

Now, can't have that.

The current chapter is a switch of POV from the male hero (Étienne) to his wife (Basilie). They have all contributed to the successful defeat of the bad guy (Galen).

Basilie has sustained some superficial wounds. The point of the chapter is to establish changes in behavior for Étienne, and to clarify Basilie's mindset regarding her soon-to-be born child, and finally, to establish some family history for Basilie.

This entry isn't necessarily about how I decide to resolve this, but to point out a realization I had of how many of my writing processes are physical. Under doctor's orders, I can't go ride my bike. I can't go shopping. And most painful to my process, I can't listen to my iPod and dance around like a lunatic.

Which leaves naps. Sometimes, when I try to go to sleep, the emptiness of my own head allows new ideas to pop in. Especially if I have been trying to think like that person for a while.

So what would Basilie do after a big fight? Should I pick her up in the ER? I'm going to have to write it out and try different things... But it's also like the way I cook:

Sometimes I look at the ingredients I have and contemplate all the ways to combine them until I hit a successful mix. But sometimes, I can be sitting, eating something completely different and get struck by lightning.

Last night I was thinking about chili, thawing in the fridge. I remembered we had pie crust and chicken and broccoli and various soups... and I had a eureka moment: POT PIE.

And sometimes, writing works the same way.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


So, today I volunteered to help my family answer phones at the business. Had to meet my dad at the office at 8:30, which meant leaving my house at 7 to bring daughter to her other grandparents, husband to work, and myself to the Poconos for duty.

In the first half hour, I had breakfast.

The next two hours, between the light phone calls, I wrote a strong draft of chapter 14 of my work in progress, Courting Apparitions.

After lunch I tried to progress with Chapter 15, but the ideas aren't fully formed enough, though I did sketch out the key moments of the chapter.

Next, I started to read one of the submissions for our critique group. I found this one difficult. And here comes my reflection for the day.

As a writer and a reader, I ask works to transport me. That requires three things: character, scene, and craft. I cannot rank any of these higher than the others.

CHARACTER: Each recurring character in your story must have a distinct flavor. His speech, his dress, he mannerisms. We should be able to tell this character even if the author only uses a pronoun instead of a name. That's how clear character development should be.

SCENE: As a reader, I need a sense of place. This involves enough background detail so I feel anchored but not so much I can't keep track of where I am and which elements are important. Smells, sights, sensations of light and dark. What other people are doing. And it must have the rich details, the pertinent details, but not the ordinary ones.

If I form a mental picture and you change that picture later by adding details that weren't there earlier that I made up... Well, I'm going to mistrust my other pictures.

CRAFT: Using too many prepositions, giving me sentences that are too bare-boned and don't have enough pace to keep me moving, or maybe using sentences that don't have that pizzazz to my ear... That will lose me. A great way to measure pizzazz is to read the work aloud. Believe me, you'll realize the lagging parts instantly.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Try Smarter Not Harder

Almost a week. That's how long it's been since I've touched this blog.

This disappoints me more than a reader can know.

I have no problem with deadlines, proficiency or finding something to write. This summer, even in its early stages, has taught me much about myself and my art. (Neither myself nor my art can survive well with iron-deficient anemia.) The universe has told me to bring my life to a standstill and rebuild my red blood cells.

So while I have been writing, while I have thought of this blog, my body has not cooperated. C'est la vie.

No need to bore you with my symptoms, instead I'll tell you my lesson learned:
No matter how much that project burns within you and feels urgent. It does not HAVE to be done now. Sometimes you want to do it, but life or yourself gets in the way.

In some situations, time management can cure the problem. Sometimes this can help you balance work, school, kids, home, and volunteer commitments and still have time for writing. Sometimes it's better when we slow down and let go of activities or even a self-imposed expectation of how well something will be done. I sometimes do this with the kitchen floor or cleaning the bathroom.

I suppose we can use this in writing, but only on a first draft, because really... in today's marketplace we need to do our best and remain innovative all the time.

In times of illness or family emergency, sometimes we cannot pursue what we want to do. This hurts. The frustration of falling asleep at my keyboard because of anemia is real. So is the super frustration of finally being awake, and then my hands going numb and feeling beyond my control... But frustration merely produces stress.

When this happens, I do something else. Read. Daydream about my characters in a quasi-nap state. Listen to music. Follow the World Cup.

Because we're all in a hurry to "finish," to "publish," to "query," but we must remember... that provides neither happiness nor success.

You can defeat many obstacles by thinking in a new way, persistence, strategy, etc., but stubbornness against certain obstacles wastes time.

I don't remember where I heard it, but it's a lesson I took to heart:

"Try Smarter, Not Harder."

The insect caught inside your car flings himself against the window again and again. He's trying hard. But how many times must he bang himself against the glass before he realizes he has to try a different spot? That eventually he can find the open window if he doesn't keep stubbornly flying into the windshield?

Sunday, June 6, 2010


All of my computers always have a generic folder for "research." This is dangerous because the folder gets very full and disorganized. I usually have one research folder for every novel, but during revisions when I do my fact-checking or don't understand my own description (yes, it happens) I have a hard time finding the right files.

Tori from my critique group has pointed out some problems with navigation in the Fashion and Fiends country house. So as I'm removing some minor characters, I'm also fleshing that out. Problem is, I have to make sure the details are consistent with the first book. I remember the layout of the house and the important stuff, but for example:

What does Étienne have for the countertops in the kitchen? Granite seems to popular and easy. Marble is too fancy for a country house. I don't remember.

So I started an "Étienne Household" file and divided it by room. Anything I use will go in that folder to refresh my memory later. I searched to answer the countertop question (and I searched the original manuscript hoping the answer was in there, but I deleted that chapter with the in-depth description). I googled and pondered and found other items I had to use in the house. Just had to. Into the file.

But I thought I'd mention, that the Behr paint company has an online paint center where you can select colors and then "paint" them on the walls to see how they look. You can use four colors at a time.

See for details.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I have opted to review the first 150 pages of Courting Apparitions, the second volume of my Fashion and Fiends series and the ghost story of the trilogy.

By the middle of chapter two, I am amazed at how much characterization the dead person (Adelaide) has.

And she's dead.

It's a great reminder of the little things that make a character, and it's not always what that character *says* or *does*.

In this case, the character comes alive because of:
- memories provided by other characters
- nicknames revealed by other characters
- rumors about the character and the circumstances around her
- the stuff she left behind (like a collection of novelty rubber ducks)
- the smell of her perfume
- her pet

This is the same way to develop a character who's off stage. Their car is in the parking lot. Or the book they are reading in on the table. People are more than dialogues and actions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Progress and Typographical Errors

I have written every day for the past several days, but only a couple hundred words a day.

Is this progress? Perhaps.

Allegheny Beast and the level of detail required for a thorough synopsis have taken all the fun out of my revisions. I decided last week to change the secret army operation in the story to some sort of environmental terrorist organization. In preparing a "character sketch" of that organization, I thought it might be cool to make it a group of college kids who originally went out to the woods to play Live Action Role Playing games. They picked the location in hopes of seeing the Allegheny Beast. But how do you make the leap from role playing geeks to dangerous environmental terrorists?

In my mind, you don't. Since I had planned to submit this manuscript, I have to hash out the details so that I can make the revisions to both the synopsis and the manuscript. But having too many details mapped out, even for revisions, has destroyed the fun of the writing process.

Have I learned a lesson?

I don't like writing with a detailed outline in front of me. In fact, it has ruined this project for me.

I have switched to the prequel to my Fashion and Fiends series, because it's a romance with some paranormal elements. But because it's loosely attached to the series, would I want to market it to romance publishers?

It's Étienne's and Basilie's love story, which happened more than 20 years before the trilogy I have done for the Fashion and Fiends series. But it's still Et and Bas. And yes, I could change the names and some of the details, but part of what makes the story special is that it belongs to Et and Bas.

Which brings into question my goals. See how this begins to fit?

Every published writer says to write the book, polish it, let it go, and market it to agents and editors with the same passion it took to write it. You must have that passion to make it. You have to have the passion to survive the "slings and arrows."

I'm looking for an agent, using the first book of the Fashion and Fiends series in my query. So far, no luck, but really, less than 20 rejections thus far. I'm not sure because I stopped counting. But with everything else on my plate, I've only been half-heartedly looking.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd finish and submit some romance manuscripts since many houses accept unagented manuscripts.

So, do I throw myself whole-heartedly into the agent search? Do I keep pushing in romance? Do I start that YA novel I have kicking in my head? Do I finish the project I was in the middle of what I got this brainstorm (inspired by LA Banks' workshop)? Do I write the short story I have plotted out for a call for stories for an anthology?

But I need a few days to write for fun. Even if I don't have plans for it.

Part of me is discouraged because of the books I read that disappoint me and the books I see coming from small, independent, and electronic-based presses. One author, at a press that markets very well on Facebook, caught my eye.

I went to her web site. The author web site. Her book comes out June 28. On the page on the web site for that book, one of her main characters' names is spelled inconsistently. Now I recognize that it was a simple inversion of letters while typing, but the author should have instantly noticed that and fixed it.

But (believe it or not) I decided to give her another chance. I clicked on the "read excerpt" link. In that passage, the author mixed up "pleas" and "please."

I fully believe that the eReader and the internet have given many authors a place that never had one before. I also believe that many less talented writers are seeing "print" and that's okay, because readers also have levels of proficiency. No one enjoys a book written above their comfort level.

But basic typing? And an editor who's paying attention?

I still want that.