Saturday, September 09, 2006

Telling a Good Story

The other day someone asked me about my favorite books. So I tried to think of a top 5. And when I looked at what I had come up with, I couldn't believe how different they all were. To look at them, you'd think I have absolutely no genre preference at all.

It, by Stephen King
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon

Close runners-up would probably include The Pact (Jodi Picoult), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), The Dogs of Babel (Carolyn Parkhurst), and The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini).

See what I mean?

But then I thought about it, and I realized that every one of these stories I love, for the most part, because it tells a fascinating story. I care about the characters. I want to hang out with the characters. I feel for them, cry with them, cheer for them. And I'm sad when the story's over. Ayn Rand I also like because of her views on the individual-vs-society. And Sebold, Picoult, and Parkhurst do some beautiful things with language.

King, of course, rocks as one of the best story-tellers of all time. Plus his book On Writing is brilliant too.

But back to the story. That, I guess, is everything. Of course.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

First Sales

I have a confession. Whenever my monthly Romance Writers Report arrives, I always turn to the same section first: the First Sales column. I want to live vicariously through whoever has been fortunate enough to grab her first sale in the romance biz. I want to see what houses are buying, what titles and genres are selling, and inevitably, I want to see how long these people have been struggling before getting their big break.

And that's where I run into a problem. Because I'm happy for all these fellow authors, really, I am. I just can't tell you how amazingly frustrated it makes me when Suzie Smith reports that she's been writing for 2 years, and this was the first manuscript she completed before selling. I mean, come on. Who actually sells their first manuscript, after writing for only 2 years? let's look at this month's and see if there's room for hope for the rest of us under-achievers.

17 First Sales in this month's column. 8 of those to Triskelion Publishing. They've been buying a lot lately. Hmm.

Moving on...a bunch of 4th and 5th manuscripts sold, and...Hooray! Only one author who sold the first manuscript she ever wrote, and two who sold their second. Ooh, and here's one that's been writing for 13 years. Wow! I'm also loving the woman who sold her 11th complete manuscript, because first of all it takes some persistence to stick it out through that many stories, and second of all, she landed herself a 3-book deal with Avon. Way to go! See, it does pay off.

Okay, enough drooling over other people's success. Time to get back to the keyboard and chug along toward mine.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Excitement of Starting...and the Agony of Finishing

Don't you love when you've got a terrific new idea for a story, characters you love (with just the right names and just the right combination of traits that make them utterly believable and likable), and a plot that you can't wait to unfold?

It comes to you all at once, sometimes, a thunderbolt of inspiration, or in a series of dribbles, an idea upon an idea, until you flesh it out and think Great! I love it! You sit down to write, get a few thousand words in...and stumble to a stop.

What a stupid idea. What a lousy plot. What a gaping hole in the main character's motivation. And how am I ever going to get 85K words out of this?

The frustration of the middle can be staggering. You try a plot twist, you add a character, you tweak a conflict, and sometimes it takes shape. Sometimes it gets worse. Hopefully, it gets better. But finishing - that's something I continue to struggle with. Finding just the right way to wrap it all up, finding the perfect words, overwhelms me.

I'm in the middle of a 3rd revision of my latest WIP, and while avoiding working on the final few chapters, I looked through old works. Found a story I loved, with characters I loved, and decided I should dive back in and work on that one.

Changed up the plot, deleted some characters, and now I'm in the honeymoon stage with that one, wanting to move it forward.

Trouble is, I know I should really finish my current WIP. Which brings us back to the agony of finishing. Anyone have any good ideas about motivating myself through the final gates? Procrastination has set in the last week or so, and it's not a good thing. I want to get this finished. I want to send query letters out. I want to move on.

So why am I dragging my feet?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why I Don't Do Contests

A few years back, when I first started writing seriously, I dove into contests every other month or so. I thought, how great that I can get feedback from very wise judges on my WIP! And if I win or place, I might actually get that WIP in front of an agent or editor.

5 or 6 contests later, disillusionment set in, and here's the reason I rarely enter contests anymore: they're WAYYYYY too subjective.

By that I mean that, without fail, I get one judge who loves my entry and one who can't stand it. One says it's the best entry she read, that it's ready for publication, while the other struggles to find something positive to say at all. I've had one judge say the characters were interesting and likable, while the other said they were cold and the dialogue stilted.

After awhile, I figured I was spending too much money to get a split decision every time. And I got irritated, really. This past year, I decided to be a judge for RWA's Golden Heart contest. Figured it would be good to be on the other side, for a change. I got my 7 manuscripts in the mail, settled in for an afternoon, and read my little heart out. I'd say 4 were pretty average, in story and style, 2 were close to publishable, and 1 was below average: awkward writing, grammar problems, interesting story but too many convoluted plot twists and coincidences. I sent in my scores and waited to see the results. Of the 7 I read, one actually finaled. Guess which one?

I spent about a week questioning the whole point of writing, when the whole business is so damn subjective...and then I realized, wow! How great! The whole business is so damn subjective. That means that for every person who doesn't like my story, someone else might. There are a zillion different literary tastes out there, and from what I've seen so far, there is enough disparity in what's published these days to please a lot of them.

I'm still not sure I'll enter a contest anytime soon. But it's worthwhile to remind myself that the beauty of literature is the variety of styles, of writers and readers and publishing houses. Somewhere out there, if I work hard enough, I still believe there is a niche for me.

Remember that the next time you're feeling low about the whole business...

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Nice to Know and the Need to Know

One of my writing friends insists that the most important thing writers can do is separate the "nice to know" from the "need to know." That is, it might be nice to know what color dress the heroine is wearing, and that she took the time to put on her favorite perfume that morning, but all we really need to know is that she didn't have time to finish her laundry so she's stuck wearing her granny pants on the day she finally meets - or beds - Mr. Right.

Well, shoot.

I posted this lovely chapter a couple of weeks ago, for one of my writers' groups, a scene with my heroine and her friend. Thought their conversation was conflict-rich, their actions revealing of their inner emotions, and was ready to move on to the next chapter when one of the group said, "Well, it's a nice chapter overall, but all those little mundane details about the characters? Not really needed."


Of course he was right, when I went back and looked at it. I think I've gotten better at separating the two, though it's still hard sometimes. I'm about halfway through a 3rd revision of my latest WIP and am finding a lot of small sections of "nice to know." I delete them and realize that the chapter is not the least bit lacking once they're gone. Of course, this is also cutting down on the length of the work, which right now is around 85K words when I'd really like it to be around 90K for a mainstream novel. Ah, well. I'm getting into the heavy conflict soon, so I can probably throw some more at my characters and see how they deal with it.

Poor things.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Open Blog Night - Check it Out!

Vey exciting news...

A blog that I had submitted for Romancing the Blog's Open Blog Night was posted today! (That's Sunday, Sept. 3, BTW) Of course I didn't know it, and it was a good thing that I came back from vacation a day early (too much hurricane rain and wind, even up here in NY). So when I finally sat down tonight to check my email and my bookmarked sites, how very cool to see my own blog staring back at me!

In the meantime, I've been wondering a lot about characters' names. In my latest WIP, the hero's name is Jack Major. Strong, single-syllabled, I liked it. At first. But since the WIP is sort of modeled after the TV show "24," I think I have to change my hero's name to something that doesn't sound identical to Keifer Sutherland's character. Also, I'm getting the feeling that Jack/Jake is a too-popular name for romance heroes these days. In fact, I got a rejection letter a few months ago (before the latest major revision...which prompted the latest major revision, actually) in which the agent wrote all these very helpful comments about the story and referred to my hero as "Jake." So clearly I need a name that stands out more.

But what? I seem to go for single-syllabled first names in a lot of my stories and novels. Not sure why. I actually had a dream last night that featured this guy who would be terrific as a romance hero whose name was Roman. Roman??? But actually, that's a strong name too.

What do you think? Favorite hero names, anyone? Favorite hero names that aren't already over-used?

And hey, check out my blog on over on tonight if you've got a minute.