Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy crap! You mean it's almost 2011?

OK, I know I can be a little slow sometimes. But did any of the rest of you realize 2011 is almost here?

I wrote the date on a form at work yesterday and then just sat there staring at it like a moron. Seriously? 2011 is just a few hours away?

When my agent told me MAKING WAVES would hit shelves August 2011, my brain registered the date as some distant era in which we'd all be flying around in spaceships and enjoying good healthcare. It seemed like a far away fantasy, as did my book release.

But holy crap, we're now just eight months out. I can't decide whether to be thrilled or terrified.

For now, I wish you all the very best 2011 possible. May all your dreams come true.

Wow, that was a cliché. Speaking of which, we're talking about "favorite quotes" at The Debutante Ball this week. If you stop by, you'll get to learn why I had to take my pants off to discover mine.

Also, I wanted to leave you with one final laugh for 2010. I don't watch daytime TV, but the clips of Ellen Degenres with the Shake Weight have been flying around the internet all year and making me laugh like someone's holding me down and tickling me. In case you've missed them (or if you just want a recap) here you go:

If the side of the video is getting cut off, just click the title to go watch it full-screen on YouTube
UPDATE: Thanks so much to Janet Reid, who kindly clued me in on how to make the video fit the screen!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hanging my underwear over the living room,
and other worthwhile New Year's resolutions

There's a state law in Oregon requiring you to go outside once a day and hug all the trees in your yard.

I might be making that up.

Nevertheless, it's true we're known as a very green state (a fact not due entirely to excessive foliage or legalized medical marijuana). Our emphasis on all things eco-friendly is probably one reason I always make one New Year's resolution designed to form a positive habit concerning the environment.

One year it was a pledge to always bring my own bags to the store. With a little help from ChicoBags, I haven't brought home a plastic sack in five years.

Another year I resolved to reduce my electricity consumption by eliminating dependence on my clothes dryer. This wouldn't be such a challenge if I lived someplace like rural Southern California, but here in Oregon's mountainous high desert it's a different story. The fact that it's snowy in the winter and blowing dust in the summer means hanging clothes outside isn't an option.

That's why I've spent the last three years using the bridge that spans my home's second story as a makeshift clothes dryer.
Classy, no?

I haven't actually decided on this year's environmental resolution, so I'm open to suggestions if you've got 'em.

In the meantime, I'm mulling what sort of writing-related resolution to make. As I've learned from my environmental ones, the most successful resolutions tend to be those I can not only measure and control, but can use to develop long-term habits. Pledging to reduce our household use of plastic bottles is easy on all those fronts (particularly when I buy my husband a home soda maker for his birthday).

Pledging to end global warming – er, not so much.

Likewise, those New Year's resolutions about getting an agent, landing a book deal, or hitting a certain sales number with your debut novel are admirable, to be sure. But how much control do you really have over that? Believe me, I know from experience that all the hard work in the world is still no guarantee you'll get what you want, when you want it.

Like I said, I still don't know what my resolution will be on the eco side of things or in the writing realm. But I do know what it won't be – something I don't have total control over.

Resolving to write a certain number of pages a month, or to query a certain number of agents, or to blog with a certain frequency – those are all things you can control.

Well, assuming you aren't abducted by giant mutant penguins. That's always a possibility with the whole global warming thing.

Are you making New Year's resolutions? What are some you've had success with in the past? Where have you crashed and burned?

Please discuss while I remove my husband's bike shorts from dangling above the living room before the house-guests arrive.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wordless Wednesday...well, sorta

Blog traffic is slow this week, as many readers have better things to do on vacation than check for new posts on rubbing your wood and silly typos.

Hey, I can roll with it.

Today seems like a good day to take part in something I've seen on other blogs called "Wordless Wednesday."

Crap, I've already screwed it up, haven't I?

No matter. The basic idea is that the blog post contains only photos. I can't possibly have photos without captions, but I'll try to keep it simple.

Here are a few things that have made me smile this holiday season:
Doesn't my mom have nice buns?
As Blue Cat and Bindi can attest, cold weather produces strange bedmates.
The best holiday card I received this year.
Somewhere in the holiday hustle and bustle, I forgot to fill the cats' food dish. Matt the Cat took matters into his own paws by helping himself to split peas.
My parents foolishly thought their holiday sign was supposed to spell "home."
My brother's girlfriend made sure their dog was ready for Christmas with shiny red toenail polish.

So what's been making you smile this holiday season? Please share!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Typos that make me giggle

Yesterday, I was typing away on the manuscript. It was a scene where the hero struggled to keep from thinking illicit thoughts about the heroine.

As you can imagine, he wasn't having much success.

The sentence I tried to type was this:

He pictured her writhing beneath him.

What I actually typed was this:

He pictured her writing beneath him.

I suppose it could be erotic if she were using one of those old-fashioned quills with the feather on the end, but generally speaking, most men aren't turned on by the thought of their lady-love pounding away on the laptop while they're pounding away on...well, we won't finish that thought.

The visual made me giggle all evening long, and I'll probably still be giggling in a few days.

I did the same thing a couple weeks ago when I kept accidentally hitting the "h" instead of the "j" on my keyboard. In my defense, they are side by side. That doesn't mean sentences like this one made a whole lot of sense:

Twenty-pound cats aren't known for being silent humpers.

Probably one of my favorite typos doesn't come from manuscripts at all, but from my years as a technical writer. I used to craft those oh-so-useful bits of help text designed to assist users confused about the software. You know what I'm talking about – the field says entry and you aren't certain what it means, so you click for more information and the help text reads enter a valid entry.

Helpful stuff, that help text.

That wasn't the typo though. The typo that made me laugh every time was the one that resulted when I tried to tell users to click the box, click the field, click here.

You guessed it – I often omitted the "c." Somewhere out there, legions of software users are probably still slobbering on their computer monitors wondering why they aren't achieving the desired results.

Do you have any favorite typos that always make you snicker? Please share.

I'll be writing beneath my husband as he licks the computer monitor and the cat humps loudly on the table.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The bitchometer, rubbing your wood,
& other gifts that crack me up

We’re home from our holiday travels, and the big black garbage bag filled with Christmas booty sits in a corner of the bedroom.

It happens this way every year. The newly acquired gifts take awhile to find their way to the appropriate drawers and cupboards, and I’m ashamed to admit we’ve had years where the bag still sits there in April.

But there are always the gifts that find instant usefulness in our daily routine. It may not be the intended use, but it’s sometimes a better one.

Several years ago, my parents bought Pythagoras a keychain that beeps when you whistle. It seemed like a great gift for a guy who loses his keys six times a day, but it didn’t always respond to a whistle. It was also bulky, so it soon got relegated to the hall closet.

While the keychain wasn’t always responsive to a whistle, it was highly responsive to a certain high-pitched tone. You know that tone, ladies – the one your voice develops in moments of intense frustration?

Or as Pythagoras put it, “the bitchy voice.”

The keychain soon became known as “the bitchometer.” The bitchometer might be forgotten for months on end, but the moment Pythagoras and I were locked in a heated discussion and my voice rose a few octaves…


I developed a grudging respect for the bitchometer. While it annoyed me in the heat of the moment, it was a good way to keep my shrewish tendencies in check. I was almost sad when it stopped working.

Though there was no bitchometer in anyone’s stocking this year, Pythagoras got another gift with unintended comedic value. My brother and his girlfriend presented him with a lovely, hand-carved piece of wood that functions like a worry stone. You can hold it in your palm and rub your thumb in the smooth, carved divot to soothe yourself in times of stress or worry.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

The snickers started immediately.

“Wow,” Pythagoras said. “So when I’m having a hard day, I can just rub my wood.”

My mom giggled and held out her hand. “Can I see your wood?”

“The guy who made it is a real wood expert,” my brother added. “Do you know how many different ways there are to rub your wood?”

“Hang on,” I yelled, running for the camera. “Let me get a picture of you holding your wood.”

And on, and on. If you think we ran out of wood jokes in the first five minutes, you’ve never spent time with my family.

When Pythagoras and I arrived home last night after a harrowing drive home over a snowy mountain pass, I went rummaging through the black garbage bag right away.

“Here, honey,” I told him, placing it in his palm. “That was a tough drive. You should really go rub your wood to relax.”

“Thanks,” he said as he took it from me. “That’s a good idea, but I probably should have tried rubbing my wood while driving.”

How have you been enjoying the holidays? Did you get any gifts that had unintended comedic use? Please share.

I should see if my husband needs help rubbing his wood.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ho, ho, ho! (No, I'm not summoning you)

Judging from the slower blog traffic, I'm guessing most of you are out getting a little something under the tree, or stuffing your stockings, or watching Santa's sack bulge or...hell, we could do this all day.

Since we've all got pressing things to do today, I'll make this quick. I just want to thank every single one of you for the last 10 months of reading, commenting, lurking, laughing, crying, and just generally here on this blog with me. It's been an honor and a privilege and I wish all of you the best holiday season imaginable.

If you're feeling ripped off by this blog post and want something more substantial, feel free to drop by The Debutante Ball where we've been talking about family traditions this week. I'm not certain, but I'm fairly sure the family photo I posted today is the most terrifying one my parents could round up.

Be well, be merry, and I'll see you all back here on Monday!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's hot, tasty, and easy...(insert joke here)

You know that feeling when you look at the clock and realize it's dinnertime and shake your head and say, "I got nothin'"?

I have those moments with this blog, too. I suppose I could share a small squeal over the fact that my editor, Deb Werksman, did an author roundup this morning over at the Sourcebooks Casablanca blog, and that seeing my name included thusly was one of those giddy OHMYGODITSREAL moments:

Seeing my name included just a couple spots below the great Laura Kinsale (one of the grande dames of the romance genre) was the icing on the cake.

But cake is not a suitable meal, no matter how much we might like it to be. And since I have a favorite dinner I trot out on those "I got nothin'" evenings, I figure it might make a good blog post as well.

This dish doesn't have a name, so feel free to give it one. What I like is that you make the whole thing in one pot and still manage to hit most of the food groups. Most of what's in it is stuff I keep around the house anyway, and if you don't have it, you can substitute something else and it's still good.

Here's what you need:
  • Two 14oz cans of coconut milk (I sometimes use the light stuff from Trader Joes)
  • A little less than a cup of uncooked rice (can be white, can be brown, whatever)
  • Chicken (I usually grab a couple frozen breasts, because grabbing breasts is always satisfying)
  • One 14oz can of black beans, drained
  • One red or yellow pepper, diced
  • A couple handfuls of cilantro, chopped
  • A pinch of sugar, salt, ginger, red pepper, or whatever the hell you fell like adding
In a good sized pot, bring the coconut milk to a boil. Watch it so it doesn't boil over – this happens fast. Dump in the rice, then the chicken. The chicken is optional, and you can make the whole dish vegan if you skip it. I often use a couple whole, frozen breasts and let them simmer in the pot to cook (shredding them up at the end). Other times I chop up the frozen pieces in advance and toss them in that way. Makes no difference, and like I said, you can skip them altogether.

Toss in any spices you feel like adding. I like to add about a teaspoon of sugar and a few pinches of crushed red pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the whole mess, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Once the rice and chicken are cooked, pull the whole thing off the heat and dump in your can of black beans, your diced peppers, and your cilantro. Stir like hell (that's a Martha Stewart term) to mix it up. Taste, adjust spices if needed, and throw it in bowls.

Voila! Warm, yummy, filling, nutritious, and not terribly difficult.

Much like this blog post, right?

Do you have a favorite go-to meal when you need something simple and comforting? Please share, I like adding to my arsenal.

And on that note, I'm hungry. Who's got the cilantro?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On rereading through the lens of experience
(and scrotums)

Last night, I was lurking about on Twitter when I saw the following tweet from writer Ruthanne Reid:

@ruthannereid: I kinda needed this tonight: A ski racer, singer, and author walk into a bar... #amwriting #pubtip (via @tawnafenske)

For those who don't speak Twitter-ese, she was providing a link to an old post I wrote last February 18, 2010. The timing is interesting there. I started this blog on February 1. On February 25 I got the call from my agent that Sourcebooks was offering a three-book deal for my romantic comedies.

In other words, I wrote the post a week before I knew whether there was a publishing contract on the horizon or if I'd be continuing to hurl myself at the wall for weeks, months, or even years.

It's interesting to me to reread the post with that in mind. I still like what I wrote, and since that's the case, I'm sharing it here again. I'm also posing a question for discussion in the comments, if you're so inclined – do you ever go back and read things you wrote before major life events? How does that lens of experience change the way you think of about it?

And now, I give you the post (which was known by the few readers I had at the time as "the scrotum post.")

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A ski racer, a singer, and an author walk into a bar

I write humorous fiction, so generally speaking, I try not to get too serious on this blog.

But occasionally I’ll have a point I want to make, so I’ll warn you that today’s entry may not make you laugh (unless I decide to insert the word “scrotum” at random intervals, which come to think of it, would be funny).

Pythagoras has been involved in ski racing since he was a wee tot, so he loves the Olympics. Yesterday was the women’s downhill, and as many expected, American Lindsey Vonn won gold.

While Pythagoras is thrilled, he noted that several of Vonn’s competitors routinely beat her on the World Cup circuit. There’s no question Vonn is incredibly talented (scrotum), but that doesn’t mean the German racer who finished eighth yesterday won’t kick her butt again next week.

To the outside world, ski racing seems simple – if you’re the fastest, you win. Period. The clock doesn’t lie.

But there are other factors to consider. Yesterday, Vonn chose to race on men’s skis, and as it turned out, the terrain on the course was rough – perfect conditions for that equipment. (scrotum) But had she chosen different skis or a different wax, or had a competitor not gotten behind on a turn, things could have ended differently.

It wouldn’t have been a reflection of Vonn’s talent either way – just the circumstances. Though winning proves Vonn is indeed a tremendous athlete, not winning doesn’t mean the others aren’t every bit as good.

Here’s another example: a friend of mine loves American Idol, so sometimes I watch if there’s wine involved. Last night, the judges whittled the field from 50 to 24, and the blogosphere is abuzz with speculation that so-and-so didn’t make it because the producers limit the number of singers with a certain hair color, skin color, or vocal style.

While there’s no doubt the final 24 contestants will make many singing missteps along the way (scrotum), the decisions at this stage aren’t just about who’s the best singer. With a room full of similarly-talented singers to choose from, the judges are most certainly considering factors that have nothing to do with vocal skill.

What does this have to do with writing? I’m getting there. (scrotum)

Over the years, I’ve critiqued work for a number of unpublished writers. Sometimes I’ve found myself thinking, “she’s so good, why isn’t she published yet?” Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of authors beat themselves up over rejections from agents or editors or critique partners. “If I were better,” they tell themselves, “I’d be published by now.”

But it doesn’t always work that way. While it’s true that authors who achieve publication tend to be talented, that doesn’t mean the ones who aren’t there yet aren’t every bit as talented. Someone else’s success doesn’t diminish your talent.

This is something I have to remind myself as well. A few years ago, I sold my first book to Silhouette Bombshell and had already cashed the check and written two follow-up books when the line was cancelled. None of my books hit the shelves. Convinced I needed an agent, I wrote a new book and began querying. Four amazing agents offered representation, one of whom described my book as “an easy sale.”

But guess what? The book didn’t sell. And none of the feedback from editors said the writing wasn’t good enough. In one case, we were told the publishing house already had something too similar. In another case, the editor just didn’t like the subject.

I’m not making excuses here (scrotum). Believe me, there’s room for improvement in my writing, and I work hard at that every day. But I also know that if a writer doesn’t get published quickly, it’s not necessarily because he or she isn’t talented. Surely I must have some talent to secure a previous book deal and the interest of multiple agents, but for whatever reason, I’m not published. Yet.

Luckily, I now have the most amazing agent on the planet, Michelle Wolfson, who remains confident we’re almost there. I believe it too, so I try not to take rejections personally.

I thought of this last night as I watched a sobbing American Idol hopeful receive his rejection news. “You did nothing wrong,” the judges insisted. And he really hadn’t. But they still picked 12 other male vocalists over him. Yes, the others were talented, but their selection doesn’t mean the other guy is less talented.

The most important thing an author can have isn’t talent or a good agent. It’s perseverance. It’s the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and say “just because someone else won this time doesn’t mean I won’t win next time.”


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On shelf space, book placement, & touching strangers

I have something new to add to my ever-growing list of geeky things authors do.

Yesterday I went to Barnes & Noble. I browsed the new releases and the clearance table, pretending to have a mission beyond what was really drawing me to the other side of the store.

I wanted to see where my books will sit.
I located the spot on the romance aisle where “Tawna Fenske” falls between “Christine Feehan” and “Amy J. Fetzer.” I dusted the shelf and caressed it lovingly, drawing raised eyebrows from two bookstore patrons and a leer from the greasy-haired guy in velour pants.

Then I went exploring.

When my amazing agent first mentioned the possibility Sourcebooks might publish my books, I did a little dance. Then I put my clothes back on and drove to the bookstore where I went searching for Sourcebooks titles.

What excited me that day is the same thing that excited me yesterday, which is this:

Those spiffy little spots on the fancy displays don’t happen by accident. I’ve always known this, but just to confirm, I grabbed a Barnes and Noble employee. He seemed alarmed by both the grabbing and the fact that I was photographing books instead of reading them, but was kind enough to answer my questions.

“How do you decide which books go on these displays instead of just putting them on the regular shelves?” I asked.

Eyeing my hand on his sleeve, he shrugged. “Those decisions are made at the corporate level in New York.”

“It’s not random?”

He laughed. “No.”

“So you’re saying publishers pay you guys to put certain books in the pimp spots?”

“Well, I didn’t actually say pimp, but yeah – pretty much.”

For a debut author like me, it’s exciting to know I’m in the hands of a publisher willing to shell out bucks for primo placement. Sourcebooks publishes only a fraction of the romance titles some of the bigger houses crank out each month, but from what I’ve seen, they pour a lot into promoting the books they do release.

While I’ve been channeling all my personal marketing efforts into blogs and Twitter and Facebook, I know there’s a huge segment of the book buying public I can’t possibly touch this way (though if touching them another way is the key to selling books, I’m game).

A lot of readers – particularly romance readers – make book buying decisions based on what catches their eye as they’re strolling the store. A primo spot on the shelves might just make a difference in whether someone’s willing to take a chance on a new author like me or skip right past me in favor of picking up a new aphrodisiac cookbook.

How does book placement impact your book buying decisions? Are you a bookstore browser who grabs things that catch your eye, or do you stay focused on whatever you set out to find in the first place? Please share, I’m really curious.

I’m also giving serious thought to that whole touching thing. Is groping customers a legitimate way for an author to market her books? If so, I'm willing to give it a shot.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Peeing in front of spouses, agents and readers

After nearly 13 years, the exact wording of my marriage vows is fuzzy in my mind. However, I’m fairly certain they didn’t contain the phrase, “I shall not pee in front of you.”

Nevertheless, it’s been a marital law that stood the test of time long after rules about drinking out of milk cartons and not going to bed angry have fallen by the wayside.

Modesty isn’t the issue. It has more to do with a desire not to kill the romance with bodily functions best performed behind the privacy of a closed door.

It’s something that crossed my mind yesterday when I commented on Twitter that I was slashing a scene from LET IT BREATHE. The scene wasn’t terrible, but it slowed the pace and just wasn’t as strong as I thought it could be.

A few Twitter followers suggested I add a deleted scenes section to my website. It’s not a bad idea, and I don’t judge authors who do it any more than I judge pals who piddle bravely before their spouses.

But I’m refraining from both, for pretty much the same reasons. The way people perceive my writing is important to me, and I’m guarded about what I’ll throw out there for public consumption. While I have critique partners I’ll allow to view the “warts and all” versions of my writing, I’m not willing to put that out there for my agent, editor, or even blog readers to see.

I know that might seem strange considering how often I share embarrassing stories about my inept behavior, but there’s a line there for me. I’m confident my tales of hurking in my underwear or licking the floor at the doctor’s office or waxing off my eyebrow represent my writing skills well.

Maybe not my social skills, but the writing is something I'm proud of.

When it comes to offering up writing to my agent, editor, or just about anyone else whose opinion I treasure, I want to keep the romance alive. While I'm sure everyone is aware I occasionally produce crap, that doesn't mean I want them to see it.

Er, metaphorically speaking.

Do you have strict rules about who’s allowed to see your “warts and all” writing? Is there a certain level of polish you require before putting something out there? Please share.

And, um…please don’t feel you need to share your bathroom habits. Really, I'm OK without knowing that.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Go away

As a marketing geek in my other life, I try to be conscious of the saturation point – the moment at which the consumer considers lighting his TV on fire if he hears one more ad about a product.

I try to be aware of that in my author life as well. In the interest of making sure you don't get sick of me just yet, I'm not writing a real blog post today. Instead, I'm sending you to two places you can find such creatures if you so desire.

First up, pay a visit to The Novel Road where Douglas Morrison is devoting the entire month to interviewing authors from different genres. The guests so far have included Brian Haig, Robin Becker, Ken McClure, Peter Ginna, Kennedy Foster, Gary Corby, Sean Ferrell, Brian Russell, Joan Wolf, and now...well, moi. I'm honored just to be included in such an amazing lineup, and encourage you to check out all the other interviews as well as mine.

Second on the agenda is my regular weekly post at The Debutante Ball where we've been blogging about rejection all week. My post is up today, but I should also tell you that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS Saturday's guest post by Laurie Halse Anderson on the subject of rejection. I got a sneak peek, and it's seriously one of the most brilliant pieces I've ever read on this topic.

So there you go. Come back Monday and I'm sure I'll find something else to blather about. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waiting for that sweet release

The publishing industry moves at the pace of a drunk snail crawling through Vaseline, so celebrating small milestones can help you keep your sanity.

That’s assuming you had any to start with.

Yesterday I heard from Sourcebooks about my official release date. Though they’ve said from the start that MAKING WAVES will be an August release, I never had an exact day to mark on my calendar.

Add to that the fact that several authors I know had their release dates change along the way – my agency sistah Kiersten White learned last June that the scheduled September release of PARANORMALCY was switching to August. Two authors blogging with me at The Debutante Ball (a group blog chronicling the debut year of five authors from different genres) have had their release dates changed, with Eleanor Brown’s THE WEIRD SISTERS recently moving from February to January, and Sarah Jio’s THE VIOLETS OF MARCH switching from August to May.

And though those examples might suggest it’s more common for a release date to move to an earlier slot, I’ve heard the opposite is true – that you’re more likely to get bumped a couple months later than originally planned.

On top of all that, there will always be part of me that remembers my first book deal – the one that disappeared when Harlequin/Silhouette cancelled the Bombshell line one month prior to my scheduled debut of February 2007 (go here if you don’t know the story).

All that buildup is my great big caveat to announcing that MAKING WAVES is officially scheduled to hit shelves August 2, 2011.

Part of me is doing a happy dance over having a date to mark on the calendar.

Part of me is gun-shy about the whole thing. Experience has taught me things can change. That it’s more likely they will change than won’t.

But the happy dance part is winning, and frankly, always has. That right there is the single biggest factor I can point to for any successes I have – the fact that even in the face of the most brutal rejections and heartbreaking setbacks, I never seem to lose faith. Even when logic has screamed at me that another disappointment was inevitable, a silly, hopeful part of me always hung in there expecting the best.

I’m not suggesting a moving release date is anything like a rejection. It’s not that big a deal, and if a publisher decides to make a switch, there’s typically a strategic reason behind it. I’m only pointing out that there are a million little uncertainties in publishing, and a million ways the pessimist inside you will insist you shouldn’t pin your hopes on anything.

But what fun would that be to never kick back and enjoy the fantasy something great is going to happen? You can’t let fear of disappointment keep you from enjoying the possibility you won’t be disappointed. That much I know.

Are you a pessimist or an optimist by nature? Do you allow yourself to celebrate little milestones even when overwhelming evidence suggests a less desirable outcome is likely? Please share.

My inner-optimist and I will be busy re-hanging the calendar on the wall.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Three tips for writing when you want to hurl

I woke up feeling sick this morning. No, it’s not from overindulging during yesterday’s brewery tour (though it’s possible twelve pounds of tater tots was not the best dinner choice).

A stomach bug has been going around the office, and though I haven’t consulted the schedule, I have a hunch it’s my turn.

Writing is challenging under the best of circumstances, but attempting it when you feel like hurking into the potted plant on your desk is an especially unpleasant endeavor. I’m by no means a medical professional, but here are three things that help me muscle through when I’m not feeling my best.

Do the grunt work. If your brain is fried from fever but you can’t bear the thought of not opening your manuscript, focus on the inane tasks you’ve been procrastinating. Research the name of that disease your hero contracts in chapter six, or edit that scene you wrote fast and furious and now can’t stand reading because every third word is an adverb or “that.” Even if your creativity is taking a day off, you don’t have to.

Channel the ick. Will your book have a scene where a character isn’t feeling her best? Consider tackling it while you can relate. Getting into the right mindset to write a bad breakup scene or the death of a character is a whole lot easier when your head feels like you’ve been slamming it in the car door all night.

Give yourself a break. I know how it is when you’re on deadline or when you really don’t want to lose traction in your manuscript. But sometimes it’s OK to take a day off and snuggle under the blankets with a barf bucket and a good book. Reading is one of the best things a writer can do to hone his or her skills, so consider it self-improvement if that makes you feel better.

What are your tricks for muddling through when your muddler has fever and chills? Please share.

Speaking of sharing, I’d better get to the office. Gotta keep passing this bug around.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On day jobs and author fantasies

Sunday I got paid to go to a party.

Yesterday I got paid to “show the reporter a good time” (which, sadly, is not as filthy as it sounds) with sightseeing and excellent food.

Today I’m getting paid to do a snowshoe tour in the morning and a beer tasting tour in the afternoon.

There are many things I love about my day job. Managing PR and marketing for the tourism bureau of a city I’m damn glad to live in definitely does not suck.

But it can also be exhausting for someone with a limited capacity for human interaction. People who meet me but don’t know me well are often surprised to learn I’m an introvert. I’m gregarious and high-energy when I need to be, so I’m easily mistaken for an extrovert.

In reality, my true nature runs a little closer to hunkering down with a good book and a glass of wine and snarling at approaching strangers.

Like most authors, I’ve fantasized about being a full-time, stay-at-home writer. I got to try the lifestyle on for size last winter when my former employer laid me off several weeks before my agent landed me this three-book deal. I spent ten months just focusing on the author thing, and you know what?

I was kind of a boring person.

Don’t get me wrong, the arrangement had its perks. There’s a lot to like about wearing yoga pants all day and scratching yourself whenever the urge strikes.

But I found I didn’t manage my time as well as I did when I was working another job. In fact, I was a much slower writer without a day job to force me to budget my time wisely.

Time management aside, there’s something to be said for the way human interaction and new experience can stimulate a writer’s brain. I can sit here at my computer alone all day and struggle to come up with one good idea, but send me out into the world with strangers and deadlines and a mile-long task list, and suddenly I’m brimming with them.

It’s taken awhile for me to reach a point in life where I know precisely how much outside stimulation I need.

(Go ahead, snicker. I’ll wait).

It’s a balance everyone needs to figure out, but I think it’s especially important for writers whose creativity can be ignited or snuffed based on what’s happening around them. For me, working part-time and writing the rest of the time feels just about perfect.

It also helps to have job that sometimes feels like I should be paying them to let me do it.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How does that impact your creativity? How much outside stimulation do you require? How many times can I use the word “stimulation” in a blog post without it being sexual?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Even “bah-humbug” sounds dirty if you say it right

I hate Christmas.

I shouldn’t say that (mostly because it’s not true, but also because I’m afraid you’ll burn down my house).

What I hate is all the “stuff’ surrounding the holiday. I don’t like receiving gifts, since I have everything I need and would rather people give to charity.

I don’t like buying gifts, either – the shopping, the stress over what to buy, the wrapping, the shipping. I’m exhausted by the need to crank out creative holiday cards or get my Christmas tree up on time. Each year when December approaches, I want to hide under my bed and pick off elves with a shotgun.

Here’s the irony, though – I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to Christmas. None of my loved ones are putting me in a headlock and demanding gifts. The police have not come to arrest me for failing to have a wreath on the door.

These are all expectations I’ve set for myself, and it’s a vicious cycle I repeat as a writer.

In my early years, I’d set goals I couldn’t possibly control – I will get a book deal this year. I will get an agent. I will write a manuscript so hysterically wonderful that a dashing male editor will arrive at my house wearing nothing but boxer briefs and holding a tray of cookies and a book contract.

Even now that I have the book deal and the agent (though sadly, not the cookies) I still make myself crazy with expectations. I will write funny blog posts every day. I will make my debut novel successful. I will write a follow-up book so hilarious my editor will rupture a kidney laughing.

I will drop dead from exhaustion if I don’t learn to knock it the hell off.

I’m trying, I really am. I'm opting not to do the holiday card this year, and I’m refusing to beat myself up over the fact that there’s no brightly festooned dead tree in my house or that I haven’t watched any Christmas specials on TV. Pythagoras and I stopped exchanging gifts years ago, so that helps.

I know I need to get better at it on all fronts. That means setting writing goals I can control and cutting myself some slack if I fail to meet them.

Do you share my habit of making yourself nuts with unrealistic expectations? Please share.

I will be sitting under the mistletoe sipping a glass of eggnog and waiting to have my stocking stuffed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My face is melting, and that’s a good thing

Monday I told you about my visit to the Clinique counter to become a hooker.

That little trip was actually part of my new plan to take better care of my skin. I’ve had the same skincare routine since I was 12, and it recently occurred to me that a 36-year-old face might have different needs than a prepubescent one.

I sat down to do a little research on skincare and was dumbfounded by the plethora of products on the market – eye creams and anti-aging serums and facial firmers and something called acid peels. Really, acid peels? And people do this to themselves on purpose?

Eventually though, I selected some products. Then I decided that to truly monitor the “improvement in fine lines and wrinkles,” I should take a before and after photo.

I snapped one with the digital camera and hustled inside to print it out with the photo printer I’ve used exactly twice. I had no idea how to load it, so I took a wild guess.

I guessed wrong.

I somehow managed to print on the wrong side of the photo paper. If you ever wish to know what you’d look like as an alien, I highly recommend doing this.

The bright side of having my before picture look like that is that there’s really no place to go but up. In six weeks, I’ll be able to look in the mirror and note that my skin looks much healthier, mostly because it no longer appears to be melting.

I thought of this when a friend who’s fairly new to the writing scene said he’d heard most authors regard their first novel as drivel that must be completed before they can move on and start writing well.

Do I believe this? Yes and no. While there are some authors who manage to write something publishable on a first attempt, most do not. That doesn’t mean it’s a wasted effort, or that you should hit the fast-forward button on anything you write in those early stages of your career.

While admittedly I hope some of my earliest writing efforts never see the light of day, I like the fact that they exist. It gives me a chance not only to see how far I’ve progressed, but also to recognize that some of the skills that got me where I am today were actually there all along.

Do you look back at early writing efforts and cringe, or do you regard them with pride? Please share.

Oh, and if you’ve got any good skincare tips, I’m all ears. Well, the one that's not melting off anyway.

By the way, if you've ever wanted to see a picture of Pythagoras without a shirt, be sure to visit The Debutante Ball today, where we've been blogging about balance all week.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You might think I'd regret it, but I don't

Yesterday, we talked about regrets.

An uplifting topic, to be sure. Who’s ready for a discussion on funeral planning?

Actually, I’d like to talk about the opposite of regrets – the things you might think I’d regret, but I don’t. I have a lot more things in this column than I’m willing to admit in a public blog that’s read by my mother, but I’ll share my top three writing-related ones:

I don’t regret that I didn’t start writing sooner. I know a lot of yesterday’s commenters stated this was their biggest regret, but it’s not one I share. I took my first stab at writing fiction when I was 28 and sold my first book a little less than three years later (that’s the one where the book deal fell through, for those following along at home). In hindsight, I’m glad that first book never hit shelves because it isn’t what I want out there as my first published work. Between practice and life experience, I’ve become a much better writer now than I was then. Frankly, I shudder to think of the drivel I might have churned out if I’d started writing fiction earlier in life.

I don’t regret not jumping into the social media circus earlier. For years, writing pals urged me to start blogging. I had an agent, a book deal was surely on the way – shouldn’t I be building my platform? I’m infinitely glad now that I didn’t begin blogging or tweeting until just a few weeks before my agent landed me this current three-book deal. Not that there’s anything wrong with unpublished or unagented writers blogging – there are plenty of great blogs out there from authors at these early stages in their careers. But for me, it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. I write comedy, and I’ve worked hard to build my brand around providing you with a consistent source of amusement. It would have been much harder to make you laugh if I’d been dragging you through the rejections and near-misses that peppered the last few years (unless you’re a sick bastard who enjoys laughing at other people’s misery, in which case we would have had a great time together).

I don’t regret picking the wrong agent first. When I first queried agents in 2006, I was lucky to have four of them offer to represent me. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now know I chose wrong. Not that there was anything wrong with my first agent, but it just wasn’t the right fit. The thing is, I don’t regret the decision. You know how sometimes you have to date Mr. Wrong in order to know Mr. Right when you meet him? It’s sort of like that. Without that first agent relationship for comparison, I’m not sure I would have recognized the fabulousness of my current agent, Michelle Wolfson (who is probably wondering from that whole Mr. Wrong/Mr. Right thing if I’m confused about her gender).

Is there anything people might assume you’d regret, but you really don’t? Please share.

And please don’t tell my mom if you’ve heard any regret-worthy stories about me. They’re all lies, mom, I swear.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing regrets and other torrid things

A long time ago, I saw a bumper sticker that said this:

The only things that I regret are the things I haven’t done.

I’ve always liked the concept, and for the most part, I can say the same (OK, fine – the teased bangs, Phil Collins tape, and the eighth hot buttered rum may have been ill-advised).

Still, even the dumb things I’ve done have been learning experiences.

But several people have asked lately about regrets in my writing career. There aren’t many – certainly not the sort that keep me up at night – but there are a few things I’d do differently if I had it to do over again.

Swallow my pride, pick up a book. I took my first stab at writing fiction about eight years ago. I had an English degree, had been reading voraciously my whole life, and had spent my professional career as a newspaper reporter, technical writer, and marketing geek. I knew how to write. I didn’t need some silly how-to manual.

In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten over myself and picked up a book on writing fiction. While I certainly understood how to string sentences together, I lacked some of the basic knowledge of plot and structure and pacing. I learned those along the way, but I could have saved both time and struggle.

Getting an agent. Many of you are familiar with my bumpy path to publication. In those early years, I was targeting Harlequin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line of women’s action/adventure novels. An agent wasn’t required, so why would I bother getting one?

Um, well—because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, for one thing. Yes, I landed myself a book deal (which I subsequently lost when the line was canceled a month before my scheduled debut). Since then, I’ve realized a couple things – for one, an agent has the industry knowledge and influence with editors to haggle over details like release dates and contract terms. Two, an agent can often negotiate a higher advance than you’d get on your own, essentially paying her own 15%. Three, when something goes awry with a book deal or a manuscript, an agent has the wisdom to point you in a new direction and keep your career moving smoothly.

Would my Bombshell debacle have gone differently if I’d tried to find an agent before setting out on my own? I’ll never know. But I do know I’d sooner cut off my own kneecap with a rusty pair of scissors than negotiate my career without my amazing agent now.

The waiting game. Every author who’s ever submitted to an editor or agent has played the waiting game. It’s enough to drive you to the brink of insanity (and let’s face it, it’s a short trip for most of us). In my early years, I thought it wise to wait for feedback on a submission before forging ahead with a new project. After all, wouldn’t professional input be just the thing to shape my next project?

Well sure, in an ideal world. But the publishing industry doesn’t operate in an ideal world, and wait times can drag out longer than the gestation period for a spiny dogfish (720 days, in case you’re wondering). Not only that, but feedback is just one person’s subjective opinion. I can’t tell you the number of times an editor has gushed enthusiastically over an aspect of a manuscript that made another editor suggest I should give up writing and become a shepherd. Waiting for feedback is a good way to ensure you’ll not only end up disappointed, but with nothing to show when an agent says, “this isn’t quite right, but what else do you have?”

So those are a few of my regrets. What are yours? I’m talking writing here, but if you feel the need to discuss the time you danced naked with a glove on your head pretending to be a giant squid, please share.

Just don’t post pictures, OK?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This one's for the boys

I’ve noticed something a bit unexpected in the ten months I’ve been blogging.

Some of you do not have girl parts.

Not that I’m inspecting my blog readers’ genitalia, but I can’t help but conclude from the regular appearance of masculine names in the comment trail that there are male readers showing up on a pretty regular basis.

Geoffrey Cubbage, Matthew Rush, Patrick Alan, Matthew AT Banning, Mark Simpson, Douglas Morrison, Nate Wilson, Dr. Goose, Shain Brown, Ricky Bush, Simon Larter, Jason Fleming...probably a few more I’m forgetting, and maybe some who never comment.

I’m fascinated by this.

I make no secret of the fact that I write romance, and in case anyone stumbled over here mistaking it for a discussion on power tools, the blog is pink.

I think that’s one reason I’m so impressed with the guys who keep showing up – you’re obviously secure in your masculinity. Maybe you like the risqué humor or the occasional dose of writing-related advice, or maybe you routinely get drunk and google “pet me” at two in the morning.

I doubt it will shock anyone to know I started this blog with the intention of building a platform and selling books. Not that I’ll fume next August if readers of any gender fail to produce a receipt showing you’ve purchased MAKING WAVES, but I’m hopeful a few of you will end up buying my debut novel.

And this is where I find myself wondering about the boys. Romance isn’t a genre that draws tons of male readers.

And yet genre-straddling authors like Janet Evanovich – whose books are a fabulous meld of mystery and romance, and whose writing I’ve been flattered to have mine compared to – have a rather large male readership.

But Evanovich gets shelved under mystery, while my books will be over on the romance aisle where men don’t tend to venture unless they’re sneaking peeks at heaving bosoms on the covers.

I know I’m stereotyping a lot here, and if some of my male blog visitors happen to be established fans of the romance genre, I applaud you.

But I suspect that’s not the case for most of you, and if you do end up buying my book, it might be your introduction to the genre.

This made me nervous yesterday as I did a final read-through on my revisions for MAKING WAVES.

One of the things my editor requested was a bit more “heat” (a great hardship for me…ha! I said hardship.) MAKING WAVES is written in third person, and like many romances, alternates between the male and female point of view. There’s a particularly steamy shower scene that got steamier with revisions, and it happens to be written from the male point of view.

Concerned about male readers, I printed it out last night and shoved it in front of Pythagoras at dinner.

“Can you read this and make sure it sounds OK from a male perspective?”

He looked up from his spaghetti. “Do I have any other perspective?”

But he read diligently, purple pen in hand, not fazed at all by some of the more acrobatic maneuvers executed by the story’s hero.

In the end, his only concern was whether the hero was injured when he bumped into the showerhead.

“He’s fine,” I assured my spouse.

“I’m glad. He should get to enjoy the afterglow without needing stitches.”

So, potential male readers, you can rest assured the scene has approval from one of your own.

If you happen to be a guy, I’m curious what brings you here and whether you’ve read romantic comedy before.

And for the rest of you – authors of either gender, really – how much thought do you give to your readers’ genitals? Er, you know what I mean. Do you have a target demographic in mind, and if so, how do you think the opposite gender might read differently? Please share.

And then let’s gather together for one big gender-neutral group hug. No fair copping a feel, OK?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Getting glammed up for my romance career

I had a crappy morning last Sunday. Nothing soul-crushing or anything like that. Just one of those PMS-induced crying jags that left me looking like a severely beaten crack addict.

Always an excellent time to go out in public.

I wanted to cheer myself with some fancy moisturizer, so I wandered by the Clinique counter at Macy’s. The friendly clerk pounced at once.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering why someone who works at a cosmetic counter has to wear a lab coat. “Is this your only face cream with SPF in it?”

She cheerfully answered my questions while studying my puffy eyes and blotchy skin and probably wondering when I last washed my hair (something I’d admittedly been wondering myself).

“Tell me,” she said. “Have you ever tried wearing foundation?”

The implication was subtle, but it was there – darling, you look like hell.

At this point, I probably could have assured her that under normal circumstances, I look pretty presentable. Assuming I haven’t been doing the sobby PMS thing, I don’t ordinarily sport a shiny red nose and mascara rings under my eyes. While I don’t usually wear much makeup – a little mascara and some lipstick – it’s enough to keep me from frightening small children.

But saying all that would have led to a doubly awkward moment in which in which she felt compelled to console me for my sorrow while assuring me she wasn’t suggesting I looked like a homeless senior citizen.

It was easiest just to let her drag me to the makeup counter, seat me on a plush stool, and begin smearing my face with mineral powder. I was starting to enjoy myself when she asked what I do for a living.

“I’m a romance author,” I admitted, braced for one of the typical reactions I get from strangers – disdain, fascination, or the faint suspicion I’m a sexual deviant.

This woman was delighted. She had some very definite ideas about what my romance author career must be like. She whipped out a staggering array of cosmetic products, explaining to me what would look best on camera for my televised book tours and speaking engagements.

“When you meet Danielle Steele, you might want to consider doing something like this with eyeliner,” she said.

“OK,” I agreed, lacking the heart to tell her the odds of me meeting Danielle Steele are about the same as the odds I’ll ever be able to apply eyeliner without stabbing myself.

She covered me in eyeshadow and blush, eyeliner and lipgloss, even special concealer for my undereye circles. My face began to feel so weighted down I considered resting my head on the counter.

“I know it might seem like a lot if you’re not used to it,” she told me. “But it will look perfect on camera.”

She was absolutely right if I were auditioning for a role as a hooker in a TV drama.

I have to admit though, I like her glamorous notions of what a romance author’s life is like. Who am I to ruin the fantasy by telling her that instead of dashing between appearances on Oprah and Letterman, I spend most days sitting at my computer with unwashed hair and yoga pants? And who am I to admit that when I do sally forth from my writer cave, I generally look OK even without forty pounds of mascara?

But I didn’t say any of this. She was tremendously sweet and gave me tons of free samples and some pretty good makeup tips. I even bought an overpriced lipstick.

I also gave her my business card so she’d have all the details about my book releases. She studied the card for a long time, then looked at me.

“This is a really good picture of you.”

She sounded surprised about that.

It’s the same image I use everywhere, and while I’m wearing only a little mascara and lipstick, I don’t look half bad. Certainly better than I did when I’d walked up to her counter, and certainly no worse than I did wearing eight shades of eyeshadow.

But I thanked her politely and handed over my Visa.

By the time I walked out of the store, I was smiling again. Maybe it was the new lipstick or the pleasure of having someone fuss over me for an hour.

Or maybe it was the thought that while I’ll never be particularly glamorous, I’m pretty lucky to be happy with myself just the way I am.

Well, minus the wrinkles. But I hear Clinque has a really good cream for that.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Great writer gifts day 5: Mastering social media

We’ve reached the final day of my week-long series on great gifts for writers, and I feel like doing little happy dance in my underwear. If only I had the ones I blogged about in Tuesday's post.

Now that we've got the requisite underwear joke out of the way, I want to tell you about a book. Not just any book, but hands-down the best tool I’ve seen for authors exploring the world of social media.

Since you’re here reading this blog, I can conclude you’re at least dipping your toe in the social media world. Maybe you have a blog of your own, or maybe you tweet and skype and facebook and all those other things that sound kind of dirty when you use them as verbs.

When my amazing agent first lured me into the world of social media with promises of ponies and candy, I was hesitant. I went out and read as many books and articles as I could so I wouldn’t end up looking silly.

Then I decided to build my platform on being silly, which simplified things.

In doing my social media homework, I couldn’t help but notice most resources aren’t targeted specifically at authors. That’s why I perked right up when I first heard about author Kristen Lamb’s book WE ARE NOT ALONE: THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO SOCIAL MEDIA.

The book covers everything from the nitty-gritty of setting up your Facebook account to the best strategies for using Twitter. One thing I love is that Kristen doesn’t advise authors to embrace every social media trend with the vigor of a beagle humping the mailman's leg. She has a very realistic approach, something she explained in a recent blog post:

Personal trainers are a happy energetic lot, and they will tell you all the benefits of eating algae and tofu and getting detoxed with the latest cleanse. They want us to be just as happy and healthy as they are. But there is often a huge problem. We might desire to be 6% body fat and a size -0, but we have jobs and families and need to sleep.

A person who makes her living as a personal trainer can live this way because it is already in sync with her goals and her life. For the mother of two who works as a teacher, becoming fitness model thin is a HUGE time commi
tment with a lot of sacrifice. Can she do it? Of course. But for most women, just being a healthy weight is already a struggle. If we shoot for fitness model fitness, we likely will give up before we ever see real benefit.

Social media experts do social media for a living. So to advise a writer that they need to be on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Lin
kdIn, Flikr, YouTube, del.ici.ous., Squidoo, Digg It, and on and on and on is natural for them. Why? Because that is their life and what they DO. They do social media because they love it and like the fitness trainer, they want us to love it that much, too…

...I am a writer first. I love social media and I love teaching writers how to use it in a way that doesn’t totally disrupt their lives. I think that there are a lot of cool sites out there and if you love social media then ROCK ON! But like working out, we have to be careful. Social media works best when we forge relationships, when we create networks of people who know us, support us, and are emotionally vested in us.

Her book is chock full of more great information just like that—wisdom that’s tailored to the specific needs of authors from a fellow author who admits right up front that she learned many of these lessons the hard way.

I loved this book. It made me want to pick Kristen up and squeeze her and shake her and slobber all over her with gratitude (which is evidently not the best way to make friends).

No matter where you are in your writing career—from crafting that first manuscript to signing the contracts on your next big book deal—I guarantee there’s something you can learn from this book. Do it for yourself, do it for your writing career, go get a copy of this book.

Are there any resources you’ve found invaluable in the writing world? Books or blogs or articles or Magic 8-balls? Please share.

And in the spirit of sharing, please let me know if there are any great writer gifts I’ve left off the list this week. Obviously I didn’t hit them all, so I’d love to hear your recommendations.

That reminds me...I'm still waiting for the ponies and candy.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Great writer gifts day 4: The book basket

So here we are at day four of our series on holiday gifts for writers. Are you all feeling inspired? Ready to have your stocking stuffed?

(I’ll pause a moment so you perverts can stop snickering).

Lots of people have asked lately if there’s a single piece of advice I’d offer writers looking to improve their skills. It’s such an easy question it makes me jump up and down and squeal because I really like having an answer I’m 100% sure about:


Read everything you can get your hands on. Read fiction and nonfiction, read great books and mediocre books and even bad books. Read outside your genre, read inside your genre, read inside the belly of a whale, but whatever you do, READ.

Several years ago, I assembled what turned out to be a pretty good Mother’s Day gift. A few months before the big day, I bought a basket for each of the moms. I tossed in a few cozy items like a soft throw blanket and a mug. Then I sat down and made a list of at least ten books I thought each mom might enjoy. The lists weren’t the same for both, and they included a wide array of authors and genres.

I spent the next couple months combing bookstores, thrift stores, garage sales and eBay to collect the books. Then I made a bookmark for every single one. Each bookmark had a little information about why I picked that book, and why I thought she might enjoy it.

I’ll admit I probably went overboard. Two or three books would have been just as good, but you know what? We got years of mileage out of those baskets. The moms took their time working through the selections, picking up one of the books when they went on vacation or got tired of reading other things.

I hear regular blog commenter Geoffrey Cubbage groaning that I’m venturing into “giving-homework-as-gifts” territory (as he discussed this hilarious blog post about what NOT to give writers).

That’s why I’ll issue the caveat that if you’re going to assemble a book basket for a writing pal, you can’t be one of those annoying people with the incessant need to ask, “did you read it yet? Did you read it yet? What did you think?!”

But if you don’t care whether the recipient adores the books or even reads them at all, why not share some of your favorite reads with a fellow author? If nothing else, she'll have a new tool for smashing flies (you think I'm joking, but I swear I've killed at least two dozen with The Great Gatsby).

Do you like receiving books as gifts? Why or why not? Have you ever received a book you either loved dearly or detested so much you backed over it with the minivan? Please share.

Oh, and if you do give books as gifts, help the recipient out by flagging all the naughty parts. Nothing says I care like dog-eared smut.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Great writer gifts day 3:
Getting classy with Lani Diane Rich

We’re at the halfway point in our week of great gifts for writers, and so far we’ve discussed mugs and underwear.

While those things are certainly vital to creative performance, it sometimes takes more than a splash of Earl Grey in a Miss Piggy mug to get you through a manuscript.

There’s a lot of talk about “honing your craft” in writing, though opinions differ on what that means. Some authors learn by trial and error. Others take classes or devour books like Stephen King’s ON WRITING or Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

I've always been a “trial and error” girl myself, but recently decided to treat myself to a class. After all, I have a three-book deal now. I should probably learn to write.

I also kinda wanted to be a student again without the threat of after-school detention.

After a bit of research, I settled on Lani Diane Rich's online series of classes called Storywonk. I already knew I loved her romantic comedies (New York Times bestseller and all). I liked the idea of a six-week series that included both live lectures and online discussion forums where students could interact with each other and with the instructor.

Author Lani Diane Rich
I signed up for the Revision class, biting my nails a little at the $180 price tag. What if it sucked?

It did not suck.

The lessons focused heavily on structure. In the first class, a student expressed concern this could dampen her creativity.

Lani suggested thinking about it like this: let's say you're a seamstress and you've sewn a beautiful dress. But if you leave the dress lying in a heap on the floor, no one can appreciate how lovely it is. Put the dress on a form, and voila! The whole thing takes shape.

That's one of the best analogies I've ever heard.

Under Lani's tutelage, we all identified our "seven anchor scenes" and wrote sentences describing each one. Then she critiqued them for every single student – some more than once. The feedback was occasionally harsh, but always honest, and obviously coming from someone who's been around the block once or twice.

Even Pythagoras reaped the benefits. Lani asked us to watch several movies so we could all analyze structure together. Since I rarely watch movies, my dear husband nearly wet himself with delight when I informed him I wanted to watch Happy Gilmore, Die Hard, and Shawn of the Dead in one week.

All in all, I loved my first experience with a novel writing class. If you're looking for a splurge item on your holiday wish list, consider something like this as an investment in your writing career. Oh, and I have it on good authority that there are several spots left for both the Storywonk Revision class (the one I took, which is for writers revising a completed manuscript) and the Storywonk Discovery class (for writers getting ready to start a book). Both sessions start in January. Go here to read more.

Have you ever taken a class to hone your craft as a writer? What are the most valuable lessons you've learned? If you haven't tried a class, what's the reason? And what other methods do you use to improve your skills? Please share.

Oh and for the record, I didn't get sent to the principal's office even once. There was that nasty incident with the paste and the ruler, but that's a topic for another blog post.