Monday, April 15, 2013

Comparison is the thief of joy

Every now and then, someone will ask how long it takes me to write a book. It's one of the few questions I hate answering, ranking right up there with, "does this skirt make my butt look big?" and "did you drink all that wine?"

(For the record, I do not bristle at the question that annoys the crap out of most romance authors, which is, "how do you research your sex scenes?")

One reason I'm not a reason I'm not a fan of inquiries about the speed of my writing is that it can vary wildly. Once upon a time, I could write a full-length, 85,000-word novel in about three months with a couple extra weeks tacked on for critique partner feedback and revisions. That was before the pressure of promotional responsibilities, conflicting editorial demands, and life-changes like divorce and young kids in the house. Those things slowed my pace considerably, turning novel-writing into something chopped up into random spurts over a 12 or 16-month period. Sometimes longer.

I'd reached a point where I assumed that slower pace of fits and starts was the new normal for me, so when my agent landed me a new contract in March and asked how long I needed to write a shorter 55,000-word novel, I asked for roughly five months. I'd just gotten started when she came back and said, "could you do it in six weeks?"

Like an idiot, I replied, "Um, sure?"

This coincided with my longtime critique partner accepting a similarly insane deadline, so we agreed to help one another with moral support, speedy feedback, and the occasional encouraging butt-pat.

The biggest challenge was not that butt-patting is difficult when you live 2,638 miles apart. It's that it took me awhile to recall how differently we approach writing. She writes best in quick bursts of 1,000 words on her lunch hour or 2,500 words after her daughter has gone to bed, then sends me scenes to critique.

For the first week or so, I'd grimace when I saw a text message from her declaring she'd written another 1,300 words while waiting for a doctor's appointment. You suck, I'd tell myself. The only words you wrote were Facebook posts about about your boobs falling out of your dress and how much you admire your gentleman friend's butt.

For the record, he does have a great butt.

I'd head home from the day job pledging to write 2,000 words after dinner, only to find myself cleaning the keyboard with a Q-tip while my computer screen remained blank. Some author you are, I'd mutter to myself.

It took me a good week to pull my head out of my butt and remember how I write best. Long, productive stretches of 5,000 to 10,000 words in a day, followed by three or four days of doing nothing   drinking wine   groping my gentleman friend   serious contemplation regarding the direction of the story. That is a more natural pace for me, and it's served me well in the past.

As it turns out, it works fine for a crazy deadline, too. I'm on track to finish the whole book in roughly five weeks, thanks mostly to excellent wine   the ease of writing blowjob scenes  several good days of super-productive writing.

After one such day, I made the mistake of posting my daily word count on Facebook and Twitter. I was pleased with my spurt of 9,000 words in 8 hours, and felt like sharing.

I regretted it almost instantly when I saw other writers lamenting their own daily production. I couldn't do that many words in a week, someone shared. I only wrote 500 words today, someone tweeted with a frowny-face.

By sheer coincidence, a non-author friend posted the following quote in her Facebook feed that same day:

"Comparison is the thief of joy."

It's attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, and the instant I saw it, I wished Facebook had a stronger option than, "like" (which is not to be confused with my usual wish that Facebook offered a "lust" option. See aforementioned comment about my gentleman friend's butt).

It is a great reminder to all of us, whether you're a writer or a teacher or a firefighter or a nipple-clamp tester. Your skills, your talents, your accomplishments, are your own. Someone else's skills, talents, and accomplishments do not diminish or detract from yours. Keep your eyes on your own test paper and your head in your own game.

Is this something that comes naturally for you, or do you find yourself playing comparison roulette pretty regularly? How do you feel about that? Please share!

Oh, and to answer those earlier questions, of course not, yes, and very, very thoroughly. You're welcome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lessons in romance writing, courtesy of a 7yo

“Do you want me to draw you a picture, write a poem, or write a story?”

This was the question posed to me by my gentleman friend’s seven-year-old daughter Saturday evening. Her dad and brother were on a quick run to the store, leaving me to glance around frantically at intervals in search of the responsible, supervising adult, only to realize that’s me.

Since we’d all spent our afternoon at an alpaca ranch, I had her draw an alpaca, followed by writing a poem about an alpaca. Then I suggested she write a story.

“What should I write a story about?” she asked.

I considered suggesting an alpaca, but decided we’d already beaten that theme to death. “I write stories for a living,” I told her. “You’d think I could come up with a good subject, but I’m drawing a blank.”

I half expected her to grab her pen and request instructions for drawing a blank, but she’s smarter than the average bear.

“What kind of stories do you write?” she asked.

I hesitated, deciding it was best to keep things simple instead of explaining the concept of romantic comedy and the fact that the last scene I wrote involved a passionate encounter with the characters covered in pureed beet.

“Well, I write romance novels,” I told her. “They’re pretty much like love stories.”

“Love stories,” she repeated, testing out the phrase.

“Sure,” I said. “Usually about a boy and a girl who love each other.”

I opted not to confuse the issue by explaining the current popularity of male/male romance or BDSM erotica—a responsibly adult decision, if I do say so myself.

“I’m going to write a love story,” she announced, and bent to the task with pen in hand. She wrote an introductory line, then looked up. “How did you and daddy meet?”

I weighed my words carefully, not sure how much to share. She’s heard snippets of the tale before, and we included both kids in the celebration two weeks ago when my gentleman friend and I commemorated the two-year anniversary of our first date.

But the details are a bit more complex. I imagined myself launching into the story. Well you see, you were a newborn when your parents moved here, and your dad got a job in the education department of a medical center where I served on the marketing team. But we really didn’t know each other at all—maybe just enough to say hello in the hallway—and we would have lost touch completely after we both moved on to other jobs. But your dad ended up working in an office where he became best friends with one of my close girlfriends, which is how I heard about your parents’ divorce and your dad’s eventual rebound to become the strong, confident, sexy guy he evolved into over the following few years. That’s why I called him for advice and moral support when I went through my own divorce several years later. Well, that, and the fact that I thought your daddy was hot, and I kinda wanted to make out with him.

I didn’t say any of that, of course.

“We both worked at the hospital,” I told her, aiming for simplicity. “A long, long, time ago.”

That was enough for her. She asked for help spelling a few words, including her father’s first name (which she recently discovered is not daddy).

At last, she presented me with the story:

It was lovely and simple and sweet, and a very good reminder to me of my own habit of over-thinking plot-lines for my romantic comedies. I’m not a plotter by nature, but recently had to craft a detailed synopsis for the editor handling a new book deal I haven’t formally announced yet.

When the editor presented me with constructive feedback on the synopsis, I laughed when I got to this line.

Tawna might be over-thinking this just a wee bit.

It’s a phrase I’ve considered having tattooed on my arm more than once, and a good reminder to me that sometimes less is more, particularly when it comes to love stories.

Luckily, the notes came at a point where it was easy for me to course-correct and head in a more simplified direction with the story. I’m now about two-thirds of the way through, and feeling good about things.

When my gentleman friend returned from the store, the seven-year-old presented him with the story, complete with a hand-drawn cover. “Do you like it?” she asked him.

He smiled at her, then at me. “Very much.”

Are you a fan of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) or do you struggle like I do with the habit of over-thinking things? Please share!

I’m going to go read that story again. There might be a line or two to help me out with this next scene.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Need a favor? Here are 6 ways to boost your odds of hearing YES

Let me state, for the record, that I am ridiculously grateful I’ve sold a few books, and that readers have enjoyed them enough to seek me out and send me messages.

I might prefer it if they sent wine or photographs of half-naked men, but let’s not dwell.

The content of my email inbox has changed considerably in the 18 months since my first romantic comedy hit shelves. Luckily, I haven’t seen a decline in the number of messages requesting I purchase penile implants, low-cost Viagra, and Russian brides, but I have seen a distinct rise in requests that aren’t as much fun.
  • Will you donate signed books?
  • Will you judge our contest?
  • Will you write a guest post on my blog?
  • Will you critique my manuscript or query letter?
  • Will you speak at this event?
  • Will you tell me how to write a book and get it published?
  • Will you introduce me to your agent?
  • Will you do that swirly thing with the handcuffs and the strawberry jam?
While the last one is an automatic yes, the rest, sadly, are not. I wish they could be, just like I wish I could gather everyone up in a big group hug with complimentary butt pats.

But with my time stretched to the absolute breaking point (I’m currently on deadline to write an entire book in six weeks) and my finances keeping me squarely on the discount wine aisle, I find myself saying no a lot more than I ever have in my life.

It makes me sad, but it also makes me realize there are things people might not realize when making requests to authors or other business professionals. If you’re planning to hit someone up for a favor in the near future, here are six things to keep in mind: 


Free is a good price (but not for everyone)

My agent does a splendid job negotiating my publishing contracts to provide me with a decent stack of my own books for promotional giveaways and gifts to friends and family. Even so, my stash generally runs out quickly, which means I'm digging into my own wallet to purchase any additional books I need. It’s a weird feeling placing an order for a book you wrote, and even weirder knowing that even with an author discount, the cost + shipping ends up being pretty close to the retail price. While organizing receipts for taxes last week, I caught sight of what I paid for copies of my own books in 2012. The amount made me cringe, as did the receipts for postage and mailing supplies. I contribute to charity auctions and book giveaways as often as I can, but there’s a limit to my resources. Want an author to contribute a signed book to your auction or giveaway? Offer to chip in for postage, or spring for the cost of the book itself. The same rule applies if you're hitting up another retailer for goods or services.You’re a lot more likely to hear a yes (perhaps even a hellyesthankyousomuch) if you offer to cover the person's out-of-pocket costs.


Spell the person's name right

Not long ago, someone contacted my agent asking if Twana would be willing to judge a contest. I see the misspelling a lot, so I’m generally pretty understanding. Hell, I’ve been known to type my own name that way after a few glasses of wine. I replied directly to the requestor, politely explaining I was too swamped to judge, but wishing the best with the contest. I signed the email with the correct spelling of my name, along with my auto-generated signature line containing four (count ‘em, FOUR) instances of my name spelled correctly. My email address itself also gives the correct spelling, so I was surprised to receive a response moments later that began, “Thanks, Twana.” I resisted the urge to beat my head on the keyboard as I read the follow-up request for free signed books in lieu of my time judging.

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it’s not. I understand I don’t have the most common name on the planet, and like most people with unusual names, I expect the occasional misspelling or typo. But if you’re asking a favor from someone, the least you can do is take a few minutes to google and make sure you're correctly spelling the person's name or business.


Know something about the person you’re contacting

Looking back over requests I’ve accepted in the last year, there’s something every single one has in common: the person making the request knew something about my books or about me personally. I don’t have children or any particular connection to a private school in Vermont, so that request for signed books to auction in a fund-raiser for the school's lacrosse team? Sorry, not my top priority. But the reader who knows I’m a sucker for animals and kicks off the donation request for a no-kill shelter by asking about my pets by name? Yep, that one gets a second look. I’m pretty easy to stalk, whether you’re scrounging for personal details here on the blog, my website, on Facebook, on Twitter, or by digging through my trash. Most authors are similarly stalkable, so take a moment to learn something about the person you’re approaching for a favor.


Flattery will get you everywhere

Number of requests I’ve accepted that begin, “dear author” and include a generic solicitation for free books, contest judging, publication advice, guest blogging, or a pair of panties from my laundry hamper: Zero.

Number of requests I’ve accepted that refer to me by name and describe damaged keyboards and/or nasal passages resulting from the requestor shooting a beverage out his/her nose while laughing at a scene in one of my books: A lot more than zero.

That’s not to say I’ll always say yes to someone who claims to have read one of my books, nor am I suggesting your ticket to a favor is tattooing a part of your body with a quotation from the Cheez Doodle scene in Making Waves. But if you’ve read and enjoyed something in one of my books, that’s a nice thing to mention when you hit me up for a favor. Same goes for literary agents, retailers, or other business professionals. It never hurts to compliment an agent's client before asking her to read your sample chapters, or to praise a specific dish on a restaurant menu before you hit up the manager to donate a gift certificate.


Have we met?

We don’t need to have a pillow fight in our underwear to have a personal connection (though I’ll wait right here if you want to grab your pillow). But if we’ve interacted in some capacity, that’s a good thing to highlight. Maybe we’ve commiserated on Twitter about our shared habit of spilling food down the front of our shirts. Maybe we’ve “liked” each other’s food photos on Facebook. Maybe we’ve met at a conference or at the gym or while peering through the keyhole of Daniel Craig’s hotel room. If we have a personal connection of any kind, remind me of it when you get in touch. 

What’s in it for me?

Agent Janet Reid had a brilliant blog post last year with this same title, and I encourage everyone to go read it if you’re thinking of hitting up any creative professional for a favor. To quote one of the most beautifully, snarkily direct parts of the post:

You want an agent at your conference? You want me to judge a contest? You want me to guest blog? You want me to critique pages? So do a lot of other people. You have to show me the value of saying yes.

I've had people tell me with a straight face (mostly ‘cause I think they actually believed it) that
--being on their blog would give me more visibility;
--attending their conference would help me get in touch with writers;
-- judging a contest would bring me potential clients.

None of those are actual benefits that accrue from those events (and my keyboard didn't survive the visibility one) nor are they things I want to accomplish.

I want to promote my clients.
I want to promote my agency and colleagues.
I want to contribute to causes I support.

Figure out how your request will help me do that, and when you email to ask the favor, spell out how it does any one of those three things and your chances of yes get better.

Now, clearly an author’s goals are different from an agent’s, just like creative professionals or the owners of retail shops have another set of ambitions. A good friend of mine owns a handbag boutique, and rarely does a day go by without someone dropping in to ask her to contribute merchandise or cash to a worthy cause. The ones that pique her interest are the folks who can use solid numbers and market research to show how being involved will result in an increase in traffic to her shop. Telling her she needs to contribute because it’s “the right thing to do for the community” will earn you a stern look and a list of the hundreds of other ways she gives back to the community every day.

So there you have it—six ways to sweeten the pot if you’re asking an author or other business professional for a favor. Got other tips to add? Please share in the comments!

And let me know when you need me to show you that handcuff trick with the strawberry jam. You might want to buy some extra washcloths.