Thursday, May 31st, 2012
Once upon a time, I used to go bookstore browsing all the time. It was my favorite way to unwind, to see what was out there, make mental notes about which books were out and which I wanted to read next. Sadly, both the bookstores on my usual orbit closed this past summer (bye, bye, Borders– I miss you), so bookstore browsing has become more a luxury and less a matter of course.
I was fortunate enough to find myself with half an hour to spare and a B&N on my route the other day. Naturally, I racked up a whole list of books I wanted:
— Juliet Grey’s Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, the second in her Marie Antoinette trilogy. I loved Becoming Marie Antoinette, so I have high hopes for this one.
— Sara Poole’s The Borgia Mistress, sequel to Poison, which came out last year. I love tales of the Renaissance papacy, and Poison was a particularly good one. (For others who like that sort of thing, two oldies and goodies are Iris Johansen’s The Wind Dancer and Monica Linden’s Chiara.)
— Julia Quinn’s A Night Like This, which just came out on Tuesday. It’s by Julia Quinn and the heroine is a governess. Need I say more?
— Loretta Chase’s Silk Is For Seduction. I know, I know. This one has been on my to read list forever now… partially because it was all sold out the last few times I’d checked in the store. But they had a great big stack of it this time!
Which books have you been coveting?
Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
Fundamentally, the topic of the day is Getting to Know Your Protagonist, Getting to Know All About Her, but that was too long to fit on the subject line, so let’s just call it Character Development: Part I. (I’ll talk about developing side characters another day.)
The best advice I ever read on creation of one’s protagonist came from a Writer’s Digest article long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away: do not attempt to create Every Man. Every Man equals no man. The characters who call to people, who intrigue them, infuriate them, keep them reading are always highly specific. Don’t leave your character vague or generic in the hopes that that very vagueness will allow more people to relate. The key is specificity.
That specificity applies in multiple ways: experiential, emotional, physical, verbal.
Yep, we’re talking dialogue here. We’ll get into dialogue as an art in another post, but, for now, it’s time to think about what speech patterns can tell you about your protagonist. How does your character sound? What’s the cadence of her (or his) voice? Accent, diction, verbal tics? Does he speak in long, flowery sentences or short, terse ones? Do his external and internal monologues align? Does he say what he means or does he dissemble? Try to hear your character’s voice in your head. Sometimes, just listening to your character talk to you can tell you a great deal about that person. As an exercise, try free-writing monologues for your character. What does she have to say? And how does she say it?
When I say physical, I’m not talking about the mole on your character’s left shoulder. (Although, hey, if it’s there….) What I mean are the traits that your character conveys physically, traits that reveal something about your protagonist’s personality. Does she hunch her shoulders? Is her walk bouncy, mincing, sure-footed? When she sits on a chair, does she drop down on it or seat herself more delicately? It’s a bit like method acting. You need to observe your character to figure out her means of movement. Sometimes, you might not have fully figured out yet what these specific traits convey. That’s okay. What you do need to know is that these are the specific ways in which your character interacts with the physical space that he or she occupies.
This is a clumsy way of getting at the heart of what makes character character. You and I, when placed in the same situation, will probably react to it in different ways. Thanks to a combination of innate character and experience, we’re each wired a certain way, no two of us the same. Your mission is to figure out what makes your character tick, primarily vis a vis how that character reacts to certain triggers. When insulted, would she fly off the handle? Take it with quiet dignity and then go cry? Give back as good as she got? Grin and say “thank you”? A good way to get at this as you get to know your character is to try to imagine him or her in various situations and try to figure out how that specific person would react. Another good exercise is to figure out how they might have reacted at different ages: would your character have responded the same way at eighteen as at twenty-eight?
I’m talking back-story here. You don’t have to know everything about your character’s back-story (often, I figure it out as I’m writing it), but you do need to know that it’s there. Are there major experiences that have shaped or scarred your character? Sometimes, the lack of experience can be as much of a character marker as a scarring experience: the sheltered or cloistered character, blithely unaware or arrogant, makes an excellent target for Harsh Life Experiences over the course of the plot.
As you may have noticed, I think of character development more as excavating than creating. Michelangelo used to say that in sculpting, he wasn’t creating the work so much as freeing it from its enveloping marble. I feel the same way about my main characters. They’re already people, full and entire in my head. Usually, when I start a book, they’re still mere acquaintances. As I write them, I get to know and understand them. (Which is why the first three chapters are usually the hardest for me.)
Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about your main characters the minute you start to write them. Sometimes they just need to reveal themselves to you as you go along. I’ve found that some characters are harder to get a handle on than others. (Ahem, Arabella from Mistletoe, ahem.) In those cases, I’ve found it helpful to free write: bits of dialogue, descriptions of the character, other characters talking about the character, straight-out exposition about the character’s back story (generally in the character’s viewpoint)… in short, anything that keeps me focused on and hammering away at what makes that person unique.
Tuesday, May 29th, 2012
Last summer, I found myself in an odd gap between books. I had handed in The Garden Intrigue freakishly early. While waiting to hear about more Pink books, I’d started writing a rather different novel, set in Kenya in the 1920s, but was waiting for publisher feedback before continuing with it, unsure whether anyone would want it. (They did– but I wouldn’t know that until August.) I started work on Pink X, but Miss Gwen was being uncooperative and it wasn’t entirely clear that more Pink books were in the cards.
So I decided to write something just for fun.
I wanted to write something out of my ordinary orbit, something light, something different. So I decided to try my hand at a contemporary romance. It would involve a down and out heroine inheriting a house, because, as you all know, I have a thing for house inheritance novels, and a small town in upstate New York, because I’ve spent some of my happiest times in a small town in upstate New York. (Cold Spring, I’m looking at you!) Over the course of last July, I happily dug into writing it. I called the town Phillips Falls, as a nod to Susan Elizabeth Philips, queen of the genre (and to Philipstown, the larger entity that includes my own beloved Cold Spring). As for title… well, I had to throw in a Jennifer Crusie homage. My heroine’s name was Kristy Dare, so what more logical than to call it Dare Me?
As you can see, I was amusing myself mightily.
I had about a hundred pages done when I got a call telling me that it was time to go full steam ahead on the Kenya book– and then another call telling me that my old publisher wanted two more Pink books. Suddenly, I found myself booked up with deadlines and my contemporary romance (known to me as the RCR, for Random Contemporary Romance), had to be filed away for later.
I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to finish writing it, but, just for fun, just because it’s summer, I’ve decided to dust it off and share it with you. Starting June 23rd, I’ll be posting a chapter here on the News page every Saturday, straight through July and into August.
I hope it proves as much of a summer escape for you as it did for me last July!
Monday, May 28th, 2012
If You Like will return in its regular spot next week. (As always, if there are any genres or themes you want me to cover, just let me know.)
Stay tuned for a special Teaser Tuesday announcement coming up tomorrow….
In the meantime, enjoy the holiday Monday!
Sunday, May 27th, 2012
In unpacking, I found myself with more books than bookshelf space. (Surprise, surprise.) So I’m giving away a few more books this week. After this, Closet Clear Out will go on hiatus for a bit, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing more clear outs again starting in the fall.
Amazing the way those books tend to accumulate, isn’t it?
Here are the books I’m giving away this week:
Friday, May 25th, 2012
The wonderful thing about unpacking books, aside from the benefit to the muscles of the upper arm, is rediscovering whole treasure troves of books you’ve forgotten. I’ve been grazing among the forgotten books of the back shelves this past week, including:
— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself.
My friend Jenny gave this to me as a going away gift when I moved to England in 2002. It seemed appropriate. The short essays are Bryson’s musings on returning to America after twenty years in England. Ten years later, they still make me laugh out loud on the subway. (Yes, this happened on Monday. People moved away.) Some of the details are a little dated now, especially vis a vis electronics, but that has its own sort of time capsule fascination.
— Jill Winters, Blushing Pink.
This was another time capsule. I sat next to Jill Winters at my very first RWA book signing (New England Chapter!) back in 2005, right after The Secret History of the Pink Carnation came out in hardcover. We swapped books. Hers seemed right on point at the time– about a twenty-seven year old history grad student bogged down in her dissertation. (I’d already switched to law school at that point, but I still empathized.) I didn’t read much American chick lit, but I read Jill Winters.
— Molly O’Keefe, Can’t Buy Me Love.
I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Molly at RT this past April. Yes, that panel. The infamous History Fan Fictionary panel. Molly was our moderator, keeping us (sort of) honest. She also gave me an advance copy of her upcoming book, which disappeared into the pile of Books to be Packed before re-emerging from a counter-intuitive box (how did books get in with the pantry stuff?) last week. I’m so glad I found it. It reminds me, in some ways, of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet?, about a bad girl who turns out not to be so bad after all, with a touch of Crusie-esque tone.
Back to the boxes to see what else I can find….
What have you been reading this week?
Thursday, May 24th, 2012
I just got the news that The Ashford Affair is going to be translated into Spanish! I can’t remember whether or not I posted about it here (my mind is in moving mush), but I found out last month that The Ashford Affair will also be available in German.
I’m so curious to see which language we’ll get next… and what the covers will look like!
Thursday, May 24th, 2012
Apropos of our Writing Wednesdays, a friend of mine just started an editorial services company called “What’s Your Story?” designed to help aspiring writers polish their work and navigate the publishing world. You can find out about the services they offer on their website, www.pacetopp.com.
For those in New York, they’re holding an inaugural full day writing workshop on Saturday, June 9. I have been told that wine will be included….
In the meantime, if you have any topics you want me to address for our next Writing Wednesday, let me know!
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
You have an idea. You might even have a first chapter. Now what? Where does the book go from here?
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
If you ask people in the writing community, they generally divide themselves into two camps: outliners and “pantsers” (or people who work by the seat of their pants). The truth of the matters is that there are all sorts of permutations in between.
Some people need to know exactly where the book is going before they start. If that’s the case for you, you might be an outliner. Your outline could be anything from a one page list of bullet points listing key events to a detailed chapter by chapter summary. Let’s call this “Extreme Outlining”. The extreme outliners I know tend to spend a lot of time on the outlining process, since that’s where the major plotting and rethinking occurs for them. By the time they get to the writing, it goes fairly quickly, since the major kinks have already been worked out.
People this works best for: people who need lots of structure; plot driven writers.
On the far end, you have Ulitmate Pantsing. This consists of sitting down in front of your computer (or clay tablet) and just seeing where the characters take you. My ultimate pantsing friends tell me that this involves a great deal of trial and error and rewriting as they get to know the characters. The upside? Going to all sorts of interesting places you never imagined the story would take you. The down side? Increased antacid use as you wonder what on earth is going to happen next.
People this works for: people who are comfortable with chaos; character driven writers.
Then there’s the in-between, into which I fall. I’ve tried Extreme Outlining. It failed miserably for me. By trying to make my characters adhere to an outline I’d written months before, I wrote myself into one of the worst cases of writer’s block of my writing career. The characters wanted to grow and develop in a different direction. I had to scrap the outline and re-think the trajectory of the plot before that could happen.
On the other hand, ultimate pantsing tends to peter out for me after about four chapters. At some point, I need to have a sense of where I’m going, of what I’m writing towards.
My solution? I wind up outlining about five chapters ahead. I re-outline constantly as I go, scribbling on little bits of paper that I then throw out about a week later. That way, I have some sense of structure, but it stays dynamic and flexible.
The downside, of course, is that there is still that measure of chaos. I never know exactly how a plot-line is going to resolve itself until I’ve hit that five chapter zone. On the plus side, since I’m constantly re-thinking and re-plotting, I don’t write myself into as many dead ends.
My suggestion would be to play around with different levels of outlining to figure out what works for you. An outline doesn’t have to look like an outline to serve an outlining purpose. Some people think well in bullet points, others don’t. Often, I find just sitting down with a pad of paper and brainstorming plot ideas and bits of dialogue helps provide direction. It may not look like an outline, but it’s still giving you an idea of where the story is going.
I know other writers who keep dry erase boards in their office, with outlines that can be altered as they go, smudging out old bits, adding new ones. They keep family trees there, character traits, whatever they might need to go forward, with the comfort of knowing that dry erase means that none of it is locked in stone unless they want it to be.
Some writers swear by collages. (Check out Jennifer Crusie’s article about her book collages.) For the artistically oriented, that serves the same purpose as my long-hand brainstorming: it forces you to focus and think out your plot and characters.
For character-driven writers, writing character sketches– bits of their back-story, their emotional reactions, their likes and dislikes– might serve a similar purpose by helping you to get to know your character better. Where the character goes, the story goes.
Don’t be too worried if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen before you sit down to write. (Unless, of course, you’re an extreme outliner by nature, in which case, why are you still reading this? Go write that outline!) Figuring it out as you go along can be part of the fun….
Have you stumbled on any outlining techniques that work for you?
Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
Last week, I turned in the copy edits for my upcoming non-Pink book, The Ashford Affair. This is always the stage where I finally know that there will, in fact, be a book and that the book is pretty much in its final form, give or take a word here or there.
It’s an amazing feeling.
So, to celebrate The Ashford Affair‘s final step towards book-dom, I’m sharing with you the first chapter, in its very first public appearance. Enjoy!