Monday, September 15, 2014

Still Crazy After All These Years

There are two debates that run almost constantly in my head. Debate #1 is...

If it's a surprise from a character that makes a book click, why do I plan any of it?

Seriously...At some point in every book I say, oh for heaven's sake! That's why the heroine believes that. Or I never knew the hero felt that way. Or what a scamp he is! Or, wow, that surprise just took the whole book to another level.

So if it's the "surprise," the unknown element of the story, belief of a character or behavior of a character that makes a story...why do any planning? Why not just write?

Why not?

Because you have to have structure. Just as you have to have a diving board to get to that point where you're in the air (able to contort your body) for your dive, you have to have  springboard for characters to begin moving, talking, displaying their true selves.

It's also kind of convenient to have the fence of plot. "Nobody moves beyond this point!" keeps your characters from taking the story in a direction you don't want them to go.

Also, you probably have some marketing constraints. Even if you're writing a single title, if you're writing a single-title small-town story, your characters can't decide to move to the city.

So planning gives your characters a story, a playground, some avenues...and a fence. From those spring (hopefully) a really great story.

That's why I plan. (No matter how many times my internal plotter grumps about why she plots at all when my characters just mess everything up. LOL)

What's the second question I debate all the time?

Why do I bother with promotion?

LOL! Seriously! I do tons and tons and tons of stuff to "get myself or my name out there" yet there is no change in my sales ##s from book to book.

Like a good story, I firmly believe good promotion is self-perpetuating. I believe that after reading my book, a reader should tell her friends about it. :) Or she should go to my Facebook page and write something nice. Or write a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

So if the best book promotion is dependent upon the actions of a reader (which of course is dependent upon me having written a GREAT BOOK)...why do I have to do any promotion. (And btw, I'm not asking out of laziness or overwork...though the overwork thing has really been a battle lately, I'm asking out of genuine curiosity...You know how I love to analyze.)

And my conclusion to the whole promotion debate?

Just as the way characters need the fence of a planned-out plot, readers need a place to find you. Facebook, twitter, a webpage, a blog have to be created as places where a reader can go to find out a little bit about you, so that if or when she wants to tell her friends about you and your books, write a review or even comment somewhere that she loved your last book, she has somewhere to go. And you've been there enough that she's comfortable with you and comfortable writing something.

It's a strange correlation, isn't it? Stories and characters need a platform the same way you, as an author, do. Or maybe my brain is a bit off, oxygen deprived from deadline blues? But a lot of life is like that. A circle. You can't get a book without characters and characters can really screw things up without the fence of plot. And you can't have a strong readership without readers (LOL!) but they can't tell the world about your book without a platform.

So...even though it frequently feels worthless...create a plot before you start writing your book. (Even if it is just a one-line idea.) And have a Facebook page, a Facebook launch party, a twitter account, a website, a Goodreads presence so readers have somewhere to go to tell the world they loved your book. :)

Happy Monday...Happy Reading

susan meier

Monday, September 8, 2014

What Can We Say on a Monday When I Have Revisions Due?

How About...Get your butt working!

I am working. I'm working really hard. I just paused for a bit here on Friday night because I was thinking about a conversation I had with my sister this week. I've been successfully dieting for three weeks. I say "successfully" because technically I've been unsuccessfully dieting for an entire year and not losing any weight. But a few weeks ago my trainer weighed me. Yes. Faint, right? She weighed me. And there we were in that little room with her seeing my real weight.

Shudder

The goal is to lose one pound a week, so by God, when the next week came and I had to step on the scale...I intended to be down a pound. I was. Actually, I was down three. The next week I was down two. This week I hope to continue my downward spiral and I'm pretty confident I will. Why? I 'm not merely motivated. I have a system. No kidding. I eat weight management oatmeal for breakfast, a weight watchers frozen meal for lunch and a light supper. I can eat weight watcher's ice cream for snack and these little packets of snacks I buy from an online company called Graze. In order to lose weight and save face, I DO NOT DEVIATE from that plan.

I do the same thing with writing. I have systems. I have schedules. I get up at six thirty, drink my coffee, read my emails, take my son to Starbucks and when we return I go upstairs with my laptop and no one sees me until after eleven. Noon, if I don't have an appointment with my trainer that day.

Most people believe having a system is a good way to assure your productivity. But the effect of the system actually runs deeper than that. Come eight o'clock my brain is awake and working. Because that's what it does everyday, I have it trained to start working at eight. If Mikie happens to take longer in Starbucks than normal, my brain begins writing as I'm waiting in the car.

Systems for things like figuring out characters, plotting, getting to your desk every day at a certain hour and working for a specific amount of time don't just work because they get you working...they work because your brain likes them.

Just like a little kid, it likes to be told what to do. It also likes to be reminded of the neuropathways to take for things like creating a character, filling in a storyboard or writing a synopsis. When you pull out a chart or an empty storyboard, it says, "Oh, yes, I know this." And it gets to work.

Now, just in case your brain becomes too familiar with your tools and starts coming up with the same kinds of stories...or in case your brain shuts down when it sees charts and graphs, there's always the list of twenty. What are twenty DIFFERENT ways I can open this book? What are twenty NEW plots I haven't written?  Give your brain a clear question and good soldier that it is, your brain will come up with 20 answers.

You might not be able to use them all. :) In fact, I can guarantee about three-quarters of them will be silly putty...But really? Who's going to turn down FIVE new openings? Or FIVE new plots?

The value of the list of twenty is immeasurable because the number of questions you can ask is as high as you can think up questions...That's a bad sentence, but it's Friday night and you get my drift.

So if you're having trouble writing, set a schedule and don't deviate. Train your brain to come alive at eight (as mine does...even in church...which is why I carry a pen and small tablet to mass, much to my husband's dismay). Give your brain a chance to have fun by using the list of twenty. And USE the fact that your brain likes schedules and likes to be guided with tools like storyboards, character charts, instructions for how to write a synopsis. And have fun!

Happy Monday...and Happy Reading...

susan, the scheduled. :)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fixing a Character

I just finished giving CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED to a Sisters In Crime Group. I love Sisters In Crime! Great writers.

Anyway, The issue of character likeability came up (as it always does) in the section on Words. Watching your words. Making sure your words are giving the impression you want them to give.

I like wisecrackers. I like banter. I like men confident in their sexuality who tell the heroine just how attracted they are to them.

Unfortunately, sometimes my wisecracks come across as arrogance or even meanness. My banter can sound childish. (Anyone's banter can sound childish.) And those sexy remarks my heroes make? Yikes. They can really get me into trouble.

So .. the fix?

First of all, if your H and H are bantering...make sure what they're talking about...well, fits. Your banter can be goofy as all get out, even immature, but if it fits into the scene and the story and has a purpose (even if that purpose is to prove how far each will go before they lose an argument...or how hard they'll work to get the last word) or is very sexy...then you're probably okay.

But if they are bantering in every other scene, maybe foolishly, perhaps without purpose, it may grow tiresome...or, worse, lose impact.

Second, if your hero is always telling the heroine what he wants to do with her or how he will someday get her into bed, he can easily come across as one dimensional. Hah. Didn't expect that did you? You thought I'd say something more like he'd come across as being an idiot (since that seems to be one of my favorite words).

The truth is to have a hero who is "real"...a "real" person, somebody we can relate to and be attracted to...he has to have more than sex on the brain. And sometimes it's those very scenes where he doesn't spout innuendos, flirt or try to unnerve the heroine that make him all the more sexy.

Third, watch your words. Don't repeat the same description. Don't repeat the same actions or reactions. And make sure the words you use are giving the right impression. I use the example of a friend who had her character use the word insurrection in the middle of a bar fight. Her intent was to show her heroine was educated...the actual impression she gave was that her heroine was a snob.

Words are our business. You should love giving thoughtful consideration to making sure the ones you use give the right impression and build the character, not create a confusing collage of mismatched descriptions, actions and reactions...Remembering, my lovelies, that reaction phrases tell a great deal about your character because reactions are automatic. If he's always scratching his armpit when confused...well, you get the picture. LOL

Happy Monday and Happy Reading...

susan meier

Monday, August 25, 2014

Your Character's Fatal Flaw

As you all know...I'm neck deep in two deadlines. So I decided to pull up an older post as this week's writing blog. I read through this and laughed. Just what I needed to hear myself!

I hope you enjoy Segment 2 of the RWA Nationals Workshop, Flaw ...

Happy Monday, and welcome back to our notes for the CREATING THE PERFECT HERO workshop I gave with Jenna Kernan and Deb Mullins at RWA 2011.

Today's segment is your character's flaw...Enjoy.

***

I don’t like the term fatal flaw. Because it sort of gives us the sense that our character should have a big, awkward, sometimes disgusting, flaw that prevents or precludes him or her from loving or being loved.

That can be true. There are plenty of successful “scar” or “wound” romances out there. But a huge flaw isn’t necessary for a successful story. A HUGE CONFLICT IS…but that’s our next segment.

For right now, let’s talk flaw.

What is a flaw? Something unique to your character that can be perceived as negative. A fear. A habit. An addiction. An attitude. A physical imperfection.

Why have a flaw?

Because no one is perfect. Seriously. I once heard a speaker tell a story of a book someone sent to her for a critique. The manuscript had been rejected by EVERYONE in the early 80’s when no one was getting rejected and the writer couldn’t figure out why.

The book begins with the heroine graduating from nursing school. She lands the perfect job. Finds the perfect apartment. Her landlords are a loving old couple who dote on her. She finds a great car, cheap. And the most handsome doctor in the hospital falls for her.

Sound interesting? Maybe. But is it a compelling story? Not even a little bit.

A great story is four things. Interesting, compelling, credible and consistent.

For something to be interesting it simply has to catch our attention. Credible…it only has to make sense. Consistent…if the guy is afraid of heights on page 12, he’d better at least shiver at the possibility of scaling a wall to save the heroine in chapter 12.

But for a book to be compelling, readers really want to be able to connect with and root for the main characters.

Do we root for perfect people? Sometimes. But they don’t resonate with us. We don’t connect to them because most of us have flaws, quirks.

But if you have a hero who longs to be understood after a past riddled with mistakes – lots of readers can identify. If you have a straightforward, strong, smart hero who drinks (like Robert Parker’s Jesse Stone) and can’t quit his addiction (thought he manages it) you have a character who intrigues us. Especially those of us who aren’t alcoholics. We’re curious about what makes this guy tick. Why would he risk everything for the contents of a bottle?

A flaw can be something as simple as someone who hates spiders (adding interest or maybe humor to a story) or something as intense as Jesse Stone’s alcoholism. But whatever you choose, the flaw needs to fit the story.

A hero with obsessive compulsive disorder like Monk’s on the TV show Monk, added humor but it was also the reason he was the great detective that he was. He saw things others didn’t. Because he was always looking.

But flaws don’t always have to be something you can use for good. Sometimes they are part of what the main characters have to overcome to achieve their happily ever after.

Whitney Ross in my book THE BABY PROJECT could not move beyond her husband’s suicide because he also killed their child. She had to overcome that. Jesse Stone’s alcoholism interferes with his life. And though he can’t seem to overcome it, he manages it.

So your character’s flaw has to have a purpose.

The purpose we see most often is the one where the hero (or heroine) has a flaw they have to overcome to save the heroine (or hero) from the villain.

The fear-of-heights hero who must scale the wall in chapter 12 to save the heroine – proves his love.
The hero who quits smoking for the heroine, proves his love.

But those kinds of sacrifices also demonstrate character growth…one of the biggest bugaboos for beginning writers.

Every editor, every agent…every reader…whether they know it or not, wants to come away from a book with the sense that the hero and/or heroine have grown -- that LOVE makes us more. Makes us better. Or if you’re not writing romance, that our challenges make us more…make us better!

Correction of little flaws can be used along the way in a book to show the hero and heroine adjusting to each other or their situation. Committing to each other.

Because we cannot resolve the CONFLICT that keeps them apart, (or the book would be over) these smaller steps of flaw correction throughout the story can demonstrate the hero and heroine becoming committed to each other.

I just read a book wherein the heroine was a workaholic. The first time she skipped out on work to see the hero, we all knew she was seriously falling for him.

Now, she didn’t totally correct the flaw. But she took a step. A big step and that spoke volumes.

So don’t give your hero a limp just to satisfy one of those things on the list of things every romance novel must have.

THINK THROUGH YOUR FLAWS. Think about how you will use them. Think about what they will say about your character. Think about how they will affect plot. Think about what purpose they will serve in character growth.

And think about what it will mean if they don’t correct the flaw. Will it be more important for the heroine to accept the hero’s flaw? Sometimes rather than fix it, the heroine’s acceptance will be the greater plot point!

Which takes us to incorrect core beliefs.

***

We'll talk about incorrect core beliefs, or internal conflict, next week.

Until then...Happy Writing!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Scenes

One of my favorite lessons in the CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED workshop is the lesson on scenes. I believe scenes are the place writers have the biggest opportunity to shine. They are the building blocks of story. So it's in scenes that you get to SHOW the romance, or scare readers, or fascinate them, or demonstrate the vagaries of life.

Your characters can't exist without scenes. Oh sure, you can put your characters in a sentence, but without the action of a scene, they're just words on a page.

Your story is nothing but an idea until you divide it up into scenes.  Scenes, their length, their order, create pacing. Scenes determine whether your story will be a breathless adventure or ... well, a journey walked through knee-deep oatmeal.

The unsung heroes of storytelling, scenes are like the organized assistant behind the successful businessman. They do most of the work in your book but get very little of the credit. LOL Characters hog it all.

Scenes blow me away. They are so full of power and potential.

So today, when you sit down to do your day's writing, don't just think about hitting your word count. Think about your scene/s. Think about the purpose of the scene or scenes you're going to write. Think about the best length for maximum drama. Remember, you're showcasing character through action. Remember that a scene poorly written slows down a book. Remember that the order of scenes determines how exciting, emotional or intense a book is.

Pause before you write. Think about the power of your scene.

And have a happy Monday. :)

susan meier

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why I will ALWAYS need an edtior...and you probably will too.

Writers in my classes always love it when I tell the story of how I once told an editor, "No, I won't make that change," and then the book went on to be one of my biggest sellers. I get private emails with praise and applause.

But I've published almost sixty books. So, technically, though I said no to one change...I have accepted the advice, editing, suggestions of editors on the other 59. :)

Thinking it through, I realized there are four reasons I will ALWAYS need an editor.

1. Typos. My favorite is missing words. I apparently believe I type prepositions and I believe so hard I actually see them when I proof. Not so. I seem to type so fast that some words get skipped. And if not skipped, for some reason or another, I type of for or and or for of. I will always need someone to find those.

2. Can't see the forest for the trees. A few years ago, a friend told a story about proofing someone else's book. The author had typed "green and yellow make blue." Well, it's actually yellow and blue make green. The author knew that. We ALL know that. Lord knows why she typed it the other way. Lord knows why she didn't see it when she read it over and over and over again as she worked on the manuscript. It took a proofer to find it.

But there are bigger forest-for-the-trees reasons to have an editor. It's very easy to get so wrapped up in the mystery, romance, suspense, science, thrillingness of your story that you don't see a mistake. Timelines can be wrong. (I once had 2 Wednesdays in the same week.) Story threads can be unraveling. But, focused on your main story, you don't see that.

3. Marketability. Lots of  people hate it when I talk about marketability, but, hey, that's the reason I'm still here. My books/stories have always resonated with readers. I give them what they want. That means my books sell. But I'm not always on top of what's selling. Lots of times my editor will see my idea and say, Why don't you make the hero her boss?  I'm no dummy. I know there's a reason she made this suggestion.

On the other hand, editors have said, Um...take out [something stupid, wrong, icky] that I didn't know was stupid or icky. There are some things readers just don't want to see. Don't kill a pet. Readers hate it. Don't have a hero who had an affair. (Romance readers hate that...they'd never trust that dude again. LOL)

I love getting advice that makes my story more marketable and/or less icky to readers.

4. Just plain wrong. We kind of tipped over into this when we talked about having things in a book that readers wouldn't like, but there's more. Sometimes we get an idea into our heads and we write it out and the editor says, Um....did you do your research on this because I'm not quite sure that could happen?

You see this a lot in books/hooks/storylines that are dependent upon wills. EVERY STATE IS DIFFERENT. Sorry, did I shout that? LOL Seriously, not all laws are created equal. State laws vary. If you've researched adoption for the state of Wyoming and your setting is Texas...you need to take another look.

I've read so many books wherein the structure of the hierarchy of a corporation is questionable at best. There are procedures police must follow. There are privacy laws hospitals, doctors, nurses must follow. Things lawyers would and wouldn't do. Because of a little things called ethics. Yeah, yeah, yeah...some lawyers stretch their ethics, but most don't. If your lawyer is generally honorable, be careful on having him make a move that leaps over the line. Tiptoe maybe. But not leap.

Editors live in the real world too. Some have husbands who are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, investors. Most read the papers. If you have something in your story that doesn't really work, consider yourself lucky if they spot it.

So that's why I'm glad I have editors. Personally, I love them. I think they make me look smarter than I am. And who doesn't love that?

(Because I wrote this so fast, I'll bet some of you are thinking I should have had an editor for this too. LOL)

Happy Monday and Happy Reading...

susan meier

Monday, August 4, 2014

Can This Manuscript Be Saved?

No. Sorry. Not giving you the workshop. LOL I am doing it for the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime -- which is why I'm thinking the way I am today. In fact, it starts this morning...if you're interested here's the link.

http://www.sincne.org/events/online-class-susan-meier-can-manuscript-be-saved-0

Back to my point...

Into every writer's life falls a book or two that can't be saved. I had 3. Basically, two were only in the beginning stages. I had ... probably ... 6 or 9 chapters before I realized no one (especially not me) cared about this hero or heroine...or there was no plot...or there was no conflict.

In fact, one of my funniest rejections from Silhouette before I was published read something like: Dear Susan...we are soooo sorry to have to reject this manuscript. The characters were wonderful. The sex scenes were hot. Your tender moment made us all cry. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a plot.

LOL!!!

Right now, I could go in two directions with this blog. First, I could warn you all about self-publishing something that has been rejected. Editors are looking for good, publishable manuscripts. They don't reject something that is publishable -- unless it doesn't fit what they publish. They do sometimes have to reject things that are SALVAGABLE. But you have to know how to fix a manuscript that's close but not yet publishable to take it to the level it needs to be to be published...even self-published.

But I don't feel like going there. I'd rather talk about knowing when it's time to say goodbye.

Clearly, I believed the rejected manuscript above was ready to publish or I wouldn't have submitted it to Silhouette! LOL Yet it wasn't. And I couldn't see that.

So I guess we need a list. How to know when it's time to let go.

1.  Your book's been rejected by everybody and you don't know how to make it work or making it work requires huge changes.

That usually means there's something "fundamental" wrong with the story or the writing. I wrote an entire manuscript about a hero who was vice president of the United States and a heroine with superpowers. It was rejected everywhere. Years later when I pulled it out and read it, I realized the heroine wasn't right for the Vice President. She belonged with one of the secondary characters, a former lover. Now... Right now, you are all saying...but that can be rewritten. Exactly. It can't be revised. Too much would change. But it can be rewritten, which, in this case means starting over and if you're starting over...it's not the same book. It's a new book. Shoot the old one and bury it. Start over.

2.  You have a big glob of story types, character flip-flopping, scenes you put in just to make it fit a trend. (Perhaps you've added a little titillating sex because you heard that sells...or at the last minute you made your hero a super secret angel because you heard angels were hot...)

Chasing trends will frequently end up with a book that's a gob of gook. You have a little suspense, a little traditional romance, the heroine talks to God -- making it inspirational, the hero's a secret angel, and it's all set in a small town.

But your book has no focus...no heart. Every book has to have a story that pulls every aspect of the book together. If your super secret angel is sent to earth to help the heroine who talks to God (from her small town...in Texas...Syracuse people should be laughing right now) then you could have a cohesive clear story.

But if your heroine is super religious one minute and climbing all over the super-secret angel the next, her character is all over the board. And though we know people like that in real life, unless the heroine's conflict is that she's kinda crazy, inconsistent characters don't work. In fact, they ruin books. Can she be fixed? Can this manuscript be saved? Maybe...but, again, it would require so much REWRITING (nine chances out of ten) that you'd probably end up with a new story. In fact, in a case like that I'd advise the author to take a breath, write a NEW one-paragraph story summary, and start over. True, she might be able to pull a scene or two from the original version, but...again...if you are only pulling a few scenes you aren't saving a book...you're writing a new book.

And that's it. Two things. Something fundamentally wrong and gobs of gook. The only two reasons manuscripts can't be saved.

I believe most manuscripts CAN be saved. Which is why I wrote the workshop! LOL But I also believe you need to be honest about what's wrong. You have to take a breath and read your manuscript with an open mind and be tough on yourself.

About a year before I sold my first manuscript, I was looking at the scene I had written the night before and (tired because I'd worked that day and was raising three kids) finally I just said, Oh, it's good enough.

And I paused.

I thought...what if it isn't?

What if good enough isn't good enough?

And from that point forward every time I said, Oh, that's good enough...I'd stop and rethink the scene or change the description or fix the character. I never let "good enough" dictate my work...and guess what? I sold that book.

So, only two reasons a manuscript can't be saved. Something fundamentally wrong or gobs of gook...but the real lesson here is don't be too easy on yourself. We're in an age now when anything can be published, but remember the Internet is forever. Just as that picture of you mooning from the sun roof of the limo for our best friend's bachelorette party will be around for your next potential employer to find...everything you publish or say will be out there in the ether.

Ask yourself...Ten years from now, will I be happy people can find this and read it? Is this how I want to be known as an author?

Yikes.

Happy Monday and Happy Reading

susan meier