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

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Dirty Word

Last week we talked about following our hearts -- writing what we believe we were born to write and boldly taking our places in the grand scheme of publishing.

This week, we're going to look at the other side of the coin...Ambition.

For every person who crushes our dreams by telling us following our hearts is foolish, there's a person who whispers in our ears that being ambitious about your career is wrong ...that ambition is a dirty word.

A few of those whisperers believe that shooting for the stars is setting yourself up for heartbreak. The rest believe being ambitious destroys the "art" of writing.

I'm making a funny face at the computer. First, thanks to those people in your friends and family who have so little faith in you they don't believe you'll make a list, win a Rita, find a following. Second, um...how can wanting people to read your work destroy the "art" of your project?

It can't.

In fact, I like ambitious people. They are the writers with the most passion. True, sometimes it's misguided. I saw a newbee...a writer so green she'd only decided to WRITE last year...and when her book was done she simply put it up on Amazon...Yes. Gasp. Wheeze if you want. Then realize this author believed in herself and her book. Think for a minute about her passion. And ask yourself if that isn't what's missing from your career.

Ambition doesn't make you less of an artist. Sometimes hitting the marks of a bestseller (heck, figuring out the marks of a bestseller) is a boon for your readers. The harder you try to be the best, the better your books will be and the more wonderful their reading experience.

It doesn't matter if you come at writing from the perspective of writing the books of your heart or writing the best darned books anybody's ever read...if you're giving readers your all...if you're creating interesting, compelling stories, readers win.

So don't dismiss ambition in favor of heart books. Some of the best books were written by ambitious people who desperately wanted readers to love their work. And don't dismiss heart books because people who write for the joy of the story can break barriers.

Find YOUR place. Find the system, mindset that works for you. And be YOU.


Happy Monday and Happy Reading

susan meier

Monday, July 21, 2014

Quietly Giving Up

Last week, when I realized it was time for people to begin zipping off to RWA I actually breathed a sigh of relief. I've been 40 pounds overweight for two years. I exercise at least four times a week, diet (most days) and obsess over old clothes I can't fit into, but I still can't lose the weight. Not having to be mad at myself for being overweight was such a relief that I wondered...

When do I let go of this and just start buying my clothes from Omar The Tentmaker...when do I quietly let go and let life go on...

Which made me segue into wondering...are there times when writers should let go?

I used to have the ambition of being a New York Times bestseller. Never made it. I wanted to make great gobs of money...that didn't happen either. LOL But I do have a very nice following of readers. Enough to make me feel that my stories touch people. :)

And  that prompts me to ask the question...

Is it okay to be just "good"  and not be one of the best? Is it okay to not make the lists? Or is it time to just go quietly into that good night? As authors, how do we measure success? Now that making the NYT list isn't what it used to be, and our benchmarks are skewed by a plethora of $.99 bundles, what should we be focused on?

I'm thinking kinda deep today! LOL

I've never written for editors or chased trends. (Though it's true that I've EDITED books based on editor comments...that's a have to. LOL) My guiding source of inspiration has usually been "what I wanted to read." And, yes, I fell into a real boom of writing about babies. LOL!!!

Still, readers responded to those books.

By today's standards, though, the following that was a "nice" size, back before ebooks and Indie authors, isn't a number anybody's jumping up and down for anymore.

So do I quit?  I mean, really? I'm now small compared to my competition who are leaving me in the dust. I'm not a contender. Not close to being a contender. Am I not just wasting time?

And if I quit...what do I say to readers? Isn't bailing almost like deserting the readers who faithfully followed me for two DECADES?

When I really thought all this through, in my heart of hearts I knew that everybody has a place. Every BOOK has a place. True, the place of some of my first books in my career was to teach me how to write (LOL) but that's an important place too.

When authors talk about following our hearts, writing books of our heart, there's sometimes an air of rebellion to it. But is it really rebellion to sense your place in the grand scheme of things, walk over to it and own it?

You might not make billions of dollars, but there's a readership out there looking for you, for your books. The TIMES or USA TODAY lists might never pick you up. But a lonely widow might. Or a teenager. Or a housewife. Or a woman on the beach who just wants a break from her life and to be swept away in another (cooler...LOL) life.

Right now, money is tight, jobs are difficult, raising children a full-time job. Every time a tired or lonely or desperate-for-a-break reader picks up your book and finds a few stress-free hours...you've fulfilled your calling.

So, the next time you don't make a list, don't sell enough books to pay for your cover, feel like a failure when your friends can afford three beach trips each year with their over-abundant royalties...think of that reader.

You might not have made a lot of money, but you fulfilled your purpose. And isn't that really why you got into this profession? To entertain? To tell your stories?

Happy Monday...and Happy Reading

susan meier

Monday, July 14, 2014

Never Underestimate the Power of a Magic Marker

I preach all the time about using highlighters or markers to hone in on one thread of the story, the hero or heroine's conflict, or their growth arc. It's a neat, clean way to to focus on one part of the story -- apart from everything else -- and make sure it works. Because writing a book is a lot like braiding, one story line overlaps the other as a third story line twists around those two, it's sometimes hard for us to imagining pulling one thread out, examining it, making sure it works...but, trust me, sometimes it needs to be done. As in the case of my recent hero who needed to be tormented more than I'd tormented him. :)

Still, this goes beyond "needing to be done." When you're working to make your project the best it can be, you owe it to yourself, your audience, and the project, to give it your best. And sometimes that means putting every aspect of the story under a microscope.

I'm here to tell ya, it's not hard. LOL Print your document and use a highlighter to illuminate an individual thread and then focus only on that thread. The first thing you're going to find is that because threads are only a "part" of the story, they're not long or hard to follow. The second thing you'll see is how easy it is to spot both errors and successes. In an hour or so, you will have not just followed a thread, but you'll either have approved it or fixed it.

And in the long run, you'll have a better book.

Happy Monday...and Happy Reading!

susan meier

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hold the Cheese

This weekend my husband and I finally watched the episodes of Dominion that we'd recorded. Frankly, (lean in so I can whisper) I didn't think I was going to like it. Oh, it seemed cool enough. One good angel out of an army of angels who'd gone awry (when God got tired of us and left us all to our own devices) trying to save humanity from hoards of bad angels who thought we were spoiled pampered children...but it also seemed kind of hokey. And done. Seriously...who hasn't seen a fallen angel story?

Enter some great characters and interesting scripts acted out by some really great actors, and I sat up on my chair and watched episode two with real interest. This was far from cookie-cutter.

A lot of ...well, not nice ... people will say that romance novels are the same story told over and over. To a degree that's true. You have a hero and heroine who ultimately fall in love and have a happy ending.

Beyond that, though, everything is up for grabs. Your setting, your conflicts, your external plot can be unique and make your story different enough to take readers on a unique journey.

But notice above that I also mentioned the acting in Dominion? I did that for a reason. This show could have come across as same old same old...or hokey, or cheesy...except for good acting and good directing.

That's one of the bugaboos of our profession. You can come up with a great story, but that doesn't mean it will be a great book. Poorly written, even the best plot can fall flat or read like string cheese. 

Probably the best decision I ever made I made twenty years ago, when, after having been published at least five times, I decided to study craft. I went from being someone so desperate to be published that she threw spaghetti against the wall, hoping to please someone, anyone. To being someone who finally got it that books were meant to entertain. And if I was going to come up with great stories, I was going to tell them in such a way that people would enjoy them...or a way that would transport readers...or a way that would really touch readers.

Because that's your job. Not to reach 50,000 or 60,000 or even 100,000 words, but to entertain people with those words.

So watch Dominion. Keep an open mind. LOL But, notice how villainous the villain is, and the way the hero has damned good reason to be a reluctant hero. He isn't just "not in the mood" to save the world. He's been let down by the very people who now want him to save them. See how the little girl (who could, if poorly written, only be a plot device) actually worms her way into your heart. And notice how the hero angel Michael and villain angel Gabriel sort of have their own story -- a bigger, juicier story -- going.

That's a good story. And luckily the producers seem to be taking the time to do it well.

Happy Monday...and Happy Reading!

susan meier