Gratitude in the Off season

It’s nearly the end of March, and I should be blogging about my next book that will hit store shelves in a couple of weeks. I am quite excited about it, however, I have other things on my mind tonight. But to answer Jennie’s question—and thank you for your kind comments—my next book, Captive Heart, will be released in April. Go here, and you can read all about it. Come back next week, and I’ll tell you more—including how to win a free copy. I’ll be giving away about a dozen.

So next week fun; tonight, a little serious.

Last November, in the typical season of Thanksgiving, I worked hard all month to help our family think about and express gratitude. My daughter and I die cut what seemed like about a thousand paper leaves, and every day of the month each member of our family wrote one thing he/she was grateful for on a leaf and put it on our patio doors (note: double sided sticky tape on glass doors is a bad idea). Some of those expressions of gratitude had me rolling my eyes (Facebook, seriously?), but others I could tell had actually taken thought and reflection. For me, at least, it really was a month of Thanksgiving.

And then the year rolled on.

And then the new year came.

And then March was upon us, before I’d even managed to get all the Christmas decorations collected and put away. My own March Madness ended up being a little more intense than I had planned. In addition to finishing up/turning in a manuscript (enough by itself on top of my usual, overbooked schedule to make me sufficiently stressed), our family has been slammed with varied and yucky illnesses all month.

Our two-year-old hasn’t been to church the past three weeks, while he’s been battling a runny nose, chest cold, fever, cough, croup, can’t-sleep-all-night thing. It’s been a pitiful sight each Sunday to see him pull his dress shirt and tie from the closet and croak in his raspy voice, “church,” when he notices the family members who are healthy (a whole two of us, on average) preparing to leave.

My husband, who is never sick actually took time off work, went to a doctor, and ended up with two prescriptions. My oldest daughter, currently in a beat-the-clock race to finish courses in time for graduation, has been wiped out too. Last week I became the final one to fall and succumbed as well. For the past five or so days, I’ve been sorely missing my ability to breathe normally. Just when I thought that surely, we were all on the way to being healthy again, today—in a fitting end to our sickly month—the family computer contracted a virus and crashed. Now, not only can I not breathe without sounding worse than Darth Vader, I cannot pay my bills online. Hardships indeed.

And yet . . . I’ve had much opportunity this month to think about how very blessed we are. Yes, money always seems to be tight, and we have been worried about finding new renters for our previous home. But, we have a home! Two of them, in fact, that are standing and in good repair. We have a pantry and refrigerator full of healthy food. Clean water flows from our tap. We are warm, safe, and mostly well.

Our son has been stressed about the cost of college, finding a good job, and choosing a less expensive school to attend next year. But how wonderful that he has a state full of universities to choose from. How blessed we are to have him home again.

I am often stressed because my days are ridiculously full. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to fit in all the playing with my toddler, homeschooling my daughter, helping and listening to my older children, spending time with my husband, serving in my calling, cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, bill-paying, and writing that needs to be done. And yet, I am here to do it. What a wonderful blessing.

Last month my husband and I attended a funeral for a family friend. I didn’t personally know the woman, a mother of five, not much older than me, who had passed away. But her funeral so touched my life that I doubt a day has passed since that I haven’t thought of it—of her. She was a beautiful woman who loved life and especially her family. Her bishop and husband both spoke of her reluctance to leave them behind. She suffered greatly during her last seven years of life and battling cancer, likely staying on earth as long as she did to raise her children as much as she could.

I imagine that those last seven years were a little different than some that came before she was ill. Perhaps things like keeping her home clean, staying caught up on the laundry, and even paying the bills slipped in their level of importance. Certainly time spent with her children did not. But I imagine that daily interactions with them—even things like helping with math homework, reminding them for the sixth time that it was their night to do the dishes, or caring for them when they were ill became precious moments of opportunity. Not simply one more part of a too-busy day, as I have often felt.

When we returned home from her funeral, I kept the program, reflecting on the life of this woman I’d never met, and tucked it in my nightstand drawer, as a frequent reminder to feel gratitude. Turns out, that was good timing, because March has been a bit of a rough month for our family, in more ways than those mentioned in this blog. But it has also been one of reflection. Who am I to complain that I feel awful? That our toilet paper consumption has doubled from the blowing of noses? That some of our children are struggling? That we’re probably going to have to buy a new computer? I’m here. I am alive. I have the opportunity to keep loving and serving my family, difficult and busy as that may, at times, be.

The tragedies unfolding in Japan are overwhelming to contemplate. To lose family, friends, a home and more is suffering beyond what I have ever been called on to endure. So I am left to think that a little sniffle, a little extra worry now and then is probably a good thing because it makes me grateful. For health, for family, for the opportunity to have a maddening month every now and then.

March Madness and a book you should buy

A short post tonight (or shorter than usual, anyway), as I’ve created my own version of March madness, by committing to my new editor at Covenant that I will send my next manuscript to him no later than March 28th. It’s going to be both a long and short month. Long nights because I’ll be up writing instead of getting sleep. Short days because I’ve got a lot to do before the 28th.

Deadlines are generally a good thing for me. I especially love them when they’re past, and I made it! Oh, the joy I felt after finishing the 20th Whitney romance nominee and casting my vote in January. April promises similar bliss.

But last week I took a brief respite from writing to read Rob Wells’ young adult dystopian novel, Variant. It’s not scheduled to be released until this October, and I’m truly sorry for all of you out there that will have to wait that long to read it. It’s a GREAT book—totally worth getting behind on the laundry, feeding my family mac-n-cheese, and forgetting a couple of appointments and things my kids had. Thanks, Rob, for so thoroughly messing with my mind and life for a couple of days.

Like other dystopian’s I’ve read in the recent past—the Hunger Games trilogy, and Ally Condie’s MatchedVariant puts teenagers in a situation where all is not right in the world, and they’ve got to rise above it/figure it out/buck the system to first, survive, and second, get what they really want (usually a love interest). While I really enjoy dystopian novels, one thing that seemed to set Rob’s apart and make it even more enjoyable is that it begins in the present day. The main character, Benson, is a typical teenager (one who’s been raised in the foster care system) from a typical place (Pittsburg) who ends up in a boarding school that is anything but typical. Because the story is set in our day, Rob didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining how the “society” functioned. Instead, we learn how the school functions—or doesn’t—along with Benson when he’s the new student. The story held me captive (hint!) from the very first page, and the cliff hanger ending made me want to drive up to Rob’s house and shake what happens next out of him.

What’s not to love about a book like that?

So along with fun-sized chocolate this Halloween, treat yourself to some genuinely tense moments by reading Variant. It’s available for preorder on Amazon now, and if you are on my Christmas list, there is a good chance you’re getting one.

Happy reading!

Gems of Wisdom from Life, the Universe, and Everything

For the past twenty-two years I’ve lived in the shadow of my alma mater, BYU (part of that time I was a student there), right here in Provo, Utah. For eleven of those years, I’ve been serious about writing. Yet last weekend was the first time I’ve ever attended the annual sci-fi/fantasy writing symposium, Life the Universe, and Everything, that’s been held at BYU for the past twenty-nine years.

All those other years of missed opportunity . . . Definitely my loss.

A few hours there, in the auditorium and conference rooms packed with about eight hundred other writers, and I was feeling motivated, inspired and—a little on overload, so great was the quantity of excellent information being crammed into my brain. Fortunately, a lot of that information made it to my laptop to be more thoroughly digested later. For those not able to attend, here are a few gems of wisdom I gleaned from the fabulous presenters and classes.

From Plotstorming with Paul Genesse—

“‘Writers who write great plots have really good books.'”

“‘Writers who write great characters have really good careers.'”

“‘Our primary focus as a writer should be to make readers connect emotionally with our characters.'”

This one I loved (no pun intended). The favorite story type is . . .

1. Boy meets girl.

Yes, romance rocks!

From Rewriting to Greatness with Dave Farland—

It was both inspiring and depressing to learn that Dave does 6-7 edits on every book he writes! On one hand, I feel a little better about my own tedious editing process. On the other hand, it looks like I won’t necessarily get any faster at this. But I loved that he titled the class, “Editing to Greatness.” That’s really what it is all about. A lot of people can write a story, but taking the time, going through the necessary steps of cutting and rewriting and adding and rewriting what you added, just putting the work in to make a story great is really what being a master storyteller is all about.

ONE of the SIX edits Dave does is a syllabic edit. This edit involves taking a good look at word choice and syllable length in action or other intense, fast-paced scenes. Using words with less syllables in those scenes makes for a quick, easy read, and therefore makes the scene feel more immediate and tense.

Wow, is all I could think of as he explained this process. I never would have thought of that one on my own. And now I’m wondering . . . for those slower, emotionally packed, highly romantic scenes, should I be searching for words with many syllables? Probably not :)

From Charisma is not a dump stat with Jake Black, Howard Tayler, and Tracy Hickman—

First, I have to say that this was a fun class. It’s also a class I needed, and I probably still need several more like it. I’m pretty content at home in a mom t-shirt (meaning that there is a good chance someone has wiped something on my shirt throughout the day) and jeans, sitting at the computer with my hair in a messy ponytail and wearing little to no make-up. That’s the real author look, isn’t it?

According to these guys, not so. We need to figure out what our uniform is (based on who our audience is) and then wear that out in public, because “clothes matter!”

As the panel was discussing this, I glanced at the shoulder of my white sweater where, on my way out the door that morning, I’d noticed a dried glob of some unidentified kid goo (cereal, mashed banana, snot?). I’d done my best to scrub it off with a baby wipe, but it was still there. Nice uniform, Michele.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I’d been unable to find socks—without holes—that matched my pants, so I’d borrowed a pair of my husband’s (socks, not pants). His foot is a size 12; mine is a 7. You see the problem. I saw it clearly too whenever I sat down. Nothing like a big, puckery wad of sock heel sticking out from your shoe to scream professionalism.

As I said, I needed this class.

Aside from discussing wardrobe choices, these guys also did a great job of emphasizing the importance of each and every interaction we have. “Everyone is someone important, so treat them that way,” is advice you can’t go wrong with. I sincerely hope to be as genuine and helpful as these guys were in each and every step of my writing path.

Both my computer and composition book are filled with fabulous notes, like the sampling above, from LTUE. I can’t share them all, but I do want to mention one more wonderful, out-of-this world, chock-full-of-awesome-advice class. It was taught by Elana Johnson, author of the upcoming YA novel, Possession. She taught a class on pitching to agents that was INCREDIBLE in it’s wealth of detail and practical advice and instruction. If you happen to be going to the ANWA conference this weekend, go to her class! You won’t regret it. Plus, she brought chocolate 😀 Thanks, Elana, for the great advice and for emailing your entire presentation. If your book is half as fabulous as you were, it should sell great!

Happy writing, everyone. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings on life, the universe, and Everything.

Love it; love it not.

In honor of Valentines Day yesterday, here are a few things I love—or not.

I love that my fourteen-year-old and her friend were happy with their “single” status this Valentines Day. Here she is, wearing the shirt she made, celebrating her boyfriendless status and warning guys she’s planning to stay that way.

But . . . It didn’t really matter. Tonight she came in and flopped on my bed and told me about the guy she likes and how he likes her back. ARRGH! I do not like the whole teenage romance thing. Worry #784 to add to my list of things I think about at night when I should be falling asleep.

I love that my husband and I were able to go out to dinner at the Olive Garden last night. I love that I got dressed up and did my hair and met him there after work. I loved sitting across the table from him, holding his hands, and pretty much keeping to our rule of not discussing our offspring. I love that we both had cards for each other. I love that mine made him laugh and his made me blush. Dinner was excellent; the company was even better.

But . . . I did not love the family of six sitting behind us. I did not love their noisy kids who were climbing across the table. I did love that it wasn’t us disturbing the peace this time. Yes, we have been there, done that—-as recently as December when we went out to celebrate my birthday. During that excursion, Andrew kept reaching over the booth to pat the guy behind us on the head (he was bald), he spit rice all over the table, and he knocked over a glass and it shattered in my dinner. I really do get the whole “trying to take your children out to eat with you” thing. But on Valentines? Only in Utah.

I love that we have church from 1-4 this year. Every other week—those weeks it isn’t my turn to get up with our toddler who thinks 5:30 a.m. is an acceptable time to rise—I get to sleep in. I love that we’re making good use of our Sunday mornings (my girls are not loving working on personal progress every week, but I am!). And finally, I love being on time to church and not feeling rushed.

But . . . I do NOT love the 1-4 church schedule because it is right during naptime (some serious extra blessings for the nursery leaders this year!). This is Andrew last Sunday after church. I was fixing dinner as fast as I possibly could, but he didn’t make it.

What do you do with a two-year-old who falls asleep at 4:15? If you wake him up—as we did last Sunday—you suffer the wrath of the two-year-old the rest of the night. He literally cried for an hour. If you let him sleep, he’ll wake up around midnight and realize he’s starving and he’d like dinner and some playtime. Either way it’s ugly.

I love the TV show, The Middle. It makes me feel waaaay better about our family (compared to the Hecks, we are normal), and it’s my comic relief—when I get to watch it.

But . . . I do not love that it is on at 7:00 Wednesday evenings, a time nearly impossible for me to watch TV. I do love that my son set up NetFlicks on our computer when he was home last weekend. I do not love that the past two days I’ve caught my daughter watching Scooby doo when she was supposed to be doing her K12 lessons. Now I’ve got to have consequences and monitor her and—Sigh. One step forward; two steps back.

I love that I’ve been meeting my goal of blogging regularly again.

But . . . I do not love that I still haven’t turned in my next manuscript to Covenant, nor have I sent out all those queries I told myself I would during the first quarter of this year. To that end, I need to start writing shorter posts!

I’d love to hear your love and love nots. It seems to me that everything really does have two sides. I hope your Valentines Day weighed in on the love side and was brimming with romance.

Dream Big and Go For It!

First, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who took the time here and on Facebook last week to “help my hook.” Unfortunately, it still needs help, but hopefully it’s a little closer now. Great suggestions all—from Lu Ann, catching a glaring error (Yikes!), to thoughts about whether or not to start with dialogue, and which direction the story should go. I really do appreciate the input.

I haven’t blogged much about homeschool lately, but we are still plugging away over here. January brought an exciting change, in that we added three hours of theatre to our weekly schedule (which means that we are now reading the history book late into the evening—disguised as a bedtime story—more than ever). Cramming this additional activity into our already bursting week has, in this case, been well worth it. But it was an experience we almost missed out on.

At the beginning of the year, on one of my many homeschool group lists, I read about a new theatre opportunity at the Covey Center. My daughter expressed interest, and since the play they were going to be doing was Annie, I told her she could try out if she wanted to. I hoped she might be able to be one of the orphans or a servant at Mr. Warbucks mansion.

The day before the tryout was Sunday, and I was gone much of the day. I asked my fourteen-year-old to read over the script with her little sister, so she’d be ready. Then, in the midst of other responsibilities that day, I promptly forgot about it.

The next morning Hannah reminded me when she announced at breakfast, “I’m going to try out for the part of Annie.”

My immediate reaction was, oh no. This will not be good. She will be crushed. There will be tears. Must not allow that to happen. But it was a Monday morning, and I was still half asleep, so I didn’t actually say all that to her right away. Instead, I thought about it.

Good thing.

Who am I, I finally decided, to tell her what she can and cannot aim for? Yes, she has dyslexia, making reading a huge struggle for her. No, she hasn’t ever been in a play, nor has she had any singing experience (I figured the annual primary program probably didn’t count). Surely those things would stack against her, but when we headed off to the tryouts, she had a huge grin on her face. She was confident and excited.

On the way to the audition, I did try to tell her—as gently as possible—that there would likely be many little girls there, all of whom would love to play Annie.

“And some of those girls may have been in other plays before. The directors may want to give the lead to someone with more experience.”

“I know, Mom. I just want to try.”

And she did. My worries came back as I filled out her audition paper and wrote none next to prior experience for just about everything. But she went into the audition smiling, and when she came out a while later, she was clutching a yellow call back slip.

“Not very many kids got these!” she said excitedly and then proceeded to tell me all about the song she sang and the parts she read. “They even had me read Miss Hannigan,” she told me. “And I did her all snarly.”

Who knew? Not me. Who’d have guessed that the girl who dreads reading could pick up a script and read with expression? I was starting to think that Hannah would likely get to be an orphan, and that this could be very good. I’m all about read aloud sessions that are not sheer torture, and she seemed to be getting into this script thing.

During the callback, the girls were asked to dance. This, Hannah could do. In fact, she’d done quite a lot of it at her previous dance studio (before her brother went to college and the money for dance lessons went with him). Now she was really having fun. I snuck down the hall and peeked in for a minute, and it was then I realized she might just have a chance at the lead.

For the next several days we waited anxiously. Then finally, the email.

“Hannah has been assigned the part of an orphan in scenes 1, 2 . . . and she will play Annie in scenes 5, 6, 7.” The directors had split the role, giving Hannah the lead for part of the play. She’d done it! And it was exactly what the teacher—me—ordered. A healthy boost to her self-esteem, and the potential for lots of reading practice. In fact, she is the one coming to me with script in hand each day, telling me it’s time to read. Love it!

In the weeks since then, Hannah has skipped off to rehearsal with joy in her heart. She loves the play. She’s made new friends. She’s happy in all the scenes, both when she is Annie, when she is an orphan, and when it’s her turn to get props on and off stage. I continue to marvel at our good fortune and at her can-do attitude. At first, I wondered where she got it from, but a quick look around the dinner table, and I had my answer.

My husband thinks he is some kind of superhero—or ironman. And he is, having run over a dozen marathons, competed in several triathlons, and completed an Ironman competition last year in 14 hours. He sets goals; he works hard; he achieves. Last year leading up to the Ironman, we all watched his intense and amazing training. And Hannah was right there with us at the finish line.

Hannah’s brother dreamed of going to a college that costs $26,000 a year in tuition alone. Coming from this single income family of seven, that goal was farther out there than the Ironman. Along with the rest of us, Hannah watched the color rise on the chart on the basement door. She was part of it, giving up dance so he could get there. And there he is, and has been all year, at the school he dreamed of going to. He’s loving it. He made it happen. He’s been working on more scholarships to continue to make it happen.

Hannah’s sister wanted to get a job as a lifeguard. This was another one of those “mother’s mental cringe” moments. As, But you don’t even swim that well, trailed through my mind, I was telling Carissa it was a great idea and she should go for it. She did. She nearly drowned a couple of times attempting to pass the tests, but she did pass and in the process became a very strong swimmer. She’s still a lifeguard, and she’s the youngest CPR instructor the Red Cross has right now.

Hannah’s other sister is the youngest on her school dance team. Why wait until I’m a sophomore to try out? was her mantra. It was a good one. She’ll be heading to New York to dance with that team next month.

And the craziest thing of all in our family—Hannah’s mom thinks she can write books! She imagines stories, writes them down, rewrites them, rewrites them some more. She sends them off to agents. She collects rejections. She goes back and forth on edits with her editor. Her books are in the library. Hannah thinks it’s fun to see them when we’re there.

I’ve realized that we are a family of dreamers. We imagine we can do difficult things. Quite honestly, I think we are all a lot like Hannah in that we don’t see the obstacles as much as we see the possibilties. We may not always realize success quite so simply as Hannah did, but that never seems to stop us for long.

We dream, we believe, we achieve. We like to go and do. And when we’ve gone and done, we like to go and do some more. I’ve loved publishing in the LDS market, and I hope to continue, but I also have dreams of publishing nationally. It may be a long time coming, but those dreams still burn bright for me. My husband is already gearing up for another Ironman next year. My son is talking about Ivy League graduate schools back east. My daughter wants to be an EMT—within the next eighteen months. My other daughter has talked about dancing at Juliard someday (somehow I think next month’s New York trip is only going to intensify that desire). Are we all crazy? Maybe a little, but I think it’s mostly a good thing.

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Hannah wanted to be, and believed she could be, Annie. I hope, in the future, she’ll continue to think she can be anything she wants to. And the next time she comes to me and tells me she wants to be an olympic gymnast or be an artist for Disney, I’m going to banish those negative thoughts and tell her to dream big and go for it.

Help My Hook

Last week Nathan Bransford held his annual first paragraph contest. On a whim I entered the first paragraph of one of my novels in progress. Today I learned that it . . . is not a finalist. Considering there were 1500 entries, that was to be expected. But it was a fun exercise, and it was interesting to see the paragraphs that were chosen. It was also a good opportunity to examine my own hook(s) and to admit they still need some work. Unfortunately, figuring out exactly what they need is proving difficult.

This is the one I entered.

From the moment we are born, we are dying. This my father taught me. We gasp and tiny lungs expand, inhaling that first breath of air—air we need to live but that ultimately ages us. The heart, already beating for several months, pounds away at a frenetic pace, pumping blood throughout the body. It’s rhythm feels dependable—invincible, even—but eventually it will grow old, tire, and cease to beat. With time bones become brittle, skin wrinkles, hair thins and grays; bodies grow infirm. Death is the inevitable end to life. All this my father taught me. I wish, for me, it were still true.

After posting this entry, I realized that without the text that immediately follows, this kind of sounds like the hook to a vampire novel, which it is NOT. Nothing against those who write about vampires, but not my thing. What is my thing (or one of them currently) are fairytale retellings. The above paragraph is from a sequel to the first of these sort of stories that I wrote. It is very much in the drafting stage (was my NanoWrimo project this past November), so I’m not too worried about getting it just right anytime soon.

The other fairytale is a different story (no pun intended). I’ve played with it for a couple of years now—yes, years. Some projects are slower than others, and this one I haven’t been in any hurry with. But for better or worse, it’s time to send out some queries. My last excuse—that all my free time was spent judging for the Whitney Awards—ended at midnight last night. I’ve done my homework and have a list of agents. I even have a query letter ready to go. And yet, still I drag my feet.

Why? I don’t think it’s because I’m worried about rejection. I’ve been down this road before and have quite a lovely collection of letters (set to music on a dvd, no less) to remind me of what a difficult task lies ahead. I don’t fear it like I used to, but rather see it as a part of the process. My story is a tiny piece in an enormous publishing puzzle. It may take a lot of tries to find where that piece will fit. It may be in another puzzle altogether at some distant date down the road. That’s the reality of this business, and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is sending out something that is not the absolute best I can make it. For all the work I’ve done with this story, for as much as I love it and feel like it is the best thing I’ve ever written, I also know there is still something that is not quite right. That something is the first paragraph.

Not a good sign when I’m hoping to get an agent’s attention.

But I do feel it isn’t very—hooky, as in interesting, intriguing, captivating and all that. In fact, I chose not to enter it in the contest because I didn’t think it was strong enough. As with the other (above) paragraph, I like it as a whole with the rest of the page that follows. Unfortunately, I may not get the luxury of an entire page to hook an agent. It is far more likely that, if the first paragraph does not immediately intrigue, the overworked, overtired, ever-behind agent will not look further and a rejection will be sent.

So I’m asking for your help. I need fresh eyes and ideas to get this hook in shape. I want to send my queries with confidence. Last week I gave a lot of unsolicited advice; now it’s your turn—and I’m asking! What might make this paragraph better? What is it missing? Did you fall asleep already?

Any and all honest feedback will be most appreciated. Thank you in advance for your collective, brilliant suggestions. As you may have noted with my post last week, I was merely passing on what I’ve learned from others. The LDS writing community is wonderful that way—we share, encourage, and help each other become better writers. I continue to be grateful to be a part of it.

Here are the first few paragraphs for your critique.

“There is no such thing as a princess.” Ogres are another manner entirely. One of those stood behind me in the form of my mother, watching me, breathing down my back as I bent over the sink, scrubbing the pot from our breakfast mush. “And since there are no princesses, I’ve no need to worry about meeting one.”
Mother sighed her disapproval. “You don’t know that, Adrielle. You’ve not been to Tallinyne. You’ve not seen the things your father and I have.”
“Nor am I likely to.” I bit back angry words and turned around, reaching for a dishtowel. I should very much have liked to visit the capital, or at the least a neighboring township, but such a thing was out of the question. Once upon a time our family had been able to indulge in such luxuries. We hadn’t been well-to-do exactly, but there had been enough to eat, clothing to wear that wasn’t in tatters, and, most importantly, time—for something other than work. “Not ever,” I grumbled.

Judging for the Whitney Awards Part 2

As promised, here is a little more information on the criteria I personally look for when judging for the romance category of the Whitney Awards. Be forwarned, this is likely to be a long post, as each of these subjects could be a blog—or three—by themselves. I’ll do my best to give concise examples of each. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree or have another opinion. Feel free to take a nap if I’m boring you.

But romance, for me, is a passionate subject.

As I mentioned previously, there are no specific guidelines given to judges of the Whitney Awards. First, to answer Stephanie Black’s question about the process, what it comes down to is having a ranked list (from 1-20 in romance this year) of the books from best written to, well, the not best written. It would be more gentle, perhaps, to say favorite to least favorite, but the Whitney Awards are not about favorites—regarding authors, subject matter or anything else. Case in point being the general category last year. Jonathan Langford’s book, No Going Back, dealt with a subject matter—a teen boy’s struggle with same sex attraction—that I didn’t particularly want to delve into. As a mother of a teenage boy, this pretty much sounded like one of my worst nightmares. Based on that, one would think that there was no way this book was going to be my “favorite” or anything close. I began reading, and I wasn’t very far into the story before I found myself really caring about the main character and his plight. I’m happy to say I was one who voted it into finalist status. It was well-written and very deserving. And while I don’t count it as one of my favorite books—the subject matter just isn’t something I want to dwell on—it was definitely one of the best general fiction nominees last year.

I hope, in some small way, this reassures all whose books have been nominated. I believe the judges really do try their best to be fair, impartial, and accurate. Being a writer myself, I understand that to some extent we hold your heart in our hands. I want to treat it gently—but I also want it to get stronger!

One thing more about the process, and then I’ll get to the details. The judge’s ballot is different from the ballot that the academy receives. Judges are asked to compare every book to every other book in that category (as in, is book XYZ or book ABC more deserving of the Whitney Award?), so it is easiest to complete voting with a ranked list. Formulating that list is the difficult part. As I read, I don’t make any permanent decisions about where I will rank each book (though I have a pretty good idea with some). I do take notes about each nominee and record these on index cards. Then, as I progress with my reading, I am able to arrange those cards in the order I feel they belong.

Here is a small sample—the good, bad, and ugly—of some of the notes I’ve made while reading the romance nominees this year.

intense, realistic voice
Knew the end from the beginning, with no surprises along the way
Though the main characters were well developed, the secondary characters were flat and that made the storyline unbelievable.
Telling, telling, telling—so frustrating, because this plot could have been awesome.
Beautiful writing, right on for the time period.
Great romantic angst and emotional build up.
laugh out loud funny
This was a romance?
Couldn’t stand the guy . . . not buying that the protagonist could either.
Fantastic voice. Different and so fun.
So much head hopping, I am dizzy.

Okay, so some of those were pretty harsh. Blame it on my critique group. We’re kinda brutal, but it’s all in the name of improvement. And that’s the whole point of this post. I want every single romance nominee to be amazing. I want my decision, as a judge, to be nearly impossible because there are so many great choices. And more than that, I just want more good romance reads out there!

Here, once again in my opinion, are the things that make a wonderful, unforgettable romance.

A story that grabs my attention and pulls me in—
The first time I attended my critique group, I’d just finished reading what I was sure had to be a brilliant chapter, when a member of our group said to me, “I don’t know where your story begins, but it isn’t here. Go home, throw this away, and start over.” I remember swallowing a big lump of emotion and nodding like I understood what she meant. In reality, I had no clue, and it was quite a few months before the light bulb went on and I understood that my first chapter, while sweet and lovely and all that, was nothing that was ever going to capture a reader’s attention—much less a publisher’s. Readers these days are busy people. The only way I have time to read is when I choose to give up sleep. About once a week, I make that choice and begin a new book around 9 pm. If that book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, forget it. I need my sleep.

So what is it that pulls me in? Voice (whatever the heck that is, right? Good Grief by Lolly Winston is an example that comes to mind), a unique situation, or an immediate problem. The place a story needs to start is in the middle of the action. But don’t tell me what’s going on (as too many nominees did this year) show me. Set me squarely in a setting that pulls me from my room into the main character’s world. Let me see her in motion, and quickly see the type of person she is. For some excellent examples—see the finalist list next week.

Characters I care about—
This one is critical. They all are, but if you don’t have this one . . . your romance isn’t going to get off the ground. In a female character (assuming here that most of your readers are female), readers want someone they can, on some level, identify and empathize with. I really didn’t think I would like The Hunger Games (why would a forty-year-old mom want to read about teens killing each other? We have enough of that at our house already . . .), but in that very first chapter, I began to identify with Katniss, her love for her sister and her desire to provide for her family. When she traded places with her sister and put her own life in danger, I was hooked.

That isn’t to say that readers have to identify with everything in a character. Nor do we want a character to be perfect. This happens more often than not in romance, and it is very irksome. Female protagonists who are beautiful, slender, excellent cooks, good tempered, patient, kind, etc. aren’t realistic. A character should be just that, someone with a unique set of qualities (and flaws) that make her human—like the rest of us. But a word of caution here, please don’t create flaws in your character just to fill this requirement. This also happens far too often in romance, and readers see right through it. Instead, think hard about your protagonist’s life, where she’s come from and what experiences have molded her into the person she is.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the leading men in romance novels, often readers see more flaws than good. Word of warning: If the guy is a complete jerk at the beginning of the book and does something pretty unforgivable, or acts in a way that is immature, egotistical, promiscuous etc. then your reader is going to have a difficult time liking him. He’ll have to change, and the reader will have to see that change (and the motivations behind it) in a believable, realistic way. If the guy is not likable or lovable, but the girl loves him anyway, the reader then loses respect for her too. So ask yourself, what is it about this guy that makes the main character love him? And does that tip the scales on any baggage he might be carrying?

A couple of things to watch for with male characters—It’s all right for them to cry—once in a while, if something really drastic and awful happens. But when a guy cries, gets misty-eyed etc, all throughout the story, it’s not believable or desirable. Yes, we want our men to have feelings. But we don’t want them to be like us!
One other thing that the guys in my critique group have called me on a time or two—men don’t over think/over analyze/over discuss stuff like women do. If you’re in your guy’s POV, make sure it is a guy’s POV.

A believable plot— (and I’m going to add here, an interesting plot, as well)
There are only so many romance plots out there, right? And they all keep getting recycled. To some extent this is true. And in some ways, I think the job of the romance writer is more difficult than that of those who write other genres. In a mystery or suspense novel, the reader keeps turning pages, trying to discover who did what, who is good, who is evil, what clues add up to solve the mystery etc. If it’s a good suspense, often times all the threads don’t tie up neatly until the last few pages. Readers are given thrills along the way and some real satisfaction for having stuck it out so long.

In a romance, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, some difficult stuff happens, they overcome it, and they live happily ever after. As Jeff Savage would (and has) said, “bor-ing.” But by definition, a romance must end with the two main characters in a committed relationship, so really, the reader knows from the get go what the ending will be. Why even bother reading a romance? Because the ways to get from A-Z are infinite. Because reading (recreating, if you’re the writer) that wonderful, heady feeling of falling in love is so much fun!

What are a few ways to make that basic formula and those recycled plots believable and interesting?
-flip it around (using my own example here. In Counting Stars I based the plot loosely on a familiar rhyme—backwards. “the babies in the baby carriage, then comes marriage, last comes love”)
-Consider more than one love interest (Jacob and Edward, anyone?) One of the books I think should be a finalist did this extremely well, and for much of the book, I really didn’t know who the main character would end up with. What made this work is that both guys were viable choices. Sure, they weren’t perfect, but there were some pretty good things going for each of them, and she had feelings for both—ahh, angst. LOVE IT!
-Assemble a good supporting cast. This really is important. I remember reading somewhere (probably in the Romance Writer’s Report years ago) that every heroine needs a best friend to whom she can confide important feelings and events that move the plot forward. When a protagonist does not have this, then the reader is forced to rely on what is in the main character’s head (not always bad, esp. if the book is in first person) and any action we see. Along with this, well-developed secondary characters give the story depth and make it much more believable. If the people and world around your main characters fall flat, then the story will too.

A believable love story that builds in a natural, realistic way—
Years ago, Jeff Savage taught me about a common writing mistake called, “unearned emotion.” Basically, this is when a character is displaying emotion (in romance, it’s usually crying) before the reader has seen the cause of that emotion or when the character really has no cause to behave that way. Even more bothersome to me than unearned emotion, is unearned intimacy. Romance is about love, not lust. But when characters are throwing themselves at each other in chapter two, it makes the reader wonder. Fortunately, we don’t get much bodice ripping in the LDS market, but a passionate embrace and lengthy kiss that comes out of nowhere (as in, when the main characters have hardly spoken to each other for three chapters) is NOT believable. Worse than that, it cheats the reader of genuine, romantic tension and build up. Make us wait for that kiss, dang it. And then make it good.

Believable dialogue—this is the romance writer’s greatest tool. Please make it real. Silly, flirty, and redundant conversations aren’t how most people (or people we want to read about, anyway)speak to one another. Continuous fighting between characters makes a reader weary. Sure, they can start off on the wrong foot, but at some point fairly quickly in your story, that needs to change so the characters connect with each other.

Avoidance of head hopping/Point of View changes—Bless Angela Eschler for teaching me how important this is. When I turned in my first manuscript, it had several chapters with frequent POV changes. Angela (my most awesome editor at the time), said I had to fix them all. I pointed out that this is common in romance novels, and readers are smart and can easily follow POV changes. She pointed out that it was lazy writing. She was right. I was also right. Head hopping is sinfully common in the romance genre (where are all the editors, I say???), and yes, readers are generally smart enough to follow along. The problem is that it continuously pulls them out of the story. Our main job as writers is to pull the reader so thoroughly into our story that she forgets she is reading. This becomes impossible when the reader has to pay attention and is constantly jumping from one character’s thoughts to the other.

I think romance writers often feel the need to show both points of view. We feel the reader needs to see both sides, right now. They don’t. Josi Kilpack taught me that a scene should be placed in the POV of the character who has the most to lose. I’ve never gone wrong sticking with that advice. And it really is okay for the reader to wait until the next chapter to find out what the guy (or girl) is thinking.

An exercise I always do when I finish my first draft is to go back through the story and make a list, chapter by chapter, of whose point of view it is in. This helps me catch any head hopping I’ve done, and it also tells me if I’ve got the right balance in my story. Unless I’m writing in first person, I need to give a fair amount of time to the man in my story as well as the woman. A 2/3 (girl) to 1/3 (guy) to 1/2 and 1/2 ratio seems to work well.

A plot that moves forward instead of backward—Yes, you have to start your story in the action, but please don’t flashback to everything before that! Flashbacks, like head hopping, are a writing sin. Especially when they are long, complicated, and frequent. There are better ways to weave important back story and information into your plot (remember that best friend?). Like head hopping, the big problem with flashbacks is that it pulls the reader from your story. Do that too many times, and she drops it permanently.

Instead, move your plot forward. Every single scene must do that. This is one I struggle with. I’m happy to let my characters linger longer. Reader’s aren’t. So while a chapter may show a relationship building, it also needs to have something about it that is propelling your plot toward the final crisis and conclusion.

An overall package the suspends disbelief and evokes emotion—
If you meet all of the above criteria, there’s a good chance your story will suspend disbelief, but creating a story that evokes emotion can be even more difficult. At the Whitney Awards Banquet last year, when it was announced that Liz Adair’s Counting the Cost won the award for best romance, I leaned over to my husband and whispered knowingly, “her book made people cry.” I think books that make people feel succeed on a whole different level than books that simply entertain. That isn’t to say you have to write a tear jerker romance to win a Whitney in this category. But if you’re fortunate enough to have the voice, characters, plot, and romantic angst come together in a way that makes people laugh or cry, so much the better—for me as a reader! This is where writing really becomes an art form, and a practice in patience. Rewriting, editing, cutting dialogue and scenes, adding others in their place, really taking the time to play with words until they fit together magically is what being a writer is all about. Honoring those writers who have done that, is what the Whitney Awards are all about.

A sincere congratulations to each and every nominee this year. You wrote and published a book! What an amazing accomplishment. If you are a finalist, thank you for writing an outstanding book, for entertaining, inspiring, and moving the rest of us. As I said in my previous post, may we all continue to strive for excellence.

Judging for the Whitney Awards—part 1

For the third year in a row I have the privilege of being a judge for the Whitney Awards. In 2008 I judged the romance category; last year I read for both the mystery and general categories (INSANE!), and this year I am happily back in familiar territory reading romance once again.

It is a privilege to be a judge for these awards. For me, being asked to judge means that someone, somewhere must think I know something about writing. I hope, that after over a decade at it, I do. To be certain, I’m still learning and growing as a writer myself, and during the years I’ve judged I have come across more than a book or two that was way out of my league (like last year’s general fiction winner, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet).

Unfortunately, I’ve also come across books that have disappointed me—especially in the romance category. Romance has and probably always will get the bad rap as a genre of fluff and bodice ripping. This bothers me—a lot. I enjoy romance novels. I’m not embarassed to say I write them. After all, what could be better than writing about love, the greatest of human emotions? Writing those emotions, showing characters discovering love for the first time, working to keep that love, and overcoming obstacles to make it happen, is a wonderful thing. It’s also not an easy thing to do and do well.

In a suspense or mystery novel, if the bad guy isn’t all that bad (ie. truly, believably evil) and the plot is not mysterious enough to keep the reader guessing and turning pages, then things really don’t work well. And most stories in this genre that don’t work well, don’t make it to press. The same principles apply to romance. If the characters are not loveable (to the reader and each other), and the relationship isn’t shown growing (but the characters are suddenly thrown into a passionate embrace), then the story fails to be believable. And for the reader eagerly anticipating being swept away into an uplifting, romantic story, it is horribly disappointing. Unlike suspense, however, it seems there is more publisher leniency in the romance genre, and so we end up with fluff and bodice rippers. Both of which make me crazy :)

To that end, I’ve decided to do a couple of posts about what I personally look for in a book when judging for the Whitney Awards.

First, let me say that Whitney judges are not given a specific set of criteria to look for in a book. There are times I wish this were different, as I have judged contests with specific elements and point systems, and in many ways this makes the job of judging much easier. But because of the volume (entire books, and many of them!) that Whitney judges read and the limited time which they have to read them, the current system works best. It is not perfect—we’re dealing with humans here—and it is very subjective. But I do believe those in the position of judges take their jobs seriously and work hard to treat all entries equally and fairly.

Second, I’ve been on the other side of contests enough—with both the Whitneys and local and national writing organizations—to know how it feels to have a beloved manuscript (or in the case of the Whitneys, a beloved book) in the hands of others to be judged. Quite honestly, it can be a terrifying, frustrating, heartbreaking experience. With all that in mind, I tread with care, hoping to shed positive light on the Whitney experience for all involved.

Here, in a nutshell, are the top five things I look for when judging the romance category. In a forthcoming post I’ll talk more specifically about each of these.

1. A story that grabs my attention and pulls me in.
2. Characters I care about.
3. A believable plot.
4. A love story that builds in a natural, realistic way (see #3).
5. Good writing—believable dialogue, avoidance of head hopping/POV changes, a plot that moves forward, not back (as in continuous flashbacks), and an overall package that suspends disbelief and evokes emotion (laughter or sadness—love them both).

While reading Whitney nominees this year, I’ve come across books that failed at many of these. Happily, I have also read others that hit every one right on. To those writers, I say a heartfelt thank you for making my job so enjoyable. It is my hope that as the Whitney Awards continue to grow, being a judge becomes more difficult, as more and more of the nominees will consistently meet the above criteria. The Whitneys are all about reaching for, achieving, and recognizing excellence. May all of us who write continue to strive for it.

The Provo Tabernacle–My personal Memories

This evening I had the privilege of attending Lex De Azevedo’s Gloria, The Life of Christ, Part 1. In addition to being an absolutely spectacular and moving performance, it was also a dedication to the memory of the Provo Tabernacle and the spirit our entire community enjoyed in that beautiful building. Mayor Curtis urged all in attendance to take a few minutes to write down our own experiences there, to reflect on the “soul” of that special place and what it meant to us. My memories, while not as plentiful or poignant as those President Holland and others shared this evening, are nonetheless dear to me. The Provo Tabernacle was just a building, but it was also a marvelous piece of history which myself and thousands of others were in some small way entwined in.

Back in the good old days–1986, to be exact– when I was a Freshman at BYU, I had my first glimpse of the Provo Tabernacle. I was on a date, headed to a now non-existent dance club on Center Street. Unfortunately, I ended up having a slight problem that evening. I was a young freshman, just seventeen years-old, and one had to be eighteen to enter the dance club. I don’t remember the particulars of how we worked out that evening, but I do remember standing outside, feeling embarassed and frustrated, as we discussed the matter near the shadow of the tabernacle. And while I don’t remember the outcome of that night, I do remember my enchantment with BYU and Provo. It was my first time downtown, and I loved the quaint, old buildings and the small-town feel of things. It was a magical time in my life, and downtown Provo seemed to add to the magic and uniqueness of my BYU experience.

Several years later, I started attending the tabernacle on a regular basis. Instead of returning to our California roots, my husband and I were thrilled when he was offered a job at Provo City and we were able to return to Utah just eight months after we’d graduated and left. Soon we’d settled into our first home and attended the first of many stake conferences at the tabernacle. Our family had a favorite bench, on the first floor, north side, second row in. We sat there for years, freezing a little in January and enjoying the occasional breeze in July, when frustrated parents exited the nearby side doors with their fussy toddlers in tow. Our children often asked when we could move up to balcony seats (as if those required a change in status), and we’d told them we’d consider it when everyone was old enough that we didn’t have to worry so much about one of our children pitching himself or herself over the edge. We were still a few years away from that one. Sorry kids. Wish we’d let you have your way at least once.

I walked the back hall area with our own fussy toddlers, nursed my babies in the way-too-small mother’s lounge, and stood in line with more than one of my little girls hopping up and down as they waited for their turn in the also too-small bathroom.

One year I sat in the choir seats and had the opportunity to sing at conference. I heard my husband’s name read from the pulpit as his ordination from Elder to High Priest was announced when he was called into a bishopric. I looked forward to someday hearing our children’s names announced when they received mission calls. For the past few years our older children have walked up the steps after conference to retrieve the flowers from the podium so their dad, the bishop then, could distribute them to ward members.

In addition to stake conference, we’ve sat in those pews enjoying performances by the Utah Valley Handbell Choir, the Utah Valley Symphony, and numerous other concerts and performances. Probably most memorable are all the years our family Christmas traditions have included the Living Nativity the first week of December. My husband participated in the pageant twice, once as a wise man and once as a prophet. For years we attended the outdoor show and sat huddled in blankets, watching as the lawn outside the tabernacle was temporarily transformed into Bethlehem, animals and all. When the show moved inside a few years ago, we rejoiced in the warmer seats, but admittedly missed the authenticity of the outdoor setting. Just a few short weeks ago–on my birthday, December 3rd–our family sat in the tabernacle, once more enjoying the short program and time to reflect on our Savior’s birth and the Christmas season. I remember looking up at the star suspended from the ceiling and wondering how it had been attached and what a job that must have been, as the ceiling is so high. On the heels of that curious thought came the more profound one of what a miracle the real star of Bethlehem represented to those who saw it and to all who remember it now. As I’d been so many times before in that sacred place, I felt my heart touched as I thought of our Savior Jesus Christ and all his miraculous birth means to me.

Simple memories, yes. But important to me and my family. Seeing the tabernacle on fire brought immediate tears of dismay. Knowing we’ll never sit on that same bench, pry another child’s fingers from those same pillars, or stare up at the beautiful windows and woodwork brings a pang of sadness to my heart. Yet the prayer said before the performance tonight put it all into perspective. We’ve lost a beautiful place we all loved, but let us take away from that sorrow more empathy for those everywhere who have lost so much more. We live in a blessed, beautiful valley. Compared with much of the world, our life here is peaceful, abundant, and happy. May we ever remember that and remember to cherish and feel gratitude for what we do have, simple or grand as that may be.

That’s a wrap!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love all things having to do with fall and the holdays. I feel a little giddy when September arrives and I notice the first color changes on the mountains. But by the time December and Christmas are upon us, I’m exhausted, positively wiped out from all this joyous season entails. It’s truly the most wonderful and insane time of the year.

As a result, I didn’t post about homeschool for October or November, nor have I posted anything about writing lately. So today’s summary is going to wrap all that up into one—including a note about an opportunity to win Covenant’s 2010 Christmas Anthology, Where Will Christmas Find Us? For more info. on that, keep reading. But first, a quick run-down of the craziness we’ve had around here the past sixty or so days.

With homeschool—science units on Oceanography and the Atmosphere, complete with a boatload of fun experiments. A field trip to the Scera to see The Reluctant Dragon, and another to The Covey Center to see Knuffle Bunny . We made more salt dough models (I think children will recall anything they learn if they get to make it in salt dough), read more of the Sarah Plain and Tall Series, the Fudge series, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. We visited Pumpkin Land (where my daughter sadly informed me that this is her last year there, as she is getting too big), made Frankenstein Jello, and had a party that used up a good portion of our toilet paper supply.

For Halloween I sewed Woody and Jessie costumes for my two youngest, and on the 29th both started and finished Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head for my husband and I. On the 30th we had about 25 people here for our traditional soup and chili dinner before trick-or-treating. Those same 25 plus a few more joined us for a crazy, chaotic Thanksgiving. Throw in a school play here and a dance recital there, along with a trip or two to visit our son at college and whew! What a couple of months. It was crazy and fun and left me so exhausted that I’ve yet to remove the rotting pumpkins from my front porch. Maybe I’ll just throw some garland on them if I ever get around to decorating the outside of our house for Christmas.

As for writing . . . are you laughing yet? Superwoman I am not, and unfortunately, my writing is the thing that suffers most in all this madness. And that, while as it should be–I have the rest of my life to write, but only so long with our children–is still painful. I miss my characters and creativity. Thankfully weekends like the earlier Authors Incognito retreat, allow me to see that the creativity is still there, hibernating in my brain until a later date when I am allowed more than two seconds at a time for coherent thought.

But I do have some exciting news. First, Covenant’s 2010 Christmas short story collection is now available in stores. Twelve authors, myself included, have shared Christmas memories about poignant moments in our lives. Today, over at Tristi Pinkston’s Blog, you can win a free copy as part of her Merry Month of Miracles countdown to her next release, Dearly Departed. I haven’t had a sneak peak at Tristi’s latest book, but you can read here, how much I’ve loved her other books. I’m looking forward to curling up with this next one on a snowy January day.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying hanging out at Tristi’s blog all month. She is one of those people that make me tired just thinking of all she does. From homeschooling all four of her children, to writing much faster than I do, to blogging, book reviews, editing etc. she is one amazing lady. The first time I met Tristi she was teaching a class at the Storymakers conference in 2007. What she said in that class, about being true to ourselves in our writing, so resonated with me that I felt I knew her well already and that she was a Kindred spirit. Congratulations Tristi, on your upcoming book and all that you do. You inspire slackers like me!

And speaking of slackers, upcoming releases, and miracles . . . Covenant will be publishing one of my historical romances this spring. More on that later. But now, I’ve got a math lesson to teach :)

Happy Holidays everyone. May your days be merry and bright, and may you get more sleep than I do at night!