In the Name of Love—or research—or why My Family Rocks

Upcoming Booksignings for Captive Heart

Saturday April 9th, 9-10:30 Spanish Fork Seagull

Saturday April 23rd, 11-12:30 Springville Seagull

Saturday April 30th, 11-12:30 Orem State Street Seagull

Tuesday May 3rd, 7:00 pm, Provo City Library (with authors Sarah Eden and Jennifer Clark)

Saturday May 14th, 11-12:30 American Fork Seagull

It’s after midnight, and I’m just getting started on this post (long night helping youngest daughter make Tangled birthday invitations, rocking/comforting two-year-old who still has a difficult time sleeping, and listening to oldest daughter who is nursing a broken heart).

I was sorely tempted to leave blogging until tomorrow evening (after young women and a camp planning/presidency meeting . . . hmmm maybe not), but your comments about why you need escapist fiction have inspired me to stay up a little later.

I really ought to give away books more often, as it seems everyone out there has good reason to read something fun and lighthearted. All I can say to each of you who have commented here and on Facebook is WOW. I am appreciating my life right now! The good news is that your chance of winning a book is excellent. If you have no clue what I’m talking about and haven’t entered the drawing yet—more good news. There is still time. I’ll announce winners next week.

Now, about these pictures.

One of the standing jokes between our children is that the majority of our family vacations over the years have been to visit rocks. We’ve been to Yosemite (Half Dome, anyone?), Yellowstone, and Grand Teton (isn’t that whole mountain range one gigantic rock?) national parks. We’ve visited the Grand Canyon (looking over lots of cliffs at—a lot of rock), Arches (standing beneath rock), and Zion national parks as well. We’ve played hide-and-seek at Goblin Valley, climbed Independence Rock at Sunrise, and gazed in wonder at Devil’s tower in north eastern Wyoming. And the same year we all gawked at the real Close Encounters of the Third Kind set, we continued east, dragging our children even farther to . . . you guessed it, look at a few more rocks.

The idea to visit Mount Rushmore had been blossoming for quite some time when I began doing research for a historical romance set in the Black Hills. The more I read, then more I longed to go there, and finally, my husband agreed. Our children were not quite so enthusiastic.

“We have to go see more rocks, and they’re HOW many miles away?”

Good times. Really. They were, or at least that’s how we all remember that trip five years later. Ah, memories. Gotta love how they become sweeter with time. Which is why I hold out a lot of hope that our children will someday refer to their childhood as charmed (as opposed to some of the ways they consider it right now).

Our first stop in South Dakota was the ranger station, where we picked up an old national forest map. Little pick axe symbols dotted the map, indicating the presence of old mines. Towns I’d researched were listed too, though many I knew to have been abandoned for years. Clearly, it was time to put the suburban in four wheel drive.

Several hours and miles, four cranky kids, and a few no-trespassing signs later, we struck gold—from a writer’s perspective, anyway—when we located an abandoned community. The chalkboard still hung on the wall in the old schoolhouse. A partially-covered well sat in front of a tumbled-down house. An old mill jutted out from the side of a mountain. We even discovered an old root cellar, something that later became key in my story.

As we explored the old buildings, inhaled the fresh forest air, and really lived the beauty of the Black Hills, the wheels of my imagination were churning faster than our camera was snapping pictures. I was in heaven, and the story I’d been drafting—about a school teacher taken against her will to the Black Hills—came completely to life. Truly, there is nothing quite so wonderful as being able to visit the location you are writing about. On that trip I fell in love with both the Black Hills and my story.

For both my husband (who enjoys exploring) and me it was a vacation that rocked. Of course there were also those moments (possibly more than moments, but my memory fails) when things were rocky with our kids. It was an exceptionally long drive, and a trailer full of popsicles and ice cream bars notwithstanding, it wasn’t always fun. They—my wonderful husband and children—went on that trip because I wanted to. Because they loved me enough to cross two states so I could look at rocks.

So to each of them I say thank you. I held Emma’s book in my hands for the first time last week, and that wouldn’t have been possible without you. I continue to be grateful for the things we all do for each other in this family, all in the name of love.

Oh, and just so you know, Dad and I decided we’re going to visit Four Corners for our family vacation this year. We hear they have some pretty sweet ruins—built in a giant wall of rock.

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.

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.

An Awesome time with Authors Incognito

Last Thursday morning I packed a bag with the necessities—pajama bottoms, sweatshirt, warm fuzzy socks, slippers, hair brush, & toothpaste—grabbed my laptop, and headed for a cabin in the mountains near Park City. The night before I left I had a conversation with my seventeen year-old daughter. It went something like this.

Daughter: Explain to me again what exactly you’re leaving us for?

Me: I’m not leaving you. I’m going away for a few days to write.

Daughter: Yeah, but aren’t you going to be with other people? You’re not just going to write all weekend.

Me: But I am! And so will everyone else who comes. We’re all going to sit around staring at our computers for three blissful days.

Daughter: You’re so weird.

Fortunately, I was in good, weird company at the first annual (I sure hope it will be annual) Authors Incognito Writing Retreat. Many Kudos to Danyelle Ferguson and Nichole Giles for putting together a fantastic,fun, and productive weekend. The cabin was gorgeous, the food yummy, the contests inspiring (I don’t even type fast compared to some people!)and the time spent writing was nothing short of divine. In two and a half days I plowed through a huge stack of editing (no more excuses, it’s time to start querying that manuscript now) and wrote 14000 words, most on a brand new novel.

My daughter, however, was partially correct in her assumption that I’d be doing something other than writing while I was away. Because I was determined to make the most of every second, I skipped the hot tub and foosball, but I did enjoy the company at meals. Previously, I’d met most of the Authors Incognito members at conferences (and one I even went to college with a couple of decades earlier) but prior to the retreat, I was not close friends with any of them. That said, I’d love to have all of them as my close friends. I didn’t say a whole lot this weekend, but I caught snatches of conversation here and there that left me a little in awe of many of my fellow attendees. I think it would be fair to say that just about everyone who came to the retreat has been dealing with significant and serious personal issues in their lives. Many, like my own, had to do with their children and the heartache and hardships of being a parent, especially to teenagers and adult children. Others had health concerns, financial struggles, and other simply inconceivable trials. Yet here they were, smiling and working toward ambitious dreams. When I left on Saturday, my own heart felt considerably lighter. I felt renewed appreciation for my family, along with the absolute knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who’d been wondering why life had to be so difficult all the time. I also realized that, difficult or not, it can be happy and I can still write.

With that goal in mind, I’m off to polish up a chapter for critique.

Good luck to all involved in NaNoWriMo.

Young at Heart

Saturday afternoon I received this letter in the mail. As it is only the second fan mail I’ve ever received via the postal service
(reader emails are equally thrilling, I assure you), it was a very big deal. It arrived at the end of a couple of hectic, stressful days—days I had literally no time to write anything at all, days I wondered why I put the stress of one more thing (my looming deadline) on my already full life plate. Bonnie Jones’ letter was the uplift I needed, all the reward a writer can ever hope for, and I thank her for taking the time to send it to me.

More on Ms. Jones in a minute, but first a few random thoughts that I hope to tie together by the end of this post.

First . . . One of my very favorite pictures of my maternal grandmother was taken shortly after her marriage. In this tiny, black and white photo, I can tell she is wearing something black and very sheer. She’s leaning against the wall in a striking, seductive pose. No doubt my grandfather took this photo, and no doubt—when I someday see her again on the other side of the veil—my grandmother will give me a good talking to about describing this picture to you readers 😀 But I love this picture. In it I see a young, healthy, vibrant woman. She is happy, confident, romantic . . . sexy. This is my grandmother long before I knew her. Before the hardships of life—divorce, poverty, cancer—had grayed her hair, wrinkled her face, and stolen her breast.

Though taken years before I was born, it is also a picture of the grandmother I did know. The one who sent me boxes of Christian romance novels. The one who stroked my hair and let me cry my heart out the weekend of my senior prom, just days after the love of my life (now my husband) left for his two year mission. This is the grandmother who could ill afford the phone bills she ran up, listening to me drone on and on about castles and knights and damsels in distress as I told her, week after week, about the romance novels I was writing and would someday publish. This grandmother, though physically weakened by age, still held onto—in at least a corner of her heart—the young woman she was in that picture.

Taking after my grandmother, and being a true romantic, I loved the movie, Titanic. One of my favorite scenes is toward the beginning of the film, when the older Rose sees a mirror that once belonged to her. She picks it up and looks in it, remarking that the image staring back at her is somewhat different than she recalls. When she says this, it is almost as if she’s startled to find she has changed so much. It’s as if inside she is still the young girl who boarded the Titanic for its maiden voyage so many years before. Much like my grandmother, she may have aged physically, but her feelings and emotions are still that of a young woman. Her heart loves just as deeply.

Last week Annette Lyon wrote a great post about being “Kicked out of the Young Club.” After reading it, I took a second to reflect on my own age—a whopping 40 years old now—and how I felt about that. I have to admit 40 was a difficult birthday, but only because I was nine months pregnant and totally miserable! I fully expect 41-49 and beyond to be much, much better. Now that I am healthy and wearing jeans with zippers again, I am not at all bothered by my age. I know the numbers say I’ve hit the middle-aged mark, but in my heart I only feel about twenty-five—and on some days it’s more like seventeen. When my sixteen-year-old daughter and I shop for prom dresses, I still get very excited at the prospect of finding the perfect lovely, floor-length, take-your-breath away dress, though now it’s for my daughter instead of me. I still love dancing and get that delirious, so-in-love feeling on those rare occasions my husband holds me in his arms and leads me around a dance floor. I’ll never feel like I can kiss my husband, or have him kiss me, enough. There’s nothing quite so wonderful as curling up with a good love story on a rainy day, as I did last week. Last night I smiled as I heard “The Happiest Millionaire” playing downstairs as my daughters and their cousins munched popcorn and giggled while watching that fun, classic, Disney romance. Why was I upstairs washing dishes? Instead I wanted to join them before I missed the really good part. In short, I don’t feel forty. Nor, I am guessing, does Bonnie Jones feel like she’s in her seventies.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my very favorite lines was nearly cut from All the Stars in Heaven. I literally begged to keep it, citing it as one of the most romantic lines of the entire story. My editor and I went back and forth on this a few times. There were some concerns with this section of the story, as one of the readers for Covenant had remarked (in her review of my manuscript) that my writing could, “turn an eighty-year-old woman on.” At the time this really made me laugh (though the editors at Covenant did not find this particularly funny). I assured them this was not at all my intent. There is only one person on the planet I am interested in turning on, and that most definitely does not happen through anything I write! However, I am interested as an author, in reaching my readers, in touching them some way, evoking emotion that whisks them away for a short while, then returns them to their lives relaxed, uplifted—and hopefully better for having experienced a little romance.

To me this seems an incredibly tall order, a daunting task—one I surely cannot do on my own. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Bonnie Jones, my grandmother, and numerous other readers already have that spark of romance in them. Perhaps something I write reminds them, but it’s what is inside that allows that to happen. It’s because through all their seasons of life, and no matter what stage they are in, they’ve remained young at heart. I thank them for that and hope, with all my heart, that I stay the same too.

Line upon Line

Since the birth of our son about five months ago (five months already!! Why does time have to go so fast?), I’ve had very little time to write. It isn’t just that having a baby again—after so long— has thrown me for a loop. Though yes, it certainly has. Rather, it’s the combination of all my children and their various ages and needs, which it seems I can never quite meet. The result has been that my new writing pattern is to start at about 9:30 in the evening and write until 11:00. It isn’t much time each day, but I can’t seem to get started earlier and I can’t seem to stay up later, as I’m still getting up with our baby a time or two in the middle of the night.

During these short sessions the most I’m able to get on paper is about 5 pages worth of story. If you do the math, at this rate it’ll take me about 100 days to complete my usual 500 page length manuscript. Factor in editing with my critique group, and I’ll be working at least a month beyond that. But that’s not too bad, so long as those five pages I draft each night keep taking the story where it needs to go. And, for the most part, they do. I have to admit that it’s still always a little bit thrilling to open up that document the next night and reread the pages I wrote the previous night—and find that they make sense! They entertain me. The characters are talking to each other like real people; the story is speaking to me. What a blessing this continues to be in my life. There are plenty of talents I lack, but my imagination is still alive and functioning. And for that I am grateful.

During the crafting of each story I write, there are always a few sentences I come to love. Maybe it’s that they made me laugh as I wrote them, or they tugged at my heartstrings the way I hope they tug at readers. Or maybe it’s that I had to beg my editor to keep them—as is the case with one of my very favorite sentences in All the Stars in Heaven. Why, some may wonder, would I beg to keep a sentence? After all, it’s just one line out of the thousands in each book. Because each is important, as they are the details that make the story and characters ring true and form the tempo of my writer’s voice. That voice is a little different in All the Stars in Heaven than it was in Counting Stars but I hope readers enjoy it as well. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite lines from the story.

Her father had said they were always watching, and she wasn’t taking any chances.

“Hey, whatcha doing? That’s my moose.”

“I’m a beached boy. You know, like the band, except old and all washed up.”

“You’re just that kind of guy–the kind that does things like clean out the fridge, help friends with their homework, and babysit.”

This was new and dangerous and . . . she could hardly bear to think of giving it up.

I do what I have to to keep her alive, and you’d better remember it keeps you alive too.”

“Get your shirt on Jay, This is a G-rated house.”

“I’m going to have nightmares down here. The Jolly Green Giant attacking on one side, and Charlie the Tuna on the other.”

Let-me-run-my-fingers-through-those-curls-and-taste-that-flavor-on-your-lips—yeah, that’s it.

There had been times of discouragement certainly, but a glimpse of the night sky sprinkled with stars or of the full moon was all it took to remind her to stay on course. After all, if man could walk on the moon, so far away, she could someday walk away from the life she hated.