Friday, December 15, 2017
Now that I've figured out what the book's about, I'm rewriting my first scene, yet again, to open that story.
And I'm once again struggling with this question: How much backstory belongs n that first scene?
Do we need to know that Rachel Blackmon, the mother of my protagonist, Keeffe, is dead?
Do we need to know that Keeffe was just fourteen when Rachel died? Or that Rachel died as a result of a malfunction of a da Vinci robot that nicked her iliac artery, causing her to bleed out before the hospital staff noticed? Or that this incident has left Keeffe with an abiding distrust of technology?
Do we need to know that Rachel was a world-famous artist and that Keeffe risked everything she values to follow in her mother's footsteps?
Do we need to know that the crucifixes and crosses Rachel sculpted create pockets of human kindness around every church where they're displayed?
Do we need to at least suspect that Keeffe's step-mother is a she-demon from Hell, sent Aboveworld on a mission to destroy Rachel's legacy and ensure none of her children become artists?
I've read rules of thumb that say "No backstory in the first three chapters."
Jenny Crusie's rule was, "no backstory, ever." (If this seems impossible, I invite you to read Bet Me, Jenny's Rita® award-winning romance that takes place firmly in the here-and-now.)
According to Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction, "Later in the novel, backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down."
The rule I strive to keep around backstory is, "put in the least your reader needs to know."
The less backstory you load into the early chapters of your book, the more story questions there are to intrigue your readers.
On the other hand, readers need a place to stand. They need to know the environment they're in--the place and the time. They need to know what's at stake. And they need to know who the players are.
And despite Jenny's stellar success at writing a book with no discernible backstory, most of the time you can't really know the characters, or understand the significance of the stakes, unless you understand the significance of these stakes to these characters.
A police detective working to find a kidnapped child is under a lot of pressure. If that police detective previously screwed up and let a kidnapped child get killed, he's under even more pressure. If he lost his own child to this same kidnapper, he's in a pressure cooker with the lid locked down and that little rattle-y thing going nuts.
So maybe that's the answer. Choose a situation where just the basic premise—police detective works to find a kidnapped child—is sufficiently engrossing. Then you can layer on additional information to intensify the situation--this police detective screwed up a previous case, resulting in the child's death. And then the final touch: it was his child.
So maybe I don't need to figure out how much backstory to put in. Maybe what I really need to do is figure out if I have a strong enough premise to make a compelling starting point.
What about you? If you're a reader, how much do you like to know at the beginning of a book? If you're a writer, how do you decide what goes in the first scene or chapter?
*The Least You Need to Know is also the title of a fabulous book of short stories by Lee Martin, professor emetitus of English at The Ohio University. It includes a story of the same name. If you love top-notch short stories, I recommend the book and especially that story.
Friday, December 8, 2017
Since I'd only recently joined my local RWA® chapter, I had no idea what a Golden Heart® (or a Rita®, for that matter) even was. Sarah explained that the GH is RWA's® top award for unpublished fiction. I immediately began dreaming of someday being a finalist.
To see how that turned out, go here. So, thanks for that, Sarah!
Sarah's books, including her most recent, Capturing the Queen, are available on Amazon.
Question 1: Your books are very dark. What draws you to the darker side of human nature?
I'm fascinated you used the descriptor 'dark.' My earliest craft memories are sitting through a Donald Maass course at my Houston chapter meeting in 2006 and not knowing who he was or a lot of the craft lingo he was using, but knowing from the awed expressions on my chapter-mates' faces that he was "The Authority" on all things writing. So when he preached his trilogy of 'tension on every page' 'make things worse' and 'no backstory until way into your novel' I was profoundly shaped by that.
Question 3: According to your website, you started your first book on a plane to Italy. Tell us about the trip--any praying or loving?
Friday, December 1, 2017
To refresh everyone, my goal is to release three books next fall (September/October/ November) and then a boxed set of all three in December.
To make that goal, I need to finish the second draft of the second book in the trilogy, The Demon's in the Details, by the end of the year. I know this because I've done a fair amount of project management over the years and Rule One of project management is: Meet your intermediate milestones.
You may recall that, citing the pressure of the holidays, I set only a single goal for November: revise 125 pages.
I didn't make that goal, but I'm happy to report that I did get through 102 pages. (Rule Two of project management: When you miss a milestone, put a positive spin on it.)
I'm now at the beginning of Act 3 and the manuscript exceeds 50,000 words. The finished book should run between 80,000 and 90,000 words--approximately 300-350 pages.
So, not goal, but not too shabby.
What makes me even happier is that I've reached a point that I think of as "critical mass," in the book. This is the point at which the writing starts to flow and I stop feeling like I'm extruding concrete with every single word.
For the past week I've been typing so much that by the time Old Dog gets home from work, the first words I say to him are "Rub my shoulders." Which he does because, after 20 years of marriage, he's still wonderful.
This is when writing starts to be fun. I wish it came sooner than 50,000 words, but it rarely does. It seems to take me that long to know my characters, and my story, well enough to just write.
The other thing that happened this month is that I checked the newsletter signups from my website and I have nine subscribers! That may not sound like much, but considering that I don't actually have a newsletter yet (or any books published), I'm pretty tickled. I have a nice little core of friends who support me that much.With an actual newsletter and actual books, the sky is the limit! (See how useful Rule Two is?)
My plan for December is:
1) Finish the book. That's a stretch, given that I have 30,000 to 40,000 words to go, but if critical mass continues, it's possible. Also, necessary if I'm going to hit next fall's target dates.
2) Put together my first newsletter, that will come out in January.
If any of you already subscribe to author newsletters, what kinds of things do you like to see? And those of you who so graciously subscribed to mine, what are you hoping to see?
Friday, November 24, 2017
A couple of years ago, at a writing workshop, I fell into conversation with another writer.
"What's your story?" she asked me.
I started to explain that I wasn't really far enough along with the book I was working on to provide a synopsis, but she shook her head.
"Not your book. What's your story?"
She'd once heard Julia Quinn explain that every author has a core story they tell over and over with various plots and characters. Something inside them makes them revisit this theme over and over.
For Julia, it's the marriage of convenience. Most of her books are about strangers forced to make a go of a relationship not of their choosing.
Other authors love the Cinderella story. They'll tell the poor-downtrodden-girl-meets-handsome-wealthy guy story over and over. Still others are suckers for second-chance-at-love or enemies-to-lovers or fake engagements or jilted brides.
Kay Keppler, one of my friends from Eight Ladies Writing, mentioned the other day that the most common trope among among self-published authors, it's billionaires (which is the Cinderella story.) Among Harlequin romances, it's cowboys. I haven't read any Harlequin's in a long time (except for medical romances written by my chapter-mater, Robin Gianna), so I don't know what the core stories are there.
Jenny Crusie, my former teacher at McDaniel's romance writing program and all-time favorite romance author, writes about women who have spent their entire lives fixing things for other people and finally decides to fix her own life.
(Thanks to Eight Ladies Writing contributor, Jilly Wood, for that analysis.)
My own core story emerged a few years ago after I wrote a post inviting readers to chime in on which book I should work on next. When I posted the link on Facebook, one friend commented that all my books seemed to be about "asshole guys who have to learn their lesson."
His comment made me laugh, but after I thought about it, I realized he was right. Jilly suggested an alternative view might be "woman with impossibly high expectations of herself learns not to demand so much." And she's got a point. While the guys in my books generally learn unselfishness and responsibility, the women mostly learn to lighten up on themselves.
So, what's your core story?
Friday, November 17, 2017
Recently, I went back and read a make-out scene I'd written a couple of years earlier, where the guy basically shoves my heroine up against a lamppost, sticks his tongue down her throat and presses his erection against her belly. At the time I wrote it, it seemed sexy. It was also well justified because the male character was possessed by a demon. (Although the demon's actually the good guy and the bad behavior is all on the part of his human host, but that's a whole, quirky story--The Demon's in the Details, coming in October, 2017).
When I reread the scene in light of Harvey Weinstein/Kevin Spacey/Roy Moore/Louis C.K./Matt Taibbi/Al Franken/ad infinitum/ad nasuem, it didn't work for me anymore. I didn't like the hero for what he did, I didn't like the heroine for not punching him in the face for doing it, and I didn't like myself for perpetuating the myth that men who ignore a woman's right to affirmative consent are sexy.
I went back and rewrote the scene. My hero still has to be a little off-the-chain because of the whole demon-possession thing, but he at least starts by asking to kiss her.
I've seen other writers on Facebook say they're having the same experience--when they review scenes with alpha heroes making alpha sexual approaches to their heroines, they realize they're no longer comfortable with what they've written.
Here's the problem: alpha heroes tend to go from their gut. They trust their instincts, so when their instincts say the woman is interested and willing, they believe it. They're not given to lsecond-guessing themselves, or long, chatty conversations. None of this is a great setup for politely requesting affirmative consent.
On the other hand, it is doable. After the rise of AIDS back in the eighties and nineties, romance authors began mentioning condoms in their love scenes. These days, I rarely read a detailed love scene that doesn't specifically call out the use of a condom.
I suspect that, because of the Weinstein, et. al. (and it's starting to look like I do mean all--two of my state representatives have resigned in the past couple of weeks over unspecified "inappropriate behavior"), we'll start to see more explicit mention of affirmative consent.
I think we may also see a rise in the number of beta and gamma heroes. Beta heroes are gentler than alphas, more sensitive to the heroine's needs, less prone to jealousy and general bad behavior. Gamma heroes are a mix of alpha and beta--the strength and the "bad boy" traits, but not possessive and arrogant, as the alpha tends to be. These guys would have no problem asking for affirmative consent.
What do you see in the future for romance heroes?
Friday, November 10, 2017
For my first-ever interview, I asked Priscilla Oliveras, a fellow RWA® 2015 Golden Heart® finalist. I chose Priscilla because she's kind of a hero of mine, for reasons I hope will become apparent as you read the interview. Priscilla's first book, His Perfect Partner, was released in October 2017.
Question 1: You were a Golden Heart® finalist four times. What made you keep entering when your first final didn’t result in publication?
Probably my love for the genre and my desire to share the stories and characters I kept imagining. This is a tough business. Rejection, unfortunately, is a large part of it. Being an active member of RWA has blessed me with a great network of fellow romance authors--friends and mentors--whose successes and misses both inspire and fuel me. My family is a great source of support, too. They've encouraged me through all the ups and down, never giving up on me. So there's no way I was giving up on myself, either.
Whether is was fate or faith or whatever you wanna call it, each of my GH finals seemed to come at a time when I needed the boost. When the reminder that maybe I wasn't just knocking my head against the wall, and maybe my goal of publishing had potential, soothed my psyche. Each final was the shot in the arm I needed at that specific moment. And the instant GH family that forms when you final is an incredible gift.
Did I wish I had published sooner and no longer been eligible to enter the GH? Sure. But I'll take the good that comes my way and focus on that to keep fueling my desire to do better.
Question 2: Although in recent years RWA has begun to focus on diverse voices, the industry in general hasn’t been hospitable. What are your thoughts/feelings on that?
Unfortunately, this isn't a new issue. I mean, authors like Beverly Jenkins, Brenda Jackson and others have been calling for diverse voices to be heard and diverse characters to be the heroines and heroes on the page and book covers for decades. Thankfully that list of authors championing diversity is growing as more of us speak out. As a member in good standing, I'm proud that RWA is part of that cry of inclusivity for all. As a Latina author who writes about Latinx characters and families, it's important to me that all facets of all cultures and identities be represented in the books that are published and that more doors are opened for diverse authors penning the stories they want to tell.
At the heart of it all, I'm a romance writer who loves writing stories about people romance readers can fall in love with and family situations readers can identify with on some level. The fact that my characters are shaped by their cultural heritage provides an added layer, a texture rich in tradition that, if I've done my job correctly, enhances the story world for my readers.
Question 3: I know, from your postings on social media, that you have a warm and loving relationship with your dad. (You've made me cry more than once.) The father in His Perfect Partner is very ill. How did it feel to create a character that must be, in many ways, similar to your dad, and then subject him to life-threatening health issues?
Oh gosh, I still get teary-eyed when I think or talk about Papi, the Fernández sisters' father. Reynaldo (Rey) was a joy to write. I actually wrote several scenes in his point of view, but they were cut during one of my revision rounds. Don't despair, I still have those scenes and am considering releasing them between books 2 and 3 (Her Perfect Affair and Their Perfect Melody), or at some point down the road as the Fernández family continues growing.
You're right in that I have a really close relationship with my dad, as well as with my mom. Really, with pretty much all my family members. It's why I'm drawn to writing family-themed stories. Because good or bad (let's be real here), my family has shaped me, and I've shaped them. I wouldn't be the person I am today without their love and support, and the occasional spat. The stereotypical close-knit Latino family wouldn't be stereotypical if there weren't facets of it that were true.
With that in mind, how did it feel to subject the sisters and Papi to his life-threatening health issue? Extremely difficult. Hopefully, that's a good thing, and I did Papi and the girls justice by creating believability on the page for the reader. That's really the pressure I feel when I'm writing. I love my characters, so I strive to write their stories in a way that will make readers fall in love with them, too.
As for Papi, he will always hold a special place in my heart. Just like my Papi does in real life.
Photographer/ fotógrafo: Michael A. Eaddy
PRISCILLA OLIVERAS is a Kensington Publishing author & four-time Golden Heart® finalist who
writes contemporary romance with a Latino flavor. Proud of her Puerto Rican-Mexican heritage, she
strives to bring authenticity to her novels by sharing her Latino culture with readers. Since earning an
MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, she serves as adjunct English faculty at her local college and also teaches an on-line course titled “Romance Writing” for ed2go. Priscilla is a sports fan, a beach lover, a half-marathon runner and a consummate traveler who often practices the art of napping in her backyard hammock. To follow along on her fun-filled and hectic life, visit her on the web at www.prisoliveras.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prisoliveras or on Twitter via @prisoliveras.
PRISCILLA OLIVERAS es una escritora de Kensington Publishing y cuatro veces finalista del premio Golden Heart® la cual escribe romance contemporaneo con sabor Latino. Muy orgullosa de su herencia Puertorriqueña-Mejicana, se esfureza para llevar autenticidad a sus novelas compartiendo su cultura Latino con sus lectores. Desde completer su MFA en Escribiendo Ficción Popular de la Universidad Seton Hill, ella sirve como profesora adjunta de la facultad de Inglés y también enseña un curso on-line titulado “Escribiendo Romance” através de ed2go. Priscilla es una fanática del deporte, amante de la playa, corredora de medio-maratones y una viajera consumada la cual a menudo practica el arte de tomar siestas en la hamaca en su patio. Para seguirla en su divertida y agitada vida, visítela en el web www.prisoliveras.com, en Facebook www.facebook.com/prisoliveras o en Twitter através de @prisoliveras.
Friday, November 3, 2017
“Don’t you dare tell Kermit,” Vanessa replied.
“You think he’ll be angry?” Erica asked.
“It’s my money. I saved up for this.”
“Remember, I’m just a phone call away if you need me.”
The assignment was to add beats to the existing dialogue to create depth. A lot of the students added beats that showed how concerned both women were about Kermit's potential reaction. This is what I came up with:
“I can’t believe you went out and bought one.” Erica stared at the frog-leg cooker on the kitchen table in horror.
“Don’t you dare tell Kermit.” Vanessa removed the fry basket and hefted it, as though calculating how many little green limbs it would hold.
Erica licked her lips and edged toward the door. “You think he’ll be angry?”
Vanessa crossed her arms. “It’s my money. I saved up for this.”