Category Archives: Writing

On Redemption Songs and Romance

On a recent episode of my new favorite podcast: Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, the hosts discussed romance fiction as resistance. They pointed out that many people belittle women’s escapist literature, romance and cozy mysteries, but not men’s, sci-fi and thrillers. (Of course, I know that many women enjoy sci-fi, etc.)

Why is one type of reading frivolous and contemptible while another is harmless or even admirable? Why is literature is only serious and praiseworthy when the ending is sad, depressing, miserable? Don’t we face enough defeat in daily life without having to fill our bookshelves with tales of ennui and gloom?

These women have a point: falling in love and being loved in return, despite our flaws and our beloved’s, that’s redemption, a peak experience available to all. Love is a victory, something even the goon squad in Washington, D.C. can’t take away from us. Holding onto hope, love, connection in troubled times—that’s an act of resistance. It’s not sufficient to defeat the evil in our midst, but it’s fuel for the fight.

The type of peak experience offered in sci-fi and fantasy stories, rounding up a motley band of resistance fighters to defeat a might sinister force—or the type in thrillers—using whiles and guile to penetrate a criminal organization and lop off its head—that’s available to few of us in real life.

Is only the unattainable worth reading about? Romance readers say no—and roll in that vicarious pleasure like horses rolling in the dust.

Another aspect of romance fiction that feels like resistance is the joyful celebration of women’s sexuality. In another episode of SPTB, one of the hosts posited a response to critics of romance fiction: “What is it about the female orgasm that bothers you?”

“Oh, romance novels are really just porn,” critics say. Nope. The good stuff revolves around determined, smart, problem-solving women, and the men who love them, treasure them, and give them earthquake orgasms. And yes, there are romance stories for everyone on the gender spectrum. Sex is part of finding one’s mate, for the vast majority of people, but it’s not the whole story, just like armed combat is not the whole story in, say, Star Wars.

So, yeah. There is something to reading romance as an act of defiance. To those who say I can’t be a woman of substance and still enjoy these tales, I raise my middle finger—and turn the page.

On Pity Parties, Book Reviews, and Carol Dweck

Thunk.

That’s the sound of another romance novel landing in my Did Not Finish pile.

As a reader, I want to see triumph of some sort, and not just in the form of a sad, scared woman being rescued by some guy. Give me a heroine with spunk, not just a tender heart, and a hero with substance, not just toned pecs.

This week’s discard goes something like this: Horrible people have done horrible things to the heroine and her siblings. She flees, casting herself in the role of their protector, but she’s a dithering, nervous wreck, making near-fatal mistakes at every turn. And something horrible has happened to the hero. He’s really sad about it, and angry, and spends his time brooding. There’s a dog involved—that’s what caught my eye on the library shelf. Who doesn’t love a good dog story? But in this novel, even the dog is sad, mourning the death of his former master. What the author didn’t accomplish by the end of Chapter Six was to give me something to relate to, something to care about, other than pity.

My Did Not Finish pile contains several works of romance fiction, literary fiction, and women’s fiction that adopted this strategy: Look at this poor protagonist! Such terrible things have been done to her/him! Don’t you feel sad, reader?

Ugh.

But then, I don’t like people like this in real life, either. “Hi, my name is X. Thanks for welcoming me into your writers’ group. I have fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression.”

Why do people do this?  I don’t know anyone who’s reached the mid-century milepost without some physical affliction, emotional scarring, or other heavy baggage. And I get it: women have been taught to bond over shared misfortunes. But a blatant appeal for pity right off the bat?

What impresses me, in real life and in fiction, is meeting a person who’s making the most of life, enjoying it as much as possible—and then finding out that she’s dealing with some heavy baggage. That sparks sympathy and admiration. That’s what’s missing in books like the one above: I want to admire the protagonist in some way.

I didn’t write a book review about this novel because A: I didn’t finish the book, and it’s not fair to review a book under those circumstances, and B: I’ve finally accepted that it’s bad karma for an author to leave bad reviews–though I always read the bad reviews before buying a book. This lets me know whether a story is full of my pet peeves, a probable waste of my time and book budget.

Speaking of book reviews, if you work in education or have kids in school, you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck outlines the concept of a growth mindset, the belief that you can change and improve through effort, versus a fixed mindset, the belief that your abilities are unchangeable and beyond your control. Guess which mindset leads to success and happiness? This book should be added to recommended reading lists for authors, especially for those tempted to make pity their main appeal to readers.

How about you? What problems send a book to your Did Not Finish pile?

IWSG January 2018: Schedule? I need one?

Once again, it’s the first Wednesday of the month, time for our Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. The awesome co-hosts for the January 3 posting of the IWSG are Tyrean Martinson, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Megan Morgan, Jennifer Lane, and Rachna Chhabria!

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Speaking of the many fine resources on the IWSG site, I got so much value from the December 11 article by Angela Ackerman, author of The Emotional Thesaurus. Take a look here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/2017/12/writing-about-emotional-trauma-without.html

January 3 question – What steps have you taken or plan to take to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?

Schedule? What is this schedule you speak of?

A big, fat blessing bomb fell on my head at age almost-52, when I was able to take early retirement from my teaching job. At last, I had time to write! Teaching is freaking exhausting, and it ate up most of my creative energy.

But my adjustment to retirement involved a few years of stubborn push-back against schedules of any sort. Throughout my 27 years of teaching, I hated, hated, hated having to get up so early to go to work. (Why do we do that to our teens, anyway? They’re not fully awake until mid-morning, so what are they going to learn at 7:30?) A lot of my first few years of freedom involved lounging in bed just because I could, or taking long, aimless walks around my new town.

About a year ago, I started treating writing as a real job, albeit a part-time one, and developed the habit of writing from my very civilized wake-up time of about 7:30 until early afternoon. I do this every day I’m able, and get cranky if appointments or visits rob me of my writing time. What a treat to devote my high-energy hours to my own goals, rather than to tasks assigned by someone else.

Now that I’ve received my first publishing offer (huzzah!), this shit’s getting real, as the youngsters say. My intention is to devote the morning to my writing, take a break for errands and/or exercise, then devote the afternoon to correspondence, queries, marketing—the business side of things. But I’m sure there’ll be days when business chores gobble up most of my writing time.

Ah well, such is the writing life. And I love it. Here’s wishing you lots of productive writing time in 2018.

What does your writing schedule look like?

 

 

 

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

It’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers Support Group is a place where writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds! Thanks to Ninja Captain Alex Cavanaugh and this month’s co-hosts,  Tonja Drecker, Diane Burton, MJ Fifield, and Rebecca Douglass!

November 1 question – Win or not, do you usually finish your NaNo project? Have any of them gone on to be published?

I’ve finished two NaNoWriMo projects, in 2015 and 2016. Neither has been published yet, but I’m working toward that goal. For me, the greatest gift from NaNo was my now firmly-established daily writing habit.

“Winning” my first NaNo was a challenge, especially because November brings family visits and travel, both of which tend to gobble up (sorry, bad pun) my writing time. The second year, finishing was a delight, and I merrily told interruptions to bugger off—in the nicest way possible. And now, I just write for at least two hours per day, often much more. It’s what I do. On days when I can’t get some writing time, I feel itchy and cranky, like an inveterate runner who can’t log her daily miles.

Offers of “book/writing coaching” continually land in my mailbox, and I wonder: Who needs this? Editing help, yes. Someone to bounce ideas off, yes indeed. (That’s why God gave us critique partners.) Marketing advice? You betcha. Writing teachers? Yes, please—though I’ll work through your craft book before I’ll sign up for your workshop or pricey webinar.

But paid encouragement just to write?

A few years back, I attended a panel discussion by four Seattle-area writers. Someone posed this very question: How do you force yourself to write on days when you just don’t feel like it? The speakers exchanged puzzled looks, and then one replied, “If you don’t feel like writing, you’re not really a writer.” At the time, I found that answer somewhat cold—now, I get it.

Sure, there are days when it just doesn’t work out, but I always feel like writing. My first NaNo helped me eliminate the stress of wanting to write but not getting around to it. And, as a pantser, I need to get that first sprawling, messy draft down on paper before I can begin to shape it up. NaNo is great for that phase; what fun to have a bunch of fellow writers urging you on. The Tacoma area NaNos offer lots of gatherings during November—not so helpful for solitary writers like me, but still fun.

Now, if I could just transfer the enthusiastic focus of NaNo to other areas. National Exercise Every Day Month, anyone?

Trying a New Genre: Romance

It’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: Have you ever surprised yourself with your writing? For example, by trying a new genre you didn’t think you’d be comfortable in?

Why yes, I did!

On social media, I happened on an article on how lucrative and fun it can be to write erotica. This got me thinking: most of my favorite stories have a strong romantic element and some spicy love scenes. My three completed novel manuscripts, two cozy mysteries and a women’s fiction story, all have a strong romantic thread. Why not try writing a schmexy story in which the romance was the main plot thread, for once?

At first, I thought I was writing a story that was mainly about a young widow’s sexual re-awakening. But you know how it goes: the characters had other plans. Sixty thousand words later, I had the first draft of a romance novel with more emphasis on hearts and minds than on loins—though the sexy scenes were great fun to write.

My goodness, there are so many flavors of romance fiction and erotica! I’ve been gobbling up romance novels like popcorn, learning about this new genre. Honestly, I’ve discarded about half of them after a few chapters. There’s a lot of trite, poorly written romance fiction out there, with silly twits for heroines. But—and this is a bit but—the ones that grab me really grab me.

And so, after feedback from three generous beta readers, I’m hard at work revising my first contemporary romance novel. I’m sure it won’t be my last.

What about you? Have you tried writing a new genre just for fun? Was it a positive experience?

 

Fashion and Vengeance: What I’ve Learned about Myself by Writing Fiction

“We’re all just working on our own stuff.” This comment from a wise women’s fiction writer has got me thinking. Lately, I’ve noticed some surprising threads in my own fiction writing: a fixation on fabulous outfits and well-deserved comeuppance. (Isn’t that a great word?)

I’m currently resting in the pause between fiction projects. My latest completed-for-now manuscript, a cozy mystery, is in the hands of beta readers, and I’m about to jump back into a romance novel that’s been marinating for a few months. In between, I revised three short stories that had been cooling on the corner of my desk for a good six months—all of them Twilight Zone-esque tales of psychological suspense.

Three different genres, but all highlight costume and karma. In fact, two of my creepy short stories feature clothing with magical properties. My female protagonists use clothing to express their inner sparkle, their complex, artistic souls.

Several male critique partners have pointed out how often I focus on what my characters are wearing. (Women readers don’t seem to mind.) And what do I wear as I write these stories? Mostly exercise gear, stuff I’d never wear outside my home unless on my way to the gym. It’s comfortable, but not creative or glamorous. Hmm—do you suppose my protagonists are trying to tell me something?

My upbringing urged me to be modest, obedient, not to call attention to myself. I thought I was done with that nonsense, having accepted my inner applause junkie long ago. But my protagonists are pointing out a bit of self-sabotage I’d do well to notice.

And while in real life I endeavor to have faith in karma and tamp down my tendency to be judgmental, in my fiction someone nasty always gets what’s coming to him or her. If I do my job well, that comeuppance arrives in unexpected ways, but arrive it does. In real life, I’m a powerless observer; on the page, I’m an avenging fury.

I’ll bet it would take years of therapy to gain this kind of insight. Okay, writing fiction is just as time-consuming, but it’s cheaper! What have you learned about yourself from your fictional creations?

IWSG Question o’ the Month: Pet Peeves

The first Wednesday of the month brings another blog-hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a valuable resource for all of us hacking our way through the jungle of writing advice. Check it out here: http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Thanks to this month’s IWSG hosts: Christine Rains, Dolarah @ Book Lover, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Yvonne Ventresca, and LG Keltner!

This month’s question: What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

Hoo boy, I can’t wait to read this month’s replies. I love a good rant. Warning: there’s strong language below.

I have learned so much from reading and critiquing the works-in-progress of other writers, both in face-to-face critique groups and in online manuscript swaps. Despite my extensive experience in written expression, a few boo-boos will always escape my notice. My readers help me catch those, along with areas where I was unclear or missed an opportunity for greater impact. I’m grateful for their help.

That said, I carefully proofread my submissions before asking anyone else to read them. The main purpose of writing is clarity, whether the writer is trying to convey a scene, a character, a theme, an emotion, or an explanation.

I wish all my critique partners would take care to proofread before asking me to read their work. (My WFWA partners do.) It’s not like we weren’t taught this stuff in school. It’s not like this information is difficult to find if we need a refresher on, say, comma usage.

I run into two scenarios:

#1: The writer shrugs. “I’m not good at punctuation. I hope you’ll help me.”

#2: “Who cares about commas? You know what I mean. Why are you being such a pedantic jerk about spelling and punctuation?”

In response to #1: Extensive line editing is time-consuming, and it’s not a service I offer for free. Sure, we’ll all miss a few errors, but when I have to wade through a jungle of superfluous punctuation, gaping holes where punctuation ought to be, tangles of vagueness, and steaming pits of confusing word choice, I get frustrated and tired before I ever reach the story.

And isn’t the story what it’s all about?

As to #2: Imagine this attitude translated to other scenarios—for example, talking to your tax accountant.

“Okay, yearly income. Let’s say 50K.”

“But your W2 form says you make $68,732.”

“Whatever! They’ll know what I mean. Precision’s not important here.”

“Actually, it is. If you enter the wrong amount, the IRS will come after you for back taxes, plus penalties—”

“I hate the IRS, and I hate picky assholes like you.” (Gathers papers and stomps off.)

Or at band practice:

“Wait, someone’s playing the wrong note. We’re in the key of D.”

“Why is it important that I play in D? I’m really feeling it in C minor. Sounds good to me.”

“That’s not how the song goes, man. It’s D minor, then B sharp, then—”

“Whatever, man. You’re always criticizing me. You’re a picky, pedantic asshole.”

“And you’re out of the band.”

Precision is vital in written communication. Words and punctuation marks are the tools we use to convey meaning. Maybe you didn’t like English class. Maybe your teacher smelled funny. Maybe she was mean, and you really wanted to be fixing your makeup or playing a computer game instead of learning how to use apostrophes.

Tough shit. Clear communication is important.

Tripping Over Tropes in Women’s Fiction

Continuing the discussion from two weeks ago, I started a post about tropes in another genre near to my heart: women’s fiction. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of certain people whose feelings I did not want to hurt. It ultimately boiled down to my critical thoughts about a certain world view.

No, not politics—I’m talking about issues like victimhood, agency, self-advocacy, passivity, resilience. I couldn’t express my frustration with certain types of female protagonists without coming across as dismissive of women who’d suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that was not my intention—so into the trash can that post went.

Instead, as an exercise in positivity, I compiled a list of what I do want to find in a novel I read. This also serves as a checklist for my own writing.

  • For me, realism and believability are key. This doesn’t exclude magical, made-up worlds: I’ve read historical and fantasy fiction where I completely bought into the actions and motivations of the characters. Likewise, I’ve read contemporary fiction where I’ve thrown down the book in disgust, exclaiming, “No way anyone would say/do that!”
  • a protagonist who’s brave, audacious, resilient, creative, flamboyant, funny, smart
  • a protagonist I’d want to spend time with. She needs to be passionate about something other than just a guy, her kids, shopping, a corporate job. Not that family and jobs aren’t important, but I want to see substance beyond those basics.
  • a protag who thinks before she acts. If she makes an obviously bad decision, I want to see her reasons as she decides, and they’d better make sense in the moment. If later she learns something that reveals her reasons to be invalid, that’s okay. But if she allows herself to be buffeted about by strong emotions with no thought to consequences–meh.
  • sparkling, funny, biting dialogue
  • sensory description that allows me to peer over the characters’ shoulders and experience the scene as if I were there.
  • lots of scenes. Yes, narrative summary has its place, but I most enjoy stories I can experience as if I were watching a movie, but with a great sound system, vibrating seats, and Smell-o-rama.
  • Lots of riveting plot action but—and this is tricky—a minimum of obvious, formulaic manipulation. If every scene ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger, I feel like I’m watching a badly-written TV show. I like a break every now and then, a funny or reflective scene that lets me catch my breath.
  • This one is especially important for me to remember as a writer: a character who learns something about herself and/or others as a result of the plot events.
  • Of course, recipes are a plus.

How about you? Do the items above resonate with you? Care to add an essential of your own to the list?

Learning Patience

July beauty from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park

Once again, I welcome a new month with a blog hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thanks to Alex Cavanaugh and this month’s cohosts Tamara Narayan, Pat Hatt, Patricia Lynne, Juneta Key, and Doreen McGettigan. Check out their helpful resources for writers, including an upcoming Twitter pitch event, here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

July 5 Question: What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started writing?

I’ve learned patience–or rather, I’m learning patience. It’s a struggle, because I’m an impatient, over-caffeinated achievement junkie.

I queried my first two novels too soon. Of course, I didn’t know any better at the time–they felt done to me, and I was itchy for forward progress toward my dream of publication. The more you learn, the more you know, right?

My current WIP is moving forward at a snail’s pace, but it’s moving forward and is more substantial, more layered, more suspenseful and emotionally meaty than my previous stories.

It soothes my impatient ego to hear published writers tell about their first, unpublished novels—sometimes just a few, sometimes a trunkful. And on one of my favorite podcasts, The Creative Penn, author Joanna Penn asserts that an indie author can make a good income when she has twenty books out. Twenty!

To paraphrase Penn, what would you rather be doing with your time? I’d rather be writing. Onward!

Here’s wishing you a juicy, joyful July.

Tripping Over Tropes, Part One: Romance

“What kind of books do you write?”

I’ve always resisted attempts to fence me in—not a good trait in a writer who wants to sell books.

I want to write, and read, stories of adventure, love, domesticity, revenge, creative self-fulfillment, murder, introspection, friendship, and vanquishing evil. The thread running through my favorite stories is the sympathetic, realistic protagonist who defies expectations to make a fresh start.

Wise writing mentors tell us: You’ve got to know whom you’re writing for and what sort of book experience she wants. You’ve got to know which shelf your book is going to land on. Romance readers expect certain things, as do mystery fans, women’s fiction fans, etc.

Who doesn’t love a good love story? Most books I’ve loved have a strong romantic element woven into the plot. And I love romance’s optimism—you know there’s a happy ever after coming, no matter how bad things get for our heroine. Life outside the book covers (especially politics) provides plenty of doom and gloom.

But my recent efforts to read good romance novels have led to a big pile of unfinished books. I like my characters believable, my heroines smart and brave. So far, I’ve found very few women like that between the covers of romance novels. Of course, an interesting heroine will have insecurities and past failures–everyone does–but she won’t be a quivering puddle of self-doubt.

I also love steamy sex scenes—in the context of a relationship, of course—but most of the sex scenes I’ve read so far sound like they were written by guys, or by women who’ve never had an actual orgasm. And romance tales about instant love? She sees him across the room and melts into a quivering puddle of desire and love, knowing he’s the one and only for her, forever and ever, amen. Yeah—that doesn’t happen. That level of love comes only after a slow build-up of getting to know the guy—and that build-up is what I want to read/write.

Oh, and domineering males? Can’t stand ‘em. I’ve never longed for some handsome guy to show up and boss me around. What’s up with that? I don’t care if he’s a bazillionaire—don’t tell me what to do, Bud! So much for the alpha hero.

And inexperienced, sweet young things? Meh. In real life, that rosy first kiss of maidenhood seldom results in lasting love. I’d like to read about mature women finding love after the first blush of youth.

So perhaps I’m not cut out to write romance fiction. Except all my daydreams, all those elaborate tales I’ve spun since I was a wee maid, have all centered around falling in love. That sort of story is calling to me. I guess I’ll keep writing them, and hope there are readers out there who want to read about love that could actually happen.

Can you recommend a trope-defying, believable romance novel?