How do you decide what you are going to write about?
From everywhere, and what is right in front of me. I was recently watching a television show where the character was meditating on “stopping the storytelling,” the compulsive storytelling running in her head. I sat there and thought, OMG. So other people do this? My thoughts are telling stories all the time, mostly revolving around trying to make sense of my experiences and people’s reactions, and thereby make sense of life. Needless to say, this process is never completed, so the stories never stop.
When I’m writing nonfiction, I’m writing about what has been front and center on this mind-story loop long enough to come together in a pattern that makes some sense–a question raised, and perhaps partially answered.
When I’m writing fiction, the basic characters and plot line are drawn from places, people, experiences in my life that hold my interest over time. The fleshing out of characters and their story, for lack of a better description, then comes basically from every experience I’ve had, some I’m sure I don’t consciously remember and couldn’t tell you about if I tried. I remember the first time as an adult I pulled my middle school writing class journal out of a box and read the entries. The experience was surreal, like the entries were written by another person. That has happened repeatedly, with pieces I’ve published across the years. I realize that every day, I’m a new person. But that person is constructed from all the other mes on all the other days, so anything could come out on the paper! Perhaps that’s what makes the act of writing so alluring, and hard, pulling all these experiences together into something cohesive.
How do you make characters’ emotions real?
In an earlier FAQ, I talked about how every female character has a dash of a characteristic that’s my own so I know I can be true to that part of her when I write. That said, when I am in a particular scene, whatever character I’m writing, I “slip into character”–literally picture that character and that scene and mentally slip down into that character’s body and psyche to write from this vantage point/point of view. This may sound creepy, but I’m sure actors do the exact same thing–and stay there for weeks and months at a time. When this process is working best, I’m sure it is because of all the times I have experienced other people and myself and our reactions to different situations.
I never tire of watching television shows based on psychology–why we fall in love, how we respond to conflict–or the more dramatic topics of obsessions, addictions, anomalies, or disorders. I spend a lot of mental time questioning motives behind reactions of people in my life, and ways I’ve reacted myself. I do not believe any writer can create memorably strong fiction without understanding the underlying motives of any character, and staying true to those character motives. At a recent New England Chapter RWA Conference, agent and author Donald Maas suggested that when an author has a bland scene, one way an author can remedy this is to discover an experience in your own life where you had the same emotion as the point of view character. What happened to trigger this feeling in you? Explore it, feel it, and then write.
What is the difference between a love story and a romance?
Any book with a romantic relationship is a love story. All romances are love stories. But all love stories are not romances. The designation romance has to do with a couple facets. One is how the story is presented. Romance editors and readers look for writing that engages the reader’s emotions. The verbs are active and direct and specific as this creates more immediacy than using passive voice and adverbs. Writing must appeal to the five senses, again to make the reader feel very present. Show don’t tell is not just a guideline here, but verging on an unbreakable rule. The other critical component of a romance is the ending. A love story doesn’t have to have a happy ending. A romance always does. And that’s why we love them!
Who are your favorite romance authors?
This question seems akin to a thank you speech at the Oscars; you know you can’t begin to cover the topic. I have around four dozen classic romances on my “keeper” shelf, recently whittled down from close to six dozen, so let me say, there are MANY romance authors I love to read. But here’s my all-time top five.
I cut my teeth on romance reading LaVyrle Spencer, and I think probably more than any other romance writer, she is my model. I love that so many of her characters are about as far away from the cliched romance hero and heroine prototypes as they can be and that she can yank us right in to any book with great story telling and emotional wallop. I cried through every one of her books.
My contemporary model would have to be Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I laugh and cry through everyone of her books, which I find basically perfect. I spread them out, keeping one on my shelf unread as long as possible because my best life is a life where there is always a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book waiting to be read.
For sheer enjoyment, I fell head over heels in love with the historical novels of Mary Jo Putney. I’m not a historical writer (at least not yet) but I love to go into Mary Jo’s worlds. I have kept every historical of hers I have ever read because I know I will read them again and again.
I have also kept every Patricia Maxwell/Jennifer Blake I have ever read. If I want a book that will engross me completely, take me away and keep me spellbound until the very last word, of all the authors on my shelf, I would choose a Jennifer Blake book. Hot sexy stories that are erotic without being too explicit, often set in sensuous New Orleans locales, her strong enigmatic alluring men enchant me like no other author I can name.
And last, but not least, I am a total sucker for any and all of Nora Roberts’ paranormal-laced stories. For me, no author weaves the real with the magic as effectively, irresistibly and consistently well as Nora Roberts. I also parcel these out so I know magic awaits me in a Nora Roberts story.
What are you writing now?
I know at least some writers share my reluctance to talk about works in progress. For me, this is primarily true of speculative writing. I’m still finding my way with the piece, and hoping there is a market for it. Does talking about it dilute my creativity? My interest? Create possible doubt about the whole undertaking, period? Or am I just spending so much time with this topic or story, that when I’m taking a break, I don’t want to revisit, at all. Once I’ve sold it, I’ll talk to you about it.
If I am writing on assignment, or for a publisher I know likes my work, I don’t mind offering a brief synopsis. I do appreciate the question, that someone is showing interest in my writing. The easier question to answer though is: Are you writing these days? This gives me the choice of how much depth and detail I want to divulge. I can answer generally and move on, and not sound rude at all. Or I can tell you all about my work in progress, and let’s hope if I do, you really wanted to know!
What question about writing do you dread being asked?
What I dread is not a question, exactly, but a pronouncement: I have the best idea for a book you have to write.
This makes me cringe, and just let me count the ways. Usually this assurance is coming from someone I don’t know very well, or at least don’t see often, so I am uncomfortable being brutally honest. They then launch into extreme detail about this idea, continuing on and on as if this very next detail has to catch me, since somehow I’ve resisted so far. (I understand this; I often ramble to my husband in an attempt to get him to spark to my topic. Why, I don’t know; this technique just about never works.) And if by any chance I get a word in early that I don’t write that kind of book, they then begin to explain why I need to start writing that kind of book–with this fabulous idea of theirs!
On a general note, I hate sales pitches. I can make my own decisions, thank you. If your product or idea doesn’t sell itself on its own merit, and you need pressure, special offers, hyperbole, and the works, you are wasting your time with me. On a specific note, the person pitching me has not researched the lay of the land, a critical first step for any pitch. They have not asked me what I write to find out if I’m a viable person to pursue. A window into how editors and agents must feel when writers corner them with a very wrong project!
The ideas pitched are almost always about a person who they know and think is amazing such as (these examples are real) the guy who is a trick motorcycle rider or the street thug who came from nothing and achieved big financial success. Here is the question to precede such pitches. For the first, do you ever write about unusual personalities or pastimes? For the second, do you ever write inspirational pieces? And, may I add, with a yes to either of these, the piece would likely be an article for a zine or newspaper. When someone who hardly knows me presumes they have an idea so tremendous as to tie me up professionally for a portion of a year to a portion of a decade with a book, honestly, I am hardly enticed. I’m actually repelled. And if they had given this project any logical thought before they bombarded me, they would notice that successful nonfiction books revolving around a person’s life almost always involve a celebrity, a dysfunctional family struggling with addiction, abuse, incest, rape, or some mix, or a crime, and not a minor one, but a grisly or horrific one.
(And you thought the dreaded question would probably be: Could you take a look at my manuscript? But then that’s a topic for another day…)
How do you write such short-short stories?
Writers and non-writers alike announce readily and often to me “I could never write stories that short.” The shortest story I’ve published is 750 words. [“Flash fiction”–stories of 1000 words or less by some definitions–seems to be gaining popularity in general, most likely because the advent of e-publishing makes stories of any length feasible.]
I think my experience as a nonfiction writer definitely helps me write short shorts. When I was writing only nonfiction, my favorite assignments were lifestyle features or personality profiles. After researching or interviewing, before I started writing, I “designed” the story in my head–the start, the finish, and the general order of what I wanted to cover. Back then, Sunday newspaper magazine cover stories were usually quite long, and a successful article usually needed a story arc that kept the reader engaged and wanting to keep moving forward with the story. I’ve also written a fair amount of ad copy where striving for high impact with few words is the norm. I like the challenge of writing longer and then editing down the words to just the very essence of the story.
Many fiction authors start a novel with just a beginning in mind–a situation, a conflict, a crisis. Other authors start with a beginning and an ending. Either technique works for short fiction. Writing a short story is a lot like writing a really good chapter of a novel, one that has its own chapter arc within the book arc. The key in very short commercial fiction is to make sure as an author, you write far enough into the story to reach an ending that is enough beyond the beginning that your reader gets the experience of “a story.” This stopping point can be quite subjective, so before I consider a story finished, I give it to readers who like the kind of fiction I’m writing and make sure they can tell me they were satisfied.
Do you write every day?
I do not write every day, not because I don’t think this a good routine, but because it is not the routine for me right now. When I write short stories, I generally find I need a break afterwards, the same as most authors take a break after writing a book. The stories may be shorter, but I have still entered that world and those characters’ hearts, and I want space before diving full-force into a new journey with a new set of characters.
I do, however, keep track of hours spent on anything related to writing. For most of my married life, I have considered mothering my main profession, and writing a part-time venture. I found that when I was writing, I would feel guilty about all the family details that needed attendance, but when I focused on keeping house and family on track, I would be in knots inside that days and weeks were ticking by and I wasn’t writing. So when I’m not working on any story, I’m still putting in my prerequisite hours for the week in writing-related activities like answering emails, reading industry magazines or books, researching, or update my website!
Do you find switching back and forth between nonfiction and fiction writing difficult?
Switching from nonfiction to fiction was the challenge.
We all write through school, some fiction, more nonfiction. I was an A student in English, so the inference was that I was a good writer. And I’ve been publishing nonfiction since I was 18 when I landed an article in the county paper. After college, when I landed a job with a trade publication and began selling freelance articles to the Baltimore and Washington newspapers and travel magazines, I never imagined barriers for me between one type of writing and another type of writing. I knew how to write. When I took on a type of writing I hadn’t done before, annual report to book critique to scientific research review, I would read representative examples, and then write. I was successful. My ability evolved on its own, or was always there.
Or so it seemed! I didn’t think about the two article writing classes I took for my English degree, or the media class I took for my Horticulture degree where we wrote a feature article, a press release, a script for a television commericial, and a speech, great experience, all. Not to mention all the teachers who required a term paper and all the editors for the articles I had written along the way who gave me tips and tweaks on how to present a nonfiction subject.
When I started playing with fiction in my late twenties, I thought, without much thought, that my fiction skill would evolve the way my nonfiction skill did. I’d get published in a smaller venue, learn a little, get published somewhere bigger, etc. Well, it didn’t happen that way. Not quickly anyhow. But then I hadn’t taken but one short course on writing fiction. I did finally publish in a smaller venue that quickly went out of business. A few more years went by and I sold a rewrite of that same story (it belonged to me now) to a national venue and made a nice pay check for it. But then couldn’t sell a second story. Was I a one-hit wonder? That’s when I started seriously reading about how to write fiction, and my work began to reflect improvement because my understanding was improving.
I’m still learning. Understanding goal motivation and conflict is one step. Infusing these concepts into a story is another step. Doing it without thinking about it is one more step. Like dancing, when the steps become so automatic, the dancer is soaring effortlessly in the moment. I’m not there yet with writing. (With my dancing either!) Take the concept of scene and sequel, for instance. I understand it. But am I using this concept to best advantage in my work consistently? I’m not so sure. As I began to understand writing fiction as well as I understand writing nonfiction, I do not expect switching to be difficult, period.
I’m inspired by reading great examples of the type of writing I’m about to undertake, whether it is a personal essay, a romantic short story, a personality profile, a novel, a book review, a lifestyle feature, and I’m sure that won’t change. In preparing for a switch, I’ll reinspire myself, and trust that writing, once conquered, is like riding a bicycle. I’ll pick up where I left off, and pedal forward.
Do you write about real people and events in your stories?
I think every author writes about real people and events in their stories. The question is, to what degree?
For me, my main female characters are usually a compilation of women I know with a dash of myself. The dash of myself is an important trait of that character–I know I can write about it accurately! My main male characters are a compilation of males I’ve known with a trait or two that I find really appealing, and that trait will usually relate to a sensitivity, a vulnerability, a gentleness. I like strong men, but I want them to have a softer side somewhere.
The framework and events my stories are built around are more clearly rooted in my own life.
Stars In Her Eyes is based around a wave pool accident. I love wave pools, and while I have never had a serious accident in one, I’ve collided with people and gotten out when it looked like the mass number of swimmers was becoming dangerous. I have also had a major head injury when a porch storm window that was hooked up to the ceiling came unhooked. I was sitting right below it and my head went through the glass. Blood and numbness that time, but no unconsciousness. My run in with “stars in my eyes” came in middle school when I was night skiing on a school trip, racing down the slopes trying to keep up with this really hot guy that I couldn’t believe was skiing with me. I hit a mogul too fast, and fell forward, my mouth colliding with the top of my pole. (Couldn’t do that again if I tried.) I remember flying backward into this long lit tunnel to land on the snow and chew on all my teeth which were now loose in my mouth like so many corn nuts. Gradually, my senses cleared. I had not lost any teeth. I had lost track of the guy. Considering the two options, I decided I had the better deal. I figured my teeth would prove more important to me than that ninth grade crush, and I was correct. For the small details, when I lived near Pittsburgh, there really was a big wave pool west of the city that was a hot destination, and my neighbor was a medical equipment salesman.
The idea for Specs Appeal came to me in a small-town glasses shop as the owner checked the earpieces of my own glasses. Honestly, I found the experience strange, not in a creepy way, but for the owner to do his job, he had to be oddly focused on me, yet distant at the same time. When he leaned toward me to examine the fit, I registered how unusual it was to be so physically close to someone I wasn’t emotionally close to. Ah, but what if that physical closeness was something the owner and the glasses-wearer secretly wanted? And David Sherwood and Liz Matthews were born.
Under A Halloween Moon opens with a Halloween parade scene exactly like one I experienced with my son. My husband was working that weekend, so I was on my own with my child, as Annika is that morning. The day was overcast and the wind was blowing and kicking the leaves around, a setting where it was quite easy to imagine we were preparing for when the veil thins between the world of reality and the world beyond. I love to believe that magic exists–not pop-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat magic, but natural magic, like when two single parents caught up in raising their children and making a living somehow raise their heads at just the right moment to find each other and a magical organic connection on a bewitching Halloween night.