Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

when 2nd feels like 1st

They've finally posted the news on The Golden Network website, so I feel free to announce here at last that my manuscript Traitor to Love placed second in the 2010 Golden Pen contest in the "Novel with Strong Romantic Elements" category.

Placing in a contest is always a great feeling, but I'm at least as excited about this second-place finish as I am about some of the first-place wins the manuscript has racked up. The reason is the nature of the contest.

The Golden Network comprises past winners and finalists in the Romance Writers of America's prestigious Golden Heart contest. The Golden Heart draws 1,200 entries every year and taps just a handful of them as the most promising, yet-to-be-published voices in romance writing. The Golden Network, therefore, is a group of talented, proven writers who know what makes a romance manuscript work because they've passed a test that is, in many ways, as selective as being signed to a publishing contract.

Every contest has volunteers who judge the preliminary round and decide which manuscripts to send on to the professional editors and/or agents who decide the final placements. In many contests, the preliminary judges are anyone willing to spend hours of their time evaluating newbie manuscripts. Many of the judges are, themselves, unpublished. Which is not to denigrate their contribution. I'm unpublished, I've judged contests, and I hope that I've been able to give each and every writer some nugget of insight about their entry that will help them improve their work. Bottom line, though, the judging can be a bit uneven because the judges represent a wide spectrum of experience, and that can skew the results.

The Golden Network's Golden Pen, on the other hand, ensures entrants that at least one published author and one Golden Heart finalist will be on every three-member preliminary judging panel. This makes the Golden Pen the only RWA contest I know of where you can have near-perfect confidence that the first round judges know their stuff. That distinction draws an unusually high number of entries. So placing in the Golden Pen contest is a good indication that your work actually does have merit -- and a high chance of eventual publication. That's a pretty amazing shield for an aspiring writer to carry into daily battle against the ego killers of the publishing game.

So I'd like to say thank you to The Golden Network, the preliminary judges, and Valerie Gray, Executive Editor of MIRA, for the honor of placing second. I've never been more proud to be Number 2! (And mega congrats to all who won and placed; we're on our way!)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

help stop the pirates of creativity

Can you believe that 31% of the people voting on SB 3804 as of this moment think it is OK to steal someone else's intellectual property, to post it without attribution as if it is their own, even to edit and distort it? As a writer and a creative person, I'd like to encourage Congress to shut down such people.

What about you? If you oppose the theft of artists' creative property - their livelihoods, in many cases - please go to, scroll down to SB 3804, and vote, share, and contact your Senator.

Thank you!

Monday, September 27, 2010

a chance for the romance genre

The first round of results is in, and the editors at Mills & Boon have whittled the 824(!) entries in their New Voices competition for unpublished writers down to 10 finalists. Even though they didn't pick my entry (I know, go figure), I'm pleased to see that the writing is, for the most part, pretty good.

Sure, a few of the finalists would never have made my short list. But that's understandable. No two people will agree with every choice. In fact, the post announcing the finalists gives the impression that even the editors had some throw-downs over what to choose (here's hoping at least one of them is sporting some bruises earned in support of "Deadline," entered under my pen name, McKenna Darby).

What I find truly exciting, though, is one of the entries that did make the list. It's well-written, poignant, and completely different from your run-of-the-mill category romance. It is set somewhere in what I guess to be the Middle East, and it focuses on a married couple struggling to save their relationship. He's the country's leader, she's the wife trying to reconcile herself to the demands of his job and the conventions of his culture. Each is desperately in love with the other, but through miscommunication, competing priorities, and their failure to conceive a child they're each terrified the relationship is crumbling and that it's their fault. Acknowledging that is the one admission neither dares to make.

I don't know how long the author can sustain the tension of the first chapter, but I'm rooting big time for these two characters and for their creator, Kara Jacobe. I hope she wins the whole thing. Why? Because she took a chance. She didn't write to a formula. She dared to tell a touching story, not about a couple falling in love but about one that is already married. And she did it well enough to make it through the first and toughest test against a collection of stories that I have mostly seen before. In a world of too many cookie-cutter Regency romances, that strikes me as cause for celebration.

In the next round, readers who vote have some influence on the outcome; not much, but some. If Chapter 2 proves to be as compelling as Chapter 1, I'll be throwing my support behind "The Royal Marriage Rescue." Not because it's perfect, but because it surprised and touched me. And that's an accomplishment I definitely want to encourage more editors and agents to support.

Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear. Or make posting even easier by joining the blog as a follower (in the column to the right of this post). I'm glad you're here. Please stand up and be counted!

Monday, September 06, 2010

seven stages of editing grief

I learned a lot about how I process feedback on my manuscripts from a post on Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz's blog about editor and writer Karen McGrath's Seven Stages of Editing Grief. The stages, for anyone else who might benefit, are:

1. Denial: This feedback is stupid and useless. 
2. Pain and Guilt: How could I have made such a mess of this?
3. Anger: Who does this editor/crit partner think she is?
4. Depression: Why did I ever think I could write?  
5. Acquiescence: Maybe I should at least give these comments a serious look.
6. Reconstruction: If I do this and this and that, maybe I can make this work.
7. Hope: This is better than before. Maybe I can even take it a little bit beyond what she suggested.

I lost an insightful critique partner in part because I didn't let myself work through this process before responding to her comments. Now that I know this is my arc, I should do better at recognizing Stage 1 so I can bite my tongue until I get to at least Stage 5. (On the flip side, I now have a critique partner who gives tough feedback so pleasantly she avoids launching me into the grieving process altogether. She's a revelation and an inspiration, and I'm working hard to emulate her tone in the feedback I give to others.)

So, now that we understand editing grief, does anyone who's reading this have a stage or two to suggest for separating the editing advice you *should* listen to from that which is best ignored? How do *you* know when to invest the time to evolve from denial to acceptance, and when to just slough it off as bad advice?

(To read Penny's original post, which includes more information on Karen, visit: )

Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear. Or make posting even easier by joining the blog as a follower (in the column to the right of this post). I'm glad you're here. Please stand up and be counted!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

eating my words

One of these days I just might learn never to say never. What might finally teach me this valuable lesson? The iPad.

Like most writers, I love books. Not just the stories they contain but the books themselves. Especially hard-bound books. Especially hard-bound books with leather covers and beautiful end-papers. Opening such a book is a never-ending joy. Crisp, clean type on fine paper. The smell as you open the cover, the anticipation of the adventure to be had on those pages. If I've been lucky enough to meet the author and have him or her sign my treasure, it will get a favored forever-spot on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my library. Right at eye level among the most well-loved books I own. Right next to The Lord of the Rings.

Beyond being a lover of books, I'm an aspiring author. All my life I have dreamed of holding a book with my name on the cover, of seeing it in a bookstore, of autographing it for friends, of placing it in the most favored spot among those beloved books on my shelves.

For both of these reasons I have said -- vehemently, repeatedly, and publicly -- that I could never picture myself reading a book on a computer. I certainly couldn't picture myself enjoying such an experience.

And then I purchased an iPad.

Mind you, I didn't buy it to read books. I bought it so that I would have a light, portable device to carry with me on business trips for personal email and web-browsing. It's bad enough that I have to lug my weighty work computer on and off planes, schlep it from gate to gate, in and out of taxis, on and off trains, and load it in and out of my bag for security screening. I certainly didn't want to carry my personal computer as well. But an iPad is so light it adds almost nothing to the load, and it can go through screening inside my bag. Security says it isn't a computer. Posh. Is too. But who am I to argue when it saves me one more thing to juggle?

But I digress. My point is that I had plenty of good reasons to want an iPad, and reading books wasn't among them. The folks at Apple are pretty smart, though, and they pre-loaded their free iBooks app with A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, another of my all-time favorite books. When it was right there on my iPad, how could I not look at it? Imagine my surprise to discover how beautiful that crisp black type looks on the bright white screen, how intense the colors in Ernest Shepard's endearing illustrations. I discovered the bookmark feature, which let me zoom back to where I left off with a tap of the screen. I discovered that even after my husband turned off the light and went to sleep, I could keep reading without straining my eyes or disturbing his rest. I discovered that I could set the type to whatever size my aging eyes demand, and the words re-paginate themselves so that I can read without scrolling, as if the book were custom-printed just for me.

As I discovered these wonders I became curious about what else Apple offered in its iBook store. OO, there's Eat, Pray, Love. And The Help, I've been wanting to read that. And they're only $6 apiece? What a bargain for a current New York Times best-seller. At that price I could buy more books than ever before, support the careers of more authors, try more selections without feeling cheated if I didn't love them all.

I wrestled with my conscience. I had sworn I would never go over to the dark side. But I had that four-day business trip coming up, with layovers in each direction and two two-hour flights each way. What a good test that would be...and no one but the good folks at iTunes and American Express need ever know. My fingers strayed to the "purchase" button. Again. Again. Three books, no extra weight, all for less than I normally would have paid for one.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love, I discovered passage after passage that inspired the writer in me, turns of phrase so perfect and metaphors so apt that I wanted to find them again quickly. I learned that I could bookmark as many pages as I wanted. What a great way to find those passages again. I admitted to myself that I would never have purchased that book or the others at $24.95 or more. And slowly but surely I began to realize that we writers and book-lovers may need to re-think our animosity toward the e-reader.

Here's what the iPad taught me: I'm a reader who loves books and even I don't buy as many of them as I used to. I don't have time to lounge around in bookstores and browse. Shoot, I barely have time to nip over to Amazon and order the must-haves for research on my own novels. Once I order I hate waiting for my books to arrive. I want them now, darn it. But when they do arrive, at least half of what I order I never get to read. My only downtime is when I travel, and I travel too heavy to lug a bunch of recreational reading with me.

e-books solve all of these problems. I can browse online. When I find something I want to read I can get it immediately. I can buy on impulse, which means I buy more. That's great for the authors and publishers. I'm also willing to take more chances and buy more titles because the prices are low, which translates into even more sales. And because I can take the books with me on the road without adding any weight, I'm actually reading more of what I buy. Bottom line, if my experience is even close to typical, e-books are not only good for me as a reader, but they are potentially very good for the publishing industry and its authors.

Do I still want to see my name on the cover of a real, print book? Absolutely. Will I keep buying print books? Without a doubt; I don't think an iPad would hold up very well to the sand and salt of a beach vacation, for example, and you can't get an author's signature on the title page of a virtual book. But the iPad and its iBooks app have finally opened my eyes to the possibilities of e-publishing. I now see that e-publishing offers the opportunity to get a lot more people reading -- and buying -- a lot more books. For all of us who love books, and especially for those of us who write them, it seems to me that this can only be a very good thing.

What do you think?

Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear. Or make posting even easier by joining the blog as a follower (in the column to the right of this post). I'm glad you're here. Please stand up and be counted!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

can you hear me?

"Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong..."
I'm currently reading Eat, Pray, Love. I know, I know, I'm way behind the curve, but I've been reading a lot of romances and middle-grade/young adult fiction, filling the well of inspiration for my own work. I really want to see the movie -- I *love* Julia Roberts, and Javier Bardem looks positively yummy -- but for some inscrutable reason, I can't bring myself to buy a ticket until I've read the book. The Universe insists, and I've long since learned not to argue.

I don't read many memoirs. I think the last one may have been Joan Didion's National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. Unfortunately, that book -- brilliant as it was -- quashed my desire to read more memoirs. After a year of almost daily miracles, which Didion moved past without seeming to notice, she concluded that there is no God, "no eye on the sparrow." It depressed me for weeks.

The movie trailers make it clear, though, that Eat, Pray, Love is a celebration, not a pity-wallow. So I'm reading it. And if ever there were an antidote for Didion's hopelessness, this is it.

Elizabeth Gilbert deals with weighty subjects, but the woman is hilarious. In real life we'd probably start shouting at each other within five minutes of meeting -- our politics are polar opposites -- but I love her on the page. Possibly because of the journey she chronicles in the book, she has a wonderful sense of the ridiculousness of her own existence, the insanity of taking herself and her life as seriously as we all tend to do most of the time. It's downright refreshing. But it's not just her outlook that entertains. It's the way she expresses it, the fresh similes and memorable images she uses to sear her truths onto the reader's brain. Her voice comes through, loud and clear, insecure yet brash, on each and every page.

As a novelist, I struggled long and hard to put my finger on that elusive must-have known as voice. Ask an editor to give you an example of voice, and it's likely she'll point you to a story full of dialect. But dialect is not voice; for someone grappling with what voice is, finding it in a book full of dialect is an exercise in futility. In memoir, though, nothing stands in the way. The writer doesn't have to be anyone other than who they are, so their personality is free to come out on the page, unfettered and true. I've never read a better, more in-your-face example of voice than Gilbert's. So if you're a writer who struggles to understand what voice is, read Eat, Pray, Love. I guarantee you'll finally hear it and know, on a gut level you'll never forget, what it is.

The challenge, once you instinctively know what voice is, comes in how to translate that understanding into fiction. Fiction is filled with many voices. Each character's must be unique. Yet, like a haunting melody that is almost -- but not quite -- beyond the reach of hearing, the author's voice must underpin each one. It's the musical staff on which the notes that form the characters' melodies hang. Take it away, and the whole symphony falls flat.

Voice has many expressions. It comes out in word choice, sentence structure, in simile and metaphor, in the cadence of a paragraph, a chapter, a novel. I've discovered, however, that my voice is clearest, strongest, most alive and memorable when the theme of my story is firmly fixed in my mind as I write.

For a long time, I didn't think my stories had themes. But the more I concentrated on character over plot, the more my themes began to emerge. Theme is especially evident in Guns and Gardenias (recently renamed Traitor to Love). In fact, it reared up and slapped me in the face about halfway through the first draft.

At its most basic, the novel's theme revolves around the tension between duty and honor and the fact that, although we tend to think of them as one and the same, they are often in conflict. In Traitor to Love, the conflicts between duty and honor play out in the crucible of family loyalties. One lead character is blindly devoted to family; the other is on a vengeance quest sparked by a family member's betrayal. Each muddles duty with honor, and each must learn the difference to find their way and claim their happiness.

Looking back at my previous works, I now see that the tension between duty and honor surfaces again and again, but is never fully developed. Why this subject interests me above all others, I'm not quite sure. But now that I know it does, I'm actively working to explore what it means -- to me, to my characters, and to my stories.

I don't think it's coincidence that this novel, where the theme is so strong and clear, marks the first time my work has been recognized for voice. I still have the scoresheet from the contest where a judge singled out the novel's voice for praise for the very first time. When I read her comment, my immediate thought was: I have a voice? When did that happen? In mulling the question, the link between theme and voice at last became clear.

Voice is now a strength noted by virtually every judge in every contest I enter. Ironically, I still can't hear voice in my own work; I suspect I never will. Perhaps no fiction writer can. I've come to realize, though, that at its core, my voice is who I am, what I believe, the value map by which I find my way in this maze we call life. Most of us are too close to the trees of daily existence to see the forest, too close to ourselves to know who we really are (or too insecure to feel comfortable expressing it). But after years of searching, my personal belief is that to find your voice, you must first discover what you believe in deeply -- your personal theme -- and then sing that song without fear or apology.

What is the key to voice for you? Do you hear it in your own work, or only in the works of others? Please extend and deepen the discussion by sharing your thoughts, strategies and questions, along with your best examples of voices you love.

Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear. Or make posting even easier by joining the blog as a follower. Glad you're here!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

back in the saddle

I'm a bit shocked to see it's been more than a month since my last post. I meant to give myself a break, but not five-going-on-six weeks.

I have plenty of excuses for why it's been so long: A blissful week of beach vacation during which I only left my lounge chair to take a dip in the ocean or grab a meal; nearly a full week in the Boston area for a staff meeting; a crushing backlog of work for the day job because of time lost to reasons 1 and 2.

While all of those are good -- and legitimate -- justifications for my writing break, I know they're just excuses. The real reason is that it's time to start something new, and that nearly paralyzes me.

It's not writer's block. I have several ideas for novels, all of which are pretty exciting. In fact, that's part of the problem. I like all of the ideas well enough that I can't decide where to go next. Should I write the middle grade novel with the character who haunts me but whose story is hazy? The romance that came to me while I was in Paris, for which I have well-fleshed-out characters, conflict, and a pretty fair idea of the story? Perhaps I should write the literacy tale based on the true-life experience of a young man I once tutored. Or the semi-autobiographical (and, therefore, absolutely terrifying to my subconscious) story of a girl growing up during the 1960s. They're all good projects. But which one should I choose?

Beyond that, there's the burden of putting those first words to paper. I'm surprised to discover this still scares me. The weight of that first line kept me from writing for years. I thought it would set the trajectory for the entire book, that I might write for months before realizing I'd launched the story in the wrong direction, forcing me to throw all that effort away. I now know that's just another excuse. I've totally changed the first chapter of every book I've written. It's critical, of course, to get that first line right. But I sometimes don't know the first line until I write the last one, and it's always possible to go back and change it. It's my world, after all. I create it, and I can alter it at will. Yet the trepidation of setting those first words to paper remains.

It's also tough to put myself back in the traces after such a long and enjoyable break. I'm a hard worker but, deep inside, I'm basically lazy. Although I am infinitely happier when I'm writing than when I'm not, it has been fun to go to movies and baseball games, to spend time with my husband, to just live. Writing, when I'm doing it, consumes every waking moment I can steal from the day job. It requires me to wake up two hours early on weekdays (a true sacrifice for one who loves sleep as much as I do) and grab the laptop, to spend almost every evening and every minute of the weekends bent over the keyboard. It's not a hardship once I'm deep in my make-believe world; I'm quite happy to live there with my new friends. But when I come up for air, I do worry about neglecting my real life and the wonderful people in it.

For all these reasons, it's tough to take the plunge and go back to work. But it must be done. My stories aren't going to write themselves, darn them. I've learned a valuable lesson about myself from this hiatus, however: I can get away from the day job to recharge the batteries, but I must never, never, never take a break from writing. Creative momentum is tough to gain and, once gained, must be maintained. The only way to reclaim it is to ignore the pain and climb back in the saddle.

To the writers and other artists in the audience, I'd be interested to know: What is your pattern? Do you take breaks between projects, or move directly from one to the next? What games does your subconscious play in an effort to break the flow of your creativity, and how do you overcome them?

Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.

Monday, June 21, 2010

a dandy comes to call, part 2

When Alston appeared in my bathroom, I was surprised -- but not by his contention that I'd misjudged him. After all, that's what scoundrels always say when cornered. "So you're the hero." I cocked an eyebrow at him. "Difficult to believe when you dress like a war profiteer."

He tugged at his waistcoat, the brocade too bright, the buttons too large and brassy. "Ghastly, isn't it? Effective, though. Priscilla was taken in as well."

Deep in the bath water, my hands clenched into fists. If he had purposely misled my heroine, I didn't want to hear any more. "So you're a walking lie."

Alston jerked to his feet, every line of his body stiff. "Duty and honor are my life." The corners of his mouth sagged, weighing down his shoulders. "I just never dreamed that fulfilling one would force me to abandon the other." He slumped back down onto the side of the tub, and I wondered which he had chosen. "It is far more difficult than I supposed to be a spy."

A spy? At last his claim that "I am not at all what I seem" made sense. "You're a Union spy, working undercover in the South!"

He nodded, and the misery on his face quickly erased my elation at having learned his secret. "That's why I'm here," he said. "I need your help. I'm hoping you can write me out of the mess I've made."

I studied him for a moment. He might just be playing to my writer's vanity. But if this was an act, it was a good one. "It sounds as if we have a great deal to discuss."

The light came back into his eyes. "You'll write it?"

"No promises until I hear what you have to say. Perhaps you wouldn't mind waiting somewhere bath water is growing cold."

"Of course," he said, and promptly disappeared.

I dried off and dressed in record time, then eased open the bathroom door. Raising one of the candles high overhead, I peeked into the bedroom. "Mr. Buchanan?" No sign of the dashing gentleman in the garish waistcoat. My gut twisted. What if he had departed, never to return?

I tiptoed through the darkened house, finding him at last in the kitchen. "Thank you," he said, gesturing to the candle as I set it down in front of him on the butcher block tabletop. "The light sources of your period are difficult on the eyes. That's why I waited to speak until you were in your bath. It's the only time you light candles."

I pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. "Before I agree to do this, there's something I must know." His gaze met mine, level and unblinking. "If you want to set the record straight, why aren't you talking to Julianne MacLean, or Linda Howard, or...or...Nora Roberts? They could write you out of anything, and people would be certain to read your story. Why me?"

He swiped the back of one hand across his eyes. "You're Southern, and as stubborn as my Priscilla. If anyone can convince her to forgive me, you can." He paused. "But above all, I know how much you value honor."

Realization dawned. "And you sacrificed honor to duty." Alston's head dipped once, slowly. I stood and slid my laptop off the kitchen counter. "In my time, this machine is how a writer takes notes. Do you mind?" He motioned me back to my seat. I raised the lid of my MacBook, clicked on Word, and opened a new file. "So, how did you become a spy?"

Alston's face twisted in the computer screen's glow. He pulled a flask from an inside pocket of his jacket and downed a long swig. "It all began eighteen months before I met Priscilla, when my father betrayed me in the worst way imaginable. I was so desperate for revenge, never thinking where it might lead..."

He talked late into the night. Long before he finished, I knew he was right. So what if a Civil War romance would be a tough sale, perhaps an impossible one? His was a story that had to be told, and I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Little did I know that in helping Alston find his answers, I would find so many of my own.
Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

a dandy comes to call

The book I'm currently shopping to editors and agents is nothing like the book I had in mind when I sat down to write it. In fact, about the only parts that have survived are the setting (my hometown of Wilmington, N.C.); the Civil War time period; and the names of three characters.

The book I set out to write was intended for pre-teens in the 10-12 age range. My premise was that young people were forced to grow up much faster in the mid-1800s, and so took on extremely adult roles and responsibilities. I thought young people of today would be surprised to learn about some of the jobs they might have held if they had lived 150 years ago. I wanted to show teens from a variety of backgrounds and classes, and I wanted to have their stories revolve around the fall of Ft. Fisher, the amazing-but-relatively-unknown Civil War battle that had been steeping in my brain for nearly thirty years.

Almost immediately, four characters between the ages of 13 and 15 began clamoring for my attention. Priscilla was a Wilmington girl, daughter of a prominent merchant, wealthy and a bit spoiled. Jaime was the son of a Cape Fear river pilot; when I met him, he was on his first blockade-running mission. Ben, son of a prominent Union admiral, had just arrived on the flagship of the Union blockading squadron to serve as a cabin boy, and participates in an attack on Jaime's ship. Caleb, a slave boy, fishes for the food that graces the table of his mistress, who owns the boarding house in Smithville (today's Southport), the town where all the Cape Fear river pilots live. The book also had several minor characters, including a bona fide dandy war profiteer conceived as a pure plot device. My dandy didn't even have a name. All I knew about him was that he was a scoundrel.

I had written several chapters about each of my four young people and thought it was all going quite swimmingly when my online critique partner, intrigued by all the plot points she was helping me to brainstorm, asked if she could read a few chapters. I sent her what I had and then waited for her critique. It was nothing like what I expected. "You do know," she said, "that you're writing a romance?"

When that comment popped up on my instant messenger screen, I was so shocked I nearly sprayed the coffee I was drinking across the room.

My critique partner is a romance writer, and since what she said wasn't what I wanted to hear, I concluded she was merely projecting her own sensibilities onto my work. Undaunted, I kept writing. A month or two later, I had the chance to attend an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) workshop led by Pam Zollman, a gifted writer and former Highlights for Children editor. As part of the workshop, Pam offered one-on-one critiques. Hopeful that Pam would see in my manuscript what I saw in my manuscript, I paid my fee and sent in a few chapters.

On the day of the workshop, I could barely wait for my private time with Pam. When my turn finally came, we had a great chat. She was extremely complimentary, though she thought four main characters were at least two too many for readers to get fully invested in. She suggested I pick two to concentrate on and let the other two become minor characters. And then she threw me the zinger. "I think there's a very good chance that what you're really writing is a romance."

One wacky comment I could ignore. But the same wacky comment from two people I respect? That "coincidence" could not be swept under the rug so easily. So I asked Pam what gave her the idea my middle-grade novel was really a romance. "The dandy," she said. "He's very dashing, and I think there might be something between him and Priscilla." And then she said something my critique partner had been saying to me for months. "You really should consider joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and see if that helps you discover what's going on with this story."

Now, when the universe sends me signals, I try to be receptive. Maybe not at first, but hit me over the head a few times and I'll probably notice. And I'm not one of those people who automatically ridicules romances as trash; there are good and bad books and writers in every genre. When I was in high school, I read lots of what were then called "gothic" novels, and loved them. No one spun romantic tales better than Victoria Holt (Menfreya in the Morning) and Catherine Gaskin (A Falcon for a Queen), my two favorites. Their stories were full of beautiful women who lived in castles and wore velvet gowns and roamed the moors and won the hearts of dashing gentlemen against impossible odds. Reading their books was as satisfying to my romantic teenage heart as a box of Godiva chocolates is to my middle-aged soul today. But I was a children's author. I'd never thought of myself as anything else. I didn't want to write a romance. Did I?

Puzzled, I set the project aside and went back to editing an earlier manuscript. And then, one night, while I was soaking in a bubble bath and enjoying a glass of wine, the dandy stopped by for a chat. 

I was, to say the least, surprised. My crit partner's characters routinely interrupt her ablutions to discuss how she's telling their stories, but it had never happened to me. 

"You know you're getting it all wrong," the dandy said, his black eyes twinkling in the candlelight. "This is my story."

"No, it's not," I said. "You're nothing but a plot device. You don't even have a name."

"I'm the hero," he countered, completely undaunted. "And I don't appreciate you depicting me as a drunk and a scoundrel."

"Only a scoundrel would show up uninvited and plop down on the side of a lady's bathtub," I retorted. "I'd like for you to leave now, because I'm ready to get out."

"I'm not going anywhere until you hear what I have to say." To emphasize his point, he leaned back against the wall, stretched out his long legs, and crinkled his eyes at me from beneath the shock of glossy black hair sweeping across his forehead.

It was obvious at this point that I wasn't going anywhere either, even though the tips of my fingers were already beginning to wrinkle. Sighing, I added more bubble bath, turned on the whirlpool to stir up a nice, thick blanket of foam, and settled in for the duration. "So," I said. "What is it that you think I simply must know?"

"My name," he said, "is Alston Buchanan. And I am not at all what I seem."
To be continued.....
Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dad, me, and the OED

I get my love of reading from my parents. They're both voracious readers, and their books are stacked at least three deep on the bookshelves they've shoehorned into every available space in their home.

As far back as I can remember, I had access to books - lots and lots and lots of books. My only shortage was time - there simply wasn't enough of it to read everything I wanted to read. So yes, I was one of those kids given to reading under the covers by flashlight when I should have been sleeping. And though I know my parents were on to my dodge, I don't remember ever being ordered to shut off the flashlight and go to sleep. As strict as they were, bedtimes were never enforced if it meant closing a book before I was ready.

So while my parents share equally in laying the foundations for my love of reading, my love of words - their power to entertain, persuade, amaze, incite, and inspire - was a gift from my father. It came as he and I played the card game "Authors," when I was still too young to have read any of the featured novels (no wonder he always won), and he shared his memories of why each book made an impression on him the first time he read it. It came when I was about 10 and he handed me a copy of Freckles as if it were solid gold, with the wish that I would love it as much as he did (to this day, Freckles is one of my favorite books, and not just because of the words on the page). It came again and again over the years as he would look up from something he was reading and say, "You have to read this." And then I would read, and he would wait, and when I looked up we would shake our heads and say, "Wow!" in unison, marveling together at the power of words wrought by a master.

I don't think either of us realized it at the time, but word by word and wow by wow, he awoke in me the dream to be a writer. And though I didn't have the courage to go for it all out, the way Jo Rowling did when she scurried down the Classics hall instead of studying something that would pay the bills, I settled on journalism, the best compromise of art and pragmatism I could find. I did it at least in part to honor him, by making a living with the words he taught me to love.

Our mutual fascination with words has endured, as our gifts to each other this past Christmas illustrate. I gave him "The Adventure of English," a BBC-produced program on the history of the English language from the pre-history roots of Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf to the ways technology and the internet continue to change and enrich the language today. He gave me a matched, leather-bound set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary and its accompanying thesaurus. I was, in a word, awestruck. As I seek to become a novelist, the man who first taught me the love of words had equipped me with the best possible companions for the journey.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Dad. "You're probably going to think I'm nuts," he said, "but that same book club where I got your dictionary and thesaurus is having a sale on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives you every synonym for a word in the order it came into the language and the year of the first known use. I thought that might be helpful for someone who writes historical novels. Would you like a set?"

Would I like a set?!?!?! Although I'd never mentioned it to him, the Historical Thesaurus of the OED has been on my Amazon "wish list" since its publication was first announced, long before its formal release. But at $400 plus shipping, it wasn't an indulgence this unpublished novelist was likely to allow herself. "What's the price?" I asked, barely able to breathe. "Two hundred sixty-five dollars," he said. "Plus shipping. If you won't let me buy it for you, maybe we can split it." I know a good deal when I hear it. And though I insisted on paying the full cost, no kid with a new bicycle was ever happier than my dad when I told him to place the order.

The shipment arrived two weeks ago. Though I know it nearly killed him, Dad resisted the temptation to open them for a full week, until I could drive to Raleigh and we could share the experience together. We spent a couple of transcendent hours thumbing through the tissue-paper pages as I read the entries aloud and he looked on with shining eyes. If I live forever, even with this tremendous resource sitting open at my fingertips, I doubt I'll find a word from any era that sums up that golden moment better than the one we used time and again through the years when overwhelmed by the sublime wonder of the English language: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

That's from the Scots, by the way, and came into the language in 1540. Don't like wow? The thesaurus offers a quarter column of synonyms from Olde English to the 21st Century. If that isn't cool, I don't know what is. Yup, I'm my father's daughter, through and through.
Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

touched by history

Battery Buchanan guarded New Inlet, the main access to the Cape Fear River

When I worked for the Star-News in the early 1980s, we did a number of special publications, thick tabloids that got slipped into the regular newspaper five or six times a year, usually on Sundays. Publishers loved these tabloids because they brought in a lot of incremental advertising revenue. Reporters, for the most part, loathed them, because the work was piled on top of our regular assignments, and we never got an extra dime for it.

So it was with the largest and most onerous of all the annual tabloids, the Cape Fear Coast tourism insert. I still remember the grumbling when the assignments were handed out, and I probably did more than my share of the grousing. But the assignments I dreaded the most are, almost without exception, the ones that had the most profound effect on me as a person, and so it was with the tourism insert.

To this day, I can't tell you how the editors decided who would do which stories. Perhaps because I had just moved to Carolina Beach, the northernmost town on Pleasure Island, I drew several assignments to write about its various attractions.

In fact, Pleasure Island isn't an island at all. It's the southern tip of New Hanover County, which grows increasingly narrow as the Cape Fear River flows southeast to the Atlantic Ocean. At its terminus, a spit of land just wide enough to walk on, river, sea and sky merge into a vastness I've never experienced anywhere else. And it was here, on this narrow strip of land, that perhaps the greatest Civil War battle you've never heard of was fought, irrevocably sealing the Confederacy's fate.

I knew nothing about Ft. Fisher and what happened there as I drove south in search of the state historic site. My plan was to grab a few pamphlets from the visitor's center and tick the assignment off my list as quickly as possible. Although I never much cared for history, probably because of the dreary way in which it usually is taught, my father loves it. And so I spent more of my childhood than I care to remember being dragged from one Civil War battlefield to another. Since he'd never dragged me to this one, I figured it couldn't have been very important. I figured wrong.

Much of the eastern face of Ft. Fisher has fallen into the Atlantic since the Civil War, a victim of erosion. But in its day, the fort's massive earthen walls were so imposing the Union considered it unassailable. It was known as the "Confederate Goliath," and the shot from its cannons could hit any ship of the Union blockading squadron foolish enough to stray within five miles of its batteries. Under cover of its protection, hundreds of blockade runners slipped in and out of Wilmington, bringing the supplies that sustained the war effort and the Confederate populace.

By 1864, thanks to Ft. Fisher, Wilmington was one of the last Confederate ports standing and the most important, due to its proximity to the main battle lines in southern Virginia. The goods that flowed into Wilmington on the blockade runners kept the Confederate Army supplied and provided a last ray of hope for a people worn down by years of rampant shortages. That alone is reason enough to remember Ft. Fisher. But here's an even better one: The battle that eventually felled the fort was the largest combined land/sea military assault in the history of warfare -- until D-Day in World War II.

That one fact boggled my mind. How could it be that a battle of that magnitude, a battle that closed the last source of supply to General Robert E. Lee's army, was little more than a footnote in Civil War history? Where was the justice that allowed General William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea to obscure so compelling a tale? As I stood on the remains of the earthenworks, gazing out to sea as the soldiers of Ft. Fisher had done 115 years before me, I felt a compulsion to help tell what happened there, both to honor the lives lost and to capture the drama of this remarkable place and its remarkable -- if largely unknown -- place in history.

A seed had been planted. It was a seed that would lie dormant for nearly 30 years and then sprout in a most unexpected form ... as an historical romance novel.
Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.

Friday, May 14, 2010

coming home to a place i'd never been before

The photo at the top of this page and the one in the middle of the "Happiness is..." page (check it out; it's gorgeous!) are of perhaps my favorite place on earth: my hometown of Wilmington, NC.

When I say Wilmington is my hometown, I don't mean it in the sense most people do. Although I was born in Wilmington, I didn't grow up there. My father worked for IBM in the days when those three letters stood for "I've Been Moved." It got so bad, or so the story goes, that I looked up from my books one day when I was 4, surveyed our house with a disparaging air, and declared "this place is getting old." We'd lived there less than six months.

With all that moving, I never visited Wilmington until I was 21 and about to graduate from college with a degree in journalism. The economy was bad in the late 1970s, the newspaper business was in a severe recession, and jobs were tough to come by. But my adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, the legendary Jim Shumaker (yes, that Jim Shumaker, the inspiration for Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strip) was friends with Charles "Andy" Anderson, executive editor of the Wilmington Star-News. Andy was doing a great job of turning the one-time rag into a scrappy and fast-growing paper, in part by hiring cheap, hungry, young talent. Andy had a job opening for a cub reporter. Shu, God bless him, got me an interview.

As I drove through the ninety-mile swath of scrubby farms, scrubby pine forests, and scrubby trailer parks that lay between Raleigh and Wilmington in the late 1970s, my hopes of landing the job turned to depression. Especially after four years on the lush, green campus of UNC-CH, this did not look like a part of the world where I wanted to spend my twenties. As I tooled down the last ten miles of U.S. Highway 421 -- flat, sandy, and barren, except for a couple of hideously ugly chemical plants -- I wondered what I'd ever done to Shu to merit being banished to this wasteland. This was how he helped his star pupils?

And then I drove onto the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

It was a blistering-hot day. The air had shimmered above the pavement and the endless stretches of sand for more than two hours as I drove, and I was half blind from it. So when the tires of my popsicle-orange Pinto began to sing on the bridge's metal span and Wilmington unfolded before me, I knew it had to be a mirage. A wide, placid river. Charming brick and wooden buildings lining the shore. Historic houses in cool shades of blue, green and yellow, set among the soaring trees that climbed the bank. And above it all, the stunning spire of First Presbyterian.

I was craning so hard to take it all in, I'm not sure how I managed to cross the Cape Fear without causing a major pileup. But by the time my tires hit the pavement on the east side of the bridge, I knew that I would convince the editor I was the gal for the job -- or die trying.

Well, the interview nearly killed me. After grilling me for more than an hour (it only seemed like four), Andy told me I had to pass one more test just to remain in the running for the job. I want you, he said, to recite the chorus to "Drop-Kick Me, Jesus." Stunned into silence, I stared at him. I'd never even heard of it. I left the interview convinced I'd blown my chance to live and work in the town that had already stolen my heart.

Lucky for me, Andy has a quirky sense of humor and an eye for talent. Somehow, he spotted talent in me even though I was shy, insecure, and painfully unaware of the fact that he'd been pulling my leg. Or maybe Shu's recommendation was all I needed, and the interview was just a formality. Or a frivolity. Whatever the reason, Andy hired me.

My love affair with Wilmington -- and my gratitude to and affection for my first and best executive editor, who took a chance on a scared kid when no one else would -- endures to this day. Next Up: The assignment that inspired a novel.

Editor's Note: The Wilmington photos were taken by (and are copyrighted by) my friend Jamie Moncrief, a colleague at the Wilmington Star-News in the 1980s who is now staff photographer at UNC-Wilmington. Jamie dug these out of his voluminous portfolio just to decorate my blog. Now that's a friend! If you ever want to purchase photos of the stunning Cape Fear Coast (Wilmington and the beaches at Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure) and the people and places that make it so special, check out Jaime's portfolio on Flickr at: jmoncriefuncw

Monday, May 10, 2010

going pro

I just returned from the Post Office, where I dropped off my application to become a PRO member of Romance Writers of America. PRO is a weird little purgatory where writers who are serious about getting published drift while waiting for THE CALL that will offer them a contract and convert them to a PAN -- a member of RWA's Published Author Network.

The requirements for PRO are that you be a member of RWA, document that you have completed a work of romantic fiction of 40,000 words or more, and prove that you have submitted this work to an RWA-recognized agent or publisher. I've had requirements 1 and 2 covered for quite a while now. And while I have submitted to agents and editors in other genres before, the manuscript I'm currently shopping around was my first romance submission. So I packaged up my rejection letter, my PRO application, and a copy of my novel on CD, and dropped my proof-of-progress at the Post Office, leaving it with the desk agent / minister who always prays over my important writerly packages before sending them on their merry way.

I'm not certain what being PRO earns a writer, besides a rather nice pin to wear on your lapel. The RWA website says PRO focuses on the business side of writing rather than the craft side, and is intended to help PRO members establish relationships with publishing professionals. To learn more, you need to be accepted as a PRO and given the keys to the city -- the magic combination of letters that will unlock the resources stored in the PRO-members-only section of the website. And though I don't know what they might be, I'm eager to get in there and dig around.

One reason for my anticipation is that, even without access to this elite site, RWA has already given me more than I ever dreamed of getting when I joined. I've belonged to a number of professional organizations for various writing genres. They all have their strengths. But, until a friend introduced me to RWA, I never encountered one that put so much emphasis on craft. Through online courses sponsored by RWA chapters, I have honed my skills in point of view, showing versus telling, scene construction, character development, plotting, pacing, and non-verbal communication. I discovered that I needed these courses by entering RWA-sponsored contests where published and aspiring writers pointed out the flaws I didn't even know to look for in my work.

If you want to learn how to write fiction and write it well, regardless of genre, RWA is a great organization to help you grow at your craft. I was writing middle grade novels when my friend first suggested that I join. I must admit that, in the early going, I scoffed at the idea. I'm not scoffing any more. If being PRO teaches me half as much about marketing my work as my rank-and-file membership taught me (and continues to teach me) about polishing it, then publication is within reach.

So if you're looking for me, try the mailbox. I'll be camped out there, like Ralphie waiting for his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin, until my PRO pin and passcode arrive.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

slings & arrows

In the writing game, the risk of rejection is everywhere. And no threat of rejection is more daunting, more potentially lethal, than sending your work to an editor or agent who can dash your dreams with the stroke of a pen.

If you take this risk and send your manuscript, your baby, out into the world in hopes of being published, you are one of two types: naive and delusional (the grandmother who just knows Houghton Mifflin will be thrilled to give her a six-figure advance on her rhyming alphabet book because all of her grandchildren love it); or a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie - battle-weary and wounded, but still hopeful of victory. Yes, he's ridiculous, trying to fight without arms or legs. But I love his never-say-die spirit.

How can anyone be sure, though, whether they're more like the delusional grandma or the dauntless knight? As the tuneless-but-clueless people who audition for American Idol prove year after year, the utterly talentless are the last ones to know how truly bad they are. What if, despite dozens of classes, conferences, and retreats, and five years of twice-a-month critique group meetings, my work was as ghastly as their singing?

That's where total strangers come in handy: the total strangers who judge writing contests, to be precise. In the preliminary round, that mostly means other writers in your same genre. And, if you make it past them to the finals, editors and agents who actually know what they're talking about, if only because they make a living doing what you only dream of.

And so, with what I hoped to be my best effort to date, I entered contests. I expected to do this for a long time before even daring to think of submitting to an editor or agent. Surprise, surprise. In the very first contest I entered, I took third place. Encouraged but not convinced, I finished the manuscript and entered parts of it in six more contests. I just missed the cut in two, made the finals in four, and took first place in two of those. Even more amazing, an agent who judged the finals of one of those contests (not one of the ones I won, remarkably) asked to see more of my manuscript. And not just any agent. An established, well-respected, highly successful agent with a top New York agency.

To be frank, the invitation terrified me. Here was the acid test. Was my work up to the challenge? Weighed down by self-doubt (a common writer malady), it took two months to polish the first 50 pages and write a synopsis and cover letter. It took three more days to actually get up the courage to hit "send" on the email. And as I waited for a response, I tried to rein in my galloping hopes. I reminded myself that the agent wasn't a big fan of the time period I'd chosen for my novel and that she felt my contest entry might be a bit plot-heavy for a romance. I reminded myself that even J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter about 100 times before she found someone to publish The Sorcerer's Stone. In short, I prepared myself for disappointment.

But deep inside, a seed of longing had been planted.

The agent's email arrived two days ago. Yes, it was a rejection. But it was a good rejection. A great rejection, in fact. She praised my plot, my characters, my writing. She seemed genuinely sad to have to tell me no. But she didn't love the book with her whole heart, and an agent must love a book to be an effective advocate for it. She encouraged me to keep looking for someone who could love it the way it deserved to be loved. And then, miracle of miracles, she invited me to submit again when I have something else. Rumor has it this almost never happens. And that made it, in short, the gold medal of rejection letters.

Now, this agent is a superb professional, but I know from friends who have met her that she's also a lovely person. Is it possible she let me down easy? Of course. But in this, as in the contests, I have been extremely blessed. She could have shattered me with a form-letter response or a harsh comment. Instead, she inspired me. In fact, a new story is already percolating in my brain. One I think she just might love with all her heart. And, while I write it, I'll keep shopping the book she couldn't quite love to other agents and publishers. Because I'm the Black Knight. This is my quest, and now that I've dared to go for it, I'll never say 'die.'

Monday, May 03, 2010

an unromantic in paris

Everything they say about the romance of Paris is true. The city’s magic even works on the decidedly unromantic, including my husband.

Now John is one of the best husbands a woman could ever hope to have. He’s intelligent, honest, ethical, fiercely protective, funny, sweet – my best friend for nearly thirty years and counting. But romantic? Not so much. He doesn’t dance; can’t make him. The one time I received flowers with his name on the card, I discovered later that his mother sent them. If he ever comments on what I’m wearing I might have a heart attack. As it hasn’t happened in thirty years, though, I’m probably safe.

But even John, it seems, is not immune to the romance of Paris.

Especially at night, when the monuments glow, Paris is utterly seductive. So despite the early spring chill, we fell into taking long strolls after dinner. Because it’s so beautiful and only a block from the hotel where we stayed, those strolls always led to the Louvre. And each night, in the acoustically perfect outdoor passageways that cut through the palace, we would encounter one of two musicians: a fiercely intense and gifted cellist, or a playful but equally talented classical saxophonist.

On our last walk through the Louvre the saxophonist was in residence. We stopped to listen for a while – the only pedestrians anywhere in sight due to the cold – and he seemed to revel in having an audience. Because we’d enjoyed his performances all week, John dropped a handful of Euros into the musician’s case and we strolled away, holding hands.

That’s when the magic happened. The saxophonist interrupted the classical piece he was performing – stopped in the middle of a complex run, no less – and began to play La Vie en Rose, the beautiful ballad that is virtually the city’s theme song. Never in all the times we’d seen people drop money into his case had he changed his tune, let alone play a pop song. It stopped us in our tracks. We stared at each other, dumbfounded.

And then the magic became a miracle. John wrapped his arms around me and, humming the tune into my hair, began to sway. We were dancing. In the Louvre. To our own private performance of La Vie en Rose.

In that moment I thanked my lucky stars for my unromantic husband. If he did this sort of thing all the time it wouldn’t have been special. It wouldn’t have been magic. He’d waited thirty years for this moment, and when it came, he made it perfect. And isn’t that the essence of true romance?

Monday, April 26, 2010

a lock on love

Near the Pont Neuf in Paris, there's a lovely little footbridge called Pont des Arts. It's one of the few bridges across the Seine for pedestrians only. Wooden planking and abundant benches make it a charming place to sit and watch the city go by, and John and I took a few minutes to enjoy it during a recent visit.

As we sat and admired the view of Ile de la Cite, with the towers of Notre Dame looming over the budding trees, we noticed dozens of padlocks woven through the metal netting that serves as a railing. What was their purpose, we wondered? We hazarded a half dozen guesses and, although we had no idea which was correct, we enjoyed the game. When we left, we noticed several of the locks had writing on them; a few even were engraved. And, as we read the words inscribed on them, their purpose became clear: Je t'aime. J'adore. Sally *hearts* Jamie.

As a writer of historical romances, my brain began to generate story lines. I pictured each lover taking a key to hang on a chain around his or her neck. Even better, lovers who threw their keys into the Seine, never to be retrieved. How could anything be more romantic? And then we spotted the combination locks. A commitment, but with an out. How cynical. How modern. How...honest.

Ah, love. None of us has a lock on it. But we keep putting our hearts out there for all the world to see. Eternally wishing. Eternally daring. Eternally hopeful.