Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Whose Book Are You Writing?

Recently, while talking to a good friend of mine about her writing, she mentioned an idea that she was thinking of developing. On the most basic level, it reminded me of a premise in one of Stephanie Rowe’s books (He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot). When I mentioned this, my friend made a joke about not being as original as she’d thought. This got me thinking about originality and what makes our books our own.

I know some writers will not enter contests because they are afraid of having their ideas stolen. Many multi-published authors avoid reading unpublished works because they are leery of frivolous plagiarism lawsuits. I understand both of these concerns, but so much of what makes our books our own is our voice. My friend’s book, though similar conceptually, will be a completely different experience to read than Stephanie Rowe’s – at least in part due to the fact that it will be neither a comedy, nor a romance. Even if the plots were identical (which they weren’t), then the difference in writing style would make it a completely different book.

I recently finished reading Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell. I was describing the book to someone when I realized how much of it was driven by the writing style. The plot – a duke kidnaps his own mistress with the ultimate goal of marrying her – could easily have been a playful regency romp, but it was instead a heavily dramatic historical saturated with the darker emotions – guilt, shame, possession. But, believe it or not, the theme in this heavy historical is the same theme I’m weaving through the bubbly little ghost rom-com I’m writing now – self-acceptance. It just goes to show that the same concept, the same premise, even the same plot, in different writer’s hands becomes a completely different creature.

This is part of why I can’t collaborate with other authors. I’m amazed by those who do, but I can’t imagine trying to blend my vision with that of another author. I have to write MY book.

Someone asked me recently whether I tailor my books to a specific market and my answer was a resounding "No." I know there are people who do, and who do very well at it, but I can't imagine going through that first draft generating phase where the book is wholly MINE while simultaneously trying to write it to someone else's specifications. I have to write my books - which is why, regardless of how much genre-hopping I do, I would be stunned if I ever tripped into writing erotica or young adult. Those just aren't my books. (No matter how much I might worship Emma Holly & Ann Brashares.)

Another writing friend was struggling with her ending recently. I asked her one of the (many) questions that I ask myself whenever my writing stalls: Whose book was she writing? Had she gotten caught up in writing what the readers want, what her editor wants, what her agent wants? Or was she writing HER book? If you write for someone else, it is all too easy to lose your way. Sometimes it is helpful to remind yourself why the book is yours.

I don't share my work before I've finished my first draft for the same reason I don't talk to people about movies they’ve seen that I haven't. If I hear a comment, read a review, or even gauge the body language of someone who has seen the movie already, it will be there, sitting in the back of my mind, whispering to me throughout the entire film, contaminating my opinion with "Leah thought this was boring?" or "Dave thought this was actually good?" Even if I wait for months after hearing that comment or reading that review, it will still be there, waiting to be triggered by the merest mention of the movie, lurking in my subconscious to spoil it for me.

My writing is the same. I don't want some else's opinion of my stuff lingering in the back of my mind, contaminating my opinions and my voice. When I finish generating the first draft, a switch flips in my brain (sometimes I have to force it to switch) and I am ready to see what the world thinks of me. The editing process is very collaborative for me, but during the first draft the book is MINE.

Occasionally I will pick one person who gets to read my stuff when I am in the "generating" phase. My aunt Kris & my best friend Leigh have both had this dubious honor. And both of them understand that they are allowed to say 1) I can't wait to see what's going to happen next! Write more! 2) I really love ___! OR 3) Yes, Vivi, I agree. (To be said in response to whatever question I am asking about the effect I am having on the reader.) All other comments are strictly verboten until I slap "The End" on that puppy. Only then can they tell me what they really think. Up until that point, that is MY baby and no one else gets a say.

I want my readers to feel like I felt when I finished The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde – as if he had written it just for me. I want my readers to love my books, take ownership of them, but they can’t unless I love them first. So my advice, if you’re a writer trying to figure out how to tap into the market, is to write YOUR book. Don’t get bogged down in what everyone else wants from you. Put yourself, your voice, into it and it will be unique. And if you love it, somewhere out there is a readership hungry for YOUR book, to take it and make it their own.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In Defense of Adverbs

I love adverbs. Ardently. Passionately. These powerful little "ly" words can subtly shift the meaning of a sentence, adding nuance and style. I am an adverb advocate, but these days it seems I am in a steadily shrinking minority of adverb aficionados.

I have been told, dear reader, that I use too many adverbs. The source was a fellow author who did me the courtesy of reading my work. She circled and struck through the offensive little parts of speech to emphasize the frequency with which I inflicted them on my readers. And I do inflict them frequently. I am quite aware that I am a shameless adverb whore, but I'm afraid I am not at all inclined to change my ways.

No matter how many times I'm told that adverbs are weak words, no matter how many creditable sources tell me that I should eradicate them from my lexicon (don't you just hate the word 'should?'), I simply will not do it. I like them. They are part of what makes my writing my own.

Perhaps I do use them too often. Perhaps I should rephrase here and there. Perhaps I will. But I flatly refuse to agree with those who write the writing rules, those handy-dandy guidelines on the One Right Way to write fiction, when they say that adverbs fall into the taboo category along with passive voice, head-hopping, and info-dumping.

I am adamantly pro-adverb. Are you?

Go ahead, comment. Disagree with me. I know you're itching to. Desperately.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

And the Gold Medal for Procrastination Goes To...

Since apparently I can’t even post my blog on time during the Olympics, today’s topic is Procrastination and Distractions. I don't know a single author who does not have to overcome these two dastardly threats. (Dontcha just love the word dastardly?) These nasty little puppies aren’t going to go away just because you write a good book, or get an agent, or get published. These struggles are going to be part of a writer’s life forever. So you’d better learn to deal with them.

Procrastination: Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am extremely good at rationalizing laziness. However, if you don’t actually sit your butt in the chair and write, then you will never have a career. It may seem obvious, but it’s the cold, hard truth, ladies and gentlemen, that you actually have to write to be a writer. Heh. Who knew?

The Coping Mechanism: My personal technique for dealing with that villain Procrastination is to find a way to rationalize against laziness. This involves arguing with myself, but I’ve found it’s best to just embrace the crazy and run with it.

Example: The Voice of Procrastination - “The Olympics are on and Phelps is breaking records! A once in a lifetime experience! They’re only on every four years anyway!” The Voice of the Writer – “Actually, they’re on every two years now. Besides, would you rather sit on your butt watching someone else achieving their dream or actually achieve yours? Write, woman!”

Distractions: The day job, family, friends… you mean you actually wanted to have a life? Unless you live in a bubble, or are whisking yourself away to an isolated cabin in the woods for regular writing retreats, you, as a writer, are gonna have to learn how to deal with distractions – and there is no limit on what can fall under this heading. It’s pretty much anything that sucks time away from your writing – no matter how well-intentioned the time-sucker may be. Now, quitting the job or abandoning your family might not be viable, or desirable, options, but that doesn’t mean you are doomed to writing fifteen words a month when you can squeeze them in around the edges of your frenzied existence.

The Coping Mechanism: Treat your writing a like a job, not a hobby, and if it’s a second job, try not to treat it like the lesser just because all your hard work isn’t resulting in a fat paycheck yet. Don’t be one of the many who want to be writers in a vague, pipe-dream sort of way. Be one of the ones who actually write. Press on! Finish that manuscript! Then finish another. If you don’t treat it like a career, you will never be able to turn it into one. This is a reality, not a dream, but only if you are viewing it realistically. Then – and this is the hard part – train the people around you to treat it like a career rather than a hobby also. The best way to do this? Learn to say No.

Example: I had a roommate a few years ago who thought any time I was home, I was available to her for fun and entertainment. I wasn’t at work, so clearly I was free. I explained, often, that when I was writing, my door closed, I didn’t want distractions, but she persisted in thinking I was just playing around at writing, so when she interrupted me to invite me to goof off with her, she thought I was just trading one pleasant pastime for another. The idea that I might write as a job, that this was serious, never registered. It was easy to say yes to her. To go out to dinner, the movies, dancing. It was always fun to say yes. But it didn’t get my book written. So I had her read an article in the RWR about training the people in your life to take your writing seriously and got used to locking the door when I wrote & saying “No” a lot. And you know what? It worked. She didn’t hate me for spending my “free” time writing. She didn’t throw tantrums when I said no. She supported me. Maybe she was disappointed that I had less time for play, but she never once complained. The people in our lives who love us will try to understand. Of course, this is a pretty mild case, and more easily dealt with than many things that will interrupt your life as a writer. You can’t exactly tell your infant, “No, Mommy can’t change your diaper now; she's writing.” (Unless you can get Daddy to do it.) There will always be distractions. The trick is to deal with them and get back to work. Push forward. Put your butt in the chair.

So the moral of the story is: You are your own boss, so be the boss from hell. You need to create deadlines for yourself, especially when you are first starting out, before there is a contract or an editor to impose a deadline on you. Be a taskmaster for yourself, or if you think you can’t, then assign someone in your family or critique group to be your taskmaster for you. For my first book, this was my mom, who is the single most supportive person on the planet and a terrible whip-wielder, but the fact that I was accountable to someone else for my pages, even if it was just in my own head, helped me make my writing a priority.

Let’s just repeat that last part, shall we? Make your writing a priority. Everything else will come out of that.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


My Picket Fences just finaled in New Jersey Romance Writers' Put Your Heart in a Book Contest!!! Can I get a "Woohoo!" ladies and gentlemen? C'mon, lemme hear it!

I would write more, but I am far too busy doing Snoopy dances around my living room and scarfing down celebratory cupcakes to blog.

And one more time, "Wooooohooooooo!!!"