Make Your Own Luck

The Harder I work the Luckier I getAs we ring in the New Year, like so many others, my thoughts are on plans and goals for 2015. You know that old adage…the harder I work, the luckier I get. Just recently I shared with a writing pal that more and more I believe this is an industry where we must make our own luck. There are tons of writers out there. I find the amount of books published in the span of one year overwhelming, mainly because I want to read them all! Given that, how do we get our work noticed in the industry? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in RoseAnn 2.0 mode. Meaning, while I have a published series, I have certain goals for the next phase of my writing career. First, I’d like to find a publisher for my new Young Adult work. Second, I’m looking for a publisher for my new Contemporary Romance work. Lastly, I’m looking for an Agent, someone who can represent both genres.

The biggest challenge is always getting your work in front of the right industry professionals. So, here are some thoughts I have on how we writers can make our own luck.

Contests

Our Femmes group has had a good run when it comes to contests. There’s a lot to be gained from entering contests. With so many out there, it can be hard to determine which one is right for you. Research the final round judges. If they are on your target list then a final placement guarantees they will have read your work.

Back in October I entered my new Young Adult into a few contests. That piece placed second in both contests, however it earned two full manuscript requests. So, while I didn’t win, those contests contributed to my 2015 goals.

The Cold Query

There is much to be gained from pitching at conferences. However, don’t discount the cold query. I’ve had a bit of success going this route in the past. It can be cumbersome, so you want to make sure you’re funneling your energy in the right direction, and putting your best food forward. Here is a bit of advice on the cold query process.

  • Do your research: Don’t waste your efforts or any industry professional’s time. Make sure those you query represent and/or are looking for what you write. RWA has a list of agents and what they represent. However, I have found the contest trail once again a great resource for this. Agents and editors who volunteer their time to contests usually judge a category of interest. Also, follow industry news. I get a lot of information on my twitter feed, and from my writer friends. When I come across someone I feel a good fit, I add them to my spreadsheet which includes their bio, what they represent, their query process, and any special notes or comments, such as…did I meet them at a conference, do they represent an author I admire, etc.? I track the progress of the queries in the spreadsheet as well. It’s good to have all this information in one place so when I decide it’s time to start the process I don’t feel unprepared.
  • Write a great query letter: I realize that sounds rather obvious. There are a lot of resources on the web when it comes to writing a solid query letter. In researching agents you will find many of them have examples of what they consider good query letters on their websites. I come across blogs written by agents on writing good query letters. The thing to keep in mind about a query, similar to a pitch at a conference, is that the Agent or Editor wants you to succeed. They want you to have the story they are looking for.
  • Personalize it: The best piece of advice I can give on writing a query letter, beyond including your GMC and ending in the story summary, is to personalize each letter. Make sure an agent knows why you have selected him or her out of the vast sea. Why do you think they are the right person to represent your work and career? Always make sure to include any professional publishing credits, organizations you belong to, where you can be found on the web, and a short bio. Always thank them for their time.

Keep Writing

It sounds simple. We’ve heard it a million times, but keep writing. Just because you’ve had some requests and/or you have material out there, that does not mean it’s time to take a ciesta. Unless you’re feeling burned out. If that is the case, some time off might be exactly what you need to recharge your batteries. You never know what opportunities might present themselves down the road. When they do, you’re going to want to be ready with plenty of material.

So, what are your writing goals for 2015? How have you made your own luck? I’d love to hear your stories!

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Engaging the senses in your writing

I was talking with my eleven year old son the other day and he was explaining in great detail about these people who I later learned are from the fictional online gaming world of Wizard 101. This isn’t the first time he’s done it, either. Both my kids regularly refer to characters from TV shows or electronic games as though they’re real. It drives both me and my husband crazy.

But then I started thinking that isn’t this what writers look for when we craft our stories? We want the characters to feel so real to the reader that they could be someone you know—or would like to know. Or could imagine falling in love with. Who doesn’t want to get that little catch in your gut like the heroine does when the hero gives her a smoldering glance?

How do you write to fully engage your reader?

Here are some examples of how to use your five senses to bring your reader into the story. These excerpts are from the partially edited second book in my Tangled Hearts series, Forever In My Heart, which will be coming out soon.

Sight

Vicky bit into a forkful of baked ziti and reveled in the divine combination of garlic, basil, tomatoes, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses along with the slight bite of red pepper.

Taste

Back in the main room, Maggie poured his coffee, and he took it along with a cinnamon bun to his usual table by the window. Slathering the top with butter, he took a huge bite into a sticky explosion of brown sugar laced dough.

Sight and Smell

Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. A few strands escaped and curled against her neck. She smelled like berries, apples, and cinnamon and he had to fight the urge to reach out and see if she tasted as good.

Touch

He reached out and touched her arm. A spark jumped between them. She must have felt it, too, because she jolted. All these years and his blood still heated up being near her.

Sound

Surprised, she cried out and acted on pure instinct—or stupidity. She elbowed him in the gut. He grunted a moment before the gun clanked to the gun. She attempted to step aside, but her assailant grabbed her arm and punched her in the jaw. It wasn’t a strong punch, but it caused her to gasp for breath. Grabbing the cake carrier, she swiveled and smashed him in the head. He yelped and fell, swearing when he hit the hard ground.

 

In case you can’t tell, there are lots of food references in Forever In My Heart. I leveraged my Italian background in my story and enjoyed creating what I hope are scenes that make the reader imagine being inside Vicky’s café or at least make you crave something decadent. 🙂

Cinnamon buns anyone?

While writing this post, I did realize I shy away describing sounds in my story. It’s given me a renewed energy look for ways to go into more depth as I continue with my edits.

What tips do you have to engage your reader in the story?

Maria

The Dreaded Sagging Middle

I wanted to blog about a topic many writers—including myself—dread. It’s the sagging middle. And I’m not talking about out waistlines. I’ll save that weight loss discussion for another day. I’m thinking of the middle chapters of our books. The part of our story that loses its drive, its enthusiasm, and well…its umph.

frustrated writer

Others call this midbook burnout. But whatever you call it, the result can be disastrous for both new and established writers. We start out strong. We picture our hero and heroine in our mind with vivid clarity. We know what they look like as well as their initial goals and motivations. We craft wonderful beginning chapters and maybe even strong endings. Then something happens mid-way through. The essence of the story gets lost. The conflict is too simple or too complicated. We sit at the computer for hours in frustration and write little. We decide the writing process is too hard and we even think about giving up.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The good news is there is a way to work through our frustrations. Here are the four tips that I find most helpful:

Flesh out character development scenes

 My favorite book on craft for writers is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. He breaks down the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. He calls step six “Tests, Allies and Enemies.” I’ve found this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in the middle of my book. By testing your hero and having him make allies and enemies you are allowing for great character development. You can learn a lot about a hero’s character by the friends and enemies he makes. Romances are all about the character growth of both the hero and heroine. So flesh out these scenes.

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Housekeeping and Editing…Two Challenging Tasks!

I admit I’m not much of a housekeeper. I know mothers that excel at having a well-kept home. I’ve stopped by to drop my kids off at scheduled play dates or even unexpectedly to sell Girl Scout cookies and have been invited into homes that are often tidy and beautiful. I do clean, but more often than not, there are toys strewn about, and my office/playroom is well…just plain messy.

MessyDesk

One rainy afternoon, I was mumbling under my breath while cleaning out closets when my hubby walked in and said, “What’s the big deal? Think of it as cleaning up your manuscript after the first draft.” I dropped the trash bag stuffed with kids’ clothes intended for Goodwill, and looked up at him in shock. As an engineer and introvert, he’s definitely on the quiet side, but sometimes he blurts out very helpful and insightful things. I started thinking and came to the conclusion he was totally on point.

So what do cleaning the house and editing your book really have in common? It turns out to be a whole lot.

Read the entire manuscript in one sitting

Get the feel for the story. Resist marking the pages and making notes in the margins. Just read for the content. This will reveal overwriting, sections that need more explanation, or unfinished plot points. It’s similar to walking through the house and noting what needs to be cleaned, which closets need to be organized, and how big of a task you have ahead of you.
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Making the Laughs LAST

Photo credit: jugbo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: jugbo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

My father passed away 8 years ago today, one day before his birthday.  Not so funny.  So why is this post about infusing humor into writing?  A few years later, I started writing the first book in my soon to be released BROTHERS OF AUDUBON SPRINGS series, RETURN TO AUDBUON SPRINGS.  This book was meant to be a sweeping epic family drama exploring grief, forgiveness and rebirth for a family at odds over one summer at their Jersey Shore home.  Before I knew it, the house had been bequeathed to the heroine and her hot carpentry-former lover, a ridiculously steamy battle for ownership between the two followed, enter a secret baby and…holy cow….I’m writing a romantic comedy.  I fought it for months.  NO! I’m writing an epic family drama, but instead, laughter, love and tears flowed onto the page.  Finally I took a step back and realized it all made sense.  Laughter lingers in our hearts and humor will always resonate across time and distance.  My father had a warped sense of humor, more signature catch phrases than you could imagine, along with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare.  Now, eight years later, I find myself using those same catch phrases (“You can’t ever be sure of what you’re going to get” – this was a favorite he used on my husband when it came to me!) and quoting those same lines from Shakespeare.  I do NOT, however, ask my daughter to pull my finger! 
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Layer Cake: How to Bake the Best Book

Okay, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a huge Suzanne Collins fan. From a readers perspective, Hunger Games was a story that rocked my world because it was unlike anything I’d read. A compelling heroine, who I was rooting for from page one. A setting that sparked my imagination. A plot that held my interest . . . for three books!

From a writer’s perspective, wow, she still rocks.

I’m revising a manuscript, and as I do so, a mental checklist is slowly being applied. It’s a technique I use in my 5th grade writing class, where students go through their writing and make sure they’re using similes or alliteration, etc.

My students loved the Hunger Games as well. So, in today’s post, I thought I’d share with you a discussion our class had about writing. How Suzanne Collins layered her story, and ways we, as writers, can add depth to our plots.

I know you might be thinking, come on already, you’re blogging about a 5th grade writing lesson. But keep reading, you might be surprised by what you know, and don’t know.
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Caught in the Draft

Like many writers, I crave praise.

I want someone to read my writing—whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire story—and just LOVE it. ‘Cause it feels…well, awesome.

Except when they don’t. And that feels…well, crappy.

By Girlnamedjim (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Girlnamedjim (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping Your Toy Shiny and New

While serving on jury duty recently, I was able to finish Stephen King’s On Writing. As many of you know, the book is chock full of awesome writerly advice. What really struck home with me was how King handles a first draft. Famously, he says to “write with the door closed; edit with the door open.” (I don’t have the book in front of me, so forgive me any errors with the quote, but you get the gist.)

King doesn’t show any piece of his current WIP to a living soul until the first draft is done. Then he goes back and does a bit of self-editing. And then, and only then, when he’s happy with the “first” draft, does it go out to beta readers.
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Risky Business

Be sure to stop by the Violet Femmes blog each week this month and comment to be entered in our contest. This month you’ll be entered to win two novels, Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins and Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas. Come back every week and leave a comment to increase your chance of winning!


I am many things. A mom. Wife. Sports fan. History buff. Shoe lover. One thing I’m not, by nature, is a risk taker. I like my little comfortable bubble where I don’t have to talk to people I don’t know or eat things I’ve never heard of. I tend to hang out on the fringes of a party, and knee-high water is about the deepest I’m willing to venture out into the ocean.

So now that I’ve shared WAAAAAY more information about myself than any of you ever wanted to know, we can talk about risk and how it relates to writing. Do you take risks as a writer? Do you push yourself to be more, to be better, to be different? Because while our comfort zone is, well, comforting, you never know what you will discover when you step outside it.

“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.”
            —Francis Ford Coppola, Director, Producer, Wine Maker

Dare to be Different

We frequently see examples of risk in movies and television, such as when an actor takes on an unexpected role. Or the business world, with entrepreneurs who strike out on their own with nothing more than a few bucks and a wacky idea. With writing, it can feel as if everything we do is a risk. You’re putting your thoughts on the page and then sending them out into the cold, cruel world for everyone to rip apart. Isn’t that enough, universe?! Well, no. It’s not. Just because you can string a few sentences together and know where to stick the commas doesn’t mean you’re going to get noticed.

Unpublished authors frequently hear you need a “great hook” to sell a book these days. Stellar writer and character development will only get you so far. The competition is fierce, and your story premise better sound like nothing anyone’s ever heard before. Sounds daunting, right? As if we don’t have enough pressure with the darn commas!

A recent article in The New York Times claims the biggest risks in literature right now are taking place in the young adult market. I don’t really read YA so I can’t say whether this is true or not, but the author wrote:

“Here are a few audacious books you won’t find in the adult section of the library. A Holocaust memoir narrated by Death. A novel written entirely in electronic messages. A historical novel in prose poems. A murder mystery in screenplay format.”

So if you have a story idea you want to try but are worried it’s too “out there” to be marketable…that kind of idea just may make you stand out from the crowd.

Or it may make you sound like a nut job.

The point is, you’ll never know if you don’t try.

“Growing as a writer means taking chances and pushing boundaries. Not that you necessarily want to try and sell all your writing exercises, but that doesn’t mean you [shouldn’t] practice and experiment.”
                        —Josh Lanyon, Author

Breaking Out

Risk means something different to everyone. For writers, maybe it’s attending a conference for the first time or taking a writing class. Submitting to an agent or an editor. Heck, maybe it’s just allowing someone other than your mom to read your work. Or, in the case of our own VF Michele, it might be trying your hand at writing in a completely different genre. She went from writing French historicals to contemporary sports-themed stories. (And guess what? She rocks both genres.)

Occasionally, I’ll hear an unpubbed author express the reluctance to “put themselves out there.” If you stay in a writing bubble by yourself, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to network and learn from others. Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest aren’t there to SCARE you; they exist to help people connect with others, even other writers. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make it easy to set up your own blog.

At some point, you have to crawl out of your writer’s cave and start to build a name for yourself—whether you are published or not. If you don’t, how will anyone find out about you when you DO get published? The difference in the approach is huge: you’re either spamming people you don’t know to spread the word about a book they don’t care about, or you’re relying on your friends to help build word of mouth for your book. Which would you rather be on the receiving end of?

“Learn something, try something, do something else. FAIL. FAIL BIG and FAIL A LOT. Failure is always guarding the door to success.”
                        —Kristen Lamb, Author and Blogger

The Non-Traditional Route

While self-publishing is not for everyone, no one can deny it has changed the landscape. Not only does it allow writers to publish stories that might not otherwise get exposure, it also helps readers find a wide variety of non-traditional books.

Take Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which was first posted online as Twilight fan fiction. FSOG breaks many of the rules first-time authors are told to avoid. Don’t write a story in present tense. Don’t write a first-person narrative. Don’t have too many sex scenes. Don’t use British vernacular when your characters are American. (Okay, that last one is true.) James’ trilogy has become an international sensation, despite everything we may think she did wrong. Clearly, she’s done something RIGHT because readers can’t get enough.

(Of course, if you’re going to risk breaking the rules, you have to know what the rules are first.)

So, have an idea for a story but worry it won’t sell because it’s just too wacky? Having the option to self-publish may be the little mint on your pillow every night, comforting you just enough to take the risk and write the book you want to write—whether you end up self-publishing it or not.

“Fear of failure is the reason most often cited to explain why so many aspiring writers never realize their dreams. But I think it’s that same fear of failure that absolutely invigorates those who do push through—that is, the fear of not being heard.”
                        —Betsy Lerner, Editor and Author

Fear Factor

Are you clutching your laptop like a security blanket, even though you might suspect there might be a grain of truth in what I said? I get it. I understand because I wrote in a bubble for a few years, then finally took a chance and joined the New Jersey chapter of the RWA. I couldn’t get over how nice and supportive everyone was, and I lucked out in getting an amazing critique partner (VF Maria) that then led to meeting the rest of the Violet Femmes. Exhibit A of a small risk that worked out in spades for me. My writing improved by leaps and bounds, and my life improved just by having these inspiring and talented women in it.

Beyond that, I feel I’m still learning, still stretching my skills to make myself the best writer I can. Is it working? I don’t know yet, but I hope so. After I finish my current historical WIP, I’ve got an idea for a contemporary series that I’m going to run with. Who knows, right?

So tell us—what risks do you take in your writing?

Joanna

In the Beginning: Tips on Starting Your Novel

Welcome! Congratulations to Roni Denholtz who won a $20 Amazon gift card in our most recent contest. We’ll contact Roni through email in order to coordinate her prize. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and I hope you enjoy my contribution this month.

Joanna


When I first started writing, one of the concepts most challenging for me was finding the right place to start my story. My very first manuscript opened with the heroine stifling a yawn. Seriously. Needless to say, feedback on said story mentioned that the opening was, well, boring. Gee. Who wouldda thunk it?

If I’m being honest, I must admit that I’ve had to rewrite the opening of every single manuscript I’ve ever written, save the current one. (In fact, I have one manuscript where the opening has been redone FOUR times.) So I’ve done quite a bit of research into the current popular thinking on the best place to start a story. I say “current” because tastes and reader expectations change over time. Not only that, there seems to be a decided difference on what the established, popular authors can do and what is expected from newer authors. So don’t read this blog post and then go pick up a Johanna Lindsey or Nora Roberts book to compare your opening to theirs. There is a reason why the bestselling authors can do whatever the hell they want. This post is not aimed toward anyone who has ever had a hardcover book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

So where to begin? Even if you’re a pantser, you should have a rough idea of where your story is going before you start writing. These may be loose thoughts rattling around in your head like marbles, or a obsessive/compulsive outline of every thought, scene, and detail in your book. Assuming you’re ready to start writing, the first thing you want your story to do is grab the reader’s attention. We want them to keep reading, right? If a potential reader is flipping through your book and happens to read the first paragraph, you want to engage them until they can’t put the put down. Lots of factors contribute to a strong beginning, so let’s touch on a few here.

The First Few Pages

No one can tell you exactly how many pages you have to snag a reader, an editor, or an agent’s attention. Some folks say five, and some say fifteen. Some even say all you get is one stinking paragraph. But what you should take away as the answer is NOT MANY.

Author Nathan Bransford says, “When you’re starting a novel there are only two things you’re looking to find: Voice and Plot.” Sounds easy, right? (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

But it is fairly simple. Think of it this way: you want to give the reader an idea of what your story is about and how that story is going to be told right from the get-go.

While no one can give you the magic formula to do this successfully, there are surefire ways to NOT to do it. Here are some common no-nos on starting your novel, paraphrased from the brilliant Kristen Lamb:

  • Info-dump. The story begins with lengthy world building, lots of facts, or backstory. Snooze.
  • Starting right in the middle of the action. You’ve got to give your reader a reason to care about what happens to your character BEFORE it happens. This point may seem like a direct contradiction of the above about info-dumping, but it’s not. You have to find a happy medium there. We want enough character building that we care about the character, but not a bunch of useless information better given later in the story (if at all).
  • Flashbacks and prologues. These are generally unnecessary, as they don’t move your plot forward, and they can be confusing for the reader.

Author Crawford Killian believes, “A novel (or a short story for that matter) should begin at the moment when the story itself becomes inevitable.” I love that description. It means starting in a place where the hero can’t possibly turn away from this new path. Also, you’ve got to show the reader what’s at stake, so the character’s concerns matter to the reader. Which leads us to the…

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is defined as “A plot point in the first act which disturbs the life of the protagonist and sets them in pursuit of an objective.” In other words, it’s the ball that gets the whole story rolling. We all know we need an inciting incident, otherwise there’s no plot. According to Scribe Meets World, the inciting incident:

  • jolts your hero out of his everyday routine.
  • is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot.
  • is something that must happen in order for your hook to kick in.

Examples are someone dying, something is won or lost, a tornado is approaching, etc. It needs to be something out of the ordinary that happens to chart a new course for your hero. And this can’t be something the hero does, it’s something that happens to the hero.

Now that you know your inciting incident, the big question becomes WHERE in the story does it go?

Most experts agree it must occur in the first act, and should go as close to the beginning as possible to serve as the bait in order to hook the reader. The inciting incident creates tension, which compels the reader to keep reading in order to find out what happens.

The First Line

Oh boy. This is a tough one. First lines are tricky because they matter so darn much. Editors and agents are very busy, and if you want your work to be noticed, you have to pay attention to even the first words on the page. It has to be a grabber, and many blog posts I found lobbied for the first line to “surprise” the reader. No one can tell you how to come up with a witty or dramatic first line. That takes years a practice and lots of trial and error finding your own voice. I can, however, give….EXAMPLES!

Hooray! It’s time for samples. These are all great (in my opinion) first lines of popular romance novels. I’ve compiled a list of both historical, classics, romantic suspense, and contemporary. When you remember that the opening should give a good feel for the tone and voice, you can see why these first sentences are all outstanding.

Glory in Death, J.D. Robb

“The dead were her business.”

The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne

“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Catch of the Day, Kristan Higgins

“Falling in love with a Catholic priest was not my smartest move.”

Something About You, Julie James

“Thirty thousand hotel rooms in the city of Chicago, and Cameron Lynde managed to find one next door to a couple having a sex marathon.”

One for the Money, Janet Evanovich

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.”

Nothing But Trouble, Rachel Gibson

“Just because a man was lucky to be alive, didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.”

The Darkest Hour, Maya Banks

“He’d hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today.”

Bad Boys Do, Victoria Dahl

“This wasn’t a book club; it was a manhunt.”

Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.”

The Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas

“As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park.”

Did I leave off any of your favorite opening lines? We love hearing from readers, so please share!

And now I’m off to rewrite the beginning of my current manuscript. Happy writing!

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