Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I Finaled Again! / Another Plug

Uh, hi! Been a while, hasn't it? I've been Internet-deprived lately, and due to the fact that I'm pregnant and due in a couple of months, life has been getting more and more hectic. (Yeah, you say, wait until the baby gets there - you think you've seen hectic? LOL)

I'm pleased to say that my second manuscript has finaled in a contest, and not just finaled, but kicked butt! I'm so thrilled, because I've hit a writing slump on my third book, and this is just the shot of juice I needed.

In other news, I'm going to shamelessly plug my pal Kari Townsend, who won first place in the NJRW Put Your Heart In A Book Contest with her manuscript, DESTINY WEARS SPURS! Watch out for this writer, folks, because she's awesome, and she will make you laugh your socks off!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Setting

When writing your next great romance novel, give some serious consideration to setting. Setting can have a huge impact on the tension, flow, or tone of your story. Consider the impact of setting in the following movies:

Dead Calm (1989) - The heroine is trapped on a boat, which is stranded in the middle of the ocean, with a deranged killer. If that doesn't up the ante, I don't know what does.

Father of the Bride (1991) - A beautiful suburban home, the perfect setting for a wedding. The house even acts as a character in the story, a cherished part of the family's life holding many memories.

Practical Magic (1998) - Another house that adds its own character to the story. The rambling old home reflects the eclectic style and respect for family tradition of its inhabitants. The town adds a sense of community, at perfect odds with their perception of the "unusual" Owens family, who have been frowned upon for centuries.

Titanic (1997) - A ship doomed to sink, where history has shown that a landslide majority of first-class passengers survived, and most third-class passengers perished. A perfectly tragic, heart-wrenching setup for a romance between a first-class lady and a third-class man.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. A carefully-chosen setting can add punch to your plot, and even act as a character in your story. As such, it's important to give consideration to the backdrop in which you place your hero and heroine. If you haven't seen some of these movies, I strongly suggest you rent them and pay attention to the nuances of setting, and how the characters interact with it. And make some popcorn!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

3rd Place!

I'm tickled to announce that my first manuscript has recently placed third in an RWA-chapter-sponsored contest. I found out only after a weekend of getting congratulations from fellow writers and responding with, "Uh, thanks. What'd I do?"

The final results haven't been posted on the chapter's website, but our own chapter president forwarded the news from another loop. The news couldn't have come at a nicer time, when I've been struggling to make my current WIP behave the way I want it to. Sometimes, validation really does make one feel better. ;) The fact that this is my first manuscript is what truly excites me. I had gotten close with other contests, but placing makes me feel as if I'm on the right track. Now to get back to work on that current WIP!

I'd like to take a second to plug my fellow (soon-to-be-published) author, Jennifer Talty. I've been following her efforts to get published from the beginning, and her first book, RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU, is due out June 2007 in e-book format and September 2007 in print through Triskelion Publishing. She'll be following that up with IT HAD TO BE YOU - no release date yet on that one. RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU is a romantic suspense set in beautiful Lake George, NY - and the hero is mighty droolworthy. Jennifer knows how to write a steamy hero!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Writing by Soundtrack

Some writers (and I am one of them) like to write to a "soundtrack." They compile a list of songs that closely relate to certain scenes in their novels and write exclusively to that homemade soundtrack until the book is finished. I go so far as to burn a CD and make a cover for it, as if it were a real movie soundtrack. (Did I mention I'm also a Photoshop junkie?) If you're anything like me, you play your soundtrack incessantly, and it drives your spouse or significant other bananas. :)

Music can be a great way to encourage the flow of your creative juices. Even if you aren't the type who can write while distracting music is playing, you might benefit from playing one of your favorite tunes before you hit the keyboard. Even if it doesn't help you dream up that stellar scene, it may help relax you and get you ready to tackle your manuscript. Give it a try!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ahh, Romance!

Well, yesterday, the DH earned full bragging rights. For no reason, he bought me a half dozen red roses. How sweet is that? He must have read my mind, because last week I was in the store and went past the floral display, thinking, "If I had just a little more cash this week, I'd buy a bouquet for the kitchen table."

Every once in a while, he does something so sweet and surprising, for no reason at all, that it makes me fall in love with him all over again. So here's to spontanaiety - do something unusual for your sweetie on any old regular day, and celebrate your romance!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Telephone Pet Peeves

This has absolutely nothing to do with writing, but I've come to realize that I hate phones. I spend most of my day job dealing with a phone, and by the time I get home, I can't stand to hear one ringing (which is why I usually make my husband get it). This is part of the reason I've adamantly resisted getting a cell phone, or even a pager, although I may soon be forced into it. Yeah, that's me, Dark Ages Girl. When I go out, I don't wanna be found. :)

The most annoying thing about phones, apart from busy signals, is voicemail. I can't stand it when you press a wrong button and the automated voice politely tells you, "We're sorry, but you've pressed an invalid extension." Or, when you're holding, the automated voice will pick up every so often to apologize for the wait. What? How is it that an automated message can apologize? It's not even sentient to be sorry! This false politeness really bugs me. It's meaningless.

I think our fast-food society is sapping the value out of human interaction. It's so much easier to keep a human being at arm's length when he or she is on the other end of a phone or a computer. That's part of the downfall of such incredible technology. People are slowly losing their social graces. Maybe that's why I've resisted getting a cell phone for so long. I'd rather unplug myself from the cyberverse and talk to a real person! Hey, who knew I was so deep? ;)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Are you a good rejection, or a bad rejection?

Got a rejection letter in the mail yesterday, but I'm happy about it. Why? Because the editor took the time to point out the strengths in my writing, even though she didn't feel the story was right for her house. A letter like that, or a handwritten note at the bottom of a form rejection letter, should make any writer sit up and take notice - and thank the person who wrote it! It generally means that you are on the right track, and even if your work isn't accepted by that agent or house, you should be proud of yourself. Not all rejections are bad news. This one happened to make my day, at a time when I was beginning to feel my writing sucked. So I fired off a thank-you note telling her how much I appreciated that extra effort on her part, and now maybe - just maybe - I can get back to work. :)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

And the heat just keeps on coming....

Another scorcher today, so try to stay cool. This weekend, my local RWA chapter is having a meeting to recap the experience at the Nationals, which have just concluded. I hear it was a fantastic time. You lucky dogs! Someday, I hope to go, but it'll have to wait.

In the meantime, I'm ashamed to say I haven't written a single sentence in my new manuscript so far this week. I think either I'm temporarily burnt out and my brain needs to rest and regroup, or the heat really is frying me. However, I have my previous two books out to a few editors, agents, and contests, so at least I'm doing something. That counts, I suppose. Ah, well, I may have to camp out in my air-conditioned bedroom over the weekend with my laptop. (Yay, air conditioning. How did I ever live without you?)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Keep Cool Today!

Just a short public service message today advising those of you dealing with extreme heat (100 degrees where I live) to be careful. Wear light clothing and stay hydrated, and especially watch out for pets and the elderly. Heat can be nastier than the cold, particularly in the absence of air conditioning and in the presence of high humidity. Take a swim if you can, or use this chance to revisit your childhood and run through a sprinkler. :)

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Happy Ending

So let's finish out the week with the happy ending. This is absolutely necessary in all forms of romance writing, from the sweetest romance down to the steamiest erotic romance on the market. No editor or agent will accept a romance manuscript without it - so be sure your hero and heroine get their happily-ever-after. They don't have to escape disaster unscathed - in fact, your story will be all the better if your hero and heroine emerge from the black moment somehow changed for the better.

The happy ending can't take place unless one or both of your main characters decides they've had enough of the black moment and come to some sort of decision. Maybe John announces on public television that yes, he has published poetry and yes, he's happy about that because it's brought another dimension to his life that he can't get on the football field. Then he excuses himself to find his pretty reporter. Or maybe it's Marsha that leaps first: she quits her job, or goes back to her old one, and searches John out to say how sorry she is.

You should generally not let your hero and heroine say "I love you" in a romance until you get to the happy ending. They can harbor the secret, or dance around it until your reader is breathless with anticipation - but you don't want to ruin the anticipation by having them admit their feelings halfway through the book. Every time they take a step forward, your hero and heroine should take two steps back (in an uncontrived way!), until the final leap that brings them to the happy ending. Then, they're free to confess their love and stroll away into the sunset (or off the football field). You can end with a wedding, or at least some sort of implied commitment, but your reader should close the book with a satisfied sigh. After all, you've done your job in the book, and proven that love is possible in spite of the odds. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Black Moment

The black moment is, in short, the crisis point of your story. This is where your hero and heroine's roller coaster ride comes to a crashing stop, and all of their worst fears come true. Let's go back to John and Marsha. For John, this may be the point at which his football buddies discover he's written that book of poetry. Maybe he believes he's in danger of losing his valued tough-guy status, and thinks his job might be on the line because no one will believe a softy like him can still kick butt on the field. The fans will hate him, his coach will hate him, and the public in general will look down their noses at him. Bad news all around for John.

Marsha has unintentionally let it slip that the poetry book exists, so John is angry with her and goes back to macho mode. This confirms her worst fears, too. The man she's been falling for throughout the story has turned out to be the worst kind of woman-hurting stud she's seen yet. Maybe she even gets her dream promotion, but by now she doesn't want it. There's no satisfaction in the job, because she hurt someone to get it.

Both of these characters have a personal crisis or black moment. In addition to that, in romance, is the romantic black moment - the point where your hero and heroine believe they'll never get their happy ending in each other's arms. And, of course, they're miserable because of it. Each of them spends more and more time thinking about what might have been, and dwelling on the things they liked about each other. In romance, this downslide leads to a decision on either (or both) character's part to jump that final hurdle and reach the happy ending. That's tomorrow's topic.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sexual/Romantic Tension

Sexual or romantic or sensual tension are all the same thing. No matter how you tag it, you're turning up the heat between your hero and heroine, so you and your reader can enjoy the flying sparks. Even a sweet romance can have romantic tension, leaving the reader wondering if your hero and heroine will get to their happily-ever-after. Steamier romances ramp up the tension to its highest possible level.

So how do you create this tension? With attention to detail. Every time they get together, your hero and heroine find themselves noticing tiny things about one another: the way her hair catches the light, the way his fingers drum on his knee when he's agitated. Heightened awareness of small details about each other is one way to amp up the tension. You can (and should) also use the other senses. Not only do the senses draw us into a scene, like we discussed previously, but they are an important way to bring details to your hero or heroine's attention. Maybe she smells like roses because of her perfume. Maybe his hands are warm and rough.

You can also use dialogue to create tension, couching your hero and heroine's language in double entendre or snappy comebacks, if they're that sort of couple. Show us that your hero and heroine want to be together, even when they don't realize it.

Perhaps the most important indicator of tension is body language. As we discussed before when talking about subtext, body language is crucial. It says what we mean, even when our words don't. Maybe he stands closer to her than absolutely necessary, and finds himself making excuses to touch her. Maybe she shies away, only to turn back when he steps away from her.

The better you build your tension, the more likely your reader is to fly through the book, wondering all the while when your hero and heroine will finally snap under pressure and give in to each other. We're willing to forget that a happy ending is guaranteed, just so we can enjoy the roller coaster ride with you.

Your hero and heroine will ride high on that tension, up and down through the course of your book, and then bang! Their worst nightmares come to pass, and everything falls apart. This is the black moment. We'll cover this all-important point next time.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

External Conflict

"Okay, smartypants," you say. "We've got a handle on internal conflict. What's all this malarkey about external conflict?"

Gosh, I'm glad you asked. Well, you didn't, but I'm going to tell you anyway. External conflict includes the obstacle(s) that your hero and heroine must face in the story, rather than within themselves. These are the gunfights or chase scenes or tense hostage situations, among other things. Who or what is the villain in your manuscript? Pretty simple, huh? You needn't make it such a spectacle, either. Your external conflict can be as large as a war, or as small as a suitor competing with your hero for the heroine's hand in marriage. It can even be between your hero and heroine, in addition to their internal conflicts.

Let's take our heroine and hero from yesterday. Your heroine - let's call her Marsha - is a fledgling reporter for ESPN, vying for a better job. She needs a compelling human-interest story to snatch the position. Your secret-poet hero, John, is a lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. What happens when Marsha finds out the macho football star is a poetic softy? Now you have an external tug-of-war: Marsha wants to blow his cover because she needs that job, and his story is just the thing to secure it. John wants to keep it secret, because maybe he thinks if people believe he's gone soft, he'll lose his job. This isn't internal baggage, although their internal baggage often compounds the problem of the external conflict. Marsha's forced to deal with a man she thought was the usual macho male, and John is forced to drag his poetic side into the open for her scrutiny, because she just won't leave him be. Why do they keep coming back to one another in spite of their differences? Tension. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Internal Conflict

In romance, internal conflict is crucial. It's the overriding thing that drives your hero and heroine apart, especially right after they experience some kind of connection with one another (a love scene, or other emotional "click" that starts them on the path to love). If you don't have internal conflict to pull your hero & heroine apart, your reader will quickly get bored and shut the book, no matter how many exciting gunfights or chase scenes or tense hostage situations your hero or heroine have to endure.

So, what's internal conflict? It's the conflict within your character that prevents him or her from automatically reaching a happy ending - the reason he or she can't commit. Perhaps your heroine's been burned one too many times by a macho alpha male. And what's your hero? A macho alpha male, of course. Only she doesn't know until the end of the book that Macho Man is hiding a soft streak. That's your heroine's internal conflict: distrust of alpha males due to past pains. It's her baggage, preventing her from a happily-ever-after with your hero.

Now, maybe your hero has a secret: he's published a book of poetry, and his macho buddies will laugh him out of town if they find out. He can't have that - it'll ruin his tough reputation. Aha! Motivation to be a macho alpha male - just the thing the heroine hates. His need to hide his soft side from everyone - including the heroine - is his baggage. Internal conflicts of your hero and heroine work so much better if they conflict with one another. Your reader will eat up the book just to find out who wins the emotional tug-of-war. (Of course, in romance, we're guaranteed a happy ending, but the excitement and conflict of the journey makes us forget that.)

Next time, we'll build on these two characters by adding external conflict.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Contest Submissions

Today, I'll talk about contest submissions. You romance writers will find many contests posted in the back of "Romance Writers Report," a monthly magazine published by Romance Writers of America for its members. Rules vary from contest to contest, so be sure to follow them closely. You can often find a detailed list of rules at a website posted in the contest listing. Contests will almost always require you to enclose a SASE for return of your manuscript and judges' scoresheets. This is important, as judges will often comment directly on your manuscript pages. (Once in a while, they'll reply via E-mail instead of by SASE - yay for saved trees! I hope other contests begin to offer this option soon.)

Deadlines for submission of your entry and fee, first-round judging, final-round judging, and contest winner announcements will be given in the rules. If you're lucky enough to final, you may be given the option to polish your work before it goes on to final-round judges. I strongly encourage taking advantage of this opportunity, paying special attention to issues that have been pointed out by multiple judges.

Judging is not a fast process - you must be patient. It can sometimes take four to five months for final results to be tallied, but the feedback you receive can be invaluable. Contests can help you get your manuscript in its best possible shape before it even sees an agent or editor's desk. Prizes are usually offered for winners: a piece of jewelry, cash (often your entry fee is returned if you win), certificates, plaques, engraved pens, and even a manuscript critique, to name a few. The best thing about contests, though, is the feedback you'll receive - and everyone gets that, no matter how they place in the final standings.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Query Letters

There are a ton of different ways to write a query letter, but a few things are universal. Make sure it's a legible font, usually Times New Roman in 12-point, left-justified. Here are the other major things you should put in your query:

1) Get the agent/editor's name right! That includes spelling and gender.

2) Include story name, genre, word count, and if you're writing for category romance, which line you're targeting. Don't bother comparing your work to a known author's - it may turn the agent/editor off, especially if he/she dislikes that author. Let your work speak for itself.

3) Touch on your hero/heroine's inner conflicts, their external conflicts toward one another, and the basic story conflict. This is important in romance. I usually start my query with an introduction paragraph, including story title, etc. I then reserve one paragraph for the heroine & her baggage, one for the hero & his, and then in the fourth paragraph, briefly describe the story conflict, why the hero/heroine are drawn to each other, and the hurdles they must overcome together. In the fifth paragraph, I mention any awards I've won for my writing, writing group memberships such as RWA, and whether I've been to conferences and workshops. Some agents/editors recommend that you don't mention you're unpublished. Always close by thanking the agent/editor.

4) Your contact information! Don't forget to finish your letter with your name, address, phone, and E-mail. They can't contact you if they don't know where you are. Omission of this info is an all-too-common occurrence, which inevitably results in your manuscript finding the recycle bin.

5) A SASE for reply, and/or return of your manuscript if you wish. If you don't include the SASE, an agent/editor will not reply to you (although some may take the time to E-mail you if an address is provided and a SASE isn't - but always include a SASE anyway). If your SASE is only letter-sized, they will reply with a rejection letter or (you can hope) a request for more material. If your SASE is big enough for your partial, they'll send it back - but not always with comments on it, so I generally don't waste postage money on asking for its return. They'll usually recycle your partial if you don't want it back.

6) At the bottom of the letter, I list the enclosures, which usually reads "Enc: First three chapters, 10-page synopsis, SASE" or something similar. This way, when I copy the letter for my files, I can keep a record of what's gone to whom.

7) Keep all of this info to a maximum of one page only. The agent or editor's time is valuable. Keep it short and sweet.

You don't need to go into great detail in a query letter. It's just a "blurb" to whet their appetites. Some agents/editors want you to query with a partial (your first three chapters) and synopsis included, and some just want the query letter itself. Always defer to the agent/editor's query and submission policies. If they don't read your genre or their house doesn't accept your kind of work, don't query - you won't be the exception to the rule.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Writing A Synopsis

A synopsis is probably the only place you can get away with telling. It's a summary of the major events of your book, written in present tense (except for any necessary bits of backstory), and as if you are telling us the story. There are many fine examples of synopses out there on the Internet, so I won't waste time illustrating one here. We'll just cover the important points.

A synopsis helps your agent/editor determine whether he or she is interested in seeing more of your work. The format for a synopsis is the same as that for your manuscript, unless otherwise indicated by the agent or editor requesting your work. The only exception is that you would put "STORY TITLE / Your Name / Synopsis" in the header, and the page numbers on the right as usual.


The most important part of a synopsis is the hook, or the opening line, which should be an attention-grabber. If you can't grab the agent/editor's attention at Page One, she may not finish reading it, no matter how exciting you think Page Eight is, if she'd just read a little further. Keep the synopsis streamlined and engaging, and especially proofread it. Even though it's a summary of your story, it's still an example of how well you write. Pacing is just as important, if not more so, in a synopsis as it is in your manuscript. The agent or editor is looking for a well-told book that flows smoothly, without contrived events. Don't muddy up your pacing with minor events. We're looking for major turning points. In romance, we also want to see internal and external conflict, sexual or romantic tension between your hero/heroine, the black moment, and a happy ending. (More on those things in later blog entries.) You don't need dialogue in a synopsis - save it for your manuscript. Remember, this is the one case where you are telling the story, and your characters aren't.

A synopsis is a selling tool. While it should never sensationalize your work (think of those obnoxious commercials with shouting vendors and colored text flashing across the T.V. screen), it should market your story in its best possible light. Think of the most engaging personality traits of your characters, and the unexpected twists and turns in your plot. Make sure you include those.

I usually write a one-page, a five-page, and a ten-page version of each manuscript's synopsis. This makes it much easier, come submission time, when different agents and editors request different-length synopses. Some are just looking for how well you tell a story, and whether its plot might be of mass interest. Others want to know more detail. Let a critique partner read through your synopsis. Sometimes, she'll pick out a minor plot point that doesn't need to be there, or a major one that you've left out. Because she's impartial (compared to you), she might even help you find a more interesting way to sum up your story's events. The more engaging your synopsis, the better chance you'll have of getting your manuscript read. And that's one step closer to publication.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Backstory

Backstory is everything that has happened to your character before your opening chapter, from childhood on up. ("When she turned eight years old, Susie's parents bought her a pink bicycle ..."; "Matthew had always had good luck with women ..."; "Amy went through a terrible divorce three years ago ...") Too much backstory is deadly to your pacing. Resist the urge to reveal more than absolutely necessary, and avoid doing it all in one chunk. Your reader only needs to know basic, crucial details relevant to the present story, and she's smarter than you think. She won't need to know every little detail to be able to follow your story.

The best way to reveal relevant backstory is to weave it throughout the present-day story. Dialogue with another character is a good way to do this, and still stay in the present tense. Some writers like to use a prologue to reveal an important past occurrence that will affect present events. Then, it's okay to use backstory in one chunk, because it's given in an immediately-occurring format - it's happening now (and then, in Chapter One, you fast-forward to Present Day). If you reveal only little bits of necessary backstory at a time, you'll avoid bogging down your pace with something that's already happened, and your reader won't get frustrated by plowing through past events. They want to know what's happening to your characters now, so they can follow along and share your hero's adventure.

Friday, July 14, 2006

I Would Have Written Sooner, But ...

Well, yesterday was a bit of a catastrophe. After a downpour Wednesday night, I came home to a basement flooded with 4-5" of water. Aaaarrrrgh. DH and I made it to the hardware store just in time to buy their very last pump, which managed to take out the water, then quit on us, and during the two hours of sleep my exhausted husband got, it started to flood again. We spent yesterday with mop, bucket, fan, and waterproof boots cleaning up the damage. It took until this morning to get the water to recede. With more rain in the forecast, I'm leery of another flooding episode, and watching our basement drain like a hawk.

Ah, the joys of home ownership.

On the plus side, I believe we've saved our furnace, water heater, washer and dryer, but I'm not holding my breath that this headache is over until we have everything looked at by a professional. Mother Nature has had her laugh, all right. Nothing like a flood to hand you your humility back. The lesson from all of this? Check with your insurance to see if you are in a flood zone, and consider buying that flood insurance! We don't qualify, because we "Aren't on a floodplain," ahem. But we will buy additional insurance against water backing up into our basement again. Phew!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Use of the Senses in Writing

Today, I'll touch on use of the five senses in your writing. This is one of the easiest ways to draw a reader into your scenes, and you should try to have as many of the senses as possible in each scene without bogging down your writing. To review, the five senses are:

Sight
Sound
Touch
Taste
Smell

You'll do a lot of describing in your scenes (but remember not to overdo it - keep it to major basics, and trust your reader to fill in the smaller blanks herself), so your reader will "see" what your characters do. What about the other senses? Sound is easily introduced: the clink of glasses in a bar, the boom of a stereo, the murmur of a crowd, dialogue. Touch comes in when your character burns her fingertips on a hot plate, for instance, and is especially important in love scenes, for you romance writers! Taste is a great way to set a scene, especially one that involves food. Smell has been called the most vivid of our senses. Think about catching a whiff of cologne you haven't smelled in years, and the instant recall it conjures up of old memories. Perfume, flowers, food, fresh-cut grass - use it anywhere you can.

Unpleasant senses are a great way to draw your reader into a scene, too. The reek of garbage, the sour taste of bile, etc. If your character isn't having a good time in that scene, get us in there by putting those icky senses around us, and we'll hate it just has much as your fearless hero does.

Remember not to load your scenes up so much with every single sense that you lose your pacing. Use the senses when necessary and logical - but be sure to use them.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Manuscript Formatting

Lots of new writers ask what the proper manuscript format is for submissions. There's no one right way to do it, and print publishers will have different formatting rules than e-publishers. Sometimes a house or a contest will have its own standard rule. Always defer to the agency/publisher or contest rules when submitting a manuscript. If there are no rules posted, a generally accepted standard is as follows:

* 12-point font in Times New Roman or Courier (for easy readability). Don't use a fancy font as it is harder to read.
* Print from a laser or inkjet printer. Agents and editors will no longer accept dot matrix manuscripts. Likewise, manuscripts on dot matrix paper (the continuous sheets with the holes at each side) will be refused.
* In the U.S., 8-1/2" x 11" High-Brightness paper at 20-lb weight (for durability and readability. Editors and agents find the high-contrast brightness easier on their eyes.)
* Text should always be left-justified, with a ragged right margin, except for chapter titles and scene break indicators - which are centered.
* 1" margins all around
* A header, with "MANUSCRIPT TITLE / Your Name" on the left, and the page number on the right. Some contests will not allow your name to appear anywhere on the manuscript itself - which allows for impartial judging - so you can easily edit the header to remove your name. They will sometimes ask that you insert the manuscript category in the place where your name would go. Your contest entry sheet would include your name and contact information, identifying the manuscript as yours.
* Space the text body at 25 lines per page (you can do this in Word by formatting your paragraphs to "Exactly 25-pt." This gives you an average of 250 words per page for easy word-count estimates. In this way, a 400-page manuscript works out to 100,000 words.)
* Make sure your ink cartridge is new! The darker, the better. Editors and agents read all day long, and reading faded ink is a terrible eye strain.
* Most agents/editors prefer that anything you intend to be italicized in final print be underlined in your manuscript - not italicized.
* Scene breaks should ideally be separated with some type of character(s) to clarify that you haven't accidentally skipped a line, i.e. placing "* * *" or "- # -" on its own line, and then starting a new line to begin your new scene.
* I generally space down five times from the top of the page, center my CHAPTER TITLE, space down four more, and begin my text body for that chapter. This gives you a clean visual break from that last chapter.
* End with "The End" centered below the last line of your manuscript. After revising, you'll be ready to send off a polished-looking manuscript!

Keep in mind that you do not need to copyright your manuscript, nor do you need to state that it is copyrighted (that's a sign of an amateur writer). Under U.S. law, your work is already copyrighted as soon as it hits the page, for your lifetime plus 70 years. You do not need to worry about reputable agents, editors, and contests "stealing" your work (notice I said reputable - always research thoroughly to weed out the fishy-sounding prospects!). The good guys are much too busy to snatch your opus and pass it off as someone else's. They want you to be the writer.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Handling Rejections

This is where the "thick skin" part of your must-have list comes in handy. Every writer who braves the literary world and submits her work will, at some point, get a rejection on her manuscript. Sometimes it's a pre-printed form letter explaining that the agent/editor appreciates the opportunity to review your work, but your manuscript wasn't right for him, and he wishes you luck submitting elsewhere. Sometimes the agent/editor will take the time to add a handwritten note to the bottom of the letter and go into more detail on what they liked or disliked about your work. That's a big pat on the back! Be sure you send him a thank you note for his trouble, even if you get only a form rejection.

If your work is rejected, don't despair. Every writer gets rejected sometime - even the bestselling ones. And remember that they had to start somewhere, too. Allow yourself a few minutes to wallow in disappointment, and then get back to your work. You'll never sell if you get discouraged and quit submitting. Victory will be that much sweeter if you don't give up. You may not sell your first manuscript, nor your second or third, but you can only hope to publish if you keep working on your craft and improving it with each attempt.

Rejections can result from a number of things:

* The agent/editor's personal preference (they just don't like the kind of story you offered);
* Poor plotting/characterization/story mechanics;
* Poor punctuation/grammar;
* Wrong genre for that agent/house (you'd be surprised how often this happens - research before you submit!);
* They already accepted/published a book similar to yours.

There are many more reasons a story can be rejected. Don't give yourself a headache trying to decipher a form rejection. Throw a party if the agent/editor gives you reasons for his choice in not accepting your work. You may find a snag in your manuscript you hadn't seen before, and a chance to fix it. Always continue to hone your craft, and someday you may get that long-awaited phone call with a yes.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Misplaced/Dangling Modifiers

Misplaced and dangling modifiers crop up frequently in a new writer's prose - usually the dangling modifier is the problem. These are errors of sentence structure. A misplaced modifier involves a phrase misplaced in the sentence, too far from the object it is supposed to identify. An example of a misplaced modifier:

Julie put the horse in the barn that was her childhood favorite.

The horse is her childhood favorite, but barn was inserted between the correct object and its modifying phrase, making it sound as if the barn was Julie's favorite. To correct:

Julie put the horse, her childhood favorite, in the barn.

Now that the misplaced modifier is back where it belongs, beside the word it is supposed to modify, everyone's clear which item is her favorite. Now for the dangling modifier, the more common error. These usually involve an -ing word, and the identifying object is left out of the sentence, skewing your meaning. For example:

While riding the horse, the sun shone brightly.

The sun is the object of the sentence given in this wording, but we all know the sun wasn't the thing riding the horse - Julie was, and she's missing completely from the sentence. To clarify, you need to put Julie back into the sentence:

While Julie rode the horse, the sun shone brightly.

Julie's doing the riding in this wording, and it's clear that the sun isn't. Look for these mistakes in your writing, and you'll avoid having readers that stop to wonder what you're talking about. Keeping your meaning clear helps readers stay involved in your story, so they see the story, not its mechanics.

Side Note: Thanks to Ryan Field for his kind compliment on my Telling vs. Showing blog entry - glad to be a help!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Telling vs. Showing

Well, what is it? Telling is when you, the narrator of your story, butt in and explain the action, when it's your characters who should be showing us what's happening. Ideally, you should have a minimal presence in your fiction, even though you're the one in charge of the story. You can do this and still maintain voice. The key is to let your characters drive the action. You get to be the one pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes.

Some of the key culprits of telling are was, felt, looked, and seemed. There are more, but once you learn the difference, you'll be able to spot telling vs. showing. Some examples are:

She was beautiful.
The blanket felt coarse.
He looked like a god.
She seemed angry.

These are examples of you telling us what we should be feeling as readers. Notice that your characters haven't had a single hand in the action in any of these sentences. Here are the modified, showing versions:

Men drooled whenever she walked by. (Here we can see she's beautiful by others' reactions.)
The blanket scratched her fingers. (The blanket gets a piece of the action here. Objects can act, too!)
Her breath caught in her throat when she saw him. (Again, a character's reaction tells us he's gorgeous.)
Her eyes glittered like icy daggers. (Boy, she's mad, ain't she?)

Telling is a form of passive voice. It doesn't let us dive right into your story and experience it firsthand. When you show us, you're letting your characters play the story out for us. This gets us into your characters' heads through their reactions and emotions. It would be impossible to write an entire book without using a single bit of telling, but if you keep it to a minimum, your work will be so much stronger.

Next up: Misplaced Modifiers

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Adverbs

I thought I might talk a little about the mechanics of writing for the next few days. First, adverbs.

Adverbs are a roadblock to good fiction writing. They're the words that end in -ly, such as quickly or slowly or angrily. Often, the reason you'll find an adverb in your work is because you've used a weak verb, and it needs that extra word to prop it up. This leads to passive prose, or weaker writing. Less is more! Study this example of adverb-loaded wordiness:

He walked slowly down the beach, thinking sadly about his ex-girlfriend, then angrily threw a rock into the water. (19 words)

Now, we'll prune the words down just by getting rid of those weak verbs and their adverbs:

He trudged down the beach, pining over his ex-girlfriend, then hurled a rock into the water. (16 words)

We've trimmed three words by using stronger verbs that don't need an adverb crutch. These verbs are much more vivid than a slow walk, a sad thought, and an angry toss. That leads to stronger writing! Often when you can say the same thing in fewer words, it's the best choice, and the bonus is, it'll speed up your pacing. You can use adverbs, but consider them as you might a strong spice, and use them sparingly.

Next time: Telling vs. Showing.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Happy 4th - Just A Bit Early

In lieu of the fact that tomorrow is a U.S. holiday, and I won't be around to post, I'd like to take the time to wish all you Americans a happy Independence Day. Please take a moment to remember the soldiers who can't be home to spend it with their families. I hope you all have a safe and happy day. Don't forget to grab a hot dog and catch some fireworks. Cheers!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Agents

A lot of writers ask whether it's useful to get an agent. The final answer has to be up to you, but there is one basic question: Do you have the time to shop your book around, or is it more important to you to use what free time you have in writing? This is especially important for those who have a "day job" in addition to their fledgling writing careers. You can't spend all your precious free time researching the right target publishers and sending out submissions ... and still get your writing done.

Agents, at least in the romance genre in the U.S., generally take a 15% commission on domestic sales, and 20% on foreign or subsidiary rights. You should never pay an upfront fee to an agent. They receive their payment only after you have made a sale. Usually, the agent receives the check directly from the publishers, takes his/her cut, and passes the remainder on to you over a time frame specified in your contract. Sometimes, an agent will charge for copying, postage, and other office costs (also outlined in the contract), but should never charge a reading fee.

Agents know the market. They are more likely to know the best home for your book, and will usually have a good relationship with the editors at many publishing houses. A good agent will be consistent in his/her efforts to market your book, and keep you updated on its progress. An agent can be (and ideally, should be) your biggest cheerleader - as excited about your work as you are.

You can submit directly to editors, and sell without an agent, but an agent will help your work bypass the slush pile and get it in front of an editor sooner. An agent can also act as your coach, advising you on aspects of your work that may need to be changed or improved to make the work more saleable. He or she can help you plan your career and make the most of your talents.

Agents do this and more. That's a lot of work, and you might be glad to have an extra person on your writing team to handle it. But the writing part is up to you, so be sure you still have time for it even if you go agent-free. For more information, including a list of questions to ask prospective agents, see the Association of
Authors' Representatives, Inc.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Blogging vs. Writing

What I'm about to tell you is going to reek with irony, considering the page you're reading, but here goes nothing.

Don't spend a lot of time blogging when you're a writer.

(You can laugh now.)

Now that we've gotten our mirth out of the way, let's qualify that statement. Sure, you can blog, and still be an author. It's free P.R., for one thing, and might help or amuse some folks out there, and what's life without some amusement? But remember, the more time you spend blogging, the less time you're actually writing. And if you want to finish your opus, blogging isn't going to help you do it. Nor will spending all day reading others' blogs. The key is moderation. A ten-minute blog entry probably won't bite into a very big chunk of your writing time. But spending hours doing so will definitely prevent The End from getting any closer. If you've got the willpower to tell yourself "Get off the 'Net and start writing, slacker!" then by all means, give up a little time for blogging, or reading one. Which reminds me, if you're reading this, I should probably send you scurrying back to your opus. Shoo!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Writer's Must-Have List

There's an iron-clad list of things you'll need as a writer:

1) A sense of humor. Face it, some things in this business are too ironic not to be funny.

2) Thick skin. Some people will not, I repeat, not, like your work. This business is made up of people from all walks of life. That's a whole lot of differing opinions. And that is just what they are - opinions. Remember that, and take it for what it is. Don't take it personally.

3) The willingness to change your work. Be honest - if you get three or more unrelated people pointing out the same snag in your work, they might be right. You can explain your plot point all you want in person or over snail/E-mail, but you won't get that chance when someone's reading your work and you aren't around to hold their hand. Try to step back and take another look at your manuscript, and see if you can understand where your editor/agent/critique partner got stuck. The willingness to change is what makes us better writers.

4) Down time. Everyone needs a little break now and then. Spend it with your family, or go out for drinks with your critique group. Believe me, there's no restaurant livelier than one containing a table full of writers out for a good time.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Vision

What is vision?

"Vision" is a term swiped from the art world - hey, writing's an art form, too! It stands for the direction in which you see your work going, or the effect you want to convey to the reader. What do you want to say with your manuscript? What do you want to stay with the reader once she closes your book? What impact should it have?

Tall order? Yep. But pretty easy to fill, as long as you are consistent in your plot and in your characters' motivations. Your reader will follow right along with you, as long as you're clear about your vision from start to finish. That means sticking to it, even if someone else disagrees with it (and there's a big difference between a disagreement over writing mechanics and your underlying vision - good to remember). Only you can tell your story, and only you should.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Voice

What is voice?

"Voice" is the seal that marks your manuscript uniquely yours. You can also call it "style," because it's infused with your own unique personality. No one else writes quite like you, and no one ever will. If you have a strong voice, your writing will shine. The dialogue, action, plot, and pacing come together in a confident blend that stands out from the pack. A strong voice sells books. It gives the reader a special connection to your story, as if it's being told by a person, rather than through ink and paper.

How do I get "voice?"

Aye, there's the rub. You can't "get" it - only improve it. You already have voice - it's as much a part of you as the way you talk or act. What you need to work on is craft. Streamlining your work, and polishing your writing skills, will help your voice shine through. A reader won't see the mechanics of the work, then, but the way you tell the story. If they like your voice, they'll seek out more of your work. (If they don't, don't be offended. Opinions vary widely, and your voice may not be the type that reader can connect with. But someone will!) The more you improve your craft, the better your voice will get.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Critique Groups

One of the best things you can do for your manuscript is to join a critique group that really cares about your work. A dedicated fellow writer will not only understand the mechanics of a good manuscript, but they may also have suggestions about plot and pacing that might not have occurred to you. The caveat is, of course, not to edit so much that you lose your own voice and vision for your work ... but that's a topic for another day.

It's especially great if you find another writer who understands your vision for your work and wants to help you get the most out of it. They can tell you where they laugh, where they cry, what alternate wording might work better, and best of all, support you when you're feeling down. A built-in circle of friends who understand the madness of being a writer - and sympathize! Not to mention, they're not family, so they're not going to be too careful if there are things they don't like or understand about your work. They'll tell you - unlike Mom, who might be more worried about your feelings. :)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Morning Off

As important as it is to keep working on your craft (and if you have a "day job," it's even more difficult to squeeze in time to do so), it's also important to know when to pause and take a break. Writers also refer to this as "refilling the well." This lets you kick back and relax while your subconscious mind takes a break from the effort of writing. It is, after all, a taxing occupation on the ol' noggin.

I had a morning off today, and spent some quality time with the Dear Husband having breakfast. It was wonderful to be able to put aside the have-to-do's for a while and just enjoy the free time. Now I can get back to work recharged and ready to tackle the writing again.

Take some time, even a couple of hours, and allow yourself to do nothing. You'll feel refreshed, and that looming deadline or waiting manuscript will look a whole lot less daunting when you return to it.

Just don't forget to return to it. ;)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hey, Thanks!

I recently finaled in a contest, and this week I received my first-round scores back. This is a good time to remind new authors of the importance of "Thank You" notes. Not only is it nice to send a thank you note to judges, agents or editors who have taken the time to review your work (even if they don't snap up your opus on first sight!), but those folks are more likely to recall an author who remembers those little niceties the next time around.

Keep a stack of them on hand. They're pretty cheap if you get the big packs, and it only takes a little time out of your day to practice the kindness it takes to write one. Savvy?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Whoa, Subtext!

So, the Dear Husband and I were watching Disney's "Tarzan" last night - I admit it, I'm a Disney junkie and watch my favorites every so often even though I am (ahem) an adult. While the movie takes rather a large departure from the original book, I still find it a good story in itself.

Well, it got to the scene where Tarzan and Jane meet, and he does that whole bit where he takes her glove off and puts his palm against hers. I found myself pointing out to the DH, "You know, for a Disney cartoon, this is probably the steamiest scene they've ever done!" DH, of course, had no idea what I was talking about.

What I am referring to is subtext - the things your characters don't say or do. Subtext can pack a bigger wallop than your actual dialogue or action, if you do it right. Disney, in recent years, has become something of a master at it, which is the reason people of very disparate ages can watch the same film and still enjoy it. A five-year-old may not catch what happened in that glove scene (and your hubby might not, either), but boy, a grown woman does. Watch that scene again, and pay attention to body language - the most important tool in a writer's subtext arsenal. You'll see what I mean.

It isn't so much what a character says or does, but how that's the key to adding layers to your work. Those are the books that end up on a reader's keeper shelf - the ones that you can read, and read again, and find a new layer every time. Pay attention to your characters' body language, especially if you are writing a romance, and your scene features the hero and heroine. It's important, too, when your H/H are facing the villain. Subtext conveys reams of information about how your characters react to one another, particularly in times of crisis. So go on - layer in that subtext and shoot for the keeper shelf.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Sleep? What's that?

One of the things I hear writers complain frequently about is lack of sleep. When your family has functions going on (BTW, Happy belated Father's Day to all you dads out there), your house needs cleaning, and your writing bug bites at one A.M., when are you expected to get that nap in? And of course, when you do sleep, you can always look forward to the cat pouncing on your head in the wee hours.

Sadly, writing is the item that usually gets back-burnered in favor of the other ones (though really, your family should come first, shouldn't they? Ahem.). But there is a solution. You can train your muse to come calling at reasonable hours.

If you sit at your computer at the same time every day - and write, even if it stinks - eventually your muse is going to get the hint that she'd better be around at that time of day. And your writing will get better. And you might actually get some shuteye when you should.

Trust me. The dust bunnies will be there when you finish.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hello-o-o-o Out There!

Hello, world! I'm Nicki Greenwood, aspiring romance author. I've been writing, oh, since I could pick up a pencil, and within the past few years have been attempting to break into print in the romance genre. I thought blogging my efforts might be a nifty way to help other aspiring writers. So far, I have a lovely stack of rejection letters (some with way cool personalized notes from the editor/agent), and some very promising contest feedback. Recently, I finaled in a contest with my first manuscript, which tickles me pink.

Which just goes to show - if you want to be a writer that bad - DO IT! If you keep at it, and keep honing your craft, you will succeed. You can't become published if you don't keep trying to grow as a writer. Finish that manuscript and send it in!