Wednesday, December 15, 2010

when 2nd feels like 1st

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

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

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

seven stages of editing grief

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

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

eating my words

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

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

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

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

And then I purchased an iPad.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

can you hear me?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 21, 2010

a dandy comes to call, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

a dandy comes to call

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

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

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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dad, me, and the OED

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 23, 2010

touched by history

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 14, 2010

coming home to a place i'd never been before

The photo that introduces this post is of perhaps my favorite place on earth: my hometown of Wilmington, NC.

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

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

Monday, May 10, 2010

going pro

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

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

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

Thursday, May 6, 2010

slings & arrows

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2010

an unromantic in paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

a lock on love

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

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

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

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