Thursday, May 29, 2008

Taking the Summer "Off"

Ahh, doesn't that headline conjure up images of lazy afternoons by the pool, on the beach, or at the boat? It's always been a secret fantasy of mine to take a summer completely "off." So, in case my boss is reading this, let me set his mind at ease when I acknowledge that I don't mean that job. I do, however, plan to take the summer off from writing. 


Did I say that out loud?

You heard me write, er, I mean right. My brain is fried. My fingers are tired. And even my laptop has been grumpy lately. The words, which have always come a little too easily, have stopped showing up. I'm not hearing voices, running dialogue, or composing scenes in the shower. I don't wake up lately thinking about anything other than the routine plans for the day. That is odd and it's a sign that a break is in order.

In consultation with my editor, I recently made some significant revisions to an MS I wrote last summer. I'm pleased with how it came out in light of the fact that I was flying solo without my writing partner (Ms. Muse, who took off without a word a few weeks ago). The ideas gelled, the story flowed, and the revisions made it a better book, but the process did not, as I had hoped, jump start the desire to write. My WIP, the second in what I hope will be a long-running series featuring two characters I'm crazy about, started to feel like teeth being pulled a month or so ago. I put it down and stepped aside for a while, hoping to get back to it when Ms. Muse returned. 

However, a week or so ago, I received a picture postcard of HERSELF sitting pool side in Monaco, letting me know that she planned to extend her vacation through the summer. The bitch never even consulted me! At first I fumed. Who does she think she is? She works for me, not the other way around! After a day or two of ranting (and raving), I realized that since she is the key to it all and without her I am nothing more than the person I was before she showed up in the first place, I'd better shut up and suck it up. I want her back, but not until she's ready to come home. Perhaps a little time away from each other will be good for both of us. We've been working together, nonstop, every day for more than four years. We have done a lot of good work together—work we are both very proud of. If she wants this break, I guess she's earned it and so have I. What do I plan to do with all my newfound time? Here's a brief list:

1. Spend as much time doing nothing with my kids as I can. They are soon-to-be 13 and 10. I have a handful of summers left where they will be looking to me to entertain them in some way or another. So on the days they are not sailing and when work permits, I will spend the afternoons with them doing whatever they want to do.
2. Promote "Line of Scrimmage," which will be out on September 1. I will never again get to experience the particular headiness that comes with watching my debut novel wind its way to publication. I plan to enjoy every minute of it and to do everything I can to to ensure its success.
3. Read. I have a huge "to be read" pile next to my bed, including several of my Sourcebooks sisters' books as well as novels by other great people I've gotten to know in the last year. I've decided to read Jane Austen this summer. I have never read any of her books, and I'm curious as to what all the hoopla is about. I also plan to read "Gone with the Wind." I've seen the movie but have never read the book. This summer I will rectify that.
4. Think about what I want to write next. Will it be finishing the WIP? Or will it be something new? I have a few ideas here and there. Stay tuned. I'll let you know when I figure it out.
5. Chill. I've let a lot of the "business" side of writing get to me lately. I have no doubt that's why The Muse took off for Europe. If I want to get her back, it's time to take a big fat chill pill. Hopefully, she will find an Internet cafe, read this posting, and know I am serious about wanting her back and fixing our relationship. 

There are detractors out there who don't believe I can do it, who think within a week or two I'll be back at to banging on the keyboard. I'm not setting out to prove anyone wrong, but I have a feeling this break is going to stick around for a while. So until Ms. Muse returns, I'm on a writing vacation! I can't wait to see what transpires.

What's your plan for the summer?

Monday, May 12, 2008

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

Whenever I’m with my dad’s friend Dan, he makes the following announcement: “Watch what you say around her or you’ll end up in one of her books.”

Um, well, guilty as charged. My brother gave me a shirt that says basically the same thing. So I guess it’s safe to say I’m gaining a reputation as a writer on the prowl for ideas. Who among us isn’t? Where do the ideas come from? How many times have you been asked that very question? Do you find it easy to answer or is it hard for you to explain to lay people how the writer’s mind works? (Maybe they’re better off not knowing…)

For me, the single most important element to finding ideas is being open to them. The ideas are everywhere—if you’re looking. I’ve stumbled across them in the following places/instances:
  • Airports. Two of my MSs have come from things I’ve seen or overheard in an airport. Yes, I’m a shameless eavesdropper, and you should be, too!
  • Driving. Oh the crazy stuff you’ll see and notice on the road if you keep your eyes and mind open to the possibilities—while staying in your lane, of course.
  • Newspapers. In most major metropolitan dailies, you’ll find news briefs from other papers around the country. Any time something catches my attention, I Google the names of the players to get the full story. This practice has paid off. I read last September about a congressman who was found dead in his home. My most recent MS features a U.S. Senator found murdered in his home. Fiction can be stranger than truth.
  • Your work in progress. Two of my MSs are sequels I never intended to write. However, in the course of writing one, the idea came for the second and then the third. Who am I to argue with the muse when she’s in that kind of mood?
  • Talking to people. I recently met a Rhode Island Superior Court judge—a pretty blonde with sparkling blue eyes who looked more like a Mary Kay saleswoman than a judge. My husband and I talked to her for more than an hour, during which she told us about some of the threatening (and truly revolting) letters she’s received from people convicted in her courtroom. On the ride home, I said to my husband, “What do you think of this idea?” and gave him the outline of a story about a judge who’s been threatened and the hero assigned to provide protection she doesn’t want. He stared at me, eyes agog, mouth hanging open. “It’s a sickness,” he said. I just smiled. I’ve been on the receiving end of that particular look of his often enough to know when I’ve got a winner.
  • Life experience. I recently sprained my ankle, which warranted a trip to the emergency room as well as my first MRI and first exposure to physical therapy. Everything you do, everywhere you go, and everyone you talk to brings something new or different to your body of experiences. Ask questions, notice the smells, record the sounds, and then put them away until you can use them in your work.
  • Music. Driving through the country listening to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” I had an idea for a dark romantic suspense. The song created a mood for the story. In fact, the first line of that MS is, “’Tupelo Honey’ played on the jukebox.” The song put me in a mood that led to a plot.
  • Read everything. The idea for a tree-hugging environmentalist hero came from an article in People magazine about men who don’t just talk about the green lifestyle, but live it.
  • Seeds that grow into stories. The idea for my debut novel, “Line of Scrimmage,” began with one simple thing—a pair of unwelcome boots landing in a foyer. Those boots and the man who owned them would turn the life of the woman who lived in the house upside down. From the boots came the injured NFL quarterback, his wife who couldn’t wait to be free of him in ten short days, and his Hail Mary play of a lifetime to stop a divorce he never wanted in the first place. All that from a pair of boots landing on marble.
  • Controversy. An ambitious and controversial land development a mile from my house inspired a self-made hero who wouldn’t take no for an answer—in business or in pleasure. (My cousin now works for the guy who inspired my hero, so that will be interesting if the book is published!)
  • Advice columns and sappy radio shows. Read “Dear Abby” every day. You’ll find kernels from real lives that might generate a story idea. Request and dedication shows on the radio also offer a peek—albeit usually a sappy peek—into life experiences that will differ from yours and might stir your imagination.

Once the ideas start flowing, you may find them hard to turn off. Recently, I was drying my hair when a fully formed idea for a plot came to me. It was so clear and so developed that I put down the hair dryer and went to type it up so I wouldn’t forget it. I placed that document in the “Ideas” folder on my computer for when I’m ready to start something new. Before I began writing with the goal of publication, I don’t recall “receiving” such well-formed ideas about plot and characters. Either they’re coming so freely now because I’m more open to them, or my late mother, who lived long enough to read the first four chapters of my first MS, is channeling them to me. I like to think it’s a combination of both.

Just as important as knowing when a great idea is staring you in the face is recognizing an idea that’s off limits to you. A good friend was recently telling me about a serious health problem she was born with. It was something I'd never heard of, and it would make for a fabulous young adult story since it involves body image and oodles of teen angst. But because it came from her, wrapped in a cloak of pain and suffering, it's off limits to me. Other people’s life experiences aren’t yours for the taking, unless they consent and agree. Don’t write it thinking they’ll never find out, especially if you’re writing with the goal of publication. Books have a pesky way of getting published, and the last thing you want is a ruined relationship to deflect from your amazing accomplishment.

I’ll end with a story from my small Rhode Island town, which marshaled an army last year to stop a Target store from moving in. While they were battling the corporate giants, a boutique named “Posh and Naughty” moved into the town center. Posh’s owner, a buxom blonde who favors Anna Nicole Smith, practices what she calls “guerilla marketing” that drives both her landlord and the buttoned-down conservatives crazy. So far her “marketing” strategies have included everything from dancing in front of the store in a skimpy Mrs. Claus suit to sunbathing in a bikini in the parking lot. She is a character and a half and would make for a fabulous romance heroine. Someday I’ll write the story of the sex toy merchant who saved the marriages of the same town fathers who were trying to put her out of business.

So many ideas, so little time.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Characters In All Shapes and Sizes

In the course of eleven books, I've created a lot of characters. With a few exceptions, most of them are good looking, pleasant people that I hope you'll want to spend a few hours getting to know better. Characterization is key to compelling fiction writing, and it's something I've worked very hard at over the course of my writing career. But what I want to talk about here is the REAL character I gave birth to nine and a half years ago. 

I've been blessed with two whip-smart, social kids who are full of self confidence. They both have a sharp wit and can carry on intelligent, well-thought-out conversations with people of all ages. But my son is a true character. Tonight my sister-in-law said, "You have to write some of this stuff down." So, I thought, why not here where he won't discover it for decades? Here are a few Jake-isms from the annals:
  • At four years old, he said to a bald man in Applebees: "You must be very sad that all your hair blew out." Did I mention that Jake is loud? So loud it's like a megaphone was surgically attached to his face at birth? Fortunately, the man laughed—as did everyone in a 10-table radius.
  • At five years old, he said to his kindergarten teacher: "You wore that same dress to orientation." Later that same day, he said to another teacher, "You're pretty. Want to marry me?"
  • At seven, he was singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the top of his lungs, including this line: "Babe Ruth through the night, that our flag was still there." It's a baseball song, he said, because it ends with the words "Play ball!"
  • A few weeks ago, we saw a woman breast feeding her baby at a hotel pool. She had him tucked up under a towel. Jake wanted to know what was going on, and I did my best to explain it to him in terms a nine-year-old could understand. I said it every way I could think of until he wore me down and I was forced to say, "The baby sucks the milk out of the mom's boobs." I wish you could've seen his face. Later, on our way to dinner, he says, "Mom, I'd really like to know more about this whole chest feeding thing." Chest feeding. I almost fell out of the car laughing.
I could go on all night with funny Jake stories. I will post a few more here from time to time. I've created lots of characters, but none can compare to the little man I live with who makes me laugh out loud every day of my life. I just clicked "Save" on this post and noted the time: 10:18, which is Jake's birthday.