Join my newsletter for info on upcoming books, classes, appearances, and discounts.Join Now!
banner image

Why I read

Image of woman using laptop inside giant book

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
~ Stephen King

You can find amazing things between the covers—actual or virtual—of a book.

I’ve been a book lover since I first sounded out the words detailing Spot the dog’s adventures. As an only child with lots of time on my hands, reading offered adventure, romance, education, and thrills during long, boring summers (and pretty much any other time of year).

I became one of those awkward teenagers whose friends made fun of her for knowing weird, “big” words—though not necessarily how to pronounce them—like gauche and risqué. By age sixteen, I had solved dozens of mysteries with Nancy Drew, visited exotic places full of intrigue with Mary Stewart’s independent heroines, run with spies, chased down terrorists, lived in worlds of pure fantasy, and traveled in time.

Not that I spent every moment buried in a book. I’ve always loved to travel, explore, hang out with friends, and be active in the real world. But reading was by far my favorite way to fill downtime. During the summers in junior high and high school—before I could drive—I would burn through 10-14 books a week.

Thank you library.

I can still read like that, but I rarely do. There are too many other things I want and need to do.

And yet, as a writer, it’s imperative that I continue to read for more than research or obligation. Not only because I still love stories, and they soothe me, but because they refill my creative well.

As a reward for finishing the first draft of Blind Ambition (Book 2 in my Men of Steele series)—insert happy dance here!—I bought Joanna Bourne’s latest book, Rogue Spy. [If you love history, romance, intrigue, spies, danger, daring and exciting characters, and twisty plots all wrapped in prose so beautiful it makes you want to cry, you must check out her books. I wrote more about her here.]

Twenty percent of the way in, I was struck with the need to take notes for the book I’m working on next. Something about the way the hero viewed his world—through the eyes of a painter and a spy—got me thinking about how my own hero must see his world—as a photographer and a sniper.

I know this stuff. I’ve studied it. But sometimes seeing it done well is better than reading a craft book, attending a lecture, or taking a class on the topic. These are lessons I already know, but reading a good book can inspire me to see my own work in a different light, and apply those lessons in a new way.

The only way to become a better writer is to write. Absolutely. But writers also need to read. Reading is what fed my passion to write in the first place. It’s where I acquired my intuitive sense of story structure and narrative and character.

Reading inspires me as a writer the way a painter might be inspired by walking through a museum.

Reading a really good book also just makes me happy. 🙂

That’s why I read. What about you?

No leniency for heroines

512px-Sad_WomanOn the few occasions a reader has expressed dissatisfaction with one of my main characters, it’s been with the heroine. This is a theme I’ve noticed when reading reviews of other authors’ books too.

The hero can be a womanizing playboy, an arrogant jerk (wounded underneath, of course), or a self-blind martyr and most romance readers will love him anyway. They’re incredibly forgiving of the hero’s flaws. But a flawed heroine? Not so much.

Sure, no one wants to read about a woman—or man for that matter—who’s too stupid to live (TSTL, as we say in the biz), cheats on her man, whines incessantly, or is perpetually helpless. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Aren’t we all a bit selfish? Don’t we do the things that make sense for us, our goals, our situation, even at the expense of others sometimes? Don’t we all make errors in judgment?

As a writer, I can’t start with perfect characters, otherwise there’s no room for them to grow. If they don’t grow, the emotional element of the story falls flat. One character will generally have a bigger growth arc than the other, but both should face, and ultimately overcome, a fear or incorrect belief about themselves. It’s only after their metamorphosis that they earn the happy ending in the reader’s eyes.

A heroine can start out as a pushover, but by the end of the story, she needs to stand up for herself and refuse to let others tromp all over her. A hero might begin the story unable to ask for help, but he can’t have his happy ever after if he doesn’t learn.

As a romance reader myself, I’ve found that I too am less forgiving of the heroine. And yet, if she’s without fault, I’ll dislike her even more for being too perfect. It bothers me that I’m like this, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Since most romance readers are women, why are we so hard on the heroines? (And hence, ourselves as a gender?)

I’m sure a psychologist would have some thoughts on the topic. I only took Psych 101 in college, but I have my own theories. I’d love to hear yours.

– Secretly, we’re jealous. When it comes to attracting a man, (usually) other women are our competition. In our mind when we read a romance, we fall in love with the hero, and if the heroine doesn’t seem good enough for him, we’re angry.

– We can’t understand why the heroine would push away or spar with the hero—can’t she see how emotionally wounded he is? how much he needs her?—even though she doesn’t know what’s in his mind the way we do (thanks to mutliple points of view in most romances). [It would be a really short story if there were no conflict.]

– We live vicariously through the heroine. We want to feel like she’s reacting to her situation in a way that makes sense. The way we would act if put in her shoes. We want her to be the strong, brave, beautiful woman that we want to be, but sometimes forget that she has her own backstory that informs her goals and desires. It’s more important that she act in a way that makes sense based on who she is and what she thinks she needs.

– Sometimes when a heroine has a trait or flaw that hits too close to home, it makes us uncomfortable, even if we don’t realize that’s why.

– We’re still a product of our culture. I believe the idea that women are the “lesser” gender is internalized within us subconsciously, even as we rail against it outwardly. For example, even another woman might consider a woman who is aggressive in business negotiations to be a bitch, whereas a man doing the same thing is seen as powerful and confident.

(This Pantene commercial does a nice job of illustrating the dichotomy in perceptions about men and women under the same circumstances. I think both men and women subscribe–knowingly or not–to many of these stereotypes.)

While romance novels these days often provide great examples of women who learn to stand strong, speak for themselves, and push for the treatment they deserve, I’m not sure society has embraced that type of woman as a whole. You only have to look to the Internet and all of the mysoginistic comments on news stories and blog posts to see that we have plenty of room for improvement.

When a man reads a romance—yes, it happens—does he have the same but opposite reaction? Does he fall in love with the heroine? Is he more forgiving of her flaws? Does he feel like the hero is a schmuck who isn’t good enough to kiss her feet?

Or is this something only women do to themselves? And if so, how do we stop?


Image credit: By Jiri Hodan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Body language and bunny suits

The type of "bunny suit" I wore.

The type of “bunny suit” I wore.

When I was a manufacturing engineer, I spent my first six months working in the fab—fabrication plant—learning how the line worked, and how to operate the tools that processed semiconductor chips in the 24/7/365 factory.

Because even the smallest amount of contamination can ruin a batch of wafers in process—a very expensive proposition—everyone on the fab floor wears a clean room suit (a.k.a. “bunny suit”). Which means they’re covered from head to toe in white polyester jumpsuits, safety glasses, and latex gloves. And there’s no makeup allowed!

Imagine peering down a long bay of machines to find the person you’re looking for and seeing nothing but white blobs. Other than basic height and weight, and the color of their eyes, the only other cues you might get to who a person was would come from the—often outdated or poorly done—picture on their badge. Assuming it was right-side out so you could see it at all.

It was frustrating at first. If we had three tall (because to me, who isn’t?) guys operating tools in a certain bay on a particular shift—in addition to the tool techs and engineers walking around—I might have to go up to each one to find the person I was looking for. (It’s often too loud to yell. Not to mention, frowned upon.)

Not only did I not recognize people on the fab floor from far away, but often I would see people outside of the fab, like in the lunch room, and not know them up close. Hey, who knew that Juan had a beard, or that Becky’s hair was Clairol red?

But what I found interesting about working in the fab, is that over time you do start to recognize people without the usual cues we use when we can see them uncovered. Even when they have their back turned. You learn that Frederick always stands with his shoulders hunched and his head forward. Henry always has a loose, laid-back posture, and Georgia fidgets.

I don’t do it automatically yet, but when I write body language cues in my stories, I try to remember to mention some of the things I noticed back in the fab. The stance, gestures, and mannerisms that we might not notice when we can see the whole picture, but which make each person unique.

We notice more than we think we do, and I believe that incorporating those smaller, deeper details into your work can really bring a character to life for the reader.

Photo credit: By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Every villain a hero

…every villain is a hero in his own mind. ~ Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor)

LokiI’ve read—and even written about—how writing an empathetic antagonist makes for a stronger story. I know I prefer those where the villain isn’t just pure evil for evil’s sake, but rather a person acting in a way that makes sense based on his backstory, goals, and motivations.

Loki, Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive), Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, Magneto, Moriarty.

We may root against these guys, but we understand them on some level. Their choices and actions make sense based on their worldview.

As a writer, I think it’s easy to give our antagonists short shrift, to make them ghosts of what they could be. Not that they need lots of air time to be effective—think of Moriarty, for example—but that they need to be fully realized.

An exercise I plan to try is one proposed by Laura DiSilverio in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. In her article “Amp Up Your Antagonists: 6 Ways to Make the Bad Better”, she suggests writing the antagonist’s first scene as if he or she were the protagonist.

Brilliant!

How much better might I flesh out this character, how much more sympathetic and relatable might I make her, if I took her side? And if I’m writing a series, that deeper understanding of the antagonist even opens up the possibility of casting her as the protagonist in a future book. My friend Manda Collins did this beautifully in her latest novella, The Perks of Being a Beauty.

In the first three books of the series, Amelia is a jealous, backstabbing bully, and yet Manda handled her so well in the novella that I couldn’t help but root for Amelia to get her own happy ending. Once I understood why she’d done the things she’d done—and felt that she’d paid for, and regretted, her actions—she became fully redeemable.

Feel free to share your own example of a well-drawn villain from a book or movie. How might you give your own antagonist a richer role in your story?

Photo credit: Loki, courtesy of Marvel (http://marvel.com/wallpaper/detail/2137/thor_movie_wallpaper_13)

What I’m learning in the Game of Thrones

game-of-thrones-posterI think I may be the last person on Earth to start watching Game of Thrones. At least that’s how it feels on Twitter. Still, now that my husband and I are almost done with season one, I see the draw.

The feel of the story reminds me a lot of Ken Follett’s book/mini-series (both fabulous) Pillars of the Earth, though the story is not at all the same. I think it’s the skillful way that George R.R. Martin sets up every character’s goal and motivation, both protagonist and antagonist alike. And they’re not petty. He’s carefully laying the foundations with betrayal, torment, and loss.

Ken Follett does the same thing with his characters. The seeds of vengeance are sown early and provide for the ultimate demise of those who run roughshod over others early on.

Of course, it’s a long, arduous road upon which the “good guys” are tortured mercilessly, but then the hero wouldn’t have earned his victory if not for the trials of the journey, right?

A writer could learn a lot from both Follett and Martin.

So, I will dutifully study GoT in my quest to become a better writer. Maybe some of the magic will rub off on me along the way.

Either way, at least I’ll be enjoying myself.

Is there a book, movie, or TV show that inspires you to be a better writer?

Epiphany at a workshop

IdeaOver the weekend, my local RWA chapter hosted bestselling romance author Virginia Kantra for an interesting workshop on characterization, gender roles, and the struggle our characters face between developing intimacy and maintaining control.

She talked about starting with gender stereotypes to meet reader expectations, but taking it further to create unique, compelling characters. She discussed how gender differences can be a source of conflict (e.g. her desire for independence vs his need to protect/provide, their different attitudes toward sex, and so on). And she went over the three character arcs in a romance: his, hers, and theirs. (And people think romance is easy to write.)

But the biggest value I got from the workshop was possible insight into one of my characters. Tara starts out as a secondary character in Blind Fury and becomes the main character in my second manuscript in that series. She has a fairly promiscuous background—something she’s trying to move beyond because it eats at her self-esteem—and the main reason is her desire to feel loved. Unfortunately, all she’s getting is a temporary connection.

(I think the motivation is important for making characters unique. For example, another woman might gravitate toward casual sex to avoid the intimacy and loss of control that comes with a long-term relationship.)

My epiphany was that Tara’s willingness to keep jumping in the sack on the first date—despite her desire for a lasting relationship—might also stem from the sense of feminine power she feels during the seduction and the act itself. I like the idea of having another layer to her behavior.

I don’t even remember what it was Virginia said that made me think of it, but I’m glad I was in the workshop.

This is the reason I often attend chapter meetings and conference sessions, even if they’re not strictly a topic of interest for me (though this one definitely was). Ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. An offhand comment by the speaker, a conversation with another workshop attendee during lunch. You just never know.

Had any serendipitous moments of your own lately?

Image credit: By Producer at ar.wikipedia (Transferred from ar.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Why Disney kills off the parents

Dumbo_1Have you ever noticed that children’s books and movies love to kill off the parents? Or at least get them out of the picture so the fun can start. Disney especially seems to like orphans as protagonists.

Think about it. Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Aladdin, The Lion King, Jungle Book, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, Home Alone.

I could go on.

When my boys were younger, it bothered me that they were bombarded with the message that the adventure doesn’t begin until the parents are gone (often permanently).

But then the other day, when I was lying in bed in that half-awake half-asleep state that often brings me plot twists and solutions, it hit me.

Orphans invoke empathy.

Seriously, what tugs at our heartstrings and emotions more than a child losing a parent? It’s a trauma we can all understand, and most of us fear. The orphan is the underdog, deserving of our sympathy, and easily forgiven most transgressions in light of their loss.

As a writer, the ability to invoke that kind of emotion from the reader/viewer is gold. If we don’t invest the reader emotionally from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how thrilling our plot is, she won’t care.

In Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT, he tells us our hero needs to “do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” The audience must be “‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” The term “save the cat” comes from the cliché of the hero rescuing a little kid’s cat from a tree so we know right up front that he’s a good guy at heart.

Essentially, there must be something about the character that makes them likable, so we’ll root for them and stick around for their story to unfold.

In THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, James Scott Bell provides some ideas how we can “emotionally bond” the reader to the main character.

1. “Make the Lead care about someone other than himself.”

Snow White is kind to animals and dwarves.

2. “Have the Lead do things to help those weaker than he is.” (Snyder’s save-the-cat moment.)

Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a fight to the death. Aladdin steals food for himself, but then gives it to two younger orphans who are starving.

3. “Put the Lead in a situation of jeopardy, hardship or vulnerability.”

Bingo! Orphan the kid and you have jeopardy, hardship, and vulnerability all wrapped up in one heart-string-tugging bundle. Add unsympathetic relatives, step-parents, or school mates, and you have a character we can’t help but root for.

As a writer, I can’t help but admire that.

Photo credit: By The Walt Disney Company (Trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons