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The best bad grade I ever got


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During the second quarter of my freshman year of high school, I got a “D” in a class I easily could have aced: physical education (PE).

Why? Because I let myself be swayed by a friend.

She was perpetually late for class, and begged me to wait for her while she finished dressing out. So we were both late. Even though I liked running, I walked with her when our class did laps because she didn’t want to be alone.

Peer pressure, especially in those teen years, is a bitch.

But that poor grade was a gift. A wake-up call.

Sad as it is, the “D” gave me an excuse to be myself again without losing a friend. (Whether I should call her a friend or not is a discussion for another day.) Now when she was running late, I just told her I couldn’t risk another bad grade and left the locker room. And I could play the grade card when it was time to run laps.

I actually liked PE. Never a star at any particular sport, I was a decent general athlete, and I enjoyed playing sports. I even dove into third base during a PE softball game at the cost of half the skin on my lower leg. But I made it. 😉

The fact that I liked the class makes it even worse that I needed any kind of excuse to do what I really wanted. But as teenagers—and sometimes as adults—we often need a reason to justify why we won’t “be cool” or go with the crowd.

You should see the looks I sometimes get when people find out I don’t like to drink alcohol or that I don’t eat food from that comes from animals. They’re the kind of looks that have me conjuring up excuses in my head to defend myself. It’s a struggle not to use them. I don’t want to care about the opinions of people who don’t have my best interests at heart. And really, does anyone but me?

Ever since that I received that poor grade, I’ve tried to be more true to myself, without excuses.

There’s been a lot of talk in some of my writing groups lately about the reaction of friends and family to our stories. Romance writers often include—gasp!—sex in their books. If it’s done well, it’s not gratuitous, but enhances the emotional connection and increases the conflict between the characters. It raises the stakes and gives the reader an intimate glimpse into the hero and heroine’s changing attitudes toward each other during an act where they’re emotionally and physically vulnerable.

Every writer needs to stick with their own comfort level, but I don’t believe you can write stories that really resonate if you’re worrying about what your mother, brother, sister-in-law, or kids will think of your writing. As if our inner critic isn’t harsh enough, now we need to add the voices of the people around us?

Whether they dislike the sex, swearing, graphic violence, or your character’s political views, they’re not your target reader. Their opinions really shouldn’t matter.

Easier said than done, I know.

And for now, if you need an excuse—your own “D” to wave around when someone tries to push you down a path you don’t want to go—make something up. (I tell my kids I’ll be their excuse any time.)

Tell the naysayers you’ll never sell a book in your genre if it doesn’t have X in it. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or editor, use them the way kids use parents. “Well, my agent advised…”

And maybe, eventually, you’ll be strong enough to own what you write, embrace it, and be bold enough that everybody’s talking about it. Personally, I’m still working on it.

Like a friend and bestselling author recently told me with regard to her writing, “You want people to love it or hate it, not say, ‘Eh.’”

Is there something in your life you need a “D” for?

NaNo OhNo

wrong way signThere’s a lot to learn from participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Usually it teaches me that I can do more than I ever thought possible. It rejuvenates my writing soul and builds my confidence. Plus, I love winning! 😉

But there’s something to be learned from failure too, which made this year’s NaNo a different kind of learning experience for me.

At the end of October I talked about how I need a better outline before I begin writing. And I had a good start on one before November 1st hit, but I hadn’t finished it. Still, I thought it was enough to take the plunge.


So I ended up with about 16,000 words before I realized I had no idea where I was going with the book and that I could spend all of November stressing out while writing a bunch of crap to make a goal, or I could relax and work on my outline.

I chose the second option. Which was hard. I’m really competitive, and one of the reasons NaNo works so well for me is the specter of public humiliation if I don’t meet my goal.

But if you’re working on the wrong goal, completing it doesn’t help you, it only wastes time and energy. It’s like driving 70 miles per hour toward New York when you’re supposed to be heading to San Francisco.

Outlining takes so much longer than I expect to do it right, but I’m amazed at how much the story idea changed—for the better—when I sat down to work on it further. In fact, at some point I had a brilliant (I reserve the right to change my mind about that later) idea, and my hero’s entire story arc and background just fell into place.

So, no three-peat for me this year, but I think I gained something more valuable than 50K. Namely, a better understanding of the process I need to go through, and a growing outline of what I hope will be my next finished novel.

And next year, I’ll make sure I have a solid understanding of my story before I dive into NaNo for win number three.

I’d love to hear your NaNoWriMo stories. What did you learn this year?

Photo credit:

Plotting for NaNoWriMo & Winners

Do you jump right in?

I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, despite the fact that my left brain generally rules all other areas of my life. So I was surprised to find potential scene lists for my first two manuscripts while flipping through old notebooks the other day.

Apparently I did more planning in the early days than I remember.

I’ve made several attempts at becoming a planner/outliner, and my best-written book to date was borne of a rough outline and the 30 days of literary abandon known as NaNoWriMo. Yet I still resist moving into the outlining camp.

It’s probably a patience thing. I’m always eager to jump right in when a story is pulling at me. But then several months later I’m floundering, usually after hitting the midpoint and realizing the conflict isn’t strong enough, or that I’ve written myself into a corner.

Which brings me back to the need for a better outline. And I’m starting to think I may have been doing it wrong. Or rather, that I wasn’t patient enough to do it right.

Or do you plot your course first?

With NaNo again looming, I recently picked up K.M. Weiland’s book Outline Your Novel. And instead of answering the exercises with “I kind of have an idea of what should happen there, but I’m not ready to commit”, I forced myself to brainstorm actual answers.

And guess what? Some of the ideas I came up with are awesome (if I do say so myself). Even something as simple as coming up with a premise sentence brought an epiphany on how to raise the stakes.

I’m even more excited to write the book than I was before. And with a decent outline to follow, I won’t get stuck wondering what comes next when I finish a scene.

I don’t see myself writing 80-page outlines any time soon, and the pantser in me still gets the freedom to change the storyline if a better idea comes along, but if this goes well, I may just be a convert. Again.


Thanks to everyone who participated in my blog’s birthday celebration! Here are the winners (chosen by

– Signed copy of Scrivener For Dummies: Dave

– Free Scrivener online class enrollment for 2013: Beth K.


Photo credits:
Cliff jumping: By Rafi B. from Somewhere in Texas 🙂 (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Charting a course: By U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Eboni C. Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Write fearlessly

What would you write if no one knew you were the author?

I’ve been pondering that question a lot lately.

Back when I first started writing, I didn’t know anything about the industry, wasn’t thinking about “publish-ability”, and just wrote what I enjoyed. Now I’m pretty sure I reject story ideas before they even reach my consciousness.

I want to write fearlessly. Like the writers of the old TV show Arrested Development where nothing was off limits, no subject taboo. Like Roxanne St. Claire and Suzanne Brockmann, who aren’t afraid to throw in some outrageous scene that makes the reader gasp in surprise and smile at the audacity. Like Christy Reece who seriously knows how to torture a character.

I want to be the writerly equivalent of a rock-climber, stunt driver, or sky diver.

I want to be a little bit shocking, to make readers wonder how I had the nerve to write that scene (and I’m not necessarily talking sex scenes here people).

I want to write like no one’s going to read my work.

I think only then will anyone truly want to.

Photo credit: J147 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Workshop takeaways from the 2012 RWA conference

Laura Griffin and me out for a run in Anaheim


My annual trek to the RWA National Conference is about more than reconnecting with friends–like my running buddy Laura Griffin–networking with other authors, and a chance to dress up. It’s also about learning.

Sometimes one sentence can cause a major shift in your understanding of a topic. Which is why I try to attend as many of the RWA National Conference workshops as possible. Even if I feel pretty well versed in a topic, I usually learn something new, forge a deeper understanding of the subject, or have an epiphany about my story while listening to the speaker.

This year I attended a fair number of workshops and speeches, all of them excellent. With my trusty new iPad and Evernote, I took a lot of notes. Below are some of my favorite takeaways.

Keynote at the Kiss of Death annual general meeting (Brenda Novak)

  • Innovation requires no special thought process. Creative people simply put their mind to the task of being creative.
  • Our creativity suffers when we worry too much about what others will think.

Conflict (Debra Dixon)

  • Push your characters to the breaking point, farther than they’re willing to go. They must act against their best interests to achieve the goal. Leave them no other choice but to do the one thing they don’t want to do.
  • Every scene needs three reasons to be there or it’s not working hard enough. One of those reasons should be to establish the character’s goal, motivation, or conflict.

Emotion: the Heart of the Novel (Brenda Novak)

  • Active writing invokes emotion. To keep the reader in the action, start in the present and move forward in real time, using specific details and “showing” language.
  • Types of writing ranked from least to most active: internal thought, then dialogue, then deep POV, subtext, action, metaphor.
  • The reader needs conflict to really enjoy the happy ending, just like a close game in sports is more exciting than one team trouncing the other, even if the outcome is the same.
  • The conflict has to grow and change if it’s not strong enough to carry the whole book.

How to Put the Thrill in Your Thrillers (James Rollins)

  • High concept: the fewer words needed to describe book, the better (e.g. Jurassic Shark)
  • The character’s goal should be something he has a personal stake in, even if it’s a world threat.
  • The hero has to take active steps toward that goal, not just avoiding the villain. Making choices, etc.
  • Incorporate research so it doesn’t feel like info dump. For example, have people argue about it, which feeds info and creates conflict.

Make ’em Cry, Make ’em Scream, Make ’em Laugh (Charlotte Carter, Debra Mullins, & Lori Wilde)

  • For greater impact, put the character in a place where the emotion is unexpected (e.g. crying at an office party instead of a funeral).

Plotting via Motivation (Laurie Schnebly Campbell)

  • A goal is term limited and concrete, tangible.
  • Motivation is not term limited; it’s a way of being. Motivation doesn’t go away even when the goal is achieved.

Treasures, Artifacts, and Curses: Archaeology 101 for Writers (Rachel Grant and Mary Sullivan)

  • Indiana Jones was not an archeologist; he was a looter. 😉
  • 90% of archeologists work in the private sector (as opposed to academia).

Photo Credit: Copyright Laura Griffin. Used with permission.

Old work

I’m at least better than this guy.

I’ve been working on Scrivener For Dummies nearly non-stop since the end of February, but I finished edits last week, which means I can finally focus my efforts on my fiction again.

I have four completed manuscripts under my belt, but I have at least as many that I’ve started and not finished for one reason or another. My plan is to go back and look at those unfinished works with a fresh eye and figure out how to get the story moving again.

Last night I stayed up too late reading a manuscript I started almost two years ago. It was fun to read words that I didn’t even remember writing. Like doing a critique for a friend.

Best of all, I could see how much progress I’ve made since then. While my writing now isn’t perfect—whatever that means—my development is clear. I used to write super-short scenes of 300-400 words, which makes for a very choppy book. Now my scenes are usually at least 1000 words, and sometimes up to 3000.

The change is in the details of setting, internal dialog, and providing adequate page space for character actions and reactions.

I used to be horrible at grounding the reader at the beginning of a scene, so things like POV, location, and time were unclear. I’m now much more aware of the importance of the opening lines, especially when starting a new chapter.

(If you struggle with setting—or pacing, or body language—I highly recommend Mary Buckham’s classes. Any class you can take by Mary is well worth the money. She’s an amazing teacher of craft and I gladly open my wallet for her.)

The manuscript I went over last night also had a lot of procedural detail—my hero is a DEA agent—without anything to break it up. You could tell I’d done my research for this one. I’d like to think I’ve learned to be more subtle about that kind of thing, while still being accurate so the story rings true.

I learned one more thing from reading my old work. I’m not bad at this writing thing. Despite the technical problems, I got into the story, was pleasantly surprised by how I’d set up certain plot elements, and enjoyed the characters.

I needed the reminder that I’m a storyteller.

How about you? Read any of your old work lately? What did you think?

Image: By KaterBegemot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing actions with consequences

Sam Worthington, who plays David in The Debt.

In a well-crafted story, every item introduced or action taken has a purpose or consequence. Simple in theory, but not easy to implement in practice. However, I recently watched a film–The Debt–that struck me for how well it made use of every single action.

I didn’t like the ending very much, but the execution was excellent (both in script and acting). David, Stephan, and Rachel are Mossad secret agents living in East Berlin, trying to capture a former Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel.

SPOILER ALERT! Below are a couple of the seemingly small actions I remember that led to much larger consequences: pulling away from a kiss, and breaking a bowl of oatmeal. How could those have life-altering consequences for the trio? Here’s how.

  • David and Rachel almost kiss, but David pulls away. Rachel, feeling rejected by a man she’s come to care for, seeks solace in Stephan’s bed. No big deal, right? Except that David finally gives in to his attraction later on, and just when we think he and Rachel have a chance, she turns up pregnant from her night with Stephan. Talk about tension in that tiny apartment. Feeling obligated, she laters marries Stephan, but she and David pine for each other for decades.
  • They’re holding Vogel captive in the house after a failed attempt to smuggle him out of Germany. While David is trying to feed Vogel, the doctor makes inflammatory comments about the Jewish people that anger David enough that he smashes the ceramic bowl full of oatmeal. Stephan takes David out of the apartment to calm down, leaving Rachel alone with the doctor, who’s tied up. Again, so what? Well, the doctor finagles a shard of the innocent bowl and uses it to cut the ropes binding him, attacks Rachel,  and escapes.

See what I mean about lovely set up? Each initial action seems small or even secondary, maybe there to add tension or characterization. Yet both actions ultimately lead to staggering consequences. One rejected kiss sets off a chain of events that brings a lifetime of misery for the would-be lovers. A single loss of temper eventually undoes the whole mission.

Now if I could just master that trick in my own work. Got any tips? Any examples of seemingly ordinary actions with big consequences?

Photo credit: By Abutorsam007 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons