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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?

Drop everything

Do you have a go-to author? You know, the one who’s latest books you must buy. The one for whom you’ll drop everything to read the latest release cover to cover?

I have several, but one of my absolute favorites is Suzanne Brockmann. She writes romantic suspense with lots of military and law enforcement characters, which I enjoy, but the real reason she keeps me coming back for more is her characterization. Deep POV.

When I’m reading a Brockmann book I feel like I’m standing in the character’s head. Like I am the character, seeing what she’s seeing, feeling what he’s feeling. It’s incredibly easy to read, and very hard to do. I often reread passages of her books (later, after I've devoured them in a frenzy) in an attempt to figure out how she makes it seem so easy and natural.

And then I get sucked back into the story and forget I’m supposed to be learning. I’m still a bit dumbstruck trying to figure out how she sucks me in. But for today, I’m just enjoying the ride.

After getting in 1100 words this morning, I gave myself permission to mostly play hooky the rest of the day reading her latest release (out today!), Breaking the Rules. I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.

So name one of your go-to authors. What makes him or her so hard to resist?

Happy reading!

 

Same or different?

When my oldest son was in second or third grade, we lived about two hours from my parents. Whenever we visited, my son would go from room to room pointing out everything that my parents had changed since our last visit.

My son is into the details.

I’m the same way. I notice the bumper stickers and license plate rings on my neighbors’ cars. I watch how people react to each other or how they talk about each other and form opinions on their relationship. I see patterns and logic in things, and often try to hang things on a recognizable framework even if one’s not there (which can be dangerous).

So, it’s always an eye-opener when others don’t look at the world the same way.

You mean you don’t know who I’m talking about if I tell you it was the guy down the street with the red station wagon? The one with the USMC sticker and the Iraq War Veteran plate? The one who apparently enjoys living off base where they don’t measure your lawn length?*

Tony Robbins goes so far as to classify people as sameness or difference people (and some combinations of the two). Here’s the gist as I understand it. Sameness people recognize the similarity between objects or people. Difference people—you guessed it—notice the differences. To make this more clear, here’s the example Mr. Robbins used.

If I throw down a handful of coins and asked people if they were the same or different, here’s what I might get.

Sameness-oriented person: “The same. They’re all coins.”

Difference-oriented person: “They’re all different. One dime, a 1999 nickel, a 2004 nickel, a Wyoming quarter, and an Arizona quarter. Plus a wheat penny and a Canadian penny. And this quarter's all beat up, but the other one is in mint condition.”

I’m betting that sameness people aren’t good with faces unless the variety is huge. (Try telling apart a bunch of men in the same uniform with the same haircut. No wonder they wear name tags!) On the flip side, it stands to reason that even twins might not look alike to an extreme difference person.

The reason I brought all of this up is because I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my characters and I’m trying to figure out how to show their unique personalities through deeper POV. Maybe sameness/difference orientation, or level of attention to detail is one more trait I can use to make my characters unique.

As always, the challenge isn’t in the knowing, it’s in the doing. Thoughts?

*Fictional compilation of real and imagined neighbors. Maybe.

Talk like a man

A recent tweet (unfortunately, I can’t remember whose) alerted me to the existence of an interesting site. It’s called the Gender Genie. What it does is take a snippet of text, analyze it, and guess whether it was written by a man or woman.

My immediate thought was to use it to see if my hero and heroine's passages read like a man and a woman respectively. For the few I tried, they both came back as written by a woman, but I was gratified that my hero’s scenes did score higher on the male scale.

Intrigued by a button for analyzing blog entries I tried again. This time, without fail, every one of my last five blog entries (not including the Squirrels) returned as MALE. So apparently, I write fiction like a woman (maybe because it’s romance?), but the real me is more masculine in tone and word choice. I’ll try not to be offended. 😉

No actually, I’m not really surprised. I lost my girl-card years ago when I finally admitted I hate shopping, high heels, and dresses. I know. I have also spent most of my life working in male-dominated professions and environments. Programmer, manufacturing engineer. Football office, health club, sporting goods store.

Regardless of what it says about me, I think the Gender Genie has the potential to be a fun and instructive tool for analyzing your own writing. Give it a try. Be sure to check out the analysis chart below for clues on male/female identifiers. You might be surprised by the simple word choices that make a difference. And if you're suffering from insomnia, click the link for the original research paper that spawned the whole thing.

If you try the Genie, let me know. I’d love to hear your results.

Even this entry, though admittedly a bit short, came up male…

 

The Sunday Squirrel: snippets (& some craft)

Truth be told, she’d had a bit of a crush on him. Nothing serious, but his death brought home her own mortality in a way she had no desire to think about. Not tonight, or frankly, ever. (Tara)

Her long blonde hair was pulled into a tight ponytail again. Last night, fresh out of the shower, she’d left it down to dry. If he had his way, she’d never wear it up again. (Mick)

The place was neat, mainly because he barely had anything. A couch and coffee table, two stools at the breakfast bar, and a huge flatscreen TV on the wall. No pictures, knick-knacks, or plants. Sterile popped to mind. (Jenna)

He’d lost some of his playful sparkle since the last time she’d seen him, but under the surface he seethed with barely restrained energy. He was a big ball of chaos, and she’d had enough of that for a lifetime, thank you very much. (Jenna)

Those are a few snippets from my current MS, Blind Fury.

I’ve been trying a lot of new things with this book. I mentioned outlining on Tuesday. One of the other techniques I’m trying is to write a scene in first person (and then changing it back to 3rd) to get more into the head of my characters. It’s a recommendation I’ve heard from several different people, but never tried before. So far I’m liking the results.

It’s not that I necessarily write better sentences in first person. I still find myself using the no-no words like thought, felt, wondered, and so on. But I lose the detachment of 3rd person and write things that might not have occurred to me when I was distancing myself from the character’s mind. The words on the page feel more conversational, more relaxed, to me.

In 1st person, I write in the character’s voice, instead of my own so their scenes have a distinct feeling. It helps me develop their mannerisms and quirks. It lets their personality shine through. I’m hoping 1st person will help me with emotion and setting too.

How it helps with emotion is probably obvious, but for setting, what I want is to notice the surroundings through the characters eyes. Maybe if I feel like I’m in his mind, I’ll be able to see things the way he would, notice what he would notice.

For example, an interior designer will look at a room differently than a five-year old girl or a police officer. One might notice the colors and furnishings, another the best hiding spots, while the last might note exits and people.

The only real downside of writing in 1st person is that I have to go back and change the pronouns and such back to 3rd. I'm sure along the way I'll miss a few. I think it's worth the sacrifice.

If you've tried this technique, I’d love to hear your experience.

The Sunday Squirrel: Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning, Jozef Israels, 1880

John spotted Kelly and maneuvered in beside her. She was studying a painting of a girl looking out a window. Gee, now there was some imagination at work. Although, the artist had done a good job, and hell, it beat bowls of fruit. The girl could almost be in a photo. An underexposed photo, but hey, all those old Dutch guys seemed to like their paintings dark.

He took a step back, squinted, peered at the girl in the painting. What the heck was she waiting for? It irritated him that he couldn't see out the window too. He could never have art like that in his house, it would drive him bonkers wondering what the girl was looking at.

#

Kelly glanced at John. “Isn't it great?” She loved Dutch realism, even if Israëls was technically a couple of centuries too late to be considered part of the realist movement. Everything had a gritty, sense of, well, reality to it. She liked Millett, too, but Israëls' paintings often had a hint of melancholy that drew her in.

What did the girl see through the window? Was she watching someone leave, or awaiting his return? Was she longing for a different life, or appreciating her place in the world? Kelly loved to guess what the artist's inspiration had been. Why had he chosen that subject? What was it about the scene that compelled him to commit it to canvas for posterity?

Beside her John nodded. “It's a hell of a lot better than anything I could paint. That's for sure.”

That was what she loved about him. He hadn't minored in art history like she had, but he shared her interest in art. That was more than she could say for any of her previous boyfriends.

Ooh, she had a good idea. His birthday was coming up. Maybe on her lunch break next week, she'd come back and buy him a souvenir print of the painting as a memento of their visit. She held back a smile.

John was going to love it.

POV or POS?

Be honest. Is your WIP GH-ready, or is it a POS? Not sure? Ask your CP for her POV about the GMC and SL in your MS.

If you're thinking, “WTF?” then read on.

In the military a POV is your Personally Owned Vehicle, that is, your car. There's an acronym for freakin' everything in the military. Think Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

But, every industry has its jargon and acronyms, and writing is no different. So for my non-writing friends, here are some of the acronyms that I've learned this year that may start popping up in my blog from now on. Hey, I'm all about the shortcut.

CP – Critique Partner: The person who tells you if your work is a POS (yeah, I believe that one's universal)

WIP – Work in Progress: Just like in the world of manufacturing, except the unfinished inventory is the manuscript

MS – Manuscript: Your book before it gets published, whether WIP or completed.

SL or s/l – Story Line: The plot. What happens to your characters between Chapter 1 and The End.

GMC – Goal, Motivation, & Conflict: This was the topic of my first blog. It's what each major character in a story must have in order to have a great SL.

POV – Point of View: This has two parts. 1) Is it in 1st or 3rd person? Yes, you really should have paid attention in English class. 2) Whose head is the writer in during the scene? Which character's experience is it?

GH – The Golden Heart: A contest for unpublished romance writers, sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. Being a finalist in the GH gets you noticed by agents and editors all over the country. Unpublished romance authors everywhere are tweaking and polishing their MS at this very moment, trying to get it perfect before the December 2nd submission deadline, yours truly included.

Did I miss any? Too bad, I have to go get caught up on SYTYCD.

UPDATE: Okay, I forgot a few…

HEA – Happily Ever After: To be a true romance novel, and not just a book with romantic elements, the reader must get a happy ending. The hero and heroine don't have to get married in the book, but a monogamous future must be implied.

RWA – Romance Writers of America: The national organization for romance writers. There are almost 10,000 members, and hundreds of local chapters all over the country.

SM – Southern Magic: My local chapter of RWA which meets in a suburb of Birmingham.

MC – Main character

H/H – Hero and heroine: As in “For a book to be a romance, the H/H must get their HEA.”

ARC – Advanced Reading Copy: early copy of the book that's given to reviewers, bookstores, and magazines several months before the book is published and formatted for mass distribution. Final copy edits may still be made before publication.

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