Friday, December 29, 2017

Fiction Friday: December Progress Report

My overarching goal, if you may remember, is to release a trilogy of paranormal romances in the fall of 2018.

At the end of last month, I was feeling optimistic. I knew that to reach that goal, I needed to finish an editor-ready draft of the second book, The Demon's in the Details, and be ready to start on the third book, a Faust story about a writer who sells her soul to the devil to make the New York Times bestseller list, in January.

I was feeling pretty good about meeting that goal.

Unfortunately, December proved to be one of those months that afflicts both men and mice--my plans went agley,.

November and December are tough months for writing. I've always figured that the person who thought it was a good idea set NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, in November was a man, who wasn't going to need to combine Christmas shopping and making a turkey feast with with all that writing.

Despite the start to the holidays, I came pretty close to meeting goal in November. Part of how I achieved that was by putting off buying Christmas gifts for my dozen or so grandkids, which left all that to be done in December. Along with putting up the tree, hosting Christmas Eve, visiting my daughter on Christmas Day and getting together for lunches all month with wonderful people I see all too seldom.

But to be honest, all that holiday-making wasn't the real problem.

The real problem was I got stuck. I hit a point in Book 2 where I needed to know why Satan was so determined to collect up my protagonist's sculpture (left to her by her artist mother). With some Skype-advising from Jilly, a couple of phone calls with my clever older sisters, and some quality time with the brilliant plotting group from my RWA Chapter, I was finally able to resolve the issue in a way that was not only satisfactory, but makes the whole book a lot stronger and more cohesive.

So, yay! but also, How the heck did it get to be the end of December already?

Needless to say, I'm not going to meet my December goal. I now expect to finish my editor-ready draft by the end of January. That means I'm running a month behind on starting The Demon Wore Stilettos, which was already going to be a fire-drill to finish in time to meet my June date with my editor.

All that said, I did make one solid bit of progress last month. I lined up my first guest blog post to promote The Demon Always Wins when it's released in September. I'll be guest blogging over at Nancy Lee Badger's blog, Happy Ever After Meets the Road Less Traveled on September 7th. Hoping it's the first of many!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Fiction Friday: Dear Contest Judge

This week I received my scores back from an RWA chapter contest for Girl's Best Friend, the contemporary romance I've been putzing around with in my spare time.

I always send at least a generic thank you to my contest judges. I judge contests, too, and it's a lot of work, especially if you're going to do it well. But this particular contest was set up to allow the entrants to thank each judge individually, so here are my individual thank you notes.

Dear Judge #1,

Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry. The great score you gave me was gratifying and your comments made it clear you truly enjoyed my story. Writing is such a solitary occupation and a little encouragement really helps.

Thanks, too, for the suggestions you made about some of my phrasing. You were right on the money and I'll be tweaking my manuscript to reflect your suggestions.

Jeanne Oates Estridge

Dear Judge #2,

Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry.

Although my entry did not final in this contest, it won another contest awhile back, resulting in a request for a full manuscript from an editor at SMP Swerve. At the time, I didn't actually have a completed novel, so I didn't submit. Even after I completed a first draft, and then a second, I knew there was a pacing problem with my first chapter, so I continued to drag my feet about sending it out. The suggestions you made will finally let me fix the darn thing and move forward.

Jeanne Oates Estridge

Dear Judge #3,

Thank you for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry.

Jeanne Oates Estridge

Why, you may ask, is my response to each judge so different? Because what I got back from each judge was so different.

The first judge made it clear, from comments sprinkled throughout the manuscript and on the score sheet, that she really liked the story.

The second judge was a lot more critical, but her criticisms were truly helpful. Even though she scored me lower than Judge #1, she was my favorite.

The third judge's score was substantially lower than the other two, and that's okay. What was less okay was that she didn't explain why. She made no comments in the manuscript and only one, in the final, "overall manuscript comments" box on the score sheet, stating that it lacked "the dynamic prose, great dialog, chemistry, and forward propulsion of a '5' entry."

That's not useful.

I don't mind being told that I suck. What I mind is not being told why.

I get that judging contests is time-consuming. Depending on the quality of the entries, it can even be grueling. But if you volunteer to judge a contest, you have an obligation to provide the entrants with actionable feedback.

That doesn't mean you'll always be right. I judged some YA entries this summer only to realize later that I truly don't understand that sub-genre well enough to do a good job. But for each entry I judge, I include comments, in the manuscript and on the scoresheets, telling them what works and what doesn't, in my opinion. And if it doesn't work, I do my best to explain why.

Am I being too demanding? What do you expect from contest judges?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Fiction Friday: The Least You Need to Know

I've been reworking, for approximately the hundredth time, the opening scene to The Demon's in the Details, the second book in my Touched by a Demon trilogy. (Look for it on Amazon in October.)

Now that I've figured out what the book's about, I'm rewriting my first scene, yet again, to open that story.

And I'm once again struggling with this question: How much backstory belongs n that first scene?

Do we need to know that Rachel Blackmon, the mother of my protagonist, Keeffe, is dead?

Do we need to know that Keeffe was just fourteen when Rachel died? Or that Rachel died as a result of a malfunction of a da Vinci robot that nicked her iliac artery, causing her to bleed out before the hospital staff noticed? Or that this incident has left Keeffe with an abiding distrust of technology?

Do we need to know that Rachel was a world-famous artist and that Keeffe risked everything she values to follow in her mother's footsteps?

Do we need to know that the crucifixes and crosses Rachel sculpted create pockets of human kindness around every church where they're displayed?

Do we need to at least suspect that Keeffe's step-mother is a she-demon from Hell, sent Aboveworld on a mission to destroy Rachel's legacy and ensure none of her children become artists?

I've read rules of thumb that say "No backstory in the first three chapters."

Jenny Crusie's rule was, "no backstory, ever." (If this seems impossible, I invite you to read Bet Me, Jenny's Rita® award-winning romance that takes place firmly in the here-and-now.)

According to Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction, "Later in the novel, backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down."

The rule I strive to keep around backstory is, "put in the least your reader needs to know."

The less backstory you load into the early chapters of your book, the more story questions there are to intrigue your readers.

On the other hand, readers need a place to stand. They need to know the environment they're in--the place and the time. They need to know what's at stake. And they need to know who the players are.

And despite Jenny's stellar success at writing a book with no discernible backstory, most of the time you can't really know the characters, or understand the significance of the stakes, unless you understand the significance of these stakes to these characters.

A police detective working to find a kidnapped child is under a lot of pressure. If that police detective  previously screwed up and let a kidnapped child get killed, he's under even more pressure. If he lost his own child to this same kidnapper, he's in a pressure cooker with the lid locked down and that little rattle-y thing going nuts.

So maybe that's the answer. Choose a situation where just the basic premise—police detective works to find a kidnapped child—is sufficiently engrossing. Then you can layer on additional information to intensify the situation--this police detective screwed up a previous case, resulting in the child's death. And then the final touch: it was his child.

So maybe I don't need to figure out how much backstory to put in. Maybe what I really need to do is figure out if I have a strong enough premise to make a compelling starting point.

What about you? If you're a reader, how much do you like to know at the beginning of a book? If you're a writer, how do you decide what goes in the first scene or chapter?

*The Least You Need to Know is also the title of a fabulous book of short stories by Lee Martin, professor emetitus of English at The Ohio University. It includes a story of the same name. If you love top-notch short stories, I recommend the book and especially that story.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Fiction Friday: Interview with Sarah Andre

Today's interviewee is romantic suspense author Sarah Andre. I first met Sarah over breakfast on the last morning of the 2014 RWA® National Conference in San Antonio. It proved to be a fortuitous meeting because Sarah was up for a Golden Heart® that night.

Since I'd only recently joined my local RWA® chapter, I had no idea what a Golden Heart® (or a Rita®, for that matter) even was. Sarah explained that the GH is RWA's® top award for unpublished fiction. I immediately began dreaming of someday being a finalist.

To see how that turned out, go here. So, thanks for that, Sarah!

Sarah's books, including her most recent, Capturing the Queen, are available on Amazon.

Question 1: Your books are very dark. What draws you to the darker side of human nature?

I'm fascinated you used the descriptor 'dark.' My earliest craft memories are sitting through a Donald Maass course at my Houston chapter meeting in 2006 and not knowing who he was or a lot of the craft lingo he was using, but knowing from the awed expressions on my chapter-mates' faces that he was "The Authority" on all things writing. So when he preached his trilogy of 'tension on every page' 'make things worse' and 'no backstory until way into your novel' I was profoundly shaped by that.

I'm also hyper aware that the modern-day attention span is critically short so I write with the drumming thought of: how can I get the reader to turn this page? What else should go wrong? And then I write it. 

If you read my books in order you'll see the first is mostly a plot-driven approach to what can go wrong for my characters. Part of my growth was realizing (through critiques, edits and me devouring my favorite author, Kristan Higgins' books) that I lacked the ability to pull my readers' emotional strings. Subsequently each novel is still a race to survive and time-driven suspense, but it's more of a character study of what is going on inside my characters' heads as they face each obstacle. I'm fascinated by all that we humans hide inside, the effort it takes to keep our masks in place to the outer world, the misconceptions we have over events and other people's behaviors that then motivates us to react and often make things worse. So, where you say dark, I think of as real.

I am confident I'm on the right path with this emotional exploration because every time I release another book the feedback is: this is your best one yet.

Question 2: On Amazon, your publishers are listed as Entangled (for Locked, Loaded and Lying) and Beach Reads. Please contrast your experiences with these two publishers.

I waited 9 years for a publishing contract—I am the poster child for patience and perseverance! It was important for me to have a publishing company 'legitimize' my writing by offering me a contract which is why I waited so long instead of taking the self publishing route. The best part of publishing with Entangled in 2015 was I finally met my goal and I also worked with the editor of my dreams, Anya Kagan of Touchstone Editing. I've been with her for all my books because she freelances.

The hardest part of being under contract though, was the lack of control over basically everything. The publishing date, the cover, the price, when it goes on sale and for how long, what marketing is or is not being done... someone was calling the shots on every detail of my career. 

Since I'd only signed a one-book contract, after LLL came out I figured I'd see what self-pub was all about. I took online classes, gathered resources and re-worked the 2014 Golden Heart® novel into Tall, Dark and Damaged. I'm thrilled to say it was a great experience all around, ending with me garnering the Rita® call this year!

One thing the online self-pub courses recommend is establishing your own 'company' name, maybe an LLC if it works for you. Ergo, I titled my self-pub endeavor Beach Reads—because that's what I consider my romantic suspense novels to be: the perfect poolside/beach read.

The difference between being under contract and self-pubbing is vast. I really love being the boss of everything. I also like getting paid more per book (wink!) Editing is still the same (Anya) and I hire 2 copy editors, a proofreader and several betas in my neurosis over not uploading the final novel with a careless plot, or grammar or spelling errors. It's a lot of upfront costs, but I doubt I'll be able to go the traditional route ever again. The freedom to call all the shots is everything to me.

Question 3: According to your website, you started your first book on a plane to Italy. Tell us about the trip--any praying or loving?

For my 40th BD my husband gave me a 'let's go anywhere-do anything' present. Faced with that it literally took me 2 years to decide, 'cuz you don't want to screw that up, LOL! Seriously, dear reader, where would you go on your trip-of-a-lifetime?!...Climb Kilimanjaro? Go on a spa retreat to Canyon Ranch? Binge-shop through Paris? 

Well, the idea that sparked something in my heart was attending a week-long cooking class at a small Tuscan vineyard. This was June, 2004. I'd never been to Italy, and cannot truthfully say it was a country I'd yearned to see before deciding on that trip. But something about the write-up sounded so relaxing, adventurous and romantic! Kind of hit all needs, you know?

I swear there is something in the air there that ignites creativity and passion. I was literally on the flight over when, without a conscious thought of doing so, I opened a notebook and began writing the first page of the first story after years and years of ignoring my calling. The words poured out day and night. I wrote 50 pages by the time those 2 weeks were through. Long hand, stream of conscious sentences, the content very obviously a pantser romance. (Much to my shock. I'd stopped reading romance as a teen at camp.)

During the Tuscan cooking class (comprised of 11 Americans- 5 couples and a single woman) I became fast friends with the single woman, Jeannie. She was hilarious, larger than life and embraced adventures. After the trip was over we called each other almost daily and our biggest bond was missing that villa and that lifestyle. Missing the free personalities we'd been over there—fearless, joyful, creative. She was in awe that I could write, I was in awe that she had fantastical plotting skills. During one phone call we both came up with the idea to take a leave of absence from our jobs, go back to that villa and write an entire novel. And a few weeks later we did. (God bless my husband, who didn't blink at an eye at my abrupt and very obvious midlife crisis!) 

Jeannie and I stayed in Tuscany for 6 weeks.  Oh, the hilarious escapades! She ended up having an affair with the hottie vineyard owner, I ended up writing the novel, which was dreadful craft, a training novel—there's no other way to describe it.

Each week a new set of Americans arrived to take the villa's cooking class and were told by the Italian staff that 2 American women were writing a novel about their adventures in Italy. (Each week our fame grew.) We would attend the villa's weekly cocktail reception as 'the famous authors.' We told everyone about our plot: a single woman with a broken heart coming to Italy and finding herself again through her Italian adventures with the men, the food, the countryside. The reaction was ecstatic interest from everyone who heard it.

No joke—Eat, Pray, Love came out the next year! I will always wonder if the author was one of those cooking class participants listening to us blather on about the plot. :) 

Long story short, we do not regret one second of those 6 weeks, but Jeannie ended up with a broken heart and I ended up missing my hubby and pups to distraction. I came home with a completed novel and a passion to write that I could no longer deny. I gave her that story as a keepsake of our time there and went back to the one I'd started on the plane ride earlier that summer. It's also a training novel—under my bed and will stay there—but it's still my husband's favorite, isn't that funny?

Sarah Andre is a 2017 RITA® finalist, which is Romance Writers of America highest award of distinction. She lives in serene Southwest FL with her husband and two naughty Pomeranians. When she’s not writing romantic suspense novels, Sarah is either reading novels, exercising to rude alternative rock music or coloring. Yes, you heard right. She’s all over those coloring books for adults. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

November Progress Report

To refresh everyone, my goal is to release three books next fall (September/October/ November) and  then a boxed set of all three in December.

To make that goal, I need to finish the second draft of the second book in the trilogy, The Demon's in the Details, by the end of the year. I know this because I've done a fair amount of project management over the years and Rule One of project management is: Meet your intermediate milestones.

You may recall that, citing the pressure of the holidays, I set only a single goal for November: revise 125 pages.

I didn't make that goal, but I'm happy to report that I did get through 102 pages. (Rule Two of project management: When you miss a milestone, put a positive spin on it.) 

I'm now at the beginning of Act 3 and the manuscript exceeds 50,000 words. The finished book should run between 80,000 and 90,000 words--approximately 300-350 pages.

So, not goal, but not too shabby.

What makes me even happier is that I've reached a point that I think of as "critical mass," in the book. This is the point at which the writing starts to flow and I stop feeling like I'm extruding concrete with every single word.

For the past week I've been typing so much that by the time Old Dog gets home from work, the first words I say to him are "Rub my shoulders." Which he does because, after 20 years of marriage, he's still wonderful.

This is when writing starts to be fun. I wish it came sooner than 50,000 words, but it rarely does. It seems to take me that long to know my characters, and my story, well enough to just write.

The other thing that happened this month is that I checked the newsletter signups from my website and I have nine subscribers! That may not sound like much, but considering that I don't actually have a newsletter yet (or any books published), I'm pretty tickled. I have a nice little core of friends who support me that much.With an actual newsletter and actual books, the sky is the limit! (See how useful Rule Two is?)

My plan for December is:

1) Finish the book. That's a stretch, given that I have 30,000 to 40,000 words to go, but if critical mass continues, it's possible. Also, necessary if I'm going to hit next fall's target dates.

2) Put together my first newsletter, that will come out in January.

If any of you already subscribe to author newsletters, what kinds of things do you like to see? And those of you who so graciously subscribed to mine, what are you hoping to see?


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