And… First Draft Finished

It’s been a longer road than I imagined, but I’ve finished the first draft of Goddess, Book 2 and sent it to my first round beta readers. Technically, it’s refined enough to be called a second draft. I wouldn’t share my real first draft with my own mother.

I’m sure all authors experience what I’m feeling now – euphoria at reaching a milestone, optimism that what I’ve written is good, and fear that I’m misleading myself and what I’ve written isn’t good. I’ve gone through these same emotions with every screenplay and book I’ve written. A draft is never as good as I think it is, but I can’t see its flaws until someone points them out to me. That’s why we ask for critiques.

I want to give a shoutout to my fabulous fellow romance writers who are kind enough to read a manuscript that I know isn’t yet ready for publication: Jess Moore, who allowed me to critique her upcoming novel, Fierce Grace; Elodie Colt, who will be releasing her debut novel In Blood We Trust in April; and Danielle Lori, author of A Girl Named Calamity. Thanks, ladies!

Happy reading and writing,

Kelee

What Do I Write Next?

I rarely suffer from a lack of creative ideas. My problem is trying to decide what to write next. This usually begins when I’m in the midst of my current book or screenplay. What started out as an exciting premise or character starts to bog down in the details. Instead of writing, I find myself staring wistfully out the window, thinking of all my other story ideas. When they’re still an etherial part of my imagination, those ideas seem so perfect. They could practically write themselves. Perhaps I should write one of them next, I muse. Or perhaps I should even put aside my current manuscript. I could take a break, write something else. Maybe my current project will be easier when I return to it.

But then my rational mind takes over… usually. I know I’ll face just as many challenges with my new idea as soon as it starts to take shape. If I don’t finish my current book, I may never get back to it. I need to focus and recommit myself to my present course. I’ll let the new idea gestate in my mind as I fall asleep at night. If it’s good, it will take root.  It will get better. Or maybe not. Perhaps a week or month from now, I won’t be so enamored with my new literary paramour. Then I’ll move on to my next idea.

Best wishes,

Kelee

How to Fake it Till You Make it as a Writer

I was listening to an interesting story on NPR not long ago. In it, a schlubby nobody wanted to find out what it feels like to be famous. He got some friends and strangers to pose as bodyguards, an assistant, and paparazzi. They walked through midtown Manhattan, treating him like the star he wasn’t, and guess what? People believed it. Gawkers gawked, girls swarmed. They imagined he was someone famous they had seen on TV or in a movie. For a short time, he faked his way into celebrity.

Most writers suffer from self-doubt. Voices scream in our heads, You’re a fake, a loser, a hack. You’ll never be a success, and if you are, the next book will bomb. I firmly believe that’s why Harper Lee never wrote a second book and why many writers turn to drink.

But we can change those negative messages and turn our writing, and our lives around.

I was recently struggling through a period when everything I wrote was terrible. The story, the characters, and the dialogue in my new book felt like bile I was throwing up on the page. I started avoiding writing, distracting myself with unpleasant household chores.

But after hearing the NPR story, I decided that if I couldn’t be a good writer, I could at least pretend to be one. Every morning I woke up, looked in the mirror, and repeated a phrase I had learned from author Julia Cameron: “You are a brilliant and prolific writer.”

It was so simple, but it worked. After giving myself a positive message, I more eager to sit down at my laptop, and the pages started to flow. I felt like Popeye after gulping down a can of spinach. The negative voices were subdued, and I became a “brilliant and prolific writer,” at least for the day.

Faking it till you make it can work in social situations too. Suppose you heard that an agent you thought would be perfect to represent you was going to be at a writing conference. You sign up. Now imagine two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by other wannabe authors. You tell yourself, Why would she be interested in me? My stuff isn’t good. I’ve already been rejected by 50 agents. Even if she agreed to read my manuscript, it would probably end up in the trash.

I’m sure you can imagine what you might do after all those negative messages. You’d probably end up at the cash bar, hiding your face in shame.

But what if, instead, you decided to fake it.

Scenario 2: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by wannabe authors. But that’s not you. You’re already successful. You’ve had 10 books on the best seller list. You already have an agent, but perhaps would be in the market for a new one if she was right for you.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to lie to the agent. You’d be found out pretty quickly. I’m telling you to lie to yourself. Play the role of the successful author. Approach the agent with confidence. Introduce yourself and make firm eye contact. Invite her to read your latest manuscript. You might just end up at the cash bar sharing a drink with her.

I know this sounds fake. It is. You’re playing a part for yourself. Remember the guy who pretended to be a celebrity? He never told anyone he was famous. He just played the part and they came to their own conclusions.

Many years ago, I read about another way to fake it till you make. I don’t recall the title of the self-help book, but its premise was, Act like it was impossible to fail.

We all know failure is a fact of life for writers. I have the rejection letters to prove it. Again, this isn’t about telling yourself that you can’t fail. You’ll know you’re lying. It means to act like you can’t fail. What would you do if you acted like the novel you were planning couldn’t fail? What if you acted like it was destined to be a Harry Potter-like hit and buy you a French chateau? Would you put it off, or would  you get down to some serious writing?

Try this for a day, a week, a month. Try it the next time you write a query letter or go to a conference. Try it the next time you meet a hot guy at a party.

“What do you do?” he asks.

“I’m a writer,” you reply without apology or hesitation.

Best wishes,

Kelee

 

The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Killing Your Babies

I loved the opening scene of the new romance novel I’m working on, Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It was funny, with great dialogue, intriguing characters, and page-turning thrills. Best of all, I’d given it what I thought was an interesting twist. We first see our heroine, Julina Trevers, through the eyes of her caddish ex-boyfriend. I was so proud of myself.

There was just one problem.

My first-round readers hated the scene.

If this was a Kindle sample, one wrote, I would never download itI was confused, wrote another. Who’s the protagonist? They went on: Too long. The boyfriend never reappears. Why focus so much on a dislikable character?

I wanted to rail, to tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about. They couldn’t see clever writing if it hit them over the head. But these were all experienced writers and readers, and it wasn’t just two or three of them who didn’t like the scene, as is usually the case. They all hated it equally.

I had invested so much time and energy into this opening. I couldn’t bare to throw it out. Instead, I put aside the manuscript and spent several weeks working on my other book-in-progress. Now I’ve returned to it, and it’s still painful to change, but I’m doing it.

Killing your babies (or darlings for the more sensitive among you) is such an apt metaphor for what a writer has to go through. We’ve birthed these characters, scenes, plot lines, and sometimes, whole books. It’s agony to have to take a butcher knife to them, to slash them apart and resemble them. Sometimes they end up in the compost heap like yesterday’s dinner.

But as writers, we have to remember, compost isn’t trash. It breaks down and becomes something lovely and new that will eventually nourish our creative garden. Those lines of dialogue or the great character we created may someday end up in another book, right where they belonged all the time.

Writers, feel the pain and agony of killing your babies, but remember, they will live again.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Writing in the First Person

When I was a screenwriter, I had no choice but to write in the third person. It’s hard to imagine how one would do anything else. Movies almost always work best as third person experiences.  (Watch the 1947 Robert Montgomery movie Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point-of-view, and you’ll see why.)

When I started writing Goddess, my first romance novel, I was excited by the chance to write in the first person. I found in liberating. It was like sitting around a campfire, sharing a story that happened to me personally. I was able to live the story moment by moment as Julia Nelson slowly but inevitably falls for the hot, enigmatic archeologist Ashland Stewart. it was almost as if I was in bed with him, experiencing every touch, every sensation. It made writing an erotic romance seem easy… and exciting.

But I also learned the pitfalls of the first person perspective.

Writing a romance novel in the first person isn’t a popular choice for a reason. A romance is about two people. (Unless it’s autoerotic, which might be interesting.) When we’re first getting to know someone romantically, there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out the other person’s intentions and nature. But in third person fiction, the reader can be inside both characters’ heads. We can know what that hot guy is thinking. Of course, that does take some of the suspense out of the narrative, but it helps us understand him more.

One of the criticisms I heard about my early drafts of Goddess was that Ashland wasn’t as well developed as Julia, my point-of-view character. This made complete sense. We knew everything Julia was feeling and thinking. We didn’t have that same luxury with Ashland. It took a lot of rewriting to make Ashland more three-dimensional. But I knew he could never be as fully developed as his lover. That’s just one of the compromises a writer has to make when writing in the first person.

My training as a screenwriter did help me avoid one of the pitfalls new writers often fall into when writing in the first person. In a script, a writer shouldn’t put information on the page that the audience watching the finished movie couldn’t possibly know. A screenwriter has to portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings through outward action and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s considered cheating and is frowned on by script readers.

Too many new writers working in the first person also try to cheat when conveying information they want the reader to know. One of the most popular (and most cliche) way is through the overheard conversation. (Or, in the age of cellphones, the stumbled upon text or voicemail message.)

The other pit writers fall into is getting stuck in their main character’s head. The story becomes a constant recitation of her thoughts and feelings. It’s enough to give the reader a splitting headache.

When writing in the first person, it’s important to remain grounded in time and space. What can your character see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? After all, while we may constantly have thoughts swirling around in our brains, we’re also are focused on the world around us. (Unless you’re a narcissist!)

If you’ve never written in the first person, I would suggest giving it a try. It may just change your own perspective on your story, and on your writing.

Best wishes,

Kelee

Writing to a Rhythm

At the moment, I’m halfway through reading a new fantasy/romance novel. I won’t mention the title or author because I want to reserve judgement until I’m finished, but the book has made me think a great deal about rhythm in writing.

The main character in the book is complex and engaging and the descriptions are rich and imaginative. Nevertheless, I’ve had a difficult time becoming fully engaged in the story because its rhythm feels off. It doesn’t have the compelling beat that I love in a good novel–the kind of book that I can’t put down.

To me, rhythm in a novel is like rhythm in music–it picks me up and carries me along. It makes me feel compelled to reach the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence. Reading a book without the proper rhythm is like listening to a band where the drummer can’t keep a beat.

Rhythm can be hard charging, like in a thriller, or it can be slow and steady, like in a thoughtful character study. Often, it can be difficult to define exactly what makes for good rhythm. There’s no time signature like in music, and there are so many elements that come together to take us on a satisfying literary journey. It’s definitely not just the plot that carries the rhythm. Character, dialogue, setting, and sentence structure all come together to make a book successful.

One of my favorite contemporary novels is Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! The book follows the three Bigtree chidren after their mother dies and their parents’ Florida tourist attraction fails. Kiwi, the older brother, leaves to get a job at the World of Darkness amusement park. When the middle sibling Osceola disappears into the swamp, Ava, the youngest daughter, goes in search of her with the help of the mysterious, seemingly magical Bird Man.Swamplandia

The rhythm of Kiwi and Ava’s adventures are completely different. Kiwi’s struggles to be successful at World of Darkness are mostly light and funny. There’s a breezy, fast-paced rhythm to them. Ava’s journey is slower, like a dream walk. There’s a sense of danger and foreboding that draws us in very differently than Kiwi’s chapters.

The distinct rhythms of their narratives are reflected in their first person (Ava) vs. third person (Kiwi) viewpoints, the language they use, the settings, and the turns in the plot. They almost feel like two different books. Swamplandia! never gets monotonous or boring because the rhythm is so varied. But at the same time, the different character strands blend together so well that we’re left with a deep and complex story that few other recent novels I’ve read have acheived.

Developing good rhythm takes years of practice. It’s like learning to play the drums. But I do have a few tips to share that may help you consider your own rhythm in your writing.

  1. Watch Hollywood movies. The more rigid structure of Hollywood films, especially the three acts in a typical movie, can give you a good sense of how rhythm works. Watch a movie strictly for the structure. Where do the key plot turns occur?How do the scenes vary in length and tone? Do fast paced scenes alternate with slower paced counterpoints?
  2. Get honest, outside opinions of how your book is flowing. I read too many self-published books with scenes that seem to go on forever, or with unnecessary characters or dialogue. It’s very difficult for a writer to see objectively how the flow of his/her book is working. Find a fearless reader or three to give you the honest truth.
  3. Watch out for changing POV. In romances, character POV often switches between the hero and heroine. Don’t overdue it. Switching POVs can take the reader out of the story and lead to redundancy if you present the same information from two points of view.
  4. Write short stories. Because their flow is so foreshortened, they can help you practice developing rhythm.

I hope these tips at least help you think more about rhythm as you’re reading and writing. Good luck!

Best Wishes,

Kelee

Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written: 10 Tips for Breaking Through Procrastination

It’s back to school time, which means we parents no longer have to contend with trips to the beach, summer camps that end way too early, and a constant chorus of “I’m bored!” It also means we can finally get back to some serious writing.

Or not.

I’m known as someone who is focused and disciplined, but that’s not how I see myself. I’m a procrastinator, especially when it comes to writing. Too many times I would choose vacuuming return vents or ironing sheets (Something which I’ve never actually done.) over sitting down with my half-finished manuscript. Why do I love to write so much yet sometimes hate doing it at the same time? Perhaps because most activites that are extremely satisfying are also very challenging. (Would I put sex in that category? That’s for another post.)

I rarely get enough writing done in a day to satisfy myself, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. Over the years, I’ve developed or learned a few tricks to get past my creative inertia. None of them work all the time. They’re like a bag full of golf clubs that I pull out one by one, hoping to make it to the green. Many of these seem obvious to me, but that’s because I’ve been doing them for so long. I offer them up to you in print to remind myself that there’s more than one way to skin a first draft.

  1. Find your sweet spot during the day. I’m a morning person. Give me a cup of coffee and a quiet space in the morning and I’m happy. But by two o’clock, I’m pretty much worthless creatively. I’ve come to accept that. I try to get a jump on the writing and get as much done in the morning as I can. It’s much more pleasant to tackle the laundry in the afternoon if I have some good pages under my belt.
  2. The internet is Satan’s handmaiden. If I’m stuck on a scene, character, or even one word, I head immediately to the internet, not to find an answer, but to avoid the problem. What are my friends doing on Facebook? What’s the latest political news? I really could use a new sweater. Next thing I know, hours have passed and I’ve accomplished nothing. I try to turn off the internet if I can, though it’s hard to maintain that discipline. I don’t carry a smartphone because I often get my best writing down on the train commuting to work. No temptations = productivity. (Though it is annoying when the guy sitting next to me is craning to read the hot sex scene I’m writing.)
  3. Set goals, but make them realistic. At the beginning of the week, I write down what I want to accomplish each day. I try to make these goals as specific as possible. “Finish a first draft of chapter 12” works much better than “work on chapter 12.” I try to gauge how much I can actually accomplish. I don’t want to end up short or with too much time on my hands. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
  4. Change your venue. Write in a different room, or just a different chair. Write outside. Go to a cafe. I even used to sit in a nearby hospital’s lobby.
  5. Dress for success. I was watching American Ninja the other day. (One of my guilty pleasures.) A woman contestant said she wore a superhero pajama top to bed so that every morning, when she looked in the mirror, she felt inspired to do great things that day. I haven’t tried that one yet, but it’s definitely on my list for the future.
  6. Find a writers’ group. Nothing helps spark creativity like the knowledge that it’s your turn to get critiqued at your writers’ group. If you can’t find one that’s right for you, start one. If you don’t have time to meet in person, join one on the web.
  7. Take a Break, but don’t make it too long. Take a day off to catch up on chores or go to a museum. Go on vacation. Lie on the beach. It’s good to get away from the page, but too many writers I’ve known turn breaks into long hiatuses that last months or even years. If you don’t have an agent or editor, nobody’s going to be calling to ask when you’re going to finish the book. You have to be your own taskmaster.
  8. Don’t be fooled by creative distractions. I know writers who seem to spend the majority of their time working on their web presence, or writing a press release for the PTA, or creating a one-woman show based on the unpublished novel they wrote 10 years ago. It makes you feel creative when you do these things, but are you really distracting yourself from your more important goal, to be a novelist?
  9. Write more than one book at a time. This can be dangerous because if you have too many projects going, you might not finish any of them. But sometimes I’ve found it helpful to work on more than one book at a time. If I’m stuck on one, I can turn to the other and keep the creative juices flowing.
  10. Don’t give up! Almost every writer procrastinates. It doesn’t make you a bad person. If you find yourself avoiding your writing, forgive yourself, make another pot of coffee, and get back to it. You’re a writer, dammit! You can do it.

Best wishes,

Kelee