Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Are the rules of POV changing?

The rules about point-of-view are handed down from old writers to new ones much in the way parents teach their children to play catch or ride a bike. To sum:

First person, or “I” – the narrator is the main character and knows only what she sees or has been told.
Second person, or “you” – usually only seen in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
Third person, or “she” – The narrator knows all, but limits point of view to a few main characters to keep things from getting confusing. Almost always, these characters and their points of view are introduced in the beginning quarter of the book, so the reader knows whose story it is.

These rules are pretty much sacrosanct, and to violate them means incurring the wrath of anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course.

This past week, however, I read two traditionally published books that ignored the rules. The first, Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, is a mystery starring Agatha Christie’s most famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But Poirot is not the narrator – the book is told in first person from the point of view of Detective Catchpool, a hapless detective from Scotland Yard who pretty much needs Poirot to tell him how to tie his shoes. This is odd because Catchpool must have ESP, as he describes many scenes in which he is not present. Poirot will be having a detailed conversation with a witness, and several paragraphs or pages later, Catchpool will join him at the coffee shop or mention he’s someplace else entirely. Monogram has received mixed reviews, but a lot of fanfare since it’s an authorized Poirot tale told by a famous mystery writer using Christie’s style. Nevertheless, Christie was well versed with the rules of POV, which she exploited to great effect with her debut mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

My library finally coughed up a copy of Jojo Moyes’ After You, the sequel to her blockbuster Me Before You. Moyes is a very talented writer who has used first person, third person, and multiple narrative threads in her earlier novels, but this book is the first time I have seen her break a rule. After You is Louisa’s first person account, and in most of the book she’s preoccupied with a teenage girl named Lily. In the last third of the novel, Lily goes missing, and Moyes jettisons her narrative structure of first person, past tense to spend several pages in Lily’s third person, present tense world. Once this plot twist is resolved, Moyes returns to Louisa’s first person point of view.

It’s been said that a writer has to know the rules in order to break the rules, but I found these rule-breakings jarring. In both cases, they pulled me completely out of the story and left me mumbling about “whose story is it anyway.”

But perhaps I’m being an old stick-in-the-mud. Are writers, editors and publishers becoming more lenient about the rules around point of view? Should I expect to read more examples like the two above? Or did I just happen to catch two exceptions to rules that are still alive, well and kicking?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Best Twist Ever!

Thanks to Deb for coming up with another great idea for a blog hop! These hops are more than just an entertaining way to recognize our favorite stories. As writers, dissecting twists, endings, beginnings, etc., helps us come up with ideas to make our own projects stand out.

Before I get to my choice, I want to talk about what makes a twist work. They are completely surprising, yet supported by everything that has come before. They make readers/viewers feel like they should have seen it coming. They can be summed up in one simple sentence. When they happen in the middle of a book or TV series, they take the show into a completely different direction, but one that works with what’s happened before.

Most good twists center around the protagonist’s identity. (In fact, there’s a whole movie about that very question that Kerrie so aptly described yesterday. The protagonist doesn’t know something important about him/herself, and the twist is the discovery. This includes such biggies as Luke finding out he’s really Darth Vader’s son, Harry learning he’s a wizard (although it happens so early in the series, is this really a twist?), Malcolm Crowe discovering he’s dead, and the entire cast of St. Elsewhere living in some kid’s head.

The Empire Strikes Back was the first time I was exposed to this twist, but is it the best? I would say not, because the clues were just not there. George Lucas could have thrown a few tidbits during Star Wars and the first three quarters of Empire. I have a feeling he didn’t because he didn’t know himself that Darth was Luke’s father. And then he just went nuts, with Leia and Luke being twins and all the head-scratching stuff that happened in the prequels. Thank goodness J.J. Abrams is in charge of the new movie.

The Sixth Sense contains the most well-known twist, and it’s one of the most well-done. All the clues are there that Malcolm is dead – the most obvious one being the desk he works on in his drafty, creepy old basement, surrounded by mementoes on the floor. I have to admit I didn’t get this one – I had heard there was a big twist, and I was convinced that somehow Cole and the crazy guy who killed Malcolm would have some kind of genetic connection. So I was concentrating on that, and missing the obvious fact that the kid who could see dead people was the only person addressing Malcolm directly.

I’ve gotten much better since then. Shutter Island? Called it.

My entry for this blog hop is the much discussed, much debated 2000 Christopher Nolan film, Memento. To jog your memory, Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who developed short-term amnesia in an attack that left his wife dead. The police say they caught the guy who did it, but Leonard believes he had an accomplice (the police do not), so he’s going after that guy himself in order to kill him. Leonard writes clues in his body since he can’t remember anything for longer than 15 minutes. As such, the film itself runs backwards, with the next scene happening chronologically before the scene it follows. It was confusing, and I saw several people walk out of the theatre in the movie’s first half hour.

Because of this format, just about every scene contains a twist, and also enough clues that hint at the movie’s resolution. The two most shocking twists came at the end. One, Leonard’s wife did not die in the attack that left Leonard brain-damaged. Rather, Leonard himself killed her by accidentally giving his diabetic wife insulin twice. It was a test, because she didn’t think he really had amnesia. Leonard passed the test and his wife died as a result. The second huge twist is that Leonard had already killed one man he blamed for her death. After that death, he deliberately hid those clues from himself so he could start a new game of find the killer.

With the viewer being completely in Leonard’s point of view, both these twists were stunning (although the diabetes clue had been dropped near the beginning). Yet they follow the rule of identity being the linchpin of the twist.

AMBI Pictures recently announced that it will be remaking the film, so perhaps a new version might be a little clearer. (There’s also a DVD available that runs the action in chronological order.)

Please tune in tomorrow, when Deb finishes it up for us!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Death Before Decaf: New Murder Mystery!

I am not a coffee drinker, but I am delighted to help my friend Caroline Fardig spread the word about her new mystery series, Java Jive! Death Before Decaf is the first book in the series, which takes place in Nashville. I may not drink coffee, but I do love Nashville. At least the TV show, NASHVILLE. I’ve never been to the actual city ….

What it’s about:

Perfect for fans of Janet Evanovich and Diane Mott Davidson, Caroline Fardig’s captivating new mystery novel takes readers behind the counter of a seemingly run-of-the-mill coffeehouse . . . where murder is brewing.

After her music career crashes and burns spectacularly, Juliet Langley is forced to turn to the only other business she knows: food service. Unfortunately, bad luck strikes yet again when her two-timing fiancé robs her blind and runs off with her best waitress. Flushing what’s left of her beloved café down the toilet with her failed engagement, Juliet packs up and moves back to her college stomping grounds in Nashville to manage an old friend’s coffeehouse. At first glance, it seems as though nothing’s changed at Java Jive. What could possibly go wrong? Only that the place is hemorrhaging money, the staff is in open revolt, and Juliet finds one unlucky employee dead in the dumpster out back before her first day is even over.

The corpse just so happens to belong to the cook who’d locked horns with Juliet over the finer points of the health code. Unimpressed with her management style, the other disgruntled employees are only too eager to spill the beans about her fiery temper to the detective on the case. Add to the mix a hunky stranger who’s asking way too many questions, and suddenly Juliet finds herself in some very hot water. If she can’t simmer down and sleuth her way to the real killer, she’s going to get burned.

Praise for Death Before Decaf

“I was hooked from the first page. I loved it!”—Dorothy Cannell, award-winning author of the Ellie Haskell mysteries

“Caroline Fardig brings a fun cast of characters to life in Death Before Decaf! Juliet had me laughing, smiling, and rooting for her from the first page to the last. I can’t wait for more!”—Gina LaManna, author of Teased to Death

“Caroline Fardig keeps you turning pages in this fast-paced mystery set in a Nashville coffee shop.”—Nancy J. Parra, author of Engaged in Murder

Buy it here:
Barnes and Noble
Direct from the publisher!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spoil Sport: How Spoilerish Should Book Reviews Be?

Thanks to Amazon, everyone’s a reviewer now. While over a thousand people are getting sued for leaving false reviews, that still leaves millions of others who aren’t. I’m not saying that people who leave reviews should be sued. Just the people who leave bad reviews on my books. Ha ha. Just kidding. No, really. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve only had two negative reviews, and in both cases, the reviewers followed the rules – they were specific about their complaints, and, more importantly, they didn’t give any spoilers. For many authors I know, spoilers in their Amazon reviews are incredibly annoying. But these reviewers are amateurs. Should professionals make sure not to reveal later plot twists?

As a reviewer for Chick Lit Central, I’ve written a heck of a lot more reviews than books. And the spoilers thing is something I grapple with regularly. I generally try not to reveal anything that happens in a book after about the first 25%, which is up to and including the first major plot point. That is usually what you’ll find in the plot description given on the book’s back cover, so it feels fair.

But sometimes something happens after that point that is so big, it changes the feel of the entire book. For instance, one book I read was a pretty fun ride until the last third, when the writer decided to kill off a teenage girl in a casual manner and then have the protagonist make internal jokes at her funeral. This might have worked had the protagonist been a psychopath but not in women’s fiction. Before that point, I’d been working on a fairly positive review for the book. Instead, I opted not to review it at all.

A few months ago, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies came out with a lot of fanfare, and the reviews were positive. I was intrigued by the idea of a book about marriage written first from the husband’s point of view, then from the wife’s, that didn’t include anyone faking their own death. It sounded good, and I put it on hold at my local library. (Can I just do a quick shout out here for the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative and the amazing job they do getting the latest books and circulating them around the system? And, just, libraries in general. What an amazing concept. Thank you, Ben Franklin, and thank you PPLC.)

Then I read this review over the weekend in the New Yorker. Turns out that Fates and Furies is not the book I thought it was. Not that Groff really needs to worry about losing one potential reader, but I’m taking the book off my list.

As a reader, I’m grateful for the time saved. As a writer, I’m torn. I believe readers should know exactly what type of ride they’ve signed up for when downloading, borrowing or buying a book – especially for someone who’s shelling out nearly $30 for a hard cover. (Which I don’t often do, but am planning for the new Stephen King. But as a writer, I’m perturbed that the reviewer wasn’t more indirect about the book’s second half. Don’t readers deserve a chance to decide for themselves whether these plot twists work? Shouldn’t a review that gives readers the book’s concept, characters, tone, and first plot point or two be enough?

This reviewer seemed to write his piece as a warning: The book doesn’t deserve the positive press it’s gotten so far. And I appreciate that he saved me the time of reading a book that would disappoint me, not to mention an extra trip to the library. But this was the New Yorker, friends. I imagine it devastated Groff.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"I Don’t Know How She Does It" and “A Window Opens”: How Much Has Changed in 13 Years?

(warning: contains spoilers for both books, including their endings.)

In 2002, Allison Pearson made a huge splash in the literary world with her novel about Kate Reddy, a British investment banker struggling to juggle work and home. (Here’s a review I wrote comparing and contrasting the book and film versions of “I Don’t Know.”) Despite the attention, sales and movie deals, nothing since then has been published to such acclaim that puts this dilemma front and center. (Not in fiction, anyway. The protagonists in women’s fiction all have jobs, of course, but these take a back seat to the muddy romantic and family relationships that dominate the novels.) Now, 13 years later, Elisabeth Egan has written something similar and made a splash. (Here’s the New York Times review; positive but not laudatory.)

Many of my bookish friends have raved about “Window,” and I have mixed feelings about raining on this parade. What bothers me so much about “Window” is the same thing that bothered me about the book version of “I Don’t Know” – at the end, both heroines quit their jobs and go part time (in “Window,” Alice returns to her previous part time schedule), making their husbands the primary bread winner. While Kate in “I Don’t Know” quits despite the fact that she’s excellent at her job (remedied quite nicely in the movie), Alice’s reasons for leaving are twofold: she doesn’t fit into the corporate environment, and the parameters of her job have changed drastically. She leaves to take cash register shifts at her friend’s independent book store and dreams about turning book selling into another MLM scheme that so many women get sucked into.

Alice’s journey mirrors that of her creator, Egan, who left a book editor position at Self magazine to edit books for Amazon. Unable to fit into Amazon’s 24/7 work ethos, Egan quit. Now she’s book editor at Glamour magazine. Because of this, it feels low to criticize Alice’s choices, as they clearly mirror the writer’s own. Still, shouldn’t fiction offer readers the chance to experience a world as it might be, rather than the world as it is?

In many ways, Alice has it easier than Kate. Her nanny is amazing, (Kate’s was constantly late) and her children cute and pleasant (Kate’s daughter was manipulative and judgmental). Yes, her father is dying, but her parents are well-off enough that they offer her great sums of money when her husband decides to open his own law practice after failing to make partner and being forced out of his firm. And her mother is healthy enough that Alice really only misses a few hours of work one day to accompany them to an appointment. Mom does the heavy lifting of the care taking. Alice’s husband is spending more time with the bottle than paying clients, but he and the nanny are home for the kids, except one time when Alice’s daughter gets sick. Other than that, she’s in the office and available … to do what, though? Alice works at Scroll, which will someday be a book store where readers will hook up their Kindle-like devices and read on the premises while enjoying massagers and bon-bons in the company of gorgeous first editions. Her job is to get literary agents and editors on board. She sets up and attends some meetings, but it’s really hard to see what about her job is so all-consuming. There are tons of emails and staff meetings, but I couldn’t figure out what Alice did all day and why she was so stressed out – other than the stress of dealing with some difficult personalities at work, which is pretty much par for the course for anyone who pulls in a paycheck.

The beginning of the end comes for Alice when Greg, one of the company owners, want to incorporate video games for the kids in the Scroll space. The company has just acquired a game manufacturer, and Greg envisions the kids playing games while their mothers read. Of course, this will require a re-envisioning of what Scroll will physically look like, and changes to Alice’s job as well. Alice balks because she doesn’t believe kids should play video games, and some of the games in the catalog are especially violent. Instead, later, she pitches her “book lady” idea to Greg – home parties where women would introduce a few new titles to their friends. (I liked this idea a lot, and of course if “book lady” were real, it would be the one MLM I’d actually sign up to join. But it obviously wasn’t appropriate for this corporation.) I was sorely disappointed in this plot twist. Adding video games to the store makes sense – it would enable parents to stay that much longer and buy more “merch.” The biggest wrinkle would be angry mothers who caught their kids playing inappropriate games. Had Alice brought up that point – and then proposed publishing a guide to the games so parents could monitor their kids’ choices – she would have scored big points with the boss. Instead, nothing.

I wanted to see Alice overcome these stumbling blocks and lead the New York office of Scroll. Barring that, couldn’t she have used her contacts in the publishing world to obtain an editing or publicist position? If not, why not end the book with Alice turning “Book Lady” into this year’s “Pampered Chef”?

Again, this is not to point fingers at Egan, who has obviously made the best of a bad fit with Amazon. But I am so tired of reading fiction that still – in 2015! – has a woman’s happy ending consist of slinking quietly away from the big bad job and the meanies at work in order to spend more time with the kids and let her husband and his job take center stage. It was so gratifying, in the movie version of “I Don’t Know”, to watch Kate march into her boss’ office and finally set limits, and then have her husband willingly take mental responsibility for their household.

Of course, women’s fiction is fiction. And there’s no category called women’s fantasy. If there were, it would probably have more to do with hot firemen, anyway. But is it too much to ask that the female protagonists of this genre be able to accomplish what in real life we cannot?

I hope Egan’s success opens the door to many more women’s fiction novels featuring married heroines with full lives, including career conflicts, dealing with children, etc. And I’m so glad she’s getting this attention. Even if we cannot get the career happy ending we’re hoping for, at least there will be more books to choose from.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Show, Don’t Tell

It’s the most basic writing advice there is: show, don’t tell. My son’s sixth grade teacher wrote it on a short story he submitted. So why do so many writers struggle in this area? I recently reviewed a book for Chick Lit Central where the writer – who literally had dozens of books already under her belt – summed up important events in her protagonist’s life rather than including them as scenes. I felt gypped. I wanted to see how those incidents played out.

It’s an area I struggle in myself. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, in which my protagonist has two life-changing events happen to her: her mother’s death and her father’s quick remarriage, and her husband running off with another woman and leaving her broke. In my first draft, I summed these up in a few paragraphs. But my writing instructor said I should show these events in flashback, and so I did. I’m still not sure whether that was the correct choice. Sometimes flashbacks slow down momentum. (One of these days I’m going to write a post about the appropriate use of flashbacks. I’ve read books that were literally half, or more, flashback.)

How do you know if a piece of information should be shown or told? Obviously, we can’t show everything. Books would be twice as long and twice as boring if we did. But here’s a quick checklist:

Scenes that should be shown:
 Have conflict
 Forward the story
 Demonstrate a character trait

Scenes that can be told:
 Provide unbiased information
 Communicate passage of time
 Give uncomplicated back story

Generally speaking, a novel should be about 70-80 percent scene work (show) and 20-30 percent narrative (tell), but most writers I know aren’t keeping track mathematically of their writing. And it’s not something that should be at the forefront of a writer’s mind when working on a first draft. After a second or third draft, a writer should re-read the WIP specifically with this question in mind. Take note of which scenes show, and which scenes tell. Remember that pace and tension are derived from showing. Too much telling slows down the story and dissolves tension.

Before examining your own work, it may be useful to pull out a favorite book and look for examples of showing versus telling. Are there areas where you think the writer should have made a different choice? Can you write a scene from a section that was summarized rather than shown?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Summer of No’s

Like many writers, I spent the summer waiting for agents to get back to me on manuscripts they’d requested (I did a lot of writing!). (By the way, I am still waiting.) I also did a lot of reading of manuscripts sent to the agent I read for. Unfortunately, I passed on most of them. Bear in mind that I am just one of several readers, so my recommendation is not the final say. But I find value in some agents’ query comments on Twitter, and I thought I’d do the same. Without further ado, here’s a little something on the manuscripts I read this summer, what I recommended, and why:

General fiction – R&R -- Very strong writing, but some of the characters are clichés and the plot is thin. Strong writing makes me think the writer will be able to fix these problems with a strong revision memo.

Romantic suspense – pass -- struggles with tone, character, pacing and plot. The concept was good, but all these problems make the writer a bad bet at this time.

Dark comedy – R&R -- episodic nature and problems with tone require another rewrite. I loved the concept, and dark humor is particularly difficult to pull off. I hope the writer got some strong editing help and will resub.

Literary thriller – pass -- Starts strong and features a gritty tone, but its weak mystery, sleazy characters and abrupt ending keep it from working.

Chick lit – pass – Sexist, stereotypical single women desperate for a husband.

General Fiction – R&R -- Very strong writing, some intriguing plot elements, but the writer doesn’t emphasize the novel’s most intriguing parts. A rewrite that strengthens the mystery at its heart will take the novel to the next level.

General Fiction – pass -- Mostly told rather than shown; too many characters and episodic.

Thriller – pass -- Interesting plot doomed by an immature voice, weak writing and flimsy characters.

Historical fantasy – pass -- Stunningly rich in detail, but the writing is way too young for adult readers. This is one of several time travel novels that were requested this summer. If you’re working on one, get those queries out there! (Make sure it’s good first.)

Thriller – pass -- Interesting concept, but the pace is too slow and the characters are too dull.

Historical fantasy – pass – Common plot with one-dimensional characters and unsophisticated narrative voice. Another time travel novel.

(The agent I read for gets a lot more than this one sentence! Along with the analysis, I write a 3-6 page synopsis of the story so she can judge for herself whether the plot elements are intriguing enough to look past any writing issues.)

So that was what I read this summer. As a writer, this list emphasizes to me just how hard it is to write something strong enough to gain a second look from an agent. Which is probably why I’m still waiting to hear back. Please know that as a reader, I am dying to find something good enough that I can wholeheartedly recommend it to my agent. Having to pass on these manuscripts is almost as painful as getting those "no thanks" emails in my own inbox.

Monday, September 14, 2015

First Look at Mug Shot!

Author Caroline Fardig is one of my favorite people (see my interview with her here) and I’m so excited to be part of her cover reveal for Mug Shot, the second mystery in her Java Jive series. Drum roll, please …

To review, Caroline has published three books in her Lizzie Hart series, about a small town newspaper copy editor with an on-again, off-again crush and a penchant for finding dead bodies. The Java Jive series takes place in Nashville, with coffee house manager/former singer Julie Langley investigating death and dismemberment. The first Java Jive book, Death Before Decaf, comes out in November.

Here are the pre-order links for Mug Shot:
Random House:

And here’s Caroline’s Amazon page, which lists all her books:

And why not check out Caroline’s website and blog while you’re at it!

You go, Caroline!

Monday, August 24, 2015

What Writers Can Learn from Zombies

As a huge Walking Dead fan, I spent all summer looking forward to Fear the Walking Dead. My anticipation was, sadly, not rewarded. And looking at my Twitter feed, I was not the only one disappointed in Sunday night’s pilot. The writers violated two important rules, and lost their audience. Don’t make the same mistakes they did!

Rule #1: Your main characters should be likeable/sympathetic/empathetic. This is a rule that gets debated a lot. Google “unlikeable protagonist,” and the number of hits that come up is in the zillions. A lot of these links are complaints from writers who have unlikeable protagonists and are mad that they can’t find an agent or publisher. The rule does get a little muddled sometimes. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be nice. But there have to be reasons for the reader to root for him. Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge lists five things for screenwriters to do in the first ten minutes of a screenplay to make readers support your protagonist: be funny, be really good at a job, be kind to an underdog (stray dog or homeless person), be in jeopardy, or be nice. In other words, someone with a sarcastic sense of humor who is smarter than everyone else in the room at work can get away with being a jerk.

Last night’s Fear the Walking Dead opens with junkie Nick, who wakes up in an abandoned church after sleeping off a high. Everyone else is dead. He wanders around, looking at the remains of last night’s party, calling for his girlfriend. He finds her eating someone’s face. He takes off running, and ends up getting hit by a car.

This was a strong beginning, designed to pull in fans of the Walking Dead and, at the same time, emphasize what was different. The parent show began with hero Rick Grimes waking up in an abandoned hospital and finding the world overrun by zombies. Nick also wakes up, but instead of a completely different world, it’s the same traffic-filled Los Angeles.

The bigger difference, of course, is while Rick was in a coma due to injuries sustained in his line of work as a police officer, Nick was sleeping off a drug high. Immediately, the audience is primed to dislike him (except maybe for the junkies in the audience). Yes, he was in jeopardy, but his own actions put him there, which makes him unsympathetic. Nick comes across as weak and stupid, and as a result, everyone who cares for him – his parents and sister drop everything to be with him – comes across that way, too.

It would have been better to let Nick die when the car hit him, mumbling about people getting their faces eaten. My Twitter feed was filled with people wishing for Nick and his whole family to get eaten by zombies. This is not the way to build viewer and reader loyalty.

Rule #2: Your audience/readers should never be ahead of your characters.

Another reason people were calling for zombie deaths is because, as fans of the parent show, they knew what was in store, and they were anxious to get to it. While Carly Simon and Heinz ketchup are great fans of anticipation, there’s only so much of it people can take before they need to get to the good stuff. Because the Walking Dead began with Rick waking up after society had collapsed, viewers did not get a front row seat to how that all went down, and everyone knows how much we like to watch the world get destroyed. But 90 minutes of watching Nick’s mother and stepfather fret about their junkie son while waiting for the panic to start was too much.

A few months ago I read a mystery manuscript told from three points of view. Protagonist A was trying to find out what the reader already knew, thanks to Protagonist B. It was incredibly dull. Fear the Walking Dead put us in that same position. We know about zombies; we know society will collapse; we even know that anyone who dies will come back as a brain-muncher – not just those who are killed by zombies. Yes, we want to see how society collapses, but we don’t want to wait too long. And not with people we don’t care about.

Hitchcock had a saying about the difference between suspense and surprise; suspense is knowing the bomb is under the table, and surprise is not knowing before it goes off. While Hitchcock preferred the former – at least in the quote – the best work have a mixture of suspense and surprise. Imagine an entire 90 minutes of waiting for the bomb under the table to go off. Hitchcock himself talks about 15 minutes, but today’s reader/viewer would probably get bored after three.

I hope Fear the Walking Dead gets better, and I’ll give the show a few more episodes before giving up. But most writers do not have a built-in fan base that will excuse these errors and keep reading. If you want your readers to care about your characters and wonder what’s going to happen to them, don’t make these mistakes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Participation Trophies: Sometimes Just Showing Up is Worth a Medal

For some reason, there’s been a lot of writing published in the past few weeks about the horribleness of participation trophies. Some NFL superstar threw out the ones his sons got. The right has been raging about them for years, saying they give kids a sense of entitlement; a belief that everything should be handed to them. Research has shown that the more successful, white, conservative and male a person is, the more likely they are to disparage these trophies. Only winners deserve recognition.

In my book KEEPING SCORE (of course I'm going to link to its Amazon page!), I wrote a scene about trophies. It felt pretty true-to-life to me:

Since it was the last game of the season, Franco passed out trophies and said encouraging things about each player. The parents stood behind them and took pictures. David and I flanked Chloe.

"Why do they get trophies?" Chloe whispered to me, but not quietly enough. Scott shot her a dirty look. "They didn't win a championship or anything."

“That’s just how it is these days,” I admitted. “Everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.”
Franco passed a trophy to Matthew.

"And Matthew … who never gives up, is always trying, no matter what."
Matthew beamed, too young to understand the phrase "back-handed compliment." But Scott and Jennifer sure did.

"For Sam,” Franco said, “I am saving the best for last." The trophy he pulled out was bigger than the rest. "I am proud to say that Sam has allowed the fewest goals of all the keepers in the league for this age group."

Franco handed the trophy to Sam, whose eyes were as big as soccer balls. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures. Then Chloe did the same thing.

Jennifer put her arm around Laura and whispered something, looking at me the entire time.

Matthew is happy to get his trophy, happy to have his effort recognized even though it didn’t result in a championship. His parents, who would prefer that their son struggled less and accomplished more, are embarrassed by the acknowledgement and envious of the mother of the child who got a “real” trophy.

Matthew is not the hero of my book. He’s a child who is pushed to play by hugely competitive parents. He wants to play, he wants to be better than he is, and he’s embarrassed to be on a successful baseball team he’s not really good enough to belong to. But his parents cart him around to private lessons and coaching, and by the end of the book, he becomes a much better player. And while Sam is more athletic than Matthew, he has his own set of demons to battle, and twice asks to quit baseball entirely. How he (and his mother) overcome those demons and continue to play are the most important plot points in my book.

So what does this have to do with participation trophies? Although Cooperstown Dreams Park hands out rings to every ball player who shows up, participation trophies are not big in the world of travel sports.

Why do we want our children to play sports? Are we all hoping to raise kids who earn huge college scholarships and then hit the pros? It rarely happens. Do we only want our kids to play if they are MVP of their team, if their team wins championships? Is it for the love of the sport? Most parents would probably say no, even if they are secretly dreaming otherwise. The “right answer” is that we want our children to play sports to keep them out of trouble, to help girls develop confidence in their bodies, and to foster individual accomplishments and a sense of responsibility.

Whether our kids are superstars or second stringers, though, early participation in sports can establish exercise as a lifelong habit. Kids who run during soccer practice become teenagers who run after baseball practice who become managers who run before work or on the weekends. Pushing their bodies, living in their bodies, people who play sports starting at a young age will become adults who are stronger and healthier than those who did not. It’s not about winning. It’s about living.

And this is where those participation trophies come into play. Because if the goal is to create a lifelong habit of exercise, of challenging one’s body, of developing a sense of responsibility, it’s not the MVPs of the team who need to be convinced. Those kids -- to whom athletics comes easy, who lead their teams to championship games and are always the first to be picked for gym class teams – need no participation trophies. Even without the medals they earn, they will play for the love of the sport, for how well their bodies listen to their commands, for how good it feels just to move.

It’s the kids who suck who need the encouragement.

I say this with no mean intent. I was a kid who sucked and am now an adult who hates exercise but forces herself to do it. I spent my grade school years in a neighborhood with active children, who raced each other at the bus stop every morning and played pick-up baseball in the backyard on weekends. Our gym teacher was obsessed with fitness levels and constantly tested us against each other. I was well aware that I sucked.

But I liked it. I liked running, even though I was the slowest kid on the block. I loved to ride my bike. I loved gymnastics, even though I was always put in the lowest group. I was even game to try softball, which my mother loved.

But I was the worst kid on the team. I did not get a participation trophy. I got bullied. I was told that I was “the best player on the other team.” I was picked last during gym class. Even the gym teacher rolled her eyes when I refused to run on a dusty, slippery sidewalk, and called me “out” when I took two bases on two separate overthrows.

I learned to hate sports. Hate my body. Hate running. Hate moving. Would a participation trophy change all that? No. Would the attitude that all kids should be encouraged to play, no matter how good they are, have helped? Definitely. Kids who are not natural athletes can get better, but it will not happen in an environment of “only winners count.” It will not happen with people who scorn the participation trophy. Because people who scorn that trophy were probably not children who stood knock-kneed at home plate “like a dog begging for a walk.”

The courage it takes for a non-athletic child to play sports should be rewarded, not ridiculed. Some of these children grow into teenagers who become masters of their own bodies and the sports they love. And even if they don’t, developing a sports habit will serve them for the rest of their lives.

I did not develop the sports habit, and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and married to a man who did play into his high school years that I forced myself off my butt and into the gym. But I still hate it. My biggest regret, though, isn’t that I grit my teeth every time I set the hour on the treadmill. It’s that when my son was learning to hit, throw, and field a baseball, I wasn’t good enough or confident enough to help him. (There’s a scene in KEEPING SCORE where my protagonist, Shannon, buys herself catching gear and then catches her son’s bullpen. Writing it was a kind of wish fulfillment for me.)

Perhaps the time of “everyone gets a trophy” has passed. But something still needs to be done to recognize the child who shows up even though he or she has no natural talent or ability. Who comes to practice and tries his hardest even though he’s the worst on the team. Who makes an effort with nothing to show for it.

Sometimes just showing up really is worth a medal.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Today’s Plots Need Today’s Technology

There are several web sites that detail how the plots of popular movies and books would not work at all today because of technology. Everyone has a cell phone and takes it everywhere. Almost everyone is on Facebook, or can be found thanks to Google and other search engines. No one talks on landlines anymore, and juicy conversations can no longer be overheard by quietly picking up an extension. Love letters can’t be intercepted; nor answering machine messages tampered with.

Of course, technology also gives us all new plot possibilities and complications. There’s revenge porn, caller ID, Facestalking, Photoshopping, group texts, etc. Last week I watched a high school romcom called The Duff, which had major plot points that could not have happened a just a few years ago. (I thought this a good thing, as romcoms more than any other genre are supposed to be a statement about modern life and love.)

On the minus side, technology has a way of dating our work more than any other kind of detail. Any book that mentions a character’s MySpace account (unless ironically) or Blackberry places its action in a very specific year. If the book is supposed to be present day, these details pull the reader out of the book and makes them think not about the characters but about this dead technology. A writer’s best solution to this issue is to avoid using trademarked names and technologies. Use “smart phone” rather than “iPhone,” and have characters communicate online with LifeLink or LightSpeed.

One trend I’ve noticed in unpublished manuscripts is writers setting their books in the early to mid 1990s solely to avoid more recent technology that would have made their plots obsolete. A woman looking for her college boyfriend can’t rely on Google or Facebook during that time period. But when nothing else about the story says 1993, it’s obvious that the time period is being used only to avoid the technology that would resolve the plot in a matter of paragraphs.

Any time a story is set in a time period other than present day, there needs to be a strong reason for it. A book that spans twenty years would naturally start twenty years in the past, for example. A character journeying to Obama’s first inauguration would be living in 2009. But most of these manuscripts I’m reading do not have these strong reasons for placing the story in the past.

Writers, if you’re setting your story in 1994 so that your main character does not have access to email or a cell phone, consider stronger ways to tell your story and put it in the present day. If you want to write historical fiction, that great. 1992 isn’t really history unless you’re writing about the first Bush/Clinton presidential race. Plots that can’t work if people have cell phones or Facebook pages are no longer going to resonate with today’s readers. It’s 2015. Embrace all the goodies we have today, and figure out a way to make your story work with them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bad Medicine is What I Need: Author Caroline Fardig Makes her Writing Dreams Come True

I am delighted to welcome Caroline Fardig to my blog to mark the release of her third book, Bad Medicine! Caroline and I swapped emails a few weeks ago to talk about her journey from self-published writer to author with an agent and a book coming out with Random House …
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for you. The first Lizzie book came out in January 2013; the third is out this month and the first book in your Java Jive series will be released in November. What are your secrets for being so productive?
I work too much. Ask my husband. Writing is my full-time job, and when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my plotlines and typing emails to myself on my phone. I’m very focused, and when I get in a zone, I can pound out over 2000 words a day. Unfortunately, sometimes when I get in a zone, I forget to eat lunch.

What are some of the challenges in writing two series at the same time?
Keeping the voice separate in my head, and especially the tense. Lizzie is present tense and Juliet is past. And sometimes I’ll mix up minor characters between the two series.

What are some similarities and differences between your two heroines, Lizzie Hart and Juliet Langley?
Lizzie is much dingy-er than Juliet, and she overshares way too much. She has no filter. Juliet is more of a grown-up and has a much sharper tongue. They react differently to situations and definitely differently toward their men. As for similarities, they’re both smart, sassy, and fearless.

Lizzie lives in a small town, while Juliet’s story takes place in Nashville. What are the advantages and disadvantages for setting a story in two such different locales?
An advantage is appeal to readers. Some people like small town settings, and other people like a story in a larger city, especially one they’re familiar with, so my writing as a whole has a further reach. As for disadvantages, the hardest part for me with Juliet’s story is introducing new characters to her. She doesn’t know every person in town like Lizzie does, so she doesn’t have an established “history” with everyone.

Both series are funny murder mysteries. How do you maintain a consistent tone and manage to be funny and suspenseful at the same time?
I have to keep my head on straight and not get too personally involved in the story. When writing in first person and trying to convey the character’s emotions, you as the author end up reacting as well. And even though you can’t be insensitive about death, you also can’t get bogged down in mourning, and neither can your characters. There’s a fine line between comic relief and coming off callous.

What kind of research is involved in plotting ways for people to die?
A lot, actually. If someone looked at my web browser history, they’d probably arrest me on the spot. Even though the premise of my mysteries is a little far-fetched (when was the last time you saw an office worker or a barista out fighting crime?), I like for the rest of the story to be believable. I always try to make sure that my manner of death would indeed kill someone, not just maim them. I’ve also recently taken a forensics class at a local college, and I gained a wealth of information.

Your first Lizzie book was self-published, and did well enough to attract an agent’s attention. Java Jive is being published by Random House. Your story is certainly an indie author’s dream! Can you talk a little about the highs and lows of the process?
Some days it really does feel like a dream! The highs were definitely the call from my agent saying he wanted to take me on as a client, and then the email saying Random House was interested in me. The lows were of course all of those “no” responses to my query letters, as well as the passes from publishing houses on my Lizzie series. However, I have a great agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and I couldn’t ask for a better editor than Julia Maguire. She’s chronicled our progress on DEATH BEFORE DECAF in her blog.

You list an eclectic collection of jobs in your biography page. How has having such varied experiences helped and hindered you as a writer?
I think my unusual jobs have only helped me. In every profession, you deal with different types of people and experiences, and you have to handle them all differently. In insurance, I had to be both empathetic and skeptical when customers would submit claims. In the funeral business, the emotional side was difficult to deal with, and as a worker, you had to be able to bottle up your personal feelings in order to be clear-headed enough to help the families through their grief. As a teacher, I had to deal with teenage hormones and yet inspire my students enough to do their best. I had to be different “characters”, so to speak, in every profession. I think that helped me think differently and be able to write for different personality types.

Your writing has been compared to Janet Evanovich and Diane Mott Davidson. Are they two of your favorites? Who are some other authors you enjoy?
Janet Evanovich is definitely one of my favorites. I also enjoy Michael Connelly, Meg Cabot, Kristan Higgins, Wendy Roberts, Gemma Halliday, and the lovely Jami Deise! I’m still reeling from the big finish of THE TIES THAT BLEED.

Thanks so much, Caroline! And of course you can get TIES by clicking on this hyperlink!

Here’s more information about BAD MEDICINE, the third book in THE LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series.

What do a smokin’ hot detective, an evil chiropractor, and a couple of blind dates from hell have in common?
Lizzie has to wrangle them all in the third book of THE LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series!

Lizzie Hart is overjoyed that six whole months have passed without a single murder in the sleepy town of Liberty. It’s also been six months since Blake Morgan heartlessly dumped her, but she’s determined to get over him. She’s slimmed down, ready to party, and injury-free, except for a little nagging pain in her ankle. She’s also very single, but her friends are doing everything in their power to fix that—including setting her up on one disastrous blind date after another.

Lizzie’s reprieve is short-lived when an old friend of hers is found dead from an apparent drug overdose. She wants to write it off as bad behavior after having seen the guy cheating on his wife with the new chiropractor in town. However, when she sees that same chiropractor playing doctor with another man who ends up dead, she worries there could be murder afoot.

Doing her best to stay on the right side of the law this time, Lizzie decides to go straight to the police with her suspicions. Unfortunately, the only cop available to speak with her is the stern yet hot new detective who has already given her a traffic ticket and a reprimand for public intoxication. Not surprisingly, he brushes her off, leaving her no choice but to begin snooping on her own. Lizzie soon learns she’s going to need help to get to the bottom of this mystery, but her best partner in crime solving, Blake, has turned into her worst enemy.

Can Lizzie and Blake find a way to work together to catch the killer…or will they kill each other first?

BAD MEDICINE is up for grabs! Here’s the rafflecopter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Amazon link for Bad Medicine: (It's Amazon exclusive for now.)

About the Author:
CAROLINE FARDIG is the author of the LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series and the forthcoming DEATH BEFORE DECAF, available November 2015 through Random House. Her eclectic working career included occupations of schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.

How to find Caroline!
Mailing List:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Building a Mystery

I have a love/hate relationship with Agatha Christie. She was the first adult mystery writer I became hooked on, after going through the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series and the Trixie Belden series in elementary school (don’t even ask about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Do. Not. Ask.) After I overcame the outrage and disgust of Roger Ackroyd, I became a huge Miss Marple fan. Then I read all the Hercule Poirot books. Then everything else. Where does the hate come in? Miss Christie had this annoying habit – in most of her books, anyway – of keeping clues very close to the chest. Poirot or Miss Marple would come to investigate something, or Miss Marple was invited to an estate party out in the country (and I loved those estate parties. Except for everyone getting killed off, they sounded great!). People would start dying. Then at the end of the book, the detective would announce all the info she had gathered on the guests, and who was the murderer. This info was generally not shared with Dear Reader, meaning Dear Reader did not have the same opportunity to solve the mystery that the detective did.

Somewhere down the line, someone realized that readers want an equal shot at figuring out Who Dunnit, so this formula was changed. Readers took their spot over the detective’s (and this includes amateur as well as professional) shoulder and were privy to everything the detective learned. This turned the act of reading into a game… could the reader figure out Who Dunnit before the detective?

I must prefer this style of mystery than the former. However, with nearly forty years of mystery reading behind me, I am getting pretty tough to fool. Generally there’s a line that the writer tries to slip in casually (in a recent book, it was something about a man thinking a teenage girl was older) that sets off alarm bells for me, and most of the time, I’m right. I was right about the husband gaslighting the wife (He had a strong, clear motive that the writer tried to casually drop in.). I was right about the ex-boyfriend (He had no motive but I could figure out what happened in the back story). I was right about the missing girl’s father (He was the one with the eye for very young girls). I was right about the man pretending to be his cousin (He was an already established creep, and the writer took pains at keeping two characters apart until the big reveal).

I like being right, but at the same time, it worries me as a writer. If I can unravel these clues so easily, are the readers of my mystery going to be able to do the same thing? What is the balance between being fair to the reader and giving her enough information to solve the mystery, and going overboard and basically giving away the store? What's the secret to fooling the reader?

If you’re a mystery reader and can recommend books that left you stumped, please do so in the comments!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: First Draft Frenzy

Today is the day many readers and historians have been looking forward to for months: The publication of Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman. The hype has been so overwhelming that advanced sales have approached Harry Potter-like levels.

Watchman has been a controversial project since it was announced. Mockingbird was famously Lee’s only book, although the world waited anxiously for years for her to produce another. Now 89 and living in an assisted living home in Alabama, Lee was in the news for the first time in several years in 2013 when she sued her agent for duping her into signing over the copyright to Mockingbird. A year later, it was announced that Watchman had been found in a safe deposit box and would be published. Then controversy arose over whether Lee really wanted this book – which was not a true sequel to Mockingbird, but a first draft of the story – to be published. Some say she was feeble in her old age and had been duped; other reports said she was eager for publication and angry about the earlier reports that she did not want it published.

Although Watchman has been referred to as a sequel to Mockingbird because the characters are older, it is not a true sequel. It was the first draft of Mockingbird, and Lee spent years – with the help of a strong editor, Tay Hohoff , who was intrigued by the glimpses of Jean Louise’s childhood and told Lee to set her novel during that time period – revising the novel from Watchman to Mockingbird.

A few days before Watchman’s official publication, the New York Times broke embargo rules and published a story saying that Watchman featured an old, bitter, racist Atticus Finch, who attended KKK meetings and spoke in favor of segregation. America was stunned at the clay feet of this literary hero. Hearts were broken. Many tried to make sense of the change. Al Sharpton said, “Finch reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harbored some personal different feelings.” Others talked about how it’s not uncommon for people who are liberal in their youth to become more conservative as they grow older.

Everyone seems to be missing the point: THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT.

After Mockingbird, Atticus did not become a bitter, racist old man. There is no after Mockingbird. Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. Nothing in Watchman is canon. Mockingbird is canon. Watchman is a discarded first draft.

Assuming the stories are true about Lee being excited for the first draft’s publication, they’re not surprising. Most writers have a soft spot for the first finished draft of a novel. Who knows how many years she labored over it before turning it to Hohoff? But I am shocked at how publications, public figures and fans are reacting, with hearts broken over Atticus’ feet of clay. Over years, Lee rewrote and rewrote this manuscript to develop Atticus into the hero he became. And he is still that hero. Watchman is nothing more than an early glimpse at the very beginnings of that character. A curiosity, definitely, but nowhere near the final word on what this man became.

A sequel to Mockingbird can still be written in the minds of its fans, who might see Finch becoming an advisor to LBJ on civil rights laws as Jean Louis works as a young federal attorney in Washington D.C.
To sum, I quote the USA Today review, which refuses to give into the hysteria: If you think of Watchman as a young writer's laboratory, however, it provides valuable insight into the generous, complex mind of one of America's most important authors.

And for this reason, and this reason alone, I think Watchman deserved to be published. But not as a sequel to Mockingbird, but as an early draft – a lesson for writers to compare and contrast the early and later drafts of one of American’s literary masterpieces. So as a writer eager to learn, I will be reading it. But as a fan of Mockingbird, I won't consider its plot points or characterizations to have any lasting meaning.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Evaluating a Manuscript: The Four Elements that Matter the Most

I’ve been a reader for a literary agent for over two years now, and a reviewer at Chick Lit Central for more than three. During this period, I’ve probably read close to 500 books and manuscripts for evaluation. At the same time, I’ve sent out queries on three books, which makes me think there’s some kind of firewall in my brain that allows me to evaluate other people’s work and suggest solutions to problems but won’t let me do that for my own.

Every book and manuscript has problems. Some are very minor; some are major. Even books with problems get well reviewed and recommended. So what’s the difference between a book that a reader bumps up the ladder, even though it needs changes, and a book that gets passed on? For me, I’ve narrowed it down to four major areas. If there’s enough good stuff in the most important areas, the problems in the others may seem fixable.

Those areas are:

Concept. The most obvious make-or-break point is right here. No matter how well written your query or pages are, if the agent doesn’t care for the concept, she’ll pass on reading the book. As a reader, I don’t get to choose which books to read. I assume if the agent has requested the manuscript, she’s already decided the concept is a marketable one. Still, everyone who reads books has specific types of stories she has a sweet spot for. For some, it’s as precise as “single girl devoted to dogs.” I am personally drawn to stories about women and children of any age. I also love stories with a mystery from the past that is solved in the present. If your concept is marketable and hits the agent’s sweet spot, that’s a huge mark in your favor.

Plot. While concept is the general story idea, plot is how that idea is executed. When I evaluate plot, I look at the standard beginning-middle-end structure. Is the pacing appropriate for the genre? Are the twists surprising, yet come directly from the conflict? Is there conflict? Does the writer seem to know what she’s doing with the structure? Plot doesn’t have to be perfect if other important elements are there. If there’s a sense that the writer has a handle on plot, it’s not a death sentence if one or two specific plot twists don’t work. That’s a problem that can be fixed. What can’t be fixed? A writer that drops plot to focus on things like back story (flashback after flashback that shed no light on present day action) or other tangents. A manuscript like that will receive a pass.

Character. There’s a huge debate in literary circles about the importance of a protagonist’s likeability, especially when it comes to female protagonists. Yet mega bestsellers have featured unlikeable female protagonists, most recently The Girl on the Train. What gives? Books like Train and Gone Girl are high-concept (their plots can be described in one sentence) with strong, twisty, mystery plots. While character is still important, it’s not quite as important as the execution and resolution of the mystery. I don’t have to want to have lunch with the protagonist, but I do need to find him intriguing and to want him to achieve his goal or learn his lesson, whichever is appropriate. If the character is unlikeable, stereotypical, stupid, lazy, or unappealing for any other reason, then the concept and plot have to be A+ to overcome that. And the other characters who populate the book have to have something going for them, too. I recently read and passed on a book with multiple characters, almost all of whom were awful people for specific and different reasons. I loved the narrative voice and descriptions, but with characters so terrible, it was too much to overcome.

Voice. I cannot overstate how important narrative voice is to the success of a manuscript. Voice is one of those things that is seen as immutable. If it doesn’t work, there’s little the writer can do but keeping writing and hope the next manuscript is better. Voice is so personal -- not just for the writer, but it’s in the reader’s head, telling the story. It has to fit the genre, and, for first person and third person limited points-of-view, the main character. Voice shows the writer’s command of language. It encompasses dialogue, scene work, description, and narration. Occasionally, a writer’s voice is inappropriate for the age group; sometimes I run across an adult story written in a voice more suitable for YA or even MG. Because voice is the glue holding everything else together, it’s hard to imagine a story where plot and character work, but voice does not. A manuscript with an awkward voice is not going to progress.

That’s why it’s so important that writers keep writing. Concepts may be weak; plots may have holes, but a writer’s voice only gets better the more time she spends getting the words down.

There’s nothing more important than a strong concept and compelling narrative voice. While plot issues can be fixed and character faults rewritten, concept and voice are immutable. If your writing is getting passed on over and over again, look in these two areas for the reasons why.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Goodbye, Tony Geary

Last week, the media was ablaze with news about Tony Geary’s last day of taping at General Hospital. This week, it was announced that his last air date would be July 27th. I’m a well-known GH fan, so a lot of people posted these articles to my Facebook page, expecting that I’d be sad. I’m not. Truthfully, I think Tony should have left a long time ago. His character did a lot to destroy soaps as we knew them, and the daytime soap industry all together.

Ah, the golden age of soaps. It was the late 70s/early 80s; there were a ton of them on TV and they all featured wonderful stories. Just a few: As the World Turns and that dynamic Lisa Hughes. Another World’s Rachel. All My Children’s Erica, of course. One Life to Live had Viki and a few of her personalities. Remember Edge of Night’s Raven? What about Kate and Siobhan Ryan from Ryan’s Hope? The Young and the Restless had the Brooks sisters. Guiding Light featured the Bauer family and that crazy love story with Holly and Roger. And General Hospital was built around the women at the hospital, like Jessie Brewer, Dr. Lesley Webber and her wild daughter Laura, and Lesley’s romantic rival, Monica.

(A quick digression: Is it any surprise that girls hooked on these shows grew up to be women with trailblazing careers? Erica showed us you could be anything you wanted to be, even a model when you were five feet tall and from Pine Valley. Viki ran a newspaper. Kate Ryan was a reporter. And Lesley and Monica were doctors – Monica was a cardiac surgeon! I didn’t know until years after I’d started watching how unusual it was for a woman to specialize in heart surgery. About the sexism that kept them down. Yeah, Lesley accused Monica of going into that specialty so she could follow Rick around all day long, but there was never a hint that she wasn’t good enough because she was a woman.)

Soap operas were shows by women, about women, and for women.

And then came along Luke Spencer. Does anyone remember this scene? (sorry, it’s not the greatest copy and the sound track doesn’t match up with the video, but pay attention Luke’s dialogue!) Incredibly controversial, yes, but an amazing portrayal of a man obsessed with a woman he can’t have. So amazing that the audience rooted for Luke and Laura to be together, and producer Gloria Monty scrapped plans to kill off Luke and eventually had the couple run off together. It turned General Hospital from the number one daytime soap to a national phenomenon.

But, it was still a story soap viewers had seen and loved before. A wounded man – a smalltime hood – is changed by the love of a good woman. When Luke first left the show in 1983, he was the hero of the city. In fact, they elected him mayor.

And then Luke and Laura returned in 1995. And it was the biggest mistake General Hospital could have made. It’s the mistake that began the downfall of the entire industry.

As every soap fan knows, no soap couple can stay together. Either one of them leaves the show (which is what broke up Luke and Laura in early 1982, when Genie Francis left), or the writers need something for them to do. Soap couples exist to break up. Sometimes it’s through no fault of their own – amnesia, kidnapping, an evil vixen who drugs the man and forces him to impregnate her. But for Luke and Laura, their problems were intrinsic. The man who wanted nothing more than to be good enough for Laura Webber Baldwin was suddenly bored at their home life (like running a diner in Canada was so incredibly stimulating). And it turned out Laura had had a child with Stavros Cassadine when she was imprisoned on Cassadine Island, and never told Luke. But the worst was when Tony Geary casually told the soap press that Luke cheated on Laura with prostitutes. It was nothing personal, he assured us. But Luke had grown up in a brothel and he was comfortable around those women so naturally he had to sleep with them. And then Luke teamed up with Sonny Corinthos to break Frank Smith out of jail, and General Hospital went on a downward spiral that it never recovered from. Rather than a show about women, it became about men – dark, angry, criminal men. And it destroyed the biggest soap opera supercouple of all time because it didn’t know what to do with them.

As the years passed, Laura came and went, and Luke became darker and darker. Although I stopped watching the show a long time ago and don’t know all the details, I believe it recently changed one of the foundations of Luke’s back story. He had had a lousy childhood that got even worse when his mother died of a burst appendix, and his father took one look at her body, grabbed a beer bottle and left. That was changed into Luke killing at least one if not both of his parents. And maybe a split personality and other stuff. Meanwhile, Sonny and his boy wonder Jason became the dark princes of Port Charles, turning the show into a starring vehicle about mobsters and the women they abuse.

General Hospital evolved from being a show about women, by women and for women, to a show by men about men. Is it still for women? Judging from the ratings, which go up and down depending on the storylines featuring female characters, I’d say no. Although as one of only four soaps still on the air, GH has received ratings bumps when others have been canceled, rumors still swirl about its imminent demise.

And can the cancellation of other soaps be blamed on the darkness that has infected General Hospital? I don’t know. I stopped following them closely years ago. But One Life to Live became the Todd Manning story (Todd was best known for raping Marty), and All My Children featured a chilling storyline around the rape of its beloved heroine, Bianca. While neither of these shows glorified the criminals as General Hospital did, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that viewers just got tired of all the darkness.

An early 80s promo for ABC soaps once sang: “Love, love, hurray for love! Who was ever too blasé for love?” In those years, ABC knew that love was the backbone of its soaps, and that people tuned in for strong women and satisfying love stories. Where do they go now? Primetime. Yes, primetime couples face the same dangers as daytime couples do: namely, contracts that require the killing off of half of a rooting couple. (RIP, Will and Alicia; Derek and Meredith.) But these serialized shows have made a name for themselves (Shondaland, anyone?) by featuring strong working women, complicated love stories and tangled plot lines. They are soaps, only requiring a weekly commitment rather than a daily one. No wonder the daytime shows are down to their last few viewers.

So goodbye, Tony Geary. As much as I enjoyed Luke in the early 1980s, I am not sorry to see this character go. I wish his departure would bring back the halcyon days of love stories by, about, and for women, but I’m afraid those days in daytime are gone for good. In the meantime, what does everyone think about Meredith’s new love interest on Grey’s Anatomy?

Monday, June 22, 2015


I am incredibly proud and enormously relieved to announce that today, Evernight Publishing has released my urban fantasy novel THE TIES THAT BLEED. The Amazon link for the ebook is here: (the paperback will be out in a month or so.)

Diana Rowan has more kills than any other vampire assassin in the FBI. Except she hasn't staked a vamp in ten years. Now Diana's married to a doctor and mom to eight-year-old Katie. And while she's still with the Bureau, she spends her time in the classroom, teaching the next generation of vampire assassins how to track, stake, and decapitate bloodsuckers. Then Ian, the fang who nearly killed her, returns from the grave. To keep her family safe, Diana has to go on the hunt once more. With time running out, she is forced to turn to another vampire for help: Gerard, who created Ian. Who was once Diana's lover. And who’ll do anything to get her back.

Dear reader, I’ve been working on this project for thirteen years!

In 2002, before anyone had ever heard of Twilight, Buffy was all the rage, and I was also a fan of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, as well as the Geena Davis movie The Long Kiss Goodnight. I was writing screenplays at the time, and I found myself obsessed with the idea of a character – a mom with a dark past, someone who was at war with the darkness inside herself. The script that finally emerged from these elements was BLOODLINES, which took me about a year and a half to write and got me some attention. It was a semi-finalist at Austin and won a contest called Screamfest. I got plenty of reads from producers and managers, but while many people loved the script, everyone seemed to think the vampire craze was over.

And then Twilight hit, and the vampire craze really was over!

I put Bloodlines on a metaphorical shelf and wrote a few more horror scripts. Then a few years ago I turned to novels. After I wrote KEEPING SCORE, and while I was still trying to get an agent for it, I decided that I’d self-publish a novelized version of Bloodlines. I inputted my screenplay into Word and did the first draft of turning it into a novel.

It was 32,000 words, or about 120 pages. About half of what it needed to be to be considered novel-length. So while I was marketing KEEPING SCORE, which I eventually ended up self-publishing, I was also doing the painstaking work of making a story twice as long as it had been. I lengthened scenes, added characters and flashbacks, and explained things I’d only hinted at. (Of course the irony is I selfpubbed the book I wanted to publish traditionally, and I found a popular indie publisher for the book I was going to self-publish.)

What did that entail? Here’s the first scene from the screenplay. In the book, it’s the start of chapter two.

A full moon bathes DIANA ROWAN in white light. Diana's in
her mid-30s, with a strong, exotic beauty that can't be
placed. She drives the shovel into the earth again and again.

KATIE, 8, her face streaked with dirt and tears, sits on the
muddy ground next to Diana. She strokes the fur of a dead

Diana kneels next to Katie.

Why did Brownie have to die?

Diana hesitates. Gazes up at the moon like she sees things
no one else can.

Brownie lived a good life. It was
his time.

It wasn't my time! I want him back!

He can't come back. It's over.

Diana kisses the top of Katie's head.

When we're at church tomorrow, you
can ask God to take care of him.

She straightens up.

Why don't you go inside. Have Daddy
give you some ice cream.

Katie nods. She gives the dog a final hug, then hurries off.

Diana waits a moment. Then breaks the shovel handle in two.
Diana kneels next to the dog.

I know this isn't fair... and probably
not even necessary... but I can't
take any chances where my family is

She drives the jagged end of the wooden shovel handle into
the dog's chest.

And here’s the novelization:

My daughter is too young to have to learn about death.

Yet here we are. It’s nearly 8:30 on a Saturday night, and we are burying her dog in our backyard.
Her father should be doing this. He’s a doctor. He deals with life and death every day. But he’s at the hospital. As usual.
I bury the shovel into the hard earth. It’s October in Virginia, and we haven’t had a freeze yet, but the ground is solid and compact. Still, it’s not really an issue for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Katie stroke Brownie’s fur. Her tears fall on his muzzle.
I want to kill the person who made my daughter cry.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “He wasn’t old. He didn’t get hit by a car. Why did he have to die?”
I take a deep breath. One of these days, my daughter will realize that I always breathe deeply before I lie to her.
“He was sick, sweetie. He was sick, and we didn’t know it until it was too late.”
She looks at me, brown eyes full of accusations. You didn’t know, Mom. It’s your fault. But she doesn’t say it.
“Did Brownie go to heaven?”
The Catholic Church says that animals don’t have souls. But the Catholic Church lies to its followers as much as I lie to my family.
I nod. “At mass tomorrow, you can ask God to take care of him.”
My cell phone beeps with a text from Robert. He’s almost home.

“Daddy will be here any minute,” I tell Katie. “Why don’t you make some ice cream sundaes? You know Daddy loves eating ice cream with you.”
“I want to see it. I want to see you put Brownie in the ground.”
I drop the shovel and put both hands on my daughter’s shoulders. “No, you don’t.”
She glares at me again. Eight years old and more like a teenager every day. I wonder if she’ll be like I was as a teen. She’s already more stubborn and cynical than I was then. It will probably be worse.
Finally, she shakes me off and stomps into the house.
I wait until I know she’s in the kitchen. The kitchen is at the front of our house.
I break the shovel handle over my knee. It splinters, nice and sharp.
I was the one who found Brownie. At first I thought he was asleep. The back yard isn’t the most comfortable spot, but dogs can sleep anywhere. He looked so peaceful. But when I nudged him with my foot, his head fell back at a strange angle and his tongue lolled out.
Robert was supposed to let him in that night, but he’d forgotten. I wanted a necropsy, but my husband said no. He didn’t see the point. Said that Brownie must have been sick. Brushed off my concerns about a deliberate poisoning. Maybe he just felt guilty.
It could mean nothing. Or could it mean trouble. Trouble that could come in any form. I can’t afford to brush it aside.
I kneel next to Brownie. Even though I know he can’t hear me, it makes me feel better to whisper in his ear. “I know this isn’t fair… and probably not even necessary… but I can’t take any chances where my family is concerned.”
I drive the shovel’s jagged edge deep into my dog’s chest.
Nothing happens.
Whoever killed him didn’t do anything else. But the thought isn’t comforting.
I avoid the sight of Brownie’s ruined chest as I claw out the rest of the hole with the broken shovel. Training tells me at least six feet down, but I stop at three. Whatever else is down there, I don’t want to see it. It’s been a while, but I’ve seen enough.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you love the book. And who knows, if I sell enough copies, maybe I write a sequel!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Don’t Stay Tuned! Episodic Writing is Good for TV Shows but Not Your Novel

I’ve been a reader for a literary agency for over two years, and I go through about six manuscripts a month. I’m closing in on 150 reports, and sadly very few of them recommend the project. Most are passes; a small percentage advise sending the writer a “revise and resubmit” letter, and maybe five have been “offer representation.” (I write at least five pages describing the manuscript so that the agent I read for can draw her own conclusions.) “Revise and resubmit” usually means the story doesn’t work, but the writing was so good, I’d want to see another draft. I often give notes about specific changes the writer can make to tighten the story.

Sometimes the manuscript is so close and the fixes are so obvious and easy, I wish the writer somehow could have contacted me so I could have worked with her (it is usually a her) to make it as strong as possible before querying. (And I do offer affordable developmental editing services! Contact me for details!) Usually, though, there’s something fundamentally wrong with how the story is designed that the writer needs to do a complete page one rewrite for the book to succeed. And often that “something” is the writer’s failure to tell one complete, cohesive story. In other words, it’s episodic.

“Episodic” doesn’t sound bad, but it will doom the book. It violates the three act structure requirement and leaves readers wondering what the story is about. Readers end up muddling through, as the story lacks the tension and pacing that are created when a protagonist has a specific goal and is taking concrete steps to reach it. A pace that’s appropriate to the story and tension in scenes keep readers turning pages.
How do you know if the story you’re working on episodic? Usually after the first few chapters, the reader should have a general sense of the story’s ending. It’s either yes or no. Yes, Dorothy will get home to Kansas. No, Scarlet will not end up with Ashley.

It’s the difference between “A woman goes on a series of dates with inappropriate men” and “A woman goes on a series of dates with inappropriate men in order to find the perfect escort to her sister’s wedding.”

Sometimes in women’s fiction, the protagonist has a goal that isn’t necessarily specified or under her direct control. Examples of these types of stories would be a woman whose husband leaves her, or her daughter gets cancer, or her father develops Alzheimer’s. These novels do not suffer from episodic disease. Rather, the protagonist’s goal is to get life back to the way it used to be before the crisis, or to work out a new normal. The reader intrinsically understands this, even if the protagonist doesn’t spell out her wishes.

Having an episodic novel is usually the kiss of death when it comes to traditional publishing. If you’re not sure whether your book is episodic or not, post a few sentences about it in the comments and I’ll let you know what I think.

Monday, June 1, 2015

10 Truths for College Baseball Parents

Last October, I wrote a post about ten truths for travel baseball parents as a tie-in with my novel, KEEPING SCORE. (Available here through Amazon! ) KEEPING SCORE is about a mother of a 9-year-old boy playing travel baseball for the first summer, and she gets completely caught up in it. Near the end of the book, her son Sam meets a pitcher for the University of Virginia and begins dreaming of playing there one day himself. While most boys his age dream of playing in the major leagues, by the time they are serious players in high school, the dream is about college ball. Since the NCAA regionals were this past weekend, leading to the Super Regionals this upcoming weekend and then the College World Series, I thought now would be a good time to impart some of the lessons my family and I have learned during our son’s experience showcasing, being recruited, and playing college ball.

High school baseball isn’t the deciding factor for playing college baseball. Of course it matters to your son, and your community, and your family. Playing high school baseball, being with the same cohort of kids for four years, is one of the most worthwhile experiences a teenager can have. For most players, their baseball dreams end here, so it’s the pinnacle of their childhood. But for players good enough to play at the next level, their high school records and experiences don’t count. College coaches rarely come to high school games anymore. Rather, it’s all about the summer showcase team. Thanks to Perfect Game, college coaches expect to see their prospects in July in Atlanta, Georgia rather than in their hometowns in the spring. This makes sense – the coaches have their own teams to worry about in the spring. Prospects need to get on the best, most well-organized showcase team, attend those tournaments every summer they’re in high school, and make sure the coaches they want to see them know their schedule.

Verbal commitments don’t mean anything. Even though players can’t officially commit until November of their senior year, the trend has been going for verbal commitments at younger and younger ages. For parents, it can feel like a merry-go-round, especially when your son’s teammates have all committed and your son hasn’t yet. But this verbal commitment is worth the paper it’s printed on. The school can rescind its offer at any time. Your son could change his mind, true, but it’s more likely that a player who commits his sophomore year and then has a bad junior could find himself without a school.

Schools have an unlimited number of walk-ons. With (fully funded D1 programs) 27 scholarships and 35 players, only eight players should be walk-ons. (A walk on is a player who does not receive any scholarship money. The NCAA requires that scholarships be at least 25% of tuition, along with books. Since D1 baseball only offers 11.7 scholarships per team, most kids receive a fraction of a full scholarship. Walk-ons can be recruited just as hard as scholarship players, or show up at an open try-out.) But since coaches can allow any number of kids to walk on, some schools have over 40 players showing up in the fall hoping to make the team. Do they let the other walk-ons know about this competition? Of course not. In the spring, teams are only allowed to carry 35 players. Everyone else will be redshirted or cut.

Coaches can switch schools and immediately begin coaching. Players cannot switch D1 schools and immediately begin playing. The NCAA, which exists to protect its member universities and not its student-athletes, has a rule that says a player who wants to switch D1 to D1 has to sit out a year, even if that player has been redshirted by his school and will not be playing. In other words, if Ray is a recruited walk on at D1 Texas State University and receives a redshirt (which means he won’t be playing at all, but won’t lose a year of athletic eligibility), he can’t transfer next year to D1 Texas State College and play. The NCAA will make him sit out a year, which would mean two years on the bench for Ray. If Ray wants to play next year, he’ll have to find a D2 or D3 school, or attend a junior college and graduate from it before playing D1 again.

No one cares what you did in high school. You may have been All-Met, All-State, Gatorade Player of the Year, drafted in the 15th round. No one cares. The clock starts all over again when you step foot on campus. And you’re competing with kids who were just as successful in high school as you were. When you were recruited, coaches may have made promises about being a starting shortstop or the first guy out of the bullpen. Those promises mean nothing.

No one cares how you did it in high school. It’s not unheard of for a college coach to try to completely change a player’s hitting stance, pitching mechanics, pitch selection, or even to ask a position player to play a completely different position or even try pitching. Starting pitchers become relievers or closers. It’s the coach’s team, and what he says goes.

Winning is everything. Coaches aren’t there to be nice or play fair. There’s no guarantee of playing time for anyone. There’s no guarantee that your scholarship will be there next year, or even your roster spot. The coach was hired to win and his job is on the line if he doesn’t. If you can’t help him win, don’t whine that you’re on the bench.

Kids do not go to junior college because they aren’t good enough to play at a four-year school. Rather, they go because they didn’t like the four-year-old school they chose when they were a sophomore in high school and then hated their freshman year, and are now at junior college because they wanted to play rather than sit out a year. Or their grades weren’t good enough to go directly to the four-year school they planned to attend. These kids are good players and shouldn’t be underestimated, which leads to this next point:

College freshman compete with junior college transfers without knowing about them. Perfect Game doesn’t track these commitments, and many of them happen late. So Ray and his parents might have been happy that Texas State had graduated its shortstop and Ray was the only freshman shortstop listed, but they didn’t know Texas State had three shortstops lined up from various Texas community colleges. And that also leads to this point:

If you’re not committed by November your senior year, it’s not too late. If you’re willing to take a chance, many D1 schools with very strong programs find themselves shorthanded in June, when more juniors than they had expected get drafted and leave, while at the same time more of their high school commits do the same thing. That means scholarship money unexpectedly opens up. There are kids who commit to big programs only weeks before stepping on campus all the time.

That was 10, but here’s an additional point that is true at every level:

It is better to get a lot of playing time on a mediocre team than to sit on the bench of a championship team. Bragging rights do not trump time on the field.

Best of luck to you and your son as you continue along his baseball journey! Please read my book, KEEPING SCORE, available as a paperback, on Kindle, or as an audiobook!

Here’s the blurb:
When her 9-year-old son wanted to play summer travel baseball, Shannon had no idea the toughest competition was off the field….

When her son Sam asks to try out for a travel baseball team, divorced mom Shannon Stevens thinks it’ll be a fun and active way to spend the summer. Boy, is she wrong! From the very first practice, Shannon and Sam get sucked into a mad world of rigged try-outs, professional coaches, and personal hitting instructors. But it’s the crazy, competitive parents who really make Shannon’s life miserable. Their sons are all the second coming of Babe Ruth, and Sam isn’t fit to fetch their foul balls. Even worse, Shannon’s best friend Jennifer catches the baseball fever. She schemes behind the scenes to get her son Matthew on the town’s best baseball team, the Saints. As for Sam? Sorry, there’s no room for him! Sam winds up on the worst team in town, and every week they find new and humiliating ways to lose to the Saints.

And the action off the field is just as hot. Shannon finds herself falling for the Saints’ coach, Kevin. But how can she date a man who didn’t think her son was good enough for his team … especially when the whole baseball world is gossiping about them? Even Shannon’s ex-husband David gets pulled into the mess when a randy baseball mom goes after him. As Sam works to make friends, win games and become a better baseball player, Shannon struggles not to become one of those crazy baseball parents herself. In this world, it’s not about whether you win, lose, or how you play the game… it’s all about KEEPING SCORE.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing as Forbidden Fruit

I started writing my first novel a long time ago, before I had my son and when I had a (somewhat) demanding fulltime job. I’d write during my lunch hour. And I’d spend the morning thinking about my book. And sometimes my lunch hour would last … longer than an hour. I’d write with my door open, not wanting anyone to think I was doing anything other than writing press releases, constantly looking over my shoulder as the words flowed from my fingers.

I wasn’t supposed to be writing, and yet I couldn’t stop. (It’s a good thing it wasn’t an internet porn habit!)

Oh, those were the days! Nowadays the only boss I’m accountable to is myself, and my to-do list is filled with chapters to write, outlines to plan, ideas to transcribe, and pages to edit. I have the time, the ideas, and there’s no one lurking in the hallway trying to figure out what I’m working on.

And writing my daily pages is like pulling teeth. I’m constantly rewarding myself for putting down a single paragraph by flipping over to Facebook, catching up on email, or sneaking a peek at the latest 99 cent novel I just downloaded to my Kindle.

Because those activities are now my forbidden fruit. I’m supposed to do the writing. I’m not supposed to be sneaking off to check Facebook. And yet, that’s what I’m doing.

And I know I’m not alone. When something is forbidden, it becomes irresistible. That’s why dieters are urged to keep their favorite foods in their diet somehow; while parents know it only makes things worse to tell their teenager they can’t date someone.

Even the term “forbidden fruit” comes from the very first time this happened – when Eve ate the apple from the tree God specifically told her not to eat from. (Although these days “forbidden cookie” might be a more appropriate term.)

For myself and other writers who spend way too much time not writing, I’m wondering if there’s any way to turn the daily writing into forbidden fruit.

So my writer friends: I am absolutely forbidding you from getting any writing done! You must go to the gym, pay the bills and do the laundry. No writing! THE GYM AWAITS.

I’ll check back in a week and you can tell me if that helps.