Keeping the Love Alive

Valentine’s found my husband and I sitting on the couch in the throws of the stomach flu. My husband was sipping 7-Up. I was still puking about every half hour. The whole room smelled. It wasn’t too bad, though. In between my pukes, we watched The Nice Guys, a movie with Ryan Gosling and some guy who wasn’t Ryan Gosling–I forget.

At one point my husband looked over and said, “This is nice. We haven’t watched a movie together in a while.” He was right. For once, the kids were actually in bed (it took the stomach flu to incapacitate all three at once) and neither of us had a laptop out. The whole thing struck me funny, especially because I write romance. My actual life is mostly about puke.

In a book, romance can never leave the initial passionate phase of the relationship, at least if you want  people to buy the thing. The author has to constantly think of ways to keep the romantic tension alive. It’s much harder than being in a real relationship where you can just give up. Romantic tension mostly arises by keeping characters apart through obstacles of one kind or another. The minute the author lets the characters settle into a happily ever after–poof!–the tension is gone and the story is over. Characters can’t relax until the bitter end.

In the case of a series or a television show, the author or screenwriters have to keep romantic tension alive for years, an almost impossible feat–ask anyone who’s been married for more than two years. Basically, they have to artificially suspend the relationship in a phase that might last a couple of months in real life, if you’re lucky. I have yet another sick kid, so I’m not going to go on too long today. Instead, I’m going to list some romances that never quit (mostly because they never really get started). I haven’t had coffee yet, so I’m definitely going to miss a few!

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  • I can’t even remember how many books are in the Stephanie Plum series, funny because numbers are in the names, but there are a lot. Janet Evanovich kept Stephanie’s romance fresh throughout.
  • Charlaine Harris is a master. Sookie Stackhouse and her “should I pick the vampire or the werewolf?” dilemma puts Twilight to shame.
  • Kate already mentioned Lowcountry Boil, but that is a good one.
  • When I was a kid, I remember watching Moonlighting. My mom was in love with that show. Pretty sure it qualifies.
  • More recently, Castle did an amazing job of keeping the tension alive.

Hope you all are all staying healthy! Anything to add to the list?

 

 

 

 

A Month of New Beginnings

Beginnings seemed like such an easy jumping-off point for a blog post. I was all like, “I’ll whip that right up” and then … nothing. It’s like someone stole my brain this month. Because my brain is unaccounted for, I’m going to make a list of all my new beginnings this month. Maybe I’ll arrive at a higher truth from examining my January calendar.

The ladder the hedgehog is climbing is probably the only higher truth I’ll find. You’ll probably notice that my calendar has no entries. I just found it today, January 22nd. It was lost under some mail. Somehow, I made it until now with notes to myself on paper scraps.

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Here are my beginnings, in no order of importance. Who knows what’s going to be important in the end anyway?

1. On Friday, we inaugurated a new president. On Saturday, I marched along with hundreds of thousands of others around the world. That’s a crash-bang beginning, if I’ve ever seen one.

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2. My biz partner, Cristina, and I are still in the first year of our new editorial services business, which I love. In January, we read more manuscripts than I ever could have imagined, which is exciting.

3. I started going to the gym again for the first time since my baby was born. He’s almost three, so it’s about time. The YMCA has two hours of free daycare every day. I will be abusing these services to complete the YA mystery I started last fall or edit. Of interest to mystery fans, I attend the same gym as William Kent Krueger. (I should put that in my bio!) We also write at the same coffee shops. Today, I took my kids out for ice cream after school and there he was. He didn’t even look up from Cork O’Connor (I assume) while they squabbled. And no, I’m not stalking him. We just do all of the same things apparently. I mean, that’s what all writers do–find space to write and then try to make up for all those of hours of sitting with twenty minutes on an elliptical machine. Incidentally, I’m listening to Season 2 of Serial on the elliptical. Every time I listen to an episode, I think I should add more complications and nuance to my plots. Plot complications that grow organically from character are so satisfying–so much harder to resolve, though, as season 1 of Serial proved.

4. I started a new revision of my own manuscript. I hope to be done with this draft in a month. (I said that last month, too, but I’m on track this time, hopefully.)

5. Unfortunately, 2-4 have pretty much killed my reading time. My TBR pile is the same as it was in October. I bought all the books I want to read for my family as Christmas presents. My dad has a copy of Joe Ide’s I.Q. I hope to steal over spring break or some lazy weekend this summer.

Blog posts are supposed to be about 500 words, so I’ll stop cataloguing my beginnings here. No higher truths yet, but there you have it. How is January shaping up for you writing and reading-wise?

Atmosphere So Pungent It Smells

 

Mostly, I’m a nice person, a good citizen and all of that. At least, I try to be. I’m the kind of person who will patiently walk out to the compost bin at 10 p.m. in the dead of winter to compost all of that salad I never manage to eat. Yesterday, though, I went into a Pet Shop and bought a cat. In the liberal bubble in which I live, I might as well admit to second degree homicide or a serious drug addiction. Or both. I know I should have adopted a cat, but whatever. I bought a cat. I’m going to own it.

The Pet Shop, called simply Pet Shop, is right across from Barnes & Noble, which I use as an office a few times a week. I often bring my daughter when I write. We pet cats after. Yada yada yada. Now we have a cat.

The mall that contains the Pet Shop is a building of airport hangar proportions with an empty spot in its soul where TJ Maxx used to be. Except during the holidays or William Kent Krueger signings, it’s mostly empty. The Pet Shop itself is a nasty little hole of a place filled with people of every color, religion, and walk of life, drawn together by their love of fluffy white dogs. When I think about it that way, it’s sort of beautiful, almost sounds like a church.

Mary already talked about the difference between atmosphere and setting this month, but this Pet Shop isn’t just a generic pet shop. Its atmosphere is so strong you can smell it. It clings to your clothes when you leave and makes you wonder about who you really are as a person—Will I abandon my values to pet a fluffy dog? For me, the answer seems to be yes. Anyway, this leads me to my point. (Thank God I thought of one!) A book’s atmosphere has to match its story. Obvious, but that’s all I’ve got today.

Every time I walk into the Pet Shop, I imagine so many stories, mostly crime. There are probably few YA romances in there, too.

  • The posters advertising pet loans are almost a story by themselves. Most of the people in that shop are one French bulldog away from bankruptcy, me included. Add in a pet store owner/loan shark, a divorce, a murder, and you’ve got a gritty crime novel infused with the scent of unwashed dog.
  • What if the owner bribed a USDA inspector to ignore the decomposing hedgehog in the small animal section? That has Carl Hiassen written all over it, which reminds me—I need to read Razor Girl.

At any rate, I don’t think people would steer clear of the puppies if they had to stand over a chalk outline. I’m not sure if I added anything to our monthly discussion about atmosphere, but there you have it. Here’s a picture of the new kitten.

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Anyone have book recommends for the Thanksgiving holiday?

Life and Writing, According to Plan

Normally, I write at my kitchen table. Not today, though. I am currently sitting in a smoking minivan outside an O’Reilly Auto Parts in Finlayson, Minnesota. We made an unscheduled stop after a bad smell and the aforementioned smoke. According to the menfolk, the van is leaking radiator fluid. Instead of offering my opinion about the car, I’m thinking about writing. Writing … road trip gone wrong … basically the same thing, right?  Anyone who’s written a book knows that the plot often starts leaking radiator fluid about one hundred pages in.

While there is always a tension between planning ahead and unplanned car trouble, some types of books probably require a firmer hand on the wheel. For example, a work of grand deception. When I say grand deception, I’m thinking of one of those books that leaves you gobsmacked at the end because the reality the author immersed you in turns out to be false. You aren’t just surprised about the killer, but the entire world the author created. When this works, the resolution is shocking. There is probably a German word to describe this experience. In the movie world, think The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. Gone Girl is a the most recent grand deception that rocked the literary world. God, I’m sick of talking about Gone Girl, but there it is again. It was a pretty good deception. The Westing Game also comes to mind, but it’s been so long since I’ve read it, I might be misremembering. I need to reread that one.

Car update: So the men have emerged from O’Reilly with a bottle of Stop Leak liquid aluminum, but decided not to use it after reading the directions. It would take too long, I guess. All seven of us are now on the road again—did I mention four kids are in the car? Also, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. So many things could go wrong. We’re definitely in Act II, the part where the chaos accelerates.

Unlike my real life, an author hoping to pull off a grand deception has to be in control of things. To create a false reality, while hiding the true reality in plain sight, everything has to be working in concert: plot, narration, character development, theme, and clever clues. If the deception isn’t built into the book on every level, it won’t work.

I don’t know if a detailed outline is required, but I imagine an author has to have a strong vision at the outset. Without an overarching vision, I imagine the thing would turn into a herky jerky mess, broken down on the side of I-35 southbound. Incidentally, I’m not there yet, at least literally. We are forty-five minutes from our final destination, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the van hasn’t produced any more smoke. As for my current writing project, I’m only seventy-five pages in. Plenty of time to break down still.

Can you think of any novels of the type I’m describing? Maybe there is a name for this sub-genre… Grand deception sounds a little stilted. The cool kids probably call it something else. If there’s a name, enlighten me.

Fall Reading List

I’ve started working on a YA mystery. To be honest, I’m still flirting with this manuscript. We’re not official or anything, although last week we did go parking; a.k.a., I wrote in a parking lot outside of the kids’ school. All in all, I’ve written ten pages that I’ll probably end up erasing in the long run, but I’m continuing with the dalliance for at least another week. Because I haven’t read a lot of YA mystery or paranormal, I decided to study up. So far, this is what I’ve read recently/plan to read soon:

A Madness so Discreet by Mindi McGinnis. This one has been on my TBR forever. I mean, it has the prettiest cover in the whole world and I loved Not a Drop to Drink, also by McGinnis. Oh, and it was only $1.99 a week ago, which meant I didn’t have wait for a library request because, let me tell you, authors don’t make quite as much as my husband once imagined. Great characters, delicious dark tone, creeptastic setting, and it won an Edgar. I noticed with some interest that the reviewers on Goodreads didn’t seem as bowled over as me or the people who hand out Edgars. I gave it five stars. Well, to be honest, I give most books five stars. I mean, what if I go to a conference and end up in a bar with a bunch of authors to whom I’ve coldly handed out two star reviews? I’ve never been to a conference, so it’s basically an “If Train X is traveling at 20 mph east and Train Y is traveling at 40 mph west” type problem, but it could happen. One day I could be one of those trains! I hope. Regardless, Mindi McGinnis deserved five stars. It’s a great book.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro. This one features Sherlock Holmes as a teenage girl—very clever, I thought. As I was falling asleep last night I started thinking of Sherlockian characters I’ve enjoyed. Gregory House from House came to mind. TV medical drama character or not, he was definitely a Sherlock.

Dead and Breakfast by fellow mysterista, Kimberly Giarratano! This one is next up on my list. Ghosts, Florida, and teenagers—I’m looking forward to it.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. I decided to reread this one for fun. I mean, why not? She has a bunch of other series I should probably also read.

The Amateurs by Sara Shepard. Pretty Little Liars might as well have come in pill form as far as I was concerned (should I be embarrassed to admit that?), so this book, also by Shepard, should go down easy.

For inspiration, I might read a few classics. I haven’t read The Tell Tale Heart since high school—and what is it?—twenty pages long. It’d be a crime not to read it. And, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has been sitting on my nightstand for two years. It’s close to Halloween (my daughter reminded me of this with a 6 a.m. wake-up call to find her witch’s cauldron candy bucket yesterday), so I might as well read some Jackson.

Any YA mysteries I should add to my list and what’s on your list? I mean, Kate Lansing asked the same question a week ago, but perhaps your answers have changed. Just think of everything that happened last week. Hillary fell down. Trump announced his testosterone levels on Dr. Oz. I practiced the violin with my seven-year-old five times. It’s basically been a year.

Mind Altering Books

In college, I student taught a freshman seminar about imagination. I remember reading one batch of papers. The assignment had asked the students to write an imaginative story. Almost every student wrote about a superhero.

Although it made me wonder, I don’t think that meant they were unimaginative people, but it certainly meant something. The common experiences of that group (probably TV and video games) created pathways and triggers in their minds. It was like they had all uploaded the same imagination software package designed by Marvel. When you fed them that assignment, it bounced through the circuits in their brains and spit out “superhero.” It’s probably also why there were four Lilas in my daughter, Lila’s, pre-school class.

I think that’s why the power of a child’s imagination is compelling. At a young age, a child has almost no context to describe their experiences and very little language to do so. Marvel hasn’t gotten to them yet. At the same time, their experience of the world is just as vibrant. Many times, they are experiencing things for the first time: snow, puddle jumping, big dogs, you name it–to them it’s magical and new.

Oftentimes when my kids, who are still little, describe something, it takes me a minute to figure out what they’re talking about because they don’t use the preloaded language adults use. For instance: “I want the orange juice without feathers” means pulp-free. “The alarm clock in my toe is going off” means Daphne’s foot fell asleep. “Fanny lost her nose” means there’s an avocado pit in the compost that looks just like the dog’s nose. It’s the kind of honest, cliche free communication that writers strive for.

I don’t think adults are less creative, but our creative pathways tend to harden, especially if we don’t force ourselves to think out of the box. We turn into computers. If you insert the term “imagination,” the computer spits out “superhero.” If you insert “unconventional thinking,” it translates, “out of the box.”

When I had my first baby, I went through a creative renaissance. It was partially born of necessity–I wanted some new things and didn’t have extra money, but it wasn’t just that. I knew that each of us viewed the world from a unique perspective, but I always thought bigger, as in how my status as a middle class white chick influenced my views of socio-political issues. Spending time with a toddler, showed me that my perspective affected how I thought of everything, even something as simple as a glass of orange juice. My baby made the world new for me again.

The beauty of art often lies in perspective. As writers, we tell the same story over and over again, but everyone tells it slightly differently. Oftentimes, I think really successful writers (or doctors, painters, whoever), use a shift in perspective to reveal something true that can’t be seen without exploiting a new angle. I’m sort of kicking myself for saying this because now I have to think of an example… I’m going to say: Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn did a great job of playing with perspective in that book. It didn’t betray an injustice or anything, but it was mind altering.

Can you think of books that do this?

Surviving a First Draft

As a writer, the spark of inspiration comes and goes. In its infancy, an idea is all potential, unmarred by doubt, criticism, or even logic. Untitled (the usual name for an idea) always seems like a potential best-seller.

Very few ideas make it from infancy to adulthood, though. Some of them shouldn’t. I have at least twenty bad ideas a day, minimum, and my kids more. Then, there are the good ideas that don’t make it. It’s hard to keep the spark of inspiration alive long enough to see a book through. Everyone has a different strategy. I try to draft quickly before the spark dies and I realize my idea really stinks. I seldom share my work in early stages. Sharing work in small chunks makes sense in some ways, but to me, protecting the spark is more important than filling plot holes early on.

It’s tempting to send a manuscript out too early. If you like what you wrote, there’s the “Look what I did!” feeling. Conversely, if you don’t like what you wrote, you might hope someone else can help fix it. But let’s face it, in its teen years, a manuscript has bad skin, awkward social skills, and definitely doesn’t listen. An honest critique partner, usually points this out. As the author, I know it’s probably a mess, but I can still see all the potential it has. For me, it’s best to just make a coffee and huddle over my keyboard enjoying the spark of inspiration while it lasts. When it finally burns out, I hand my flaming heap of a manuscript over to a few lucky individuals.

I’m sort of massacring this month’s theme: sparkle. I meant to go from spark to sparkle, but I don’t think I’m going to get there. Just close your eyes and imagine glitter for a moment. Moving on…

I currently have three manuscripts in different states of development. It’s been a rough go of it with these ones. I’ve been writing my butt off to meet deadlines in stolen moments every day. Feedback on my drafts has been mostly of the spark-extinguishing variety: “I hate your main character” or “I don’t think you know how to write a romance novel” (They caught me on that one. I don’t know how to write a romance novel, but who was I to say no to a contract!?)

After bad comments, it takes me a lot of chocolate, a few glasses of wine, and some Netflix binging to fan the spark of inspiration back to life. Writing through to the end after being clobbered can be painful. It requires a lot of fortitude and self-discipline. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, especially with three actual kids, no babysitter, and faltering confidence (inevitable). Those moments pass, though. I’m optimistic that the books will turn out okay. If writing a book is anything like real parenting, I might look like I’ve been through hell, but the kids always look perfect. Hopefully, the same principle holds true in book writing.