Sunday, February 28, 2016

Contest Caution

It's that time of year again. Contests abound for romance writers.

So far this year (and remember, it's only February), I've judged the RITA entries I was assigned to, judged the entries in my local chapter's contest for unpublished authors, and am waiting for the entries in the Hearts Through History contest for unpublished authors.

Why do I so willingly give of my time to judge contests? The answer is very simple. The feedback I got from contests helped me become a published author, and I want to return the favor. Besides, with the RITA entries, you have no choice. If you enter a book into that contest, you must read some entries. It's a huge contest, with 2,000 entries, all needing five judges each. Imagine the logistics nightmare the RWA staff has each January.

Contests are not the only place where you can get feedback. Any number of workshops are offered each week, geared to improving some aspect or the other of your work. Feedback from these workshops can also be invaluable. With my most recent historical, currently still a WIP, someone caught the fact I was leaving the cow in the pasture overnight. Obviously the woman had more farming knowledge than I did, since she flagged it for my attention. A quick check with my 80-year-old uncle verified the woman's claim. Something as precious as a cow would have been brought in from the pasture each night and put in the barn, away from predators. My entire story had to change, but without that input, I'd have been laughed out of every farming community in the country.

But I have to throw out a note of caution in both instances. Chances are the person reading your work doesn't write in your particular genre, and if that's the case, their remarks should not be considered gospel. Their overall impression of your work–fine–but individual remarks? Not so much. I recently had a case where the work I was judging was set in ancient Scotland. I know nothing about the era, other than what I see on the Outlander series, so some of the words tripped me up. I had to put in my notes to the author that I was unschooled in her particular genre, so she should only consider my overall impression of her work. And then, someone who was remarking on my work–a historical set in 1860s America–referred to a medical condition that has only been diagnosed in the past twenty years. Again, I fact-checked my work and found that, in this case, anyway, I was correct.

The moral of this story is this–your work needs to be viewed by someone other than your family and friends, in order to get constructive criticism, and contests and workshops are a very good way to accomplish this. But not everyone who offers feedback is competent to do so.

A grain of salt needs to be added in each time a person gets a contest entry back with comments. But you should enter your work, and get back comments. It will only improve your writing.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Author Shorthand

I'm one of a whole herd of writers who write a very loose and sloppy first draft, then spend months going back over it, smoothing it out, filling in the blanks, adding scenes that were skipped over in our haste to put an ending on the manuscript. One of the things that gets done during this style of writing is we use placeholders, a type of author shorthand, for various emotions. If you're an author, you know what I mean. It's a roll of the eyes, chewing on the lip, running one's hand over someone. We know there are better ways of expressing disdain, nervousness or endearment, and we'll get to it during the second, third or fourth draft of the project.

There's nothing wrong with this approach to writing, as long as, during the editing stage, you do, in fact, take the time to remove the shorthand, and in its place, add in a unique turn of phrase to convey what you mean.

My crutch seems to be running one's hand down, over, into another person. And I never realized it until I was going through my latest round of edits from my publisher. My first editor didn't flag my constant use of the crutch, but the second one pointed out each and every one. And boy, there were a ton! This is romance, so some touching is to be expected. But, I overused. I relied on the running of hands to convey they sense of touch, when there are so many other ways to get the point across, if I'd only taken the time.

Needless to say, I did take the time in this round of edits to eliminate my author shorthand, and to insert other ways to get my point across. Now I have one more thing to add to my author checklist–don't overuse running of the hands. Once or twice in a story is fine, but beyond that, it should be avoided.

How about you? What author shorthand do you have, if any? Are you aware of it when you're using it? At what point do you go back and fill in the shorthand with what you really meant to say?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Pacing Myself

As most of you know, I'm working on my new historical romance, tentatively titled Dance With Destiny. I finished a flash first draft back in December, before my hospital stay. Then, I went through my checklist and labored over each scene, searching for those dreaded passive words and making certain I got enough description in each setting.

Now it's time for the third draft. The one where I turn to the story line itself, rather than focusing on the writing. I ask myself if the pace is too fast or too slow, what needs to be added or removed in order for the story to flow better. In this story, the pace was too fast at the end of the book, and was resolved too quickly. I'm sure you've all read books like that–where the author seemingly got tired of the story line and wanted to slap on an ending and get it done. Well, I did want to get it done quickly, since I was going into the hospital.

But I now have time to straighten things out. I need to add several more chapters to the book, building to an appropriate finish. An ending my readers will enjoy and will feel like they didn't just waste their time. I'm at the point in the third draft where I need to take the time to add in these chapters and make them seem as if they weren't an afterthought. I want to make my heroine scream her frustration as I amp up the conflict yet again. I want the tears, the angst, the torment, to be real and pulsating. Will she ever get to her happy ending? Can there be a happy ending? When I'm done, I want the reader to be as emotionally drained as my heroine, Susannah. So I'm pacing myself, both physically and mentally, for the big finish. And if I have to grab a hankie to finish reading the story, I will consider it a work well done.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Dreaded Second Draft

Those of you who follow along with this blog know that I recently finished the flash first draft of my new historical. Now the fun begins. Or the misery, depending on your point of view. I start over, from the beginning, and read each scene. I have my check list to make certain I include all the senses along the way. Taste is the tricky one for me. It doesn't need to be in every scene, or even every chapter, but it does need to appear at some point.

Then, there's my check list of words. I have my list of passive words, to be avoided at all costs. Then I move on to my list of favorite words, that I tend to overuse. I don't need to eliminate all of them, just cut them by 2/3.

While I'm combing through my scenes, I like to think big picture, too. Am I rushing the story? Do I need to add in scenes? In this particular book, I do need to add a few scenes in the front part of the book, to show how the hero is cementing his relationship with the children as well as the heroine. I often will work on a jigsaw puzzle when I get to this stage of the editing process. There's a great similarity between working on a jigsaw puzzle and finding ways to slip in new scenes into a story line. Here's a picture of my latest puzzle, which took many weeks to complete.

I like big, intricate puzzles, since they remind me of my stories. This puzzle in particular is loaded up with so many little things that you can't possibly see them all unless you're working with each piece. For instance, in this one, I noticed, just as I was about done, that one of the bottles on the shelf had his spindly little arms and hands wrapped around the neck of the bottle next to him. It made me smile. A little hidden nugget, the kind I like to blend into my story lines.

The puzzle is done, and I'm nearly at the end of the second draft. Still a long ways to go, with those pesky scenes that need to be written and inserted into the story line without upsetting the flow. Drafts three and four are yet to come before I can say I'm content with it. But at least I'm moving forward with what I think is a really good story. I'll be sure to let you know if an agent or editor thinks the same. 

In the meantime, here's a picture of Mary in her new bed, which was a belated Christmas present. She had to wait until I could drive again in order to get it, but I think she'll agree that it was worth waiting for. Kind of like getting an offer from an agent or editor.