Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why I Love Romance & Writing Happy Endings: Guest Joanne Troppello

While I focus mainly on the craft of writing, I occasionally talk about my publishing journey or invite guest authors to share their experiences. My hope is that this will inspire readers in their own journeys, whether you find a kindred spirit or get inspired by something new. Today’s guest, romantic suspense author Joanne Troppello, shares why she likes happy endings. I like happy endings too – that’s why I write children’s books and romantic suspense, where good wins out and is rewarded. I like books that leave the reader feeling happy.

Here’s Joanne:

The willing suspension of disbelief was first utilized by the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Basically, if a writer can impart a human element and an aspect of truth into the story, the reader will be drawn in and willingly suspend their disbelief and fully engage in the far-fetched tale. 

Isn’t that why we read fiction novels and short stories and go to see movies? We want to be entertained and forget about our lives for the moment and transport to another world. In that process of being transported to another world, I tend to enjoy happy endings for the characters involved. My husband, on the other hand, always teases me that sad endings are fine too because that’s real life. Then I usually come back with I have enough issues in real life and that’s why I want to escape into happy endings. Due to my affinity for happy endings and all things romantic, when I decided to write novels, I naturally fell into the romance genre. However, I also enjoy a good mystery, so romantic suspense really feels like home to me. 

Writing romance novels gives me a chance to focus in on the hero and heroine and not get bogged down by having to deal with a whole bunch of characters. However, someday I may decide to write that epic dramatic tale with multiple plotlines and several main characters—but not today or at least not in the near future. Right now, I’m in love with love stories.

Who doesn’t enjoy creating dashing heroes and fair maidens in distress? Okay, so maybe that’s too much of a stretch, but I like the dynamic of creating well-developed characters that fall in love. I want to tell their story. I am a true romantic at heart. I guess that’s why I’m a sucker for a great romantic drama or comedy. True, the formula is always the same in those movies as well as novels—but I revel in the fact that as an author, I can use that time honored formula and make it my own. Using creative ways, I can dream up exciting plots with twists and turn, all the while sharing a true love story with readers who feel the same way—they love happy endings.

True, real life isn’t always a bed of roses and I don’t want to create a fantasy world. Weaving real life elements into the story is the cement that holds everything together. I want to show that true love is true when it can weather the storms of life and come out stronger. It grows through trials and tribulations and with a decision to stick together through good times and bad times, love will always win out.

As a reader, I want to read a book which portrays this perspective that there is such a thing as true love. It embraces romance, but like a diamond—has many facets. True love is able to endure the daily pressures just like it welcomes romance and roses into the relationship. True love knows the difference between both sides to the relationship, but can’t co-exist without the other. A fire starts with a spark, then bursts into full flame and if not tended to, will die out. That’s where fanning the flame comes into play—I want to know that the hero and heroine, not necessarily live happily ever after, but live together in true unconditional love in the real world.

Are you a kindred spirit—do you love romance and happy endings?      

Joanne Troppello is an author of romantic suspense novels.  She has published three books: Shadowed RemembrancesMr. Shipley’s Governess and Bella Lucia. Currently, she is working on her new writing project, The Paradise Redeemed Series. Joanne is married and loves spending time with her husband and family. She enjoys interacting with readers at The Mustard Seed Blog.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Handling Writer's Block: Trouble Moving Forward

Last week I talked about how to overcome some of the challenges of getting started on a new project. Now let's look at what to do if you're bogged down in the middle and can't figure out where to go from here.

Let’s say you’ve written your first paragraph, or page, or scene. Perhaps you’ve even gotten pretty far in the story. But then you get stuck. For me, this usually means I don’t know what happens next. I may know where the story is going in the long term, but I’m not sure about the next piece.

If this happens, you can go back to your pre-writing exercises about plot or goals (see last week's post). But here’s another trick that might work faster.
 The Next Five Minutes

What will your character do in the next five minutes? That’s right, just five minutes. It’s easy enough to figure out that. Of course, sometimes the character doesn’t do anything interesting in the next five minutes. Keep looking ahead. What happens after that? And after that?

Here’s an example from my novel, The Well of Sacrifice. The heroine, a Mayan girl named Eveningstar, has been captured by the evil priest and sentenced to death by sacrifice. What does she do? Well, she’ll try to escape, of course. But how? There’s not much she can do during the day, with guards and other people all around. I’ll skip ahead.

Now it’s night time. Does she quietly go to sleep? Of course not! She’ll be thrown into the well of sacrifice in the morning, so she’s too anxious to sleep. She’ll sit up, listening to the guards outside her door. She’ll wait for her opportunity. 

What opportunity? Hmm.... What if one of the guards leaves for a few minutes, perhaps to go to the bathroom. With only one guard outside, she has a chance. She’ll look around for a weapon....

And my character is off and running, on the next part of her adventure.

Checking with the Enemy

You can also try looking at the action from another point of view—that of the villain. If you have a human antagonist, what is that person doing to foil your hero? Whether it’s an a bully at school, an evil sorcerer, or parents who “only want the best” for their child, keep them active in the story, causing trouble.

I used this technique for my middle grade historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, when the main characters were trying to find a missing friend. What would they do next? I couldn’t figure out anything exciting enough. Then I checked in with my villain. Was he just sitting around waiting for the heroes to act? No! He had plans of his own, plans to set a trap... and then I knew what would happen next.

Whether you're struggling to meet a deadline or just working at your own pace, chances are you will get stuck sometimes. 

Maybe these tips will help you move forward. Happy writing!

Do you have a way of handling writer's block? Please share in the comments!

Next week I’ll talk about when and how to take a break in your writing.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Write Now!: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Over the last two weeks, I discussed goal setting. But sometimes, even if you know what you want to do, it’s hard to get started. This post addresses the challenges of writer’s block and diving into that intimidating first chapter or paragraph.

How do you feel when you see a blank piece of paper—or a blank computer screen? Sometimes it’s the excitement of potential, a clean slate, ready for the ideas to flow, for a wondrous work to emerge. But sometimes that blank seems to go on and on—as if it can never hold anything but emptiness. How does one start?

That feeling can come partway through a manuscript as well. It’s like walking to the edge of a cliff, and being unable to take the next step. You’re stuck, and there’s nothing to do but walk away—perhaps to the sofa, to spend time with a good book. A book that is already written, by someone else.

Most writers faces writer’s block at times. Even successful and prolific writers struggle with writer’s block. They have just figured out how to get past it more quickly. 

In my experience, you can break writer’s block into two basic types: trouble getting started, and trouble moving forward. For each, a few simple tricks can help you get past the block, so the words flow again. This week we’ll look at ….
Trouble Getting Started

Starting a new piece can feel like a big commitment. I find this most true of longer work, like novels. Do I really want to spend the next year on this project?

I’ve written several work-for-hire books, where I’m writing for a publisher’s pre-existing series (such as Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker and Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier, written under the name M.M. Eboch). Often I have to write a sample chapter to apply for this work. That’s easy enough—it’s just one chapter. I don’t have to write the rest of the book until much later, once a contract comes through. At that point, it’s easy enough to keep going. After all, I already have the first chapter!

You can try a trick like this yourself. Don’t think about sitting down to write a whole story or book. Just plan to write the first page, or even the first paragraph. Forget about the rest, and just work on those opening lines. 

In fact, how about writing several first paragraphs? You’re not trying to write The Perfect Beginning. You’re just getting different options on paper, so you can choose the best one later. No single paragraph is important, because you’re going to throw most of them out anyway. That gives you permission to play.

This helps get past the fear of The Wrong Start. Sometimes it’s hard to begin, because you’re afraid of what will happen. Will a bad start sabotage the whole piece? What if you put all your energy into this story, and it’s terrible?

Give yourself permission to write something awful. After all, it’s just the first draft. You’re going to do a lot of editing anyway. At worst, you can throw out the whole thing. Even if you toss the story, you’ll have made progress. You can start over, with a better idea of what you want to say (or at least what you want to avoid). And any writing—even bad writing—is a kind of practice. It gets you into the habit of sitting down and putting the words on paper. That’s the first step in becoming a writer.

Find advice on great starts in Advanced Plotting
Start before the Beginning 

If you’re still having trouble getting started, you may not know enough about your story. Perhaps you’re not sure of your plot, or don’t know your characters well, or aren’t confident about your message. In this case, try pre-writing. With pre-writing, you’re not even trying to write the story or article. You’re just writing about it. That helps prepare you to write the actual story.

Some authors like to interview their characters. They ask questions and write down the answers in the character’s voice. You can ask your character about her family, friends, school/work and other activities. Ask about her past and her future. Be specific, with question such as these:

•    Who is your favorite person at school or work? Who do you dislike, and why? Who do you envy, or admire?
•    Do you see yourself getting married and having children someday? At what age? How many kids?

You can come up with dozens of questions on every aspect of life. But one warning—do not use this information in the story! Readers don’t want a biography of a fictional character. They want a story with conflict and action. Pre-writing is just an exercise to help you learn more about your character. You might use a few small details from your character biography, if they fit naturally into the story, but most of the exercise is just background information. Your character will seem more real because you know everything about her life, even though you’re only showing your readers a small slice of it.

The Story before the Story

You can pre-write about the plot as well. Write a summary of what’s going to happen. Once again, don’t think of this as part of the final story. Think of it as an outline so you know where you’re going. Once you know what’s going to happen, you can start writing the story in vivid scenes full of action and dialogue.

If you can’t decide where you want the story to go, try interviewing yourself. Ask questions that will help you identify your goals in writing the story.

•    Who is my audience?
•    What do I want them to get from my story? Why?
•    What is my theme or message?
•    How can my plot best bring out that theme?

Don't worry if you struggle with some of these questions. You may not know the final answers until you're in the process of revision. Once again, your goal now is to learn more about the story, so you’ll feel confident writing it. With each of these writing exercises, it’s best to do them, review them, and then put them aside. You may want to refer to your plot questions once in awhile, so you don’t forget anything, but if you keep looking at your character biography, you’ll be tempted to put in all those details, and your story will bog down in backstory.

Do you have any tips to share? What has worked for you? Where do you get stuck?

Next week I’ll discuss Trouble Moving Forward.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reviews: Is Four Stars the New Five Stars?

I’m glad that my books have received a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon. But I’m starting to wonder if four-star reviews might actually be better.

How is this possible? Given what I’ve heard on some listserves, people are starting to be suspicious of five-star reviews. The idea is that if a potential buyer sees a lot of five-star reviews, they’ll just assume those reviews are by the author’s family and friends and therefore biased. And sometimes that’s true.

Apparently it’s also possible to buy five-star reviews for as little as $5 from people who’ve never read your book. It’s questionable how well those work, though, if they don’t contain any real content. Personally, I think I can judge whether a review is biased or not based on the content of the review, though that does take time. In general if I’m browsing for new books on Amazon, I’ll look for those that have at least 15 reviews so that any fake or biased reviews are somewhat outweighed by unbiased ones.

Sure, those could all be friends and family reviews – but speaking as an author, it’s really hard to get people to review your books, even family and friends, even assuming your family and friends have actually read your books (often not the case). There’s just that overhead of going to Amazon, signing into your account, getting to the review page... and then coming up with something to say. People are intimidated by this. Even other writers are intimidated by this.

When someone I know tells me they liked one of my books, I try to politely say, “Reviews are always appreciated, of course!” I emphasize that I do not expect a five-star review or a in-depth analysis. An honest review is preferred. You can briefly mention something you liked – and it’s fine to also mention something that didn’t work for you. After all, reviews work best when they let the reader know whether or not they would really like the book. “This is the greatest book ever!” doesn’t really help, as that’s a matter of opinion that obviously won’t be true for every reader. But commenting that the book had too much sex/violence/raunchy humor/cute animals for your taste, or not enough, helps a potential reader make her own decision based on her own tastes.

I’ve heard of authors getting horribly upset over three-star reviews. In my opinion, three stars isn’t bad at all, especially if the review mentions some positives and negatives. That helps me make my own decision. If the reviewer mentions a lot of typos, I know that would bother me, so I’ll skip the book. But some people don’t care, so they may buy the book if the story sounds interesting.

And again, all opinions on literary quality are personal. We don’t all like the same thing. If someone gives a book 3 stars because “I was hoping for more of a mystery but the romantic elements were stronger,” that’s a great review in terms of letting the reader know what to expect.

When I’m browsing new authors, I’ll particularly look at the bad reviews. They won’t necessarily keep me from trying the book, but I want to know what bothered other people. Than I can make my own decision.

Knowing how valuable reviews are to authors, I’m trying to do more on both Amazon and Good Reads. (And it is hard to find the time.) I won’t trash a book, but I will give a review as low as three stars, trying to point out what worked and didn’t for me. (If I’d give a book lower than three stars, I probably quit after the first chapter or two so I won’t review it.)

What do you think? Are we seeing star inflation in the same way some schools complain about grade inflation? Is there a backlash against five stars? Do you even read reviews, and if so, how do they influence your buying decisions? If you review books, are you afraid to give a bad review?

The truth behind the reviews? Rattledhas 19 Amazon reviews, many of them from people I don't know, averaging over four stars. Whispers in the Darkwhich I consider to be a stronger book, has seven reviews, six of them five-star reviews from people I know.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Networking Works

You hear a lot these days about platform building. Also social networking. And the big question is how.

I haven’t figured out the answers for online social networking, but I have found that in-person networking works. I thought I’d share a few stories to show how it can happen.

For a ghostwriting project, I met a Simon & Schuster editor at a conference, and then visited her when I was in New York. She gave me a tour of the office and mentioned some of the series work they were doing, including one series that used ghostwriters and their Childhood of Famous Americans (COFA) series. Over lunch, I asked how they found writers for that. She gestured across the table and said, "Like this."

I followed up and she put me in touch with the proper editors. For the ghostwriting project, I pitched five ideas, they chose one they liked, and I wrote up an outline and sample chapter. They accepted it but said it would be a year before we went to contract, because they were booked up. I checked back in a year and they'd forgotten all about me, but I resent the material and got the contract. I learned a lot from working with those two editors (one left partway through), and it was fun and good money for the amount of time. It didn't turn into additional work, though. I guess they have a stable of four or five regular authors for that series. One hadn't been working out, so they tried a few of us as replacements, and I didn't get the regular job.

For the  COFA, they said my writing sample wasn't suitable, so I asked to do a sample chapter specifically for them. They assigned me George Washington Carver and loved the sample, but again, there was a year wait. Then marketing killed the Carver book. They asked if I wanted to do Jesse Owens or Elvis, and I wound up doing Jesse Owens. After I turned it in, they asked if I could do Milton Hershey, with a very tight deadline – I'm guessing somebody dropped out or didn't do a good job. Interesting aside, Hershey is my best-selling book, according to the sales data now available to authors through Amazon's Author Central (this is the bookstore sales data publishers use, not just Amazon sales).

I did two science picture books for Picture Window Books through a book packager, Bender Richardson White. I met the packager at an SCBWI event and followed up with resume and writing samples.

For my Haunted series, I sent the first manuscript and series proposal to an editor I knew through SCBWI conferences. I’d chatted with him at several conferences over the course of about five years and we’d always had a nice rapport, so I imagine seeing my name got the manuscript to the top of his stack. He called me in less than a month!

So does that mean it’s impossible to get jobs unless you meet the right people? No. The first work-for-hire job I got, for the book Modern Nations of the World: Turkey, came based on a resume and writing sample. (At that point, I had one novel published and maybe a couple of articles, so it wasn’t a stellar resume either). It was a couple of years before they contacted me. I had moved and my address had changed, but fortunately my e-mail was the same. I did three books with that publisher.

Most recently, I did three ESL picture books for a company out of Korea. That came about through a tip on a listserv. I followed up with a resume and writing samples and got the first job within a couple of weeks.

So the long answer is, networking can help your career. But so can strong writing and standard submissions, even if you don’t have connections.

How about you? Do you struggle with making connections? Have you had any good or bad experiences?