I am updating my early romances and contemporary women’s fiction novels with the intention of re-releasing them. I am excited because these books were my training ground. In these pages I can hear the first tentative sounds of my distinct ‘author’s voice’. I see that I instinctively had a good grasp of what makes a story work (don’t all voracious readers have that instinct?). There is one more thing I see in these books that is hard to embrace: my major author ‘dork’. I have no other word for my early writing stumbles. Some of them were mistakes of publishing fashion and others were born from an untrained sense of drama.
Since hindsight is a wonderful thing, I thought I’d share my top three ‘author dork’ mistakes.
1) Hysterical dialogue: This is not an industry term so don’t use it with an editor. Sill, I think it perfectly describes my use of long sentences, harsh words, and huge banks of exclamation points to get across a character’s anger, distress, fear and passion.
Solution: In my later work, I learned that proper scene set-up, thoughtful exposition, and spare and realistic dialogue give me a lot more dramatic punch.
2) Fad over fashion: Within the first few pages of Seasons (a book I really love) my heroine appears in Laura Ashley dress. If you’re old enough to know who Laura Ashley is, you’re cringing at the image. If you’re not old enough to know then I have made you stumble as you try to figure it out. I have no doubt I will also run across references to big shoulder pads and power suits.
Solution: I now describe clothing generally – jeans, slacks, blazer, leather jacket – to allow the reader to fill in the detail blanks. I use color to underscore character. I never use a designer name or a fad because this dates a book. The only exception is when I need the fad to assist in a plot point. For instance, a label in a corpse’s clothing might call out a specific designer.
3) Overwriting: When I first started writing there seemed to be an accepted rule of thumb that a chapter was twenty pages, that women’s fiction and romance were not worthy unless the author lingered over love scenes and dialogue was drawn out. If there is purpose to long stretches of prose or dialogue then go for it, but if during the edit the author can’t remember what happened in the last three pages of a book then the reader won’t remember either.
Solution: Tell the story. Do not write to word length. Either the story is solid and will move along at a good clip or it won’t, either it will be 100,000 words or it won’t. The readers won’t stick with you.
The good news is that I am happy with these early books and will not fundamentally change them. I will, however, make them better by applying what I know now to what I wrote then. If only we could do the same thing with our high school yearbook pictures the world would be perfect!
Don’t forget to check out my latest release, Secret Relations, book 3 in the Finn O’Brien Thriller Series.
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Yesterday my husband and I decided to inaugurate the MoviePass cards our son gave us for Christmas. With one swipe (and $10 a month) we can see as many movies as we like at any theater.
Our first movie would be The Post at our local theater. It took both of us, and the manager, to figure out how to make the card work (which in hindsight should not have been necessary if we understood our phone settings). Finally, we swiped our cards only to find that The Post was sold out. That pushed us to our default selection: any movie that was not sold out. We ended up in a nearly empty theater watching Jumanji, the 20-year-later sequel to Robin William’s wonderful movie by the same name.
Jumanji is a fanciful action-adventure movie about a game that sucks people into an alternate universe and in order to get home, the player must win the game. In William’s version, he was the only one who disappeared. This version has an ensemble cast that includes The Rock, Jack Black and two other actors we weren’t familiar with but who were perfectly cast.
The movie began, the music was ominous, the set up delightful, the locations beautiful and the direction energetic. The kids in the theater reacted with oohs, aahs, and other exclamations of delight.
Oh, wait! That was me oohing and aahing!
Yep, I loved every bit of that movie and when I got home I realized the reason I loved it was because I lost myself in the storytelling. Everyone from the screenwriter to the lighting guy and cast was on board with the creative vision. The premise was quickly and clearly established. Casting was based on character and not on what looks that the producers deemed ‘sexy and salable’. The computer-generated stunts did not overpower the story nor did they last so long that the viewer could literally leave, have dinner and come back and they would still be crashing about on screen. If something fantastic happened – like characters dying and getting shot into space and suddenly falling back to earth again without injury – the viewer accepted it because it quickly became apparent that each piece of this story had a purpose. There was always a payoff that made sense. Threads were wrapped up at the end. The story built to a conclusion and didn’t present it. But better than anything, the actors never broke character. The adult actors were asked to channel their teenage counterparts in the real world that had been left behind. I have seen this transference in movies before but too often the adult actor simply remains an adult. The last time I saw this plot point beautifully executed was in Tom Hanks’s Big.
So, here’s what I want you to do. Before you write another word, before you start editing, go see Jumanji. It is one of the best lessons in pitch-perfect storytelling I’ve had in a very long time. As for me, I’m going back to work and give my manuscript the Jumanji treatment because the devilish details are what make for a heavenly story.
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Anyone who knows me knows that I love an adventure. Being asked to speak aboard a ship was definitely on my bucket list, so I jumped at the chance when I was asked to be an onboard lecturer. I prepared five talks that I thought were rather compelling: Peek Behind the Covers, a Look at Publishing, The Caribbean Influence on Popular Literature and Movies, The Five People You Should Meet in the Caribbean, How to Travel like an Author and Everyone has a Story: What’s Yours?.
Since I had sailed on this ship as a passenger, I knew the people coming to listen to me were well traveled, curious, intelligent and fun. On my speaking days, they gathered to hear me in the big theatre to watch my PowerPoint presentations and see me slide hither and yon on the dance floor when the sea got rough. At the end of each of my presentations, I asked if there were questions. There weren’t – at least not questions for public consumption. Instead, many in the audience came to speak to me privately. They wanted to talk about their own writing ambitions. There was a surgeon who wanted to write a children’s book, a woman in her nineties whose own children were asking that she write a memoir. There was a man who had written a business book a decade ago but he had always wanted to write a novel. And there was a composer who, as he listened to me, thought to combine lyrics and a story to create a unique novel.
After listening to every person who spoke to me after my lecture, or caught me on deck, or sat with me in the dining room it finally dawned on me what they were after. They wanted my permission to follow their dreams.
[tweetshare tweet=”@Rebecca_Forster: You have my permission . . .follow your dreams.” username=”A_SliceofOrange”]
Strangely, when it comes to fiction or memoir, many of us believe that our words are not as valuable as the next persons. We convince ourselves that writing with honesty and passion will somehow diminish us in the eyes of the world – or at least those we care about. We offer our writing up with caveats like ‘it is silly’, ‘you probably won’t like it’, and ‘promise not to laugh’.
I heard these things in the voices of the people on that ship, but when we were done talking I heard something else. I heard confidence. I heard the excitement. I heard their brains turning as they planned their books. By taking that first step – admitting they harbored dreams of authorship to someone who was already there – they had given themselves permission to write. When we all parted, I knew exactly where they were going. They were going home to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. They had taken more than a cruise, they had taken a journey and I have no doubt that by the end of that journey they will have written their book.
Give yourself permission to do whatever it is you dream of doing. If your dream is to write a book, do it with honesty and passion – and don’t forget to share it with the rest of us.
“This is a story about Monty Hall, the velvet-voiced, handsome host of Let’s Make a Deal. He passed away recently and it broke my heart because Monty Hall and I had a history.
I was a little depressed after I had my first baby and longing to get back to ‘the real world’ when I saw an ad: be a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal. Contestants were supposed to dress up as something funny but there was nothing funny about a postpartum mommy body so I went for the sympathy angle. I cut up a crib mobile made of fabric hearts, sewed the hearts onto a white hat and made a sign that said: HAVE A HEART, LET’S MAKE A DEAL. The neighbor watched the baby and I drove to Hollywood where two hundred people were lined up against a chain-linked fence outside the studio. They were dressed like alligators, killer clowns and French maids. I joined the fray just as a young producer trolled the line, pointing at people.
“You. You. You. That’s it for today. Come back another time.”
OMG! He didn’t pick me. There I was literally wearing my heart – okay, not on my sleeve – but all over me. I threw myself at him. I grabbed his sleeve. I begged.
“I NEEEEDDDDDD TO GET IN THAT STUDIO! I JUST HAD A BABY.”
He let me in.
Once inside, the producers advised us to make eye contact with Monty Hall. Check. No matter where he went my eyes bored into him. He itched, he freaked, he couldn’t figure out where the laser points of focus were coming from and he kept looking for the source. Then he saw me the crazy, desperate lady in the white hat with dancing hearts on it. I think he chose me just to make me stop glaring at him. I got all the way to the big deal and lost, but that was fine. My consolation prize was a two-week trip to the Bahamas and a thousand dollars. I went home happy. Monty Hall probably went home and had nightmares for weeks.
Fast-forward 32 years. Monty Hall is sitting behind my family and me in the theater. He is a little stooped, silver-haired, but still handsome. When my family goes to stretch their legs, I introduce myself and tell him the story that has become a legend in our family. He is gracious. He chats with me until the house lights dim. Before we take our seats, he asks:
“How old is the baby now?” As if on cue, my thirty-two-year-old son walked down the aisle. They shook hands. The house lights went down. We all watched the end of the play. I gave my son’s hand a squeeze. Life was good.
As if on cue, my thirty-year-old son walks down the aisle. They shake hands. The house lights go down. We watch the end of the play. I give my son’s hand a squeeze. Monty Hall walks out of the theater ahead of us and I never see him again.
The moral of the story is this: choose a door, any door but choose. What is behind that door will be exciting or surprising, charming or even challenging, but you will be better for turning the knob.
Monty Hall was behind two of my life’s doors. He made me feel lucky once and honored the second time. TY Monte Hall. I know that the door that opened for you not so long ago will be the biggest deal of all and you deserve that heavenly prize.
P.S. That is not me in the picture.
The other day I came home to find the men I hired to build my patio sitting in my backyard looking at a stump. This was not a normal stump. This was a giant. Paul Bunyan, Big John kind of stump. I sat down with them and I, too, considered the stump.
“George had to get his chain saw for that sucker,” one of them finally said.
“Took two hours to get it out,” another offered.
“I think it broke George’s saw,” the first chimed in.
“Why didn’t you leave it in the ground,” I asked. “You know, pour the cement around it?”
“We thought about it,” the third said. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
They told me that they had managed to cut it up into the piece we were looking at but that it had been twice as big and buried deep in the ground; a remnant of a primordial tree. Their task had been Herculean. They told me that if they poured the cement over the stump, the darn thing could rot and my steps would fall in, and I would be upset with them because they had poured cement over a stump the size of San Francisco.
“It looks petrified,” I said. “How many years do you think it would take to rot?”
The first guy shrugged, “Twenty. Thirty years.”
I shrugged back. I would probably be dead by the time the stump rotted and my stairs fell in. I guess it was the principal of the thing. They would have known the stump was there.
We sat in the hot sun a while longer. Someone suggested carving the stump into the likeness of the contractor. I liked that idea but no one knew how to carve. I thought we could make it into a table. Eventually, we all stopped looking at the stump. The men moved it out of the way and started work again; I went inside to make dinner.
That stump has now been in my backyard for months. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. But, like all things that are hard to get rid of, it eventually served a purpose. It taught me a few lessons:
1) Everybody has a stump. It might be in your real backyard, your professional backyard or your personal backyard, but it is undoubtedly there.
2) What you do with your stump will tell you a lot about yourself. Either you will dig it up and deal with it, or you will leave it to rot.
3) If you’re stumped and need help there is always someone willing to work hard with you to take care of it as long as you work as hard as they do.
4) You can never go through a stump but don’t panic. You can go around them, over them and sometimes even under them but that takes the longest.
5) Sometimes stumps are not as big as they look and sometimes they are bigger. Size doesn’t matter. Stumped is stumped.
6) Removing a stump but choosing to keep it as a reminder of what stood in your way is a good thing. When you look at it, you will always know that when it came to you against the stump, you won.
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