Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rule#2: Make it Matter

While I'm on the subject of rules, which I am, I figure I should mention one of the most important ones. It has nothing to do with font size, paper quality, margins, or number of lines to be skipped before beginning a new chapter (if only I knew that one, I'd save my editing team a little trouble!). This rule is a little more difficult to define and a lot more difficult to execute. If you're a natural story teller you'll find it easier than if you're a naturally gifted writer who struggles with the story. Either way, rule number two can cause head-banging, hair-pulling, teeth-gritting frustration as we work toward making our manuscripts shine.

What's the rule (as if I didn't already give it away in the title)?

Make it matter. Every scene, every chapter, every well-chosen word should be leading toward the climax and to the conclusion. We have 300+ pages to build a story that compels our readers to keep turning pages, that allows them to both know and fall in love with our characters, and that gives them a satisfying ending that will bring them back to us for more. Those pages can either be filled with insight that helps further the plot, or fraught with pages of unnecessary information that leads to nothing but confusion and slows the pace of the story.

Believe me when I say, I know from whence I speak. This is my biggest problem. I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer. Sure, I sell on proposal now. I've got a nice synopsis all ready to use. But the fact is, I write by instinct rather than design and often find my first drafts rife with useless scenes, overwhelming details, and characters that appear once and never again.

The solution to this problem is easy (you're going to love this, Sabrina). Once your manuscript is complete, go back and read it like it's someone else's work. I like to do this from a hardcopy rather than computer. Ask yourself - Does this (scene, chapter) build the story? Does it tell the reader something they need to know to understand my characters better? Does it provide information vital to the furthering of the plot? Does it tie naturally with everything else that's happened, providing the reader with a bridge from one piece of information to another? Every time you answer no, cut the scene. If needed, reroute the chapter to head toward the conclusion the reader needs to draw. Leave hints of what is to come and clues as to characterization, weaving with master skill the pattern of your story.

My freelance editor can tell you how much my stories change from first to second draft. By cutting useless information and scenes, I create a tightly packed story that works well for the genre I write. Yes, I do major rewriting on second draft, but all that cutting and angst is worth it when I reread and realize I've accomplished my goal, creating a cohesive story that flows in natural progression from beginning to end.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Rule #1 Begin at the Beginning

I'm a mentor. As unbelievable as that might sound, it's true. ACFW asked for published authors to volunteer. I volunteered. Good thing the only qualification is publication. I'm not so sure I've got any other ones! Now I'm working with three very talented pre-pubbed authors. There isn't one that's not a better writer than I was when I wrote my first manuscript. I have high hopes that all three will soon step into the publishing world and transform from mentored to mentor.

But that isn't why I'm posting. Two of the ladies sent me their Genesis contest entries, and both were quite good. While very different in tone, voice, color, they shared one thing in common, prompting me to send the same comment to both of them - make sure you begin at the beginning (well, I didn't say it like that, but it's what I meant ).

So, how do you know where your story begins? Ask yourselves these
questions - what is the catalyst that propels the characters into action?
Whether the story is romance, mystery, suspense, chick-lit, what is it that
gets the ball rolling? Does the first scene bring your reader into the story
immediately? Does it give subtle information about your protagonist's
motivation and goal? Is it vital? Compelling? Does it drive the story
forward, or only set a stage that you plan to fill at a later time?

Just as in any business, first impressions are important. Beginning your story at the right spot will create the perfect backdrop for a compelling read.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


A friend and I recently discussed agent and editor appointments for the ACFW conference in Dallas. She's pre-published and anxious to make the best impression she can. That means finding a good fit - an agent or editor who is interested in manuscripts similar to what she has to offer.

As many people gear up to attend conferences this summer, one question seems to pop up over and over again - do I need an agent?

The answer to this is complicated by many factors and dependent on the opinion of the person answering. There are some hard and fast rules. If your book only fits publishing houses that don't take unagented submissions, then you most definitely need an agent. Sending your manuscript in regardless of what the publishing house requests will paint you in a bad light. If you're targeting Love Inspired, or any of the other many Harlequin series lines, you most definitely do not need an agent. If you're trying for Mira, you do.

Besides those things, I can only give you my own experience as an example of the good, the bad, and the ugly about having or not having an agent.

When I sold my first two books, I did not have an agent. The process was relatively easy, the contract for Steeple Hill's trade line, standard. As a new author, I had no desire to negotiate terms. They wanted to buy my stuff. I wanted to sell it. Simple. Fast forward a year. I've completed the two contracted books and am working on a proposal for a third. I've been asked to write for a new romantic suspense line which both excites and worries me. My editor tells me what a great opportunity launching a new line is and I agree. But what if I can't do it? What if writing shorter books turns out to be a challenge I can't meet (believe me when I tell you it is hard to write everything I want to say in 60K words)? What if I fail and Harlequin decides they don't want me?

The way I saw it, I'd be in a world of hurt. The Christian market is limited, and many of the publishing houses only look at agented material even from published authors. I didn't want to have several years between my first sale and my next, so I decided to be proactive and look for an agent in case there came a time when I'd need one. For me, finding one was more difficult than finding a publisher. I was rejected a total of two times before I sold STILL WATERS. I was rejected five times before I found an agent. Sadly, four of those rejections were from the same agent, regarding the same manuscript. He must have really hated my stuff.

While I was waiting for replies on my agent queries, Harlequin bought my proposed book, offering me a two book contract. I was ecstatic, and again wondering if I needed an agent. Just a few weeks later I received an email from an agent I'd given up on. He was interested in my work and wanted to know if I was still looking for representation. After a long phone conversation, I decided to sign with him.

Did I need him in that moment? No. I'd proven that I could sell myself and my product. At the time, I considered him my back-up plan. If something went wrong, he'd be there to help me out. When I submitted my next proposal, it went through my agent. He read it, passed it back to me with a request for revisions. I sent it back to him. A few months later, he called to say Harlquin wanted to offer me a three-book contract. That was an increase over the two-book contracts I'd been getting myself. Furthermore, I was being paid a higher advance. Was it my agents doing? Or a product of my history with Harlequin?

While my family argues that I would have gotten the same without Steve, I'm not convinced. Unbeknownst to me (because I was going on friends' advice rather than my own research), the agent I picked is very well known in the industry. He was executive editor at a major CBA publishing house for years before becoming an agent. People know him and he knows them. He has connections. People trust his opinion. Ultimately, that will help open whatever doors I may one day want to walk through.

All that said, an agent might be able to open the doors, but in the end we're the ones who must be ready to step through. Working on our craft, keeping our deadlines, producing quality work, those are the things that really sell us. Our agents are tools that we use most effectively when we've mastered the details of writing and a writer's life.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Things I Didn't Know I Didn't Know About Writing

When I first started on the journey to publication, I thought I'd write a book, sell it, and write another. In my mind, there was nothing between sale and store. Since then, I've learned there are lots of things that have to be done before a story is ready for release. And, to my surprise, the author is involved in much of the process.

If you're working toward publication and don't know much about the process, this might be of interest to you. Please keep in mind, I've only worked with one publishing house. Things vary from publisher to publisher.

Once an author gets 'the call', s/he's in for an exciting and fascinating ride (at least it was to me, but then it doesn't take much to fascinate me :0)). First, there's the revision letter. Most authors get them. A few, like Brenda Coulter, don't have to revise. Some, like me, are asked to make some major changes. What do I consider major changes? Rewriting a heroes background and characterization, changing a major plot thread. Anything that requires revising most (and maybe even all) scenes in the book. Depending on the scope of revisions required, you and your editor will choose a date by which the revised manuscript will be ready. For a fresh perspective on that, check out Brenda has just finished some major revisions, and I'm sure she'd be happy to share her experience. While you're working on revisions, your editor may ask you to brainstorm new titles, create a bio, and write a reader letter.

After you've sweated bullets over revisions, you'll print the completed product, save the revised manuscript to disk, package your baby up, and send it out. Then you're on to the next step of the journey.

While your editor reviews your changes, you'll begin work on an art fact sheet (at least you will if you write for Harlequin, I'm not sure the process in other publishing houses). This requires coming up with a short synopsis, character descriptions, themes, and several scene descriptions that the art department can use to create a cover for your book. Once you get your editor's approval on this, she'll send it to the art department where work will begin.

Meanwhile, a copyeditor is going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. She's marking it up with all kinds of copyedit symbols (that can really freak you out if you're like me and have no knowledge of such things). Other things are being checked as well. Did you say it was dawn on one page and then have a scene set at dusk? Did you use a brand name? Are there inconsistencies in the time-line? If so, there will be notes in the margin of your manuscript.

And then you get your baby back. Printed out, marked up, with plenty of questions you need to answer. Your job will be to go through, answer the questions, and look for anything that might have been missed by the two or three people who've already looked at the manuscript. Once again, you have a specific time-frame that you must work within.

Once again, your manuscript makes its journey back to the publishing house.

And once again it is returned to you. This time it's been set up for printing. Each line of text is numbered. Your job is to read the story as if it were a book, checking for spelling errors, grammatical errors, missing words, wrong words. At this point, you won't be making any major changes. You're simply looking for printer errors, or errors of your own...maybe you've used a character's name five times in one paragraph and want to change it. Generally, you'll have ten days to two weeks to look for these kind of errors.

Once again, you'll package your manuscript up and send it out. The book is now in production. The art department is creating a stellar cover, your editor has worked up a back cover blurb.

You wait.

When your manuscript is returned to you for the last time, it will no longer be a pile of white paper, but a beautifully bound book, the shiny cover proclaiming its name...and yours. Receiving advanced copies is the thrilling conclusion to the ride. Soon, you'll be heading to the bookstores, searching for the book that you, the editorial team, and the art department have created.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

How do you do it?

After a person asks me how I became published the next question is usually how do you do it? By that, the speaker generally means how do I homeschool four kids, cook, clean, do laundry, and write. I suppose to others it might seem I'm doing something unusual, that somehow I'm accomplishing more than the average mom. I'm not. There are millions of women who accomplish more in an hour than I seem to in a day. If you don't believe me, come into my house and take a look around. I've got laundry piled up waiting to be washed, a dishwasher filled with dishes, homeschool stuff spread from one end of the house to the other. My writing desk is the one spot in the house that is just mine. It's piled high with manuscript pages, advanced copies of my books, and various things that don't belong in my writing world, but somehow find their way to my writing space.

The funny thing is, I don't mind. I like finding little dolls, cars, blocks and hand-drawn comic strips littering my desk. I love knowing that at any moment my writing will be interrupted by one of my four kids. I enjoy the overlap of homeschooling and writing, and I am overwhelmed at the privilege I've been given - that of teaching my kids not just their academics, but what it means to work hard, to persist, to face disappointments and keep going. They've watched me succeed and they've watched me fail. More than that, they've watched me using my God-given gifts and pursuing the path I believe He has chosen for me. That said, I'm often tired, drained, and not quite sure what I've accomplished during my hectic, busy days. More often than not, I feel like I'm treading water rather than swimming toward shore, working hard and seeing little progress.

How do I do it? I don't. But I keep trying. And in the end, that's all God asks.

I'm a wife. I'm a mother. I'm an author. But before I am any of those things, I am God's creation, His child, created in His image and loved beyond measure. In the end, that is all that matters.

Whatever path you're walking, I pray you will hear the lilting melody of His grace, see the beauty of His love for you, and feel the overwhelming joy of His presence in your life. May you know His infinite mercy as you journey toward the place He is calling you to be.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I am an AUTHOR

Sometimes I need to remind myself that I'm an author. It's hard to remember as I'm looking at piles of laundry, sinks full of dishes, dirty floors, and overflowing kitchen cabinets, while I'm homeschooling my kids or reminding myself (for the fiftieth time) that I need to buy cereal. Life is life, no matter what your occupation. But there are times (few and far between) when I leave the dishes, the laundry, the floors, and the disorganized cabinets behind, when I actually take time to fix my hair, put on make-up, wear clothes meant for something other than hanging out at home. When I step out into another world and become Shirlee the AUTHOR.

Yesterday was one of those days. Months ago, my editor invited me to sign books at an expo in D.C. I said yes, not realizing that it was THE book expo of the year. Huge, immense. Magnificent. If you love books you'll appreciate it when I say it was book-lovers-paradise. I would have happily sold my house and moved into the building if I didn't have a husband and kids to go home to (and if the expo people weren't planning to pack all those beautiful books up and move them out on Sunday :-))

But I'm getting off topic.

I went to the expo filled with dread, knowing I'd be sitting at a table trying to hock my books while people passed me by for more famous authors. Instead, I sat at a table with another LI author and signed books for a steady stream of people. It's amazing how many more people are willing to buy a free book ;0). Here's the really fun part. While I signed, a sweet young lady named Meghan stood beside me, pulling books from the stack, opening to the proper page and sliding them over to me. I had no fear of papercuts, broken nails, wrinkled pages from rushing. She worked. I signed.

And for forty-five blessed minutes I was a superstar. Shirlee the author. Shirlee who'd made it, who'd worked hard, who'd achieved her dreams.

Of course, the truth is much less grand. Meghan was doing her job and doing it beautifully. Not just turning pages, but turning people toward the other two LI authors who were signing. It wasn't about me, but about the line, and more importantly, the company. I was impressed with Meghan's ability to step in at just the right moment, with just the right words, building up the company she works for by selling me, my product, and the product of the other authors there.

So, it occurred to me that I might be an AUTHOR, but there are other more important people in this business. People like Meghan. People who oil the wheels and keep them moving, and in doing so make someone like me feel like a superstar.

If you're an author you'll understand what I'm saying. If you're an aspiring author, I hope this inspires you to keep working. It's all worth it for those forty-five minutes! And if you're a wheel oiler like Meghan - your work doesn't go unnoticed. Thanks!

Monday, May 15, 2006

How Did You Do It?

When people find out I'm a published author, they inevitably ask me one of two questions. How did you do it, or how do you do it?

Today I'll address the first.

The short version of how I got published is that I wrote a manuscript, submitted it, got rejected. Wrote another manuscript, submitted it, got rejected. Wrote a third manuscript, submitted it, sold it.

The long version is a little more complicated.

I'll start by explaining that I've always been a writer and a story teller. Much to my parents' dismay, I spent more time dreaming up stories than doing school work. My teachers thought I was either rebellious or lazy. I like to say I lacked motivation. I loved to read, and I read often. By the time I was fifteen, I'd decided I was going to be writer. I can remember starting my first novel when I was in high school. I never finished it, but I planned to. One day, there'd be a book with my name on it in the store. I just knew it.

Somehow that dream got waylaid during college. I majored in American Studies and elementary education, took a creative writing class, and was encouraged to seek publication. And I knew I would. Eventually.

It's strange how eventually can turn into never if we let it, how even our most passionate goals can be shoved to the side as life takes us by storm. I married Rodney, a great guy who shares my faith, taught, had my first child and my second and my third. In a span of three years I'd had three sons, all by c-section. I don't have to tell you what that does to a woman's body. After my third son's birth, I was in agony, so sick I could barely walk down the steps. Moving hurt, walking was almost impossible. I can remember sitting at the top of the steps, holding Seth and calling for my husband to come take him because I was afraid if I tried to make it down the stairs with him in my arms, we'd both fall.

Something happened during that time. Some would say I just had a change in perspective, that I suddenly realized my mortality and acted on it. I say God used that time of sickness to show me how short life is, to refocus my vision of the future, and to challenge me to offer more than I'd been giving. Either way, the next part of the story is the same.

I decided that I didn't want to die without ever finishing a novel, that I didn't want to be eighty years old, looking back on my life and wondering why I hadn't done what I'd always felt I should. When Seth was about a year old and life had settled into a routine, I started writing. A few pages a day, a few minutes when I could steal the time. Suddenly, I'd done it. Completed my first book. It was an awesome feeling. Even the eventual rejection made me happy. I wrote a second book. Got rejected again. This time, by Melissa Endlich, an editor at Harlequin Love Inspired. She was very kind and told me that she'd like to see something else of mine. I wrote my third book, found out I was pregnant, and ended up on bedrest. For fourteen weeks, I was confined to my bedroom, the doctor's office, or the hospital. I homeschooled my oldest son from bed.

I won't go into the gory details of that horrifying time. Suffice to say, my daughter's birth was a miracle, my survival during the surgery was due to a fantastic surgical team. Why bring it up? Because, once again, God used illness to change my perspective. When I was finally released from the hospital, I started revising my third book, determined to submit it. What happened next is something I almost can't describe. It was like a switch was turned on and light poured onto the pages. Suddenly, I understood everything I'd been doing wrong. Not only that, I was able to fix it.

I spent a month reworking the story. Then spent another few weeks studying books on how to query publishers. Finally, I was ready. I sent a one page query letter out in April. After a few months of not hearing, I figured Melissa hated the idea, and so I started a new one. Life went on, as it does, and I'd almost forgotten the query when I opened the mailbox and pulled out a skinny white envelope. The return address was Harlequin, and I was sure it was a rejection. I almost tore it up and threw it away, but finally decided I'd better read it just so I could tell my husband and sisters what it said. It was two sentences long. I read your query. I'd be interested in seeing the complete manuscript.

Eleven months later, Harlequin bought STILL WATERS.

That's my story. That's how I did it. Hard work, perseverance, determination. Grace. I didn't have a critique group when I wrote that book, didn't know any published authors, didn't know about writing conferences, workshops, or contests. Yet, here I am. Four books out. Four more contracted. Doing what I love and feeling blessed.

A person can't ask for more than that!

If you're writing inspirational romantic suspense and want a great support network, visit eharlquin's inspirational RS thread.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Death By Synopsis 2

Okay, so you've written a compelling and convincing summary about your hero and heroine. You've presented motivation, goals, conflict for each. Shouldn't you be done?

Sadly, there's more torture on the horizon.

The next step to writing your synopsis is to describe the moment the hero and heroine meet, and not just the meeting, but the catalyst that brings them to that place. For example, if your heroine has been in too many bad relationships to count, has sworn off men, and avoids dating at all cost, how does she end up on a date with Mr-not-so-perfect, noticing his soulful blue eyes and charming grin? Did her best friend rope her into it? Is she a reporter on assignment? Did her mother's best friend's sister have a nephew in town for the weekend? If you're writing suspense or mystery, the meeting may be the result of whatever catalyst propels your characters into the story. One of my favorite yet-to-be-published manuscripts has a heroine seeking solace after finding her boyfriend in a compromising position. Where else to find comfort but an all-night bakery? Donuts. Yum. Unfortunately, she walks in on an assassin who's made shortwork of the gotta-make-the-donuts employee. The hero is an FBI agent who's taken a leave of absence to find his brother's killer. That killer is, of course, the assassin. She's a witness. He wants answers. And the story begins.

How does your story begin, and why is that beginning so important to your characters? What motivates them to seek each other's company, and what is going to keep them apart?

Once you've described the meeting, you're ready for my least favorite part of synopsis writing - chapter by chapter description of the plot. What this does not mean is excruciating detail of every moment of every chapter. What this does mean is touching on the highs and lows of the story. Think of your book as a series of mini black moments each followed by moments of realization. For example - the pastor who thinks his life is too full to ever consider romance meets a woman who has been in a series of bad relationships. Meeting her, talking to her, sparks something inside him - a realization that maybe he's more lonely than he cares to admit.

As you're writing your synopsis, focus on your characters' growth rather than the action. The formula for this is quite simple - she does such-and-such and realizes such-and-such. He responds by something which causes him to realize something. Eventually, these realizations lead them to their happy conclusion.

And lead us to the end of our synopsis.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Death By Synopsis

They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I say what doesn't kill you makes you crazy. Especially when it comes to writing a synopsis.

Sad fact - even after you're published you've got to write synopses.

Sadder fact - I've yet to figure out whether the plural of synopsis is synopsises, synopsi, synopses, or some other variation.

Saddest fact - I'm too lazy to figure it out. So, barring my sweet editor Melissa Endlich's appearance here, I guess I'll just keep writing it wrong.

A few weeks ago, I submitted a proposal to Melissa. Three chapters. One very long synopsis. She asked me to make some changes in the synopsis, but I couldn't stomach the story-line and ended up rewriting the entire three chapters. Which meant completely rewriting the synopsis. Now, I'd argue that I'm actually pretty good at writing the dreaded S. However, being good at it doesn't make the process easy. Nor does it make me enjoy it. I still don't like it. I still tear my hair out, bang my head against the computer keyboards, moan, groan, and whine about writing it. In the end, I've got a pretty good product. It just takes me a while to get there.

I figure I'm not alone in the loathing I feel when it comes to writing a synopsis, so I thought I'd put a step-by-step guide to synopsis writing here on my hidden blog. Let me preface this by saying - this is my way of doing things. Which is to say, it may not be your way. Try your hand at it, then shape the process to fit your writing style.

Today, I'm going to talk about step one in synopsis writing - knowing your characters.

Who are they? What do they want? What motivates them? What keeps them from achieving their goals? If you're writing romance, what draws your characters together? What is pulling them apart? I begin each synopsis with a one paragraph character sketch of my hero and heroine, using the previous questions to make my protagonists come to life.

Sound easy? Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's torture. Unfortunately, it must be done.

Go ahead. Give it a try.

Because tomorrow we move on to the second step in synopsis writing - the catalyst.