The season’s upon us!

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XmasTree_0715

My tree. Thanks to Beth Barany for taking the photo!

Here’s a picture of my Christmas tree. It’s not really a tree. It’s a traffic cone that I liberated from a construction site and then wound with lights. When I first got the cone, I used regular Christmas lights, the old-fashioned kind. They generated so much heat that they made the rubber that the traffic cone was made of smell (there’s nothing like the smell of burning rubber for the holidays), so I switched to LED lights that I got on sale after the holidays were over. They do not generate any heat, and the tree is now as fabulous in every respect as I thought it would be.

The other thing about my tree: I keep it up all year round, so it’s not exactly a “Christmas” tree. It’s just a tree—or, really a traffic cone—with lights. So for anyone who worries that I’m being insensitive to cultural diversity, it’s just festive home décor.

It’s too, um, avant-garde for a lot of people. I love it, though.

Best wishes for everyone throughout the next month or so!

The shoes make the character

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Christian Louboutin. "Printz," Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum "Killer Heels" exhibit.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum “Killer Heels” exhibit.

Our characters should have an arc, starting in one place and changing as they resolve the conflicts they encounter along the way. One way we can show character change is to show behavioral changes. In the beginning, our hero is immature, at the end he has grown. In the beginning, our heroine was selfish. At the end, she thinks of others. Progress!

Recently I realized that one way I show how characters change is that I change their clothing choices. In one manuscript, my heroine starts out wearing overalls and steel-toed work boots, which, by the end of the book, she’s discarded for palazzo pants and high heels. In my current WIP, my heroine goes from suits and high heels to a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, and then to the skinny jeans and ballet flats that describe her new life.

What’s with the heels? I wondered. Besides that they’re consummate female attire. Except for cowboys.

Cowboys is right. Five hundred years ago, high heels were standard footwear for sixteenth-century Persian horsemen. Then the style moved from Persia to Western Europe, where aristocrats wore high heels to set themselves apart from the hoi polloi. But when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, he ended this high-heeled, high-powered fashion statement by wearing flats.

This information is included in a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. The exhibit covers 500 years of high-heeled footwear, exploring the history of the shoes themselves, as well as the history of status, fantasy, innovation, beauty, and sex as told through shoes.

Did my heroines think about this when they either put on or kicked off their high-heeled shoes? You can bet your sweet Manolo Blahniks they did.

My heroine who forsook overalls and steel-toed boots for high heels? They were a special pair, bought for her by a problematic male character (okay, my hero) who thought every woman should have at least one thing that was frivolous. She wore them on her way out the door. (But she came back later. Much later)

My other heroine, who gave up heels for flats by way of saddle shoes—she’s a spy. And spies can’t go running after bad guys in heels.

At least somebody’s practical around here.

Becoming a professional writer

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The new cover!

The new cover!

A while ago, I decided that  one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.

So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.

To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.

How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.

Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)

Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.

http://magazine.nd.edu/news/49016/

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.

 

 

 

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Enjoy the moment

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I’m just settling in after spending a few days in San Antonio at the annual Romance Writers of America annual conference. I had a great time with my co-bloggers over at 8 Ladies Writing. Six of the eight made it to the conference. Here we are, enjoying a post-RITA awards photo op!

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

The conference was a lot of fun. I met a lot of great people, I reconnected with old friends, I heard some great talks. I skipped the Alamo—I couldn’t face the excursion in the heat. Right now I’m resting, unpacking, and getting back to work. And soon, I expect, I’ll be extrapolating what I learned into my own projects. We’ll see! In any event, taking the time to celebrate friendships and accomplishments is always a good thing.

Shooting this vacation movie

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This photo, shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), shows Sutler's bomb-proof "Fruit and Oyster House" located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-April 1865).

This photo is not of the cabin I rented for vacation. Shot by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), it shows Sutler’s bomb-proof “Fruit and Oyster House,” located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864 to April 1865).

I got my credit card statement today, and the refund for my vacation cabin rental is on it, so now I can tell the story.

It was a movie-worthy vacation, blue skies, clear waters, scented pines—a movie that if I were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, I’d call Dos Amigos meets Chevy Chase on a bad vacation at the House of the Damned. Or maybe A Cabin in the Woods without the mad scientists.

Okay, so here’s what happened. The dos amigos arrive at the cottage late afternoon on Friday. We unload the car, open the cottage, pick our rooms, stash our stuff, and fill the fridge. By now it’s early evening and we turn on the stove to make a grilled cheese, and…the stove doesn’t work. And we’re cold, so we crank the heat, and…there’s no heat. We call the office and get an out-of-office message that they’ll be back Monday.

That has to be a lie, because it’s vacation season, so we make a ham sandwich and go to bed. The next morning, we drive down to the office and explain. They say they’ll send someone out.

He comes right away. He’s not a maintenance guy, he’s the lawn guy, but the maintenance guys are out of town at family graduations, and the lawn guy’s on standby. We think probably the circuits just got thrown, so he’ll fix that and we’ll be good.

And he does throw the circuit breakers, and he asks me to turn on the stove and see if the indicator light goes on, so I do and it does, and on a note of premature self-congratulations, he departs.

Night falls. We’re cold. The temps are dropping to 40 or so for the second night in a row, and we want some heat and a warm meal. So we turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, but in fact the stove does not heat up. And the furnace doesn’t kick in, either. So we make a ham sandwich and decide to go to bed. Except now we can’t brush our teeth, because we also don’t have any water. And the electric lights, when we turn them on, pulse. It’s like living in an emergency freezer.

The next morning we drive down to the office and explain what happened, and the maintenance guys come right out. They determine that the place needs an electrician, so they call him and we depart for a restaurant-cooked breakfast.

We come back early afternoon and he says everything is fixed. So I say, let’s do a check. I turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, and then the heat comes up. I turn on the furnace, and it kicks in. I turn the tap on the faucet, and water comes on. I hit the light switch, and the light comes out in a steady stream. All good!

The electrician and the maintenance guys take off. The dos amigos settle down in the rapidly warming living room to read. Just when I thought that the first-heat-of-the-season smell was a little too strong, the smoke detector starts to shriek. I pull the plug and drive down to the office. The maintenance guys come back and clank around on the furnace for a couple more hours. Then they dust off their hands and say it it’s fixed.

And it was. And it was good: stove, furnace, water, lights, all functioning properly. Except I never did get hot water upstairs. But the shower was downstairs, so tragedy was averted.

And today I got the refund. And a story.