If your mother was anything like mine, she dispensed tons of advice: Sit up straight … Don’t go outside with a wet head or you’ll catch a cold … and NEVER stop at a rest area after dark.

Well, I slouch all the time, frequently go out with wet hair and recently stopped at Sunset Point at midnight (under the Boyfriend’s watchful eye) — and the world didn’t stop spinning. My posture may suffer, but I didn’t catch my death of cold or get myself murdered.

So Mom doesn’t always know best.

She was right about one thing, though: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

As a reporter, my best interviews happen when I approach them like I’m sitting down to chat with a friend. Interview subjects share more — and give better quotes — if you set a friendly tone and bond over something you have in common.

Interviewing characters is similar. I like to sit down with my laptop, usually in a coffee shop, and make myself comfortable. Then we chat.

Of course, your characters are in your head, so you control the response. However, if your characters are anything like mine, they’re mouthy at best, uncooperative at worst.

To get the conversational ball rolling, I lob them a few softball questions first, questions like How’d you get your nickname? Where do you live? Any roommates?

With the niceties out of the way (and the creative juices flowing), you can get serious. If you’re lucky, your characters’ responses tell you something you didn’t know or didn’t consider important … something you can use to enrich your story.

For example, when I sat down with the hero in a half-finished, still-untitled WIP, I discovered he’s a bit of a stuffed shirt who likes to please everyone but himself.

So, Drew, tell me about your childhood.

(shrugs) There’s not much to tell. I grew up in a stable home with a mother and father who both loved me to distraction. I’m the middle child, with an older sister and younger brother.

I understand they’re both screw-ups.

Denise is a successful attorney. I’d hardly call that a screw-up. Of course, Mom isn’t happy that she’s decided to get herself artificially inseminated.

How do you feel about that decision?

It’s not my decision to make. She is 32 years old and still without a husband or any prospect of one. I say if she thinks the sperm bank is the best way to achieve her goal of having a family, she should go for it. (Hmm … I sense a story there! 😉 ) Just don’t tell my Mom I said so.

Why not?

I like being “the good child.” If Mom heard me siding with Denise, I might lose my standing.

What about your brother?

Dan? He’s no threat. He can’t hold a job for more than a few months at a time. He just lost another one, for boinking some girl in the copier room.

Let’s explore your need to be “the good child.”

Now you sound like my shrink.

You have a shrink?

No, but if I did, he’d surely want to “explore my need to be ‘the good child.’”

Well?

Pass. Ask me another question.

No, I think we’re onto something here. We’re going to continue exploring this topic, if you don’t mind.

(scowls) I like making people happy. Is that a crime?

Not at all — unless, of course, by making someone else happy you’re not pleasing yourself, too.

You can’t please someone else and yourself at the same time, genius.

Of course you can, if you both have similar goals, needs and desires.

And how many truly compatible people do you find in this world? I’m willing to bet the answer is “not too damn many.”

It only takes one, Drew.

Now you’re talking romance, huh?

You got it, genius.

So grab a cup of coffee, make yourself comfortable and have a heart-to-heart with your hero/heroine. What you find out just might surprise you — and it’ll probably improve your WIP.

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No, not IT it. But I just found out I’ve been taking the wrong approach to query writing.

A friend and I recently exchanged query letters. Keep in mind that I’ve written my share of queries — and have read more than my fair share of advice on how to write a great one.

But the one she read was my first stab at a query for this particular manuscript — and apparently it’s no good.

What I have is more one-page synopsis than a query. Hmm … or should I say “harumph”?

My friend’s advice is to follow this formula for the summary graph:

First sentence about the heroine/hero. Second sentence about hero/heroine. Third sentence covers the conflict in their relationship. Fourth sentence either asks a question or teases the reader in some way.

I can buy into that advice — except for the very last part. All the things I’ve read say to answer any questions you ask. You shouldn’t leave the agent/editor hanging … or so I thought.

What say you, loyal commenters? Ask and answer or just ask?

P.S. On the bright side, I guess I have an even shorter synopsis I can send out. Why couldn’t I have realized that before submitting to the Golden Heart? I could have squeezed another page of excellent writing into my entry. 😉

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article for my RWA chapter newsletter about the Do’s and Don’ts of Setting Writing Goals. I thought I could use a refresher course before I craft some very attainable goals for the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood Winter Writing Festival.

So how does one do it? How do you keep going through writer’s block, the day job, life’s little interruptions? (Most of the content below is excerpted from the Nov./Dec. issue of NARWA’s newsletter, High Country Highlights.)

If there’s a key, it lies in simply setting the goal. You won’t get started until you have somewhere you want to go.

These goal-setting guidelines were originally set out in a “Do’s and Don’ts” list by the folks at Spark People, but they can be applied to writing just as easily as weight loss:

• Do create a plan. Don’t wait for “someday” to roll around.

Before I started to treat writing like my day job so it will become my day job, I had tons of story starts that I thought about working on but didn’t. I figured I’d get around to it “someday” — when I wasn’t busy with other things.

Well, believe me when I say “someday” never comes. If you don’t make writing a priority, you won’t get it done.

• Do start small. Don’t focus on too many things at once.

I’m struggling with this one right now. I have so many irons in the fire — writing about Beth and Cody in their island paradise, editing two Golden Heart entries and plotting my NaNo novel — that at the end of the day I haven’t done much of anything. I’ve probably written no more than 10,000 words in the last month. After cranking out 110,000 between January and July, that just seems pathetic.
This is as true now as it was back in October, when I wrote the article … though my projects have shifted. I’m no longer editing GH entries, I’m editing the NaNo novel — and still trying to get through the first draft of Beth & Cody’s tale. And I’m contemplating beginning the query process with “Beauty and the Ballplayer.”

• Do write it down. Don’t forget to give yourself a deadline.

“Deadlines turn wishes into goals,” the Spark People article said. Deadlines also give you something concrete to work toward. Just make sure it’s a deadline you can control. “I want to finish a 60,000-word novel in six months” is under your control; “I want to be published by the time I turn 40” is not.

• Do track your progress. Don’t fool yourself into failure.

I keep track of words written each day on an Excel spreadsheet. I also keep a list of agents I’ve queried and their responses.  My friend Mallory recently blogged about GoalForIt, an online goal tracking program.

I find the idea of GoalForIt intriguing, but it could prove to be too much of a   distraction for me. I can tell the days I spend more time playing online by the lower word count in my chart.

Why, oh why, can’t someone invent a program that beeps to remind you to get back to work every time you waste more than five minutes on Facebook or Twitter?

• Do find a support system. Don’t try to do it alone.

Yes, writing is a solitary pursuit. You can’t write by committee  — at least not well. You can, however, seek the company of like-minded people to keep you going when you feel like giving up. Attend your local RWA chapter’s meetings. Read and comment on your favorite writing blogs. Schedule a write-in at the local coffee house. Ask someone whose opinion you trust to read through your contest entry before you mail it off.

To wrap it all up: The secret to writing success is to make time to write. Set some small, achievable goals and start meeting them. With determination and a little support from your writer friends, your star will rise.

If I do say so myself, that’s some pretty fantastic advice. Now, I just need to practice what I preached.

Every few months, it wallops me upside the head.

What is it, you ask? Nothing good, that’s for sure. It’s the fear that, even after years of writing — and getting a degree in journalism, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing.

The familiar foe hit me again this weekend. My local RWA chapter, NARWA, hosted Erin Quinn for morning and afternoon workshops.

After lunch, she talked about creating a setting so strong that it’s really a character. (Think the storms in “Wizard of Oz” or the jungle in “Jurassic Park,” she said.)

The comment that stuck with me most was this: “If at the end of the scene, you could pluck the players and dialog out and plant them anywhere else without some major work, you haven’t done your job.”

Uh-oh. If that’s true, I’m in trouble. Many of my characters’ conversations — witty, laugh-packed chats — take place in restaurants or other standard “date” places … generic, could-be-anywhere places.

I think this is where my training in journalism serves me ill. When you’re writing a news story, you relay quotes and  facts … not take note of how birds flitted past overhead while your source was speaking, or how his eyes were the exact same shade of periwinkle as his sweater.

Heck … a journalist probably wouldn’t even use “periwinkle.” Don’t use a $10 word when a 10-cent one (blue) gets the point across just as well.

As a result, my prose is relatively straightforward. “He laughed.” “She wrinkled her nose.” “He bolted upright so fast he nearly fell out of his hammock.”

You get the idea.

My GH entries may need more help than I think. Good thing I still have some time to make ’em shine.

It always amazes me how attending my RWA chapter meeting recharges my creative battery.

Sure, it means a long day for me. I usually don’t get to bed until at least 2 a.m., and I’m up before 8 on meeting day. We meet from 10:30-ish to 2 p.m. and drive an hour and a half back home. Then I usually have to head into work and put in a full day there.

But I wouldn’t miss it. The chats while we’re carpooling are a great way to get new insights. And the meetings themselves always serve up something useful.

This time, we had a group critique: Several members submitted the first three pages of their WIP. Entries were read aloud, anonymously, then everyone shared their thoughts.

There wasn’t a single one that didn’t intrigue us enough to want to read more. That, of course, begs the question: Why haven’t any of us wannabes made a sale yet? But that’s probably a question best left for another post (in which I’ll rail against the publishing industry that depends so much on sheer luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time and know all the right people. Your MS could sparkle like the Hope Diamond, but if it crosses the desk when the editor’s having a bad day, too bad for you.).

Sure, a few of them had issues: Too much backstory, head-hopping. But the only way to improve is to have someone point out where you need improvement.

Our members are great at offering the right mix of encouragement and advice. I think (hope) we all left with a warm, fuzzy feeling — and some tips to take us another step closer to the ultimate goal of publication.

For my part, I realized (with feedback) the new beginning works really well. It was also pointed out I need a solid description of my hero in those opening pages.

As a side note, I had no idea Matt sounded so arrogant. But when you read it aloud, he sure does. He doesn’t remain arrogant throughout the novel, though, so I’m not sure what to do about that.

Since those first pages are in Meg’s POV, maybe we can chalk it up to her perception? He’s not really all that arrogant, she’s just in a bad mood, so she sees him as more arrogant than he really is?

I spent most of today working on a couple of scenes from Bethany and Cody’s story … 3,115 words written. I was surprised again, though: Beth’s mother sounds like a guest on “Jerry Springer.” She must be from Southern Illinois! 😉

It’s time for me to start polishing next year’s Golden Heart entries, though. My Orange Rose scores came back Friday. With those and Saturday’s feedback on the contemporary series story I want to enter, I’m ready to put the comments to good use.

Over at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, my writing blog home away from home, I read a fantastic post the other day. It was all about what editors want from a category romance.

After reading it, I wonder if Brad and Erin’s story is as ready as I thought. I break nearly all of the guidelines:

  1. Stir internal conflict on EVERY page.
  2. Minimize secondary characters.
  3. Let your main characters be active.
  4. Get them together.
  5. Keep them together.
  6. Give them reasons to love each other.

Hmm. I already know the story is a little thin on conflict. For the first several chapters, the main one is Erin thinks she wants Mike to notice her but she’s starting to like Brad, too.

My secondary characters, including Mike, all play what may be too large a role. Not surprising, considering they each have their own story. Brad and Erin’s is the first in a series.

Are they active? I don’t even know how to start thinking about that. That means the answer is probably a big, fat “NO.”

As for getting them together, Brad and Erin don’t have a scene together until page 12 — and that’s after Erin has her first scene with Mike. And keeping them together? Well, they go out on several dates (including an ill-fated trip to Chicago for a concert), but there are plenty of scenes in between with one or the other talking to someone else.

Do I give them reasons to love one another? Well, they’re both good people, and fine upstanding citizens of these United States. And it goes without saying that they’re beautiful (most heroes and heroines are, after all). He likes her sense of humor and honesty; she’s attracted to his body and soul.

Hmm. That may also be a little on the thin side. I’m beginning to wonder if this book will ever sell without yet another overhaul … Ugh. That’s a horrible thought, not least of all because I’m way too invested in these characters. Of all my characters, Erin is most like me (education reporter with no luck in love — all me when I wrote the thing).

On the plus side, I thought of a way to make Meg & Matt’s story, “Beauty and the Ballplayer” more closely adhere to the guidelines I just discovered. I’m going to lop off the first several pages (which I’ve decided are all backstory, despite the fact that I love the first line:

Meg looked at the pregnancy test stick in her hand, hoping like hell she misinterpreted it.

The rest of the first few pages have her thinking about how, at 32, she’s too  old to be pregnant and alone, and about how her ex ran off to Vegas to become a professional poker player.

I think I’ll start with her and Matt meeting at the bar instead.

I recently discovered the blog of Nathan Bransford — Literary Agent. He’s both witty and wise … and rumor has it that he responds almost immediately to queries, whether he wants to see more or not. I’ve yet to test that myself because I haven’t quite perfected my query for “Blind Date Bride” and he doesn’t do category romance.

Anyway, after reading his latest entry, “The Greatest Strength of a Writer: Willpower,” I was inspired.

The last line, in particular, spoke to me:

If writing is always fun, you may be doing it wrong.

So simple, yet so true. For years, I’ve been one of those “I write when the muse inspires me” people. As a result, I haven’t gotten much done. Several partial MSs lurk in my computer files — all about half finished.

Now that I’ve committed to writing more regularly, first preparing my Golden Heart entry, then in the NaNoWrimo and now through our NARWA Word Count Club, I’m accomplishing a lot more.

  • I entered a revised version of my very first MS (Operation Snag Mike Brad” in the Golden Heart, didn’t final and just found out my scores were solidly mediocre.
  • I wrote about 25K of the 40K I wanted to get done during the NaNo, finishing the complete MS in early December. I’ve done some revisions and just shipped off the first 55 pages to the Orange Rose contest. (Blind Date Bride)
  • I finished the first draft of another category-length MS. (Beauty and the Ballplayer)
  • I’m almost done revising and expanding the second story in my “Women of Willow’s Grove” series. It was about 10K too short for category romance … now it’s just about right. (It’s tentatively titled “Daring to Love,” but I’m thinking it needs a new title.) Next up: fixing all the head-hopping in the third book in the series, “To Catch a Wife,” and expanding it. (It’s also about 10K too short for category.)
  • I’ve started querying on my GH entry (receiving about 5 e-rejections in response to my e-queries). I also just finished a query and synopsis for “Blind Date Bride,” but haven’t started querying yet because I’m not sure it’s ready.

Whew! That’s a lot of work in the last seven or so months. And I owe it all to commitment. Sometimes I even sit down to write when I’d rather be doing something else.

OK, that’s rare. These days, I don’t want to do anything else. Our NARWA guest speaker back in January, Jennifer Ashley, lit a motivational fire under my behind when she said, “Treat writing like your day job and it will become your day job.” (You can read my post-meeting blog post here.)

Tomorrow is a day off from work. I’m planning to get in some more quality writing time … after I sneak in a workout. I’ve been neglecting my health/fitness goals lately and need to get back on track.

That whole “butt in chair” thing works in a healthy lifestyle, too — except it might better be phrased as “feet on pavement” or “butt in gym.” The point is, you have to do it regularly to get good results.