Friday, May 31, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This is probably the question authors are asked the most. I can't remember a time I didn't have a story in my head. I wrote my first play when I was six, preceded by a prize-winning slogan and followed by an award-winning short story. It's interesting to note, I haven't won anything since. Contest-wise, I peaked in first grade.

And while decades elapsed before I seriously pursued publication, the stories were always there. As a child, when I played dolls or "house" with my friends, it wasn't just the normal mommy home with a baby and daddy at work kinda game. Things happened in my make-believe worlds. Characters lived and died on my whim. We had veritable soap operas in Debbie's basement! By the time I was a teen, I was reading constantly and often considered how I'd deviate from the author's plot. I'd go to movies and rewrite the ending (I still do this--or guess the ending, which explains why no one wants to go to the movies with me). 

Since I became an author, the creative part of my brain has grown stronger. These days, ideas zip around my skull like cars on the Autobahn. Or one of those wind booths where people try to seize dollar bills and stuff them into their pockets. Or maybe a Hydra, because once I grab an idea and work it into a story, two more take its place in my head. There seems to be an endless supply of story ideas, just in my day to day living.

I still read, and what I read (books, magazines, newspapers) can spark an idea. As a passenger (in a car, train, plane, etc.), I check out other passengers and wonder who they are, where they're going, what they'll do when they get there. Ditto for long lines at DMV or the local concert hall. I can make up an entire personality based on the items in someone's shopping cart at the supermarket. Give me a few minutes of your time and I could probably write you into one of my stories. (Maybe I already have!) You wouldn't recognize you on the page, but I do. I talk to people, and I listen. Bartenders have told their sob stories to me. I eavesdrop. (For example, in the ladies room the other day, I heard one woman say to her very pregnant friend, "The baby comes out feet first, right?" *blink-blink* There's a scene for a story there somewhere. As soon as I can put the exploded pieces of my brain back together, I might use it.)

I have a notebook and pen at my bedside for ideas that pop up in my dreams. I do crossword puzzles and a specific word can inspire a scene. Television shows, news programs, talk radio conversations all provide fodder.

Flowers, birds, dogs at the park, the Eiffel Tower, a bank, a restaurant--any location, any prop can find a place in one of my stories.

What can I say? It's a curse. Or a blessing. Or probably both. But it's all I know. What do you have in your head? 

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Women and Envy

I've always considered envy a "wasted" emotion. What's the point? It makes you feel miserable about yourself, miserable about the person you envy, and miserable about your future. We see someone prettier, thinner, more successful, wealthier, or smarter as a threat, rather than an inspiration. Envy should be an incentive, a reason to propel you into improving whatever you find lacking in you.

Yet, time and again, I've watched women tear other women down. "She's so skinny--she's probably bulimic," "I don't understand what he sees in her," or even, "Her hair is gorgeous. I freakin' hate her."

As a gender, we're often too insecure, too competitive, too proud, and too ruled by our emotions. Lots of our envy stems from our caveman days, when we had to be the best to attract the best hunter/gatherer/warrior to care for us and our families. But that was a long time ago, ladies. It's time to give up the loathing and appreciate that women you know and don't know are breaking barriers, living happy lives, and becoming confident, successful leaders.

Don't belittle them. Join them. Be one. Celebrate when your friends (or enemies) achieve a victory. Rather than ask, "Why her and not me?" use her triumph to spur you on to your own. And maybe, when you have your crowning moments, they'll be there to cheer with you.That's what friendship really means, kids.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

When the Quirky Secondary Character Takes Over

Sitcoms are full of them: the goofy neighbor, the recurring customer, the older and suddenly single parent, the bizarro date, the crotchety boss. For decades, those quirky characters have wormed their way into our hearts and wound up with their own shows. Some successful ones have been Rhoda and Lou Grant (the neighbor and boss on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy (both got their start on episodes of Happy DaysMaude and The Jeffersons (Edith's cousin and the next door neighbors from All in the Family), Frasier (customer from Cheers), Xena, Warrior Princess (from Hercules), The Simpsons (a regular feature on The Tracey Ullman Show) and The Colbert Report (quirky on-air news personality from The Daily Show). 

Some less successful ones: The Ropers (the landlords from Three's Company), Joey (one of the original Friends), AfterM*A*S*H (a few of the secondary characters from M*A*S*H), Joanie Loves Chachi (the less successful follow up to Happy Days), The Lone Gunmen (those conspiracy guys from The X Files), Top of the Heap (featuring a younger Matt LeBlanc, spun off from Married With Children), and Baywatch Nights (the Baywatch followup).

What's the secret? Often, the quirky character was taken out of the original milieu and tossed elsewhere (Rhoda, Lou Grant, Frasier, The Jeffersons). This allowed the writers to develop new situations, new characters for interaction, and completely totally different storylines. But this same shake-up didn't work for The Ropers, AfterM*A*S*H or Joey--mainly because the characters didn't really grow in their new surroundings.

Sometimes it's about how much the audience can bear. What's most important is to keep the original idea, but allow the characters room to grow.

The same can be true in writing. Whether it's recurring characters or a recurring location, after a while, the stories can become stale. I bring this up because I've seen several discussions about readers becoming bored with three vastly different series: Jill Shalvis's Lucky Harbor series, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, and J.D. Robb's In Death series. In Lucky Harbor, readers seem to be tired of the same quirky characters (i.e.: the town's Facebook page) and the same romance trope for the main characters. With Stephanie Plum, readers are tired of the heroine's lack of growth both professionally and personally (she still can't use a gun and still can't decide between Ranger and Joe). And in In Death, readers hate that Eve always seems to be right from the get-go (she knows who the bad guy is and the story becomes more a police procedural) and the secondary characters (Peabody and Ian, Mavis and Leonardo) never have conflict or an opportunity to grow in their own lives.

Part of series ennui is probably due to the readers' demand for more, more, more. Faster, faster, faster. Writers cannot write as fast as readers can read. And the demand never stops. Editors often talk writers out of "breaking formula" because the formula's been working. It's that New Coke phobia. There have been plenty of authors who've done something new and unexpected, only to face reader backlash ranging from poor sales to death threats. Yes, death threats.

What's a writer to do? My advice? Be true to yourself. Write for you. And buy a big dog. There is no perfect answer. But if you write what you love, no one can take that away from you.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Now Available: Duet in September

I'm thrilled to announce the launch of my newest series, The Calendar Girls, with Book I: Duet in September

The Calendar Girls are all residents of Snug Harbor, a fictional resort town on the east end of Long Island. Each book will feature two characters and the problems they face in any given month. In Duet in September, Nia and Paige Wainwright are twins who've just buried their only parent, their father. Now, they've decided to try a unique experiment where each day, they'll do something to shake up their normal routine. This experiment is supposed to open them up to new opportunities, and of course, it will! But perhaps, not with the results the ladies expect. Wanna peek? Sure, you do!

Sam's grin sparked fireworks in my belly.
In the dim hallway last night, I’d found his smile dazzling, but in the light of day, I could easily understand Nia’s attraction to the rest of him. He looked like a sun-bronzed god, all sinew and golden skin with eyes the color of honey and the lushest lashes I’d ever seen on a man.
If only he were mute…
As if to introduce itself, the fawn-colored dog suddenly lurched forward to sniff at my sneakers.
“Daisy, get down.” Sam yanked on the leash.
            “Hi there, sweetheart. Aren’t you a love?” I bent to rub the pooch between its folded ears, then looked up at Sam again. “I didn’t know you had a dog.”
“Daisy won’t hurt you. She’s big but loveable.”
            “Daisy?” I quirked my eyebrows. “You named this huge beast Daisy?”
            “Not my choice. She’s a rescue from the Greyhound Liberation. Her full name is Daisy Chain of Love.”
            “Wow.” I slipped my hand under Daisy’s angular jaw, and she snuffled. “I’m impressed.”        
            “Don’t be,” he replied. “All the racers get goofy names.”
            Actually, I was referring to the fact that he had a softness for any living thing. But I wisely bit back the insult. “How long have you had her?” I asked instead.
            “Two years.” Daisy licked his hand, and he patted her fondly. “If you’re thinking about a pet, I could probably hook you up with the rescue group. They’re always looking to place retired greyhounds.”
            Me with a dog? I shook my head. I couldn’t even keep a houseplant thriving. “I don’t think I’d have the energy for a former racing star.”
            “The keyword there is ‘former.’ They’re retired so they actually don’t do much running. And you’ve got a decent-sized yard for a dog to get out his ya-yas. Besides, you look like you could handle anything.” He glanced at my bike, then the road ahead, as if he didn’t want me to see the smirk on his face from his attempt to compliment me.
Yeah, sure. Suddenly he’s worried about hurting my feelings. Get a grip, Paige.
“Where you headed?” he asked, gaze still fixed on the horizon.
            “The wharf, then home again.”
            He whistled through his teeth. “Oh, right. But you don’t have the energy to keep up with a greyhound. That’s like…what? Eight miles round trip?”
            Eight miles?! I swallowed a gasp and forced a casual smile. No way did I want him to know I had no idea how long a trek I’d planned for myself. “Yeah, something like that.”
            “You training for some kind of marathon?”
            “Sort of,” I lied. “The 10K Twin Fork Ride is next month. I figured I might as well start getting ready.” Wow. Could I get any more ridiculous? No way I had the slightest intention of participating in that torturefest.
            “Where’s your water?” He gestured to my bike frame, then looked up at the sun and shielded his eyes with the flat of his hand.
            Water? My gaze followed his to the empty wire rack where a water bottle should rest beneath my seat. Oops. I forgot about bringing something to drink on my morning trek. I wasn’t about to let him get the better of me, though.  “I’ll pick up a bottle when I get to the wharf,” I replied with a dismissive air.
            His brows rose in twin arcs. “The wharf is still two miles from here. You’ll dehydrate long before you get there.” He jerked his head in the direction of the side street. “Come back to the house with Daisy and me, and I’ll grab you a coupla cold ones to go.”
            If this were a movie, the creepy music would start building right now. What should the na├»ve heroine do? Go home with the monster so as not to hurt his feelings?
Lucky for me, this wasn’t a movie. I had no qualms about turning him down. “No, that’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
            “Do I scare you, Paige?”

Duet in September is available now at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and iTunes. I hope you'll pick up a copy and by all means, let me know what you think!

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Why Mothers Get No Respect in Fiction

Q. What do Cinderella, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker have in common?
A. A dead mother.

What is it with authors and mothers? Did they have such miserable relationships with their own matriarchs that they feel the need to kill all the mothers in their stories? Possibly. But it’s more likely because “the orphan” is one of fiction’s most popular character archetypes. Why? In a word: conflict. For most of us, parents—and in particular, mothers—are a source of comfort, wisdom, and nourishment of body and soul. Take away that source, and you’ve instantly tossed your character into an uncaring, lonely world. Readers place themselves in that character’s shoes, experience a sense of tremendous loss, and empathize. It’s manipulative, but effective.

A lot of our most beloved and most memorable fictional characters don’t have a mother. Aside from the ones I already listed, try these on for size: Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz), Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, Heidi, Cossette (Les Miserables), and Norman Bates from Psycho. If Mom does exist, she’s usually flaky as a biscuit or somehow deeply flawed. Think of Mrs. Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) or her modern counterpart, Bridget’s mum in Bridget Jones’s Diary. How about Margaret White in Stephen King’s Carrie? Or Corinne Dollanganger from Flowers in the Attic. And, once again in a weird way, Mrs. Bates from Psycho. Even comic book superheroes—Batman, Superman, Spiderman—live with foster moms, having been orphaned at a young age. Of my fourteen published books, I have six heroines with dead mothers, seven heroines with difficult mothers, and one with a hard-working, loving mother.

Poor Mom can’t catch a break.

This fictional matricide is a testament to motherhood’s power and influence. Sure, on a day- to-day basis, we don’t see ourselves as all that special. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants—without instruction manuals. We either swear to do raise our kids the same way our parents raised us, or we swear to do the direct opposite. Most days seem routine. We cook meals, drive to practices and recitals, do laundry. But we also kiss boo-boos, nurse ailments, and chase away bedtime monsters. We are the embodiment of love, courage, generosity, and kindness. So it’s no wonder authors have a tendency to create characters without the source of so much of what’s good in the world.

To celebrate Mother’s Day, I’m giving away my latest novella, Charming for Mother’s Day for free in Kindle format and reducing the price of my other independent digital releases to 99 cents for this weekend only. I hope you’ll take advantage of this special deal and enjoy!

Happy Mother’s Day to parents everywhere!

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opinions I Got Right When I Was Six

Remember being six years old? First grade? Loose teeth? Mom still picking out your clothes? I began to wax nostalgic for my six year old self and what I thought I knew back then. Compared to several decades later, I wonder what values and opinions I've still kept.

These are things I distinctly recall saying that I can honestly confirm I got right:

1. Any bad day gets better with ice cream.
2. Nothing is as exciting and fulfilling as reading a very good book.
3. When I grow up, I want to be a writer.
4. Bugs Bunny is a genius.
5. Naps rock!
6. Sharing with others makes me feel good.
7. Only a boy who can make me laugh will win my heart.
8. No one cares if the part in my hair is crooked.
9. I will never, never, never want that godawful family photo that hangs in my parents' living room.
10. Clowns are creepy.

How wise were you when you were six?

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