Things Happen the Way They’re Supposed To

As I check the weather report each day, I’m reminded that so much of life is about doing the footwork and letting things happen the way they’re supposed to. What prompted this topic is a Spring Break trip I have planned to “the old sod” next week. My cousin Martha and I have been looking forward to a week in Ireland since last fall.

Who knew the US would be pounded week after week with  blizzards and arctic blasts. And did you know that Ireland has been pounded all winter with deluges and fierce winds? Buildings swept out to sea, roads washed away, main streets under water.

Image (Doran cousins at the Bo’sun Restaurant in Monkstown, County Cork, Ireland)

Even the “glass half full” cousin we hope to visit in Cork says, “Now if only Ireland doesn’t go under with all the water that’s falling it will be great to see you both.”

We have no control! We may not even make it out of Rochester. Nevertheless, we’re planning a wonderful week in Ireland starting in Cork and working our way around the southwest coast and up to the Cliffs of Moher. Grand!

What has any of this to do with writing novels? Setting out to write a book, for me, is the same back-and-forth of planning and letting go and re-planning and letting go. I might begin with a brilliant outline and a richly developed GMC chart, but those characters of mine are going to wrestle me around to their points of view, their burning issues, their dreams and their schemes! I am merely their conduit.

The good news is, with them taking such strong roles, I can put a lot of my energy into the writing. That seems to suit all of us, as my writing is improving all the time.

So, even if I can’t kiss the Blarney Stone next week (are you kidding?? at my age??) I can continue to develop my gift for storytelling right in my own home office. Still, my bags are packed and, oh, how I yearn to be back in Ireland. Stay tuned…

Time for a Villain?

As Book Three of the Lakeside Porches contemporary romances takes shape, I’m thinking ahead to Book Four. Those of you who have read Book One, Stepping Up To Love (Soul Mate Publishing, 2013), have met Manda Doughty and her boss Joel Cushman.

Manda’s sister Lyssa makes small, dramatic appearances in each of the first three books, and Book Four is Lyssa’s turn as heroine. Personally, I think this is one love story that needs a villain, but I may be wrong.

I did a little poking around on the web to see the current take on villains in romance. There are many schools of thought!

Goodreads, for example, has two lists of books with villains: “Villains as romantic love interests” and “Villain Gets the Girl.Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are included, with many historical romances and contemporary, too. These are books “where the hero doesn’t have a complete turn around and become a good guy.” In other words, the hero is the villain.

What I had in mind for Lyssa’s story is a villain who vies with another man for the heroine’s heart and who may or may not succeed. It’s up to the heroine to decide which man is her hero.

Several interesting articles gave me caveats, terrific examples and food for thought. Concerned that your villain may be out of step with today’s romance genre? Anne Marble profiles eights villains to avoid in “How Not to Create a Villain”. Want the male view? Try Andrew Moore’s article “Top 10: Romantic Villains”. (Personally, I would add one of my favorite romantic villains to the list: Jasper Bloom in the Nancy Meyers’ film The Holiday.) Finally, Steven Slavick wrestles with the question “why don’t romance novels have villains?” in his short, savvy article “Who Doesn’t Love a Romantic Villain?” Food for thought!

What is your take on villains in romance? Do you love a good rake? Do you think the villain should always lose? Do you have a favorite villain? Have you written a villain into your romance novel? I’d love to hear!

Character Arcs

I attended a concert last night at Kodak Hall, not as a music critic, but as one who loves the piano and classical music. Last night’s performance was part of my Rochester Philharmonic subscription, but it was special to me because it featured a Mozart concerto performed by a pianist I’ve been aware of for most of his distinguished career.

Quick backstory so you know how this ties into “character arcs”: in 1967 I attended a concert in Kilbourn Hall (also at the Eastman Theatre complex) featuring a recital by Barry Snyder, a young pianist, recipient of multiple honors, including the Van Cliburn competition. I don’t recall the pieces he performed, but his playing blew us all away– brilliant and forceful. His appearance impressed me equally. I remember him walking onto the stage– rangy and leaning slightly forward as if he and the piano exerted a magnetic force on one another. He folded his lanky frame onto the bench, raised his arms, positioned his hands over the keys and struck the first chord. For all the world, he looked like a benign vulture and Linus rolled into one. Words like Intense, Determined, Brilliant, Gifted, Whole-life-in-front-of-him fit the picture.

I watched his performance, mesmerized and torn, a screwed up college student who loved the piano and knew I had to give it up (even then my arthritis had damaged tendons enough that I could no longer play chords). I had no idea what the rest of my life would hold. My own bewilderment and fear ruled me for years after that.

Fast forward forty-six years.

Barry Snyder performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with the RPO last night, and the picture was different. Brilliant performance, as before. Thundering applause and standing ovation. Snatches of conversation at intermission: Laid-back, Fluid, Mind-boggling. I compared my mental pictures of the same performer then and now and saw a man who today is in the fullness of a long, distinguished career as educator, performer, and collaborator. And, yes, laid back, with softer edges and an aura of  fulfillment.

As for me, today I am an author, soon to retire from a career as educator and technologist, with a lifetime of stories and insights and trials and tribulations and growth to draw on in my writings. As an author, I can remember and observe a brilliant man at two very-far-apart points in his life, and I can imagine many paths or “character arcs” that represent his journey from Intense to Laid-back, from Gifted to Mind-boggling, from Determined to Fulfilled. Since I am not a biographer, any path I imagine is fiction, potentially fascinating and probably far from the truth.

I really only know my own path, my character arc, from bewildered, screwed up, fearful freshman to author. The character arcs I write in my books are infused with my own development and with what I know of the development of so many people I have met on the journey. And not one of those fictitious character arcs is my own or that of any one person I have known. Character arcs are endlessly fascinating to me.

I’d love to hear which authors you regards as masters of the Character Arc in fiction or in biography!

My Go-To Authors

Recently I was asked to share about my favorite authors. Since I read romance, mystery, and women’s fiction, I had a hard time limiting the number. Here in alphabetical order (hey, I’m a librarian!) are nine of my current, go-to writers.

Maeve Binchy is the queen. I never tire of the confluence of characters, beliefs, demons, and struggles in her books. When we learned that A Week in Winter was finished just before her death, my cousin remarked, “What a wonderful goodbye she’s given us.”

Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries and Her Royal Spyness mysteries take me to other places and other times.  Each murder mystery is fully developed in a unique setting with its own set of characters, along with the usual hero, heroine, and supporting cast. Together they’ve shown me around New York, Newport, Nice, Dublin and Transylvania.

Alan Bradley’s historical “Flavia DeLuce” mysteries are funny, poignant, and charmingly original. Bradley engages the reader in such a variety of ways—through historical knowledge, through outrageous family dynamics, through larger-than-life victims, and on and on. A master storyteller! I love it that he was 70 before he turned to writing popular novels.

Sally Goldenbaum’s mysteries always stay at the top of the TBR stack, especially the Sea Harbor knitting series. Each book in the series transports me to my beloved Cape Ann and introduces me to new characters while catching me up on old favorites and engaging me in a fascinating mystery.

Debbie Macomber’s books are filled with human caring. I love her ever-changing cast of characters and those settings that pull at my heart—small town, neighborhood, island harbor, all so beautiful. She brings alive the need for love, the struggle to love, the comfort of love, the joy of love, and the courage to move beyond heart-breaking loss into a second chance at love.

Louise Penny is another extraordinary writer. Her Inspector Gamache mysteries feature a community of richly drawn characters, plus detectives with their own personal dramas who must work with the locals to solve the crime.

Mariah Stewart’s Chesapeake Diaries are the quintessential small-community romance series for me. She draws me in with a strong sense of place. Each heroine is flawed and likable, strong but open to change. The romantic heroes are distinctive, none of them exactly my type but always intriguing.

Nancy Thayer’s beach reads pull together several very different women and pair them with men who touch their hearts, in settings that open their minds to new possibilities. I just finished Island Girls (Ah, Nantucket!), and I look forward to next year’s refreshing, satisfying novel.

I find Jennifer Weiner’s books to be engaging and thought-provoking. I admire the way she uses multiple characters to explore multiple sides of controversial current issues, such as surrogate pregnancy. No matter the issue, her stories are both personal and satisfying.

Organizing Book Three of my series

Writing Book Two of the Lakeside Porches romances dropped me into the dilemmas all series writers face: how to recover from a “bad” character portrayal in a previous book, how to keep details straight (what color were his eyes? how old was she when?), and how to leave the door open for a change of heart? I didn’t have access then to the wonderful post today from writing duo C.D. Hersch (see Five Important Things You Should Know About Writing a Series) and other advice like it.

I was fortunate that Book One (Stepping Up To Love) was still in the editing process; I could, for example, still revise the brief appearance of Joel’s uncle Justin at the beginning and end of Book One. Thank heaven! I made Justin less nasty, more insightful, and a lot richer. That smoothed the way for a still-deeply-troubled Justin to be a redeemable, desirable, even likable hero in Book Two. It also insured that the Book One hero and heroine– Joel and Manda– had firmly established, meaningful relationships with Justin at the start of Book Two.

Even better, I learned from the mistake. I developed a scene-by-scene matrix for the second book, using advice from Bob Mayer and Jen Talty. I also kept notes about each character, including some backstory.

To keep my sanity and to insure a coherent, credible series, I’ve drafted three documents to help me with Book Three. The new book (working title “Gwen Gets a Clue”) has a main love story (psychologist Gwen Forrester from Books One and Two and a new character Peter Shaughnessy) and a significant subplot (Gwen’s pregnant niece Meg and her brainy college boyfriend Rick). Because Meg’s pregnancy coincides with Gianessa’s from Book Two (find out if the twins will really be named Jack and Jill) we’ll have return appearances from Dr. Bowes (see, I had to search for her name!), Justin, Sydney Shorey and her husband Danny Brennan (had to search for his name too, but I remembered he’s a Notre Dame grad), Sara and the Thrift Shop Adventure chicks, Tony (whose younger brother Sam is Peter’s partner) and of course Joel and Manda.

The three documents together make sense of all the characters and story elements:

– A Goals-Motivation-Conflict chart for Gwen, Peter, Meg, and Rick (thanks forever to Debra Dixon).
– A chronology of events that weaves together all four main characters (Gwen, Peter, Meg, and Rick) and that shows each one’s growth (character arc) and the arc of Gwen and Peter’s love story.
– Notes about the contribution of the Meg-Rick subplot showing how their needs, decisions, dilemmas, etc. are instrumental to the character growth of Gwen and Peter and showing the contrast between their young love relationship and the main love story between Gwen and Peter. I added explanations for the contribution and importance of Sam and Tony, Sydney and Danny, and Gianessa and Justin.

I did not number these documents 1-2-3 because their development was iterative. A change to one had ripple effects on the other two. It was only when I declared “Yes!” for the GMC chart that I felt confident I could “finalize” the other two. I now have the blueprints I need to proceed with the writing at an absolutely insane period with both my day jobs. I feel relaxed knowing that every stolen half hour of writing time will be time well spent. I can start a scene from any point on the chronology, with confidence. Or continue the scene. Or revise it. I know the scene’s significance and I know which details already exist and which can be created or embellished.

Will the new blueprints work? I think so. Will I backtrack into another scene-by-scene matrix, perhaps more complex than before? If I need to.

Please share your techniques, favorite links, resources, and examples for writing a coherent, credible series!

People, Places, Things– What inspires you as a writer?

People, Places, Things– What inspires you as a writer?

March has brought me some tough weather, health, and finances, but it’s also been filled with inspiration for me as a writer. As the month draws to a close, I want to honor the person, the place, and the things that most inspired me this month. I hope you’ll share, too.

The person: When the first Lakeside Porches book Stepping Up To Love is published this August, its dedication will be “to our inspirational friend John…”. John is an old ski buddy of ours who turned 91 a few months ago. Over the past two years he researched an exceptional woman athlete and prepare a formal nomination for her to the Women’s Hall of Fame. The winners were just announced, and John’s nominee Julie Krone will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this fall. How does that inspire me as a writer? John inspired the entire Lakeside Porches series; as we enjoyed his 90th birthday brunch on the sunny porch at Belhurst Castle, I watched the staff fuss over him and make sure he enjoyed himself (oh, yes, he did!), and I sensed in my writer’s soul that there were heartwarming, passionate stories among the staff and guests at a place like the Belhurst. The concept for Lakeside Porches was born that sunny January day. John follows his curiosity, and I follow my writing muse.

angel-holycrossThe place: Early this March, when work seemed overwhelming and winter seemed never-ending, a friend from work filled a pause in the conversation with, “And I’m going on a silent retreat in a couple of weeks.” I pumped her for information and ended up going with her to Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson (http://www.holycrossmonastery.com/). From March 19-22 we retreatants engaged in total silence, broken only by chanting and prayer at three daily services (Matins, Eucharist, and Vespers) at this Anglican Benedictine monastery. I went with the question, “So what am I really supposed to be doing now and for the rest of my life?” Pretty quickly, the universe assured me I’m on the right track by working and writing… and gradually shifting the balance from mostly work (a year ago) to mostly writing (a few years from now). I relaxed right into that and wrote my little fingers off (okay, I don’t use a pencil, I keyboard 99% of what I write). In fact, thanks to the quiet and inspiration of the retreat, I’m now working the last chapter of Book Two of the Lakeside Porches (Coming Home to Love, Justin and Gianessa’s story, begun last summer in the Berkshires). Check out my Facebook Author page for more pictures (FB: Katie.OBoyle.Author).

snowdropsThe things: I love all the little signs of spring! Sure there’s still snow on the ground, and it is gray, gravel-encrusted snow at that. But the snowdrops are blossoming, the birds are pairing off (see Stepping Up To Love hero Joel Cushman’s Twitter Feed @TompkinsFalls). OMG– two pileated woodpeckers, red crowns bursting out of the top of their heads, whoop-whooping as they chased each other through the trees all over campus this week! (see gabku’s photo) The miracle of creation is back with us. Hearts are turning to love and romance. Spring, like hope, will not be denied, so matter how gray the snow looks. The romance genre for me is filled with hope, creation, and happy endings, regardless of how tough things get from time to time. We make our own happiness, and this time of year I draw on all the little signs of spring to bring a smile to my face and to my heart.

What inspires you as a writer? A person? A place? A thing?

Staying true to your book

What would you do?

You’ve finished the book, asked a variety of test readers to give you feedback, and made changes based on their feedback. You love this book, its characters, and its message. You submit the manuscript, as requested, knowing that it will be assigned an editor. You wait and wait and finally the edits arrive in your inbox.

By page two you realize the editor has misread your book, viewing it through the lens of a belief system that is apparently at odds with your message. Of all the things you anticipated, this wasn’t one of them. Not only does the editor object to the way you’ve handled sensitive situations, he wants you to rewrite the book to bring it in line with his passionate viewpoint. It’s almost as if you’re bringing a Jewish perspective to situations, and now you’re expected to rewrite your book from a Catholic perspective. Yikes!

Okay, let’s make it even harder: You’re a brand new author and this is your first book. And you have no option to request another editor.

So, what would you do?

I won’t share all the curses, prayers, foot stomps, phone calls to friends, double-checks with test readers, and obsessive cleaning sprees, but you can imagine how my kitchen shone for the ten days of this editing ordeal!

Here’s what I did in response to the editor’s input:

To begin on a positive note, I separated the edits that were craft-related from those that were ideology-related. I looked at the merits of the craft-related edits and saw that most of them definitely improved the quality of the writing and the effectiveness of the book for my target audience. It felt good to see that in some ways the editor was on my side; I made those changes and took time to reflect on how the tips and techniques would benefit me as I moved forward in my writing career.

Buoyed by that little success, I moved on to the comments that arose from the tricky professional lens the editor wore when he picked up my book. Were any of the comments valid relative to my story? Very few, I thought. I decided to incorporate those few changes by working them into the character arcs of the hero and heroine the best I could. That done, I gave myself a pat on the back for staying true to my book and moved ahead.

Next, I looked at the really troublesome comments that did not fit with the nature or intent of my book. Ultimately I had to ask myself if my characters’ motivations were clear to my reader? How about the hero’s thinking and the heroine’s responses and the villain’s villainy? Did the editor misread them and judge them anathema because of his particular lens or because of my sloppy writing? Probably some of each, I decided.

I did a complete review of the book looking specifically at how I represented motivation through action and dialog. Also, where had I muddied the water or gotten preachy or danced around an issue or failed to connect the dots in a character’s arc? That analysis taught me a lot. I set about clarifying why my characters thought and behaved as they did, particularly in those sensitive situations that the editor dissed. And I made changes accordingly– not to embrace the editor’s view– but to clarify and improve my story.

That done, I adjusted things like the final word count of the manuscript (which had crept past the 80,000 word mark), scrolled through to be sure all the changes and comments had been addressed, spell-checked one more time, saved it, backed it up–twice– and sent it. And I sent a separate letter to the person who had originally bought my book and signed the contract with me; I won’t share that here.

And I love this book. Will my edits be accepted? Will my book be published? I don’t know.

I’m curious what other authors have done or would do in a similar situation. I hope you’ll share your comments.

Make the scene mean

In November, Bob Mayer and Jen Talty presented a workshop for our LCRW “Write On!” conference. One of the take-aways for me was Bob’s practice of using a spreadsheet to track every scene in a book, including with the scene’s contribution to the book. The technique came to mind as I progressed with Justin’s and Gianessa’s romance Coming Home to Love. As I recall, Bob tracked many details with his spreadsheet; knowing me, though, a wide open spreadsheet would be an invitation to go wild with columns and color coding, so I kept it simple this first time.

I created a simple 3-column table in Word, labeled the columns “Chapter-scene number,” “Brief summary,” and “Contribution of scene to book.” (Then of course it took me 15 minutes to resize the columns because this is Word 2011, which has some new features that make simplicity harder to achieve.) Finally ready to begin, I reviewed the twelve chapters-in-progress, scene by scene. I learned a lot.

I was surprised by how long it took to create the table, even with all the chapters on hand. Identifying the main purpose of each scene took time, and as often as not that purpose was not clear in the existing scene. It’s tempting, as a new writer, to think I have terrible technique when I see something like that; however, when I think about my writing process, it makes sense for it to happen that way. When I’m writing a scene, the characters are telling the story, and they don’t know how it’s going to work out five chapters later. They may not realize the significance of a detail; they may not realize a remark foreshadows a scene two chapters down the line. So, for me, having a scene analyzer (surely there’s a better name for it!) is a necessary adjunct to writing the scenes.

When I say I was surprised by how long it took, I’ve been working on this table for three hours over the past couple of days, and I’ve done 9 out of 12 chapters. Lots of thinking involved, which tells me it’s a very worthwhile endeavor! Using an approach like this potentially enriches each scene.  There aren’t any “filler” scenes now, no “transition” scenes, no “need some comic relief here” scenes. By doing the analysis, each scene contributes to the story in an important way. Maybe the same two characters are having a light-hearted exchange, as before, but there’s more and it’s meaningful.

Working on the table also helps me see where I can tie up a minor thread earlier in the story or use an earlier resolution to give more weight to a decision later in the story. In other words, it’s a good way to let my characters do their thing in each scene and also have me orchestrating the whole start to finish. Ooh, I like that orchestra metaphor.

This is a fascinating learning process for me. Each workshop, each speaker, each article gives me new ideas to try and new ways to look at the craft of writing. Write on!

If each scene works, do they necessarily work together?

Over the holiday break, I sequenced the twenty or so scenes I’d written for Book Two (Justin and Gianessa).  Until then, the book felt fragmented, and, although I had ideas for additional scenes, I needed to see how the existing material worked together (or failed to). The result was not so much a “backbone” as an “emerald necklace” of Justin and Gianessa’s love story.

If that term Emerald Necklace doesn’t ring a bell, I should explain that I lived in the Boston area for about twenty years, and the Olmstead parks were a beautiful feature of the landscape. (Check out Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace at http://www.emeraldnecklace.org/map/). Gianessa’s necklace (not emerald!) is an important symbol in the book; perhaps that’s why her scenes with Justin looked more like an emerald necklace than a backbone to me when I strung them together.

In terms of the book, I found I that the twenty scenes fitted themselves well into twelve sketchy chapters. The chapters represent an emerging love story and fairly complete character arcs for both Justin and Gianessa. In short, the existing material hangs together, and I can see the work that remains.

At this point, I’m enjoying the supporting characters whose scenes help tell the story of the main characters’ development; I enjoy having them speculate on the changing relationship as they see it. These characters– Manda, Joel, Tony, Lyssa, Sara, Gwen, and Phil– feel very real to me since their debut in Book One. Old friends.

Back to work.