woman writing with turkey

4 ways writing a book is like preparing Thanksgiving dinner

woman writing with turkeyWriting a book is a fairly complex undertaking. You don’t just get an idea, then sit down and tap it out.

In honor of NaNo and November’s holiday, I decided to compare writing to cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

Just like people have different cooking styles, writers approach their craft with varying degrees of preparation.

At one end of the spectrum are the Plotters. Plotters prepare everything up front. They follow the recipes, measure the ingredients and clean up as they go.

At the other end are the Pantsers (i.e. Seat of your Pants). That’s my strategy, or perhaps lack of strategy. Pantsers cook as they go–throw in a pinch of this, a glop of that, taste, adjust, and serve once you have enough inspired (or edible) offerings.

Regardless of your style, I think every author goes through four basic steps as they cook up their masterpieces.

1. Decide what to serve.

First things first – plan your menu. You make up a list of everything you want to include–keeping in mind what your family likes to eat, how much food to prepare, what dishes are required, and what new things you want to try.

When writing, an author starts with a story idea.

That’s the easy part…the fun part, at least for me. This is when you get to be creative, living in your imaginary world. You start to sketch out a plot based on what your audience likes, what elements are required and include any new twists you hope will keep things interesting.

At this stage, there are no right or wrong answers. If you tell your favorite Aunt Lynn you’re serving beets and she suggests yams instead, maybe you throw in some yams.

2. Research your topic.

Are you going to stick to family favorites or add a new flavor to the stuffing? How many pies do you need for 12 people, what is the difference between shortening and butter, how do you use a Dutch over? This is when you hit Google, call your mom, ask for suggestions on Facebook or talk to friends.

Writers usually spend an awful lot of time on the internet, researching the most bizarre subjects–how long does it take to bleed to death, how many periods in a lacrosse game (it’s 4 quarters, in case you care), and what is the proper way to address a duke in 19th century England?

Even if you’re “writing what you know,” chances are you will need to research something. In my latest book, my characters are a nutritionist and a state trooper. I needed to know how their schedules would conflict over holidays. Luckily, through friends of a friend, I found people who could answer my questions. The trick in this stage is to not spend too much time researching and forget to write.

3. Gather your ingredients and get to work.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, you begin preparations. Will you special order a free-range turkey or a frozen Butterball? Get boxed stuffing or use fresh bread? Do you have enough time and space to cook it all? Once you’ve figured all that out, it’s time to get cooking! Your mission is to create a well-balanced, delicious meal.

Write, write, write. Once you’ve drafted an outline and blurped out the important scenes, the hard part begins. You have to look at everything you’ve written and decide if it all fits together. What’s missing? Are the relationships believable, does the pacing seem right, is the dialogue natural?

After all your work, you may find you’ve got some great scenes, but they don’t advance the plot. Too many desserts and not enough vegetables. It’s painful, but this is when you have to be ruthless and hit that delete button. Your primary goal is to create a satisfying treat for your readers.

4. Time to clean up (Ugh)

After weeks of preparation, you’ve cooked an amazing meal. You set it on the table, family digs in, and hopefully the response is positive. You are savoring that last bite of pumpkin pie, when you turn around and realize the kitchen looks like it was hit by a level four tornado.

It’s time to clean up your manuscript. If  you thought writing a book was hard–editing it is killer. The Find and Replace function is an author’s best friend and most dreaded enemy. You’ll discover your manuscript is littered with filler words, echoes and poor punctuation.

Words like just, look, and that will leap out at you by the hundreds. The same phrase appears over and over in a paragraph, mocking your ridiculously limited vocabulary. He smiled at her, she smiled back and they smiled again. Couldn’t you have thrown in a smirk, a grin or an eye twinkle?

Don’t worry. You’ll get through it. At some point, you’ll look up and discover everything is in its proper place. Giving the counters a final swipe, you’ll heave a contented sigh, and shut off the lights…until next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!


 

Alleigh Burrow’s first book, Dare to Love, includes a duke, marquis and a few earls. Her second manuscript, Catching a Pixie, needed the state trooper’s holiday schedule. And for some reason, her current WIP includes extensive lacrosse references. To date, none of her characters have bled to death, but there’s always a next time.

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Tips from a romance writer’s conference

We’re here to help

Dog says You're AwesomeI attended Put Your Heart in a Book, the New Jersey Romance Writer’s conference last weekend. It’s probably my fifth time, and it felt like I was coming home. If anyone out there is looking for quality writing advice in a manageable sized setting, be sure to check it out.

Let me share some of the important lessons I learned.

  1. Romance writers are one of the most supportive group of people you’ll ever meet

It’s truly remarkable how willing all the attendees–from novice writers to multi-published authors–are to offer tips to each other, compare publisher stories, discuss social media opinions and share self publishing success and failures.

This doesn’t even cover the emotional support you’ll receive. Most every romance author has survived some sort of trauma–physical abuse, loss of a loved one, loss of jobs, serious injury, you name it. Yet they’ve kept writing, kept swinging for the fences and eventually, they have found success.

If you are struggling, and it’s affecting your work or your self worth, just say so. Someone will come over, put their arm around you, share words of inspiration or a comforting piece of chocolate (there is always plenty of chocolate) and you’ll leave with the most important tool for writing. Hope.

 

2. Ways to spark imaginative writing

Kathleen Long (USA Today best selling author) held a session, “Fire up your process with creative storytelling techniques.” She advocates getting outside of your writing to help your story bubble up from within. Focusing too hard, can cause blockages. Channel ideas through these techniques:

Collages – Take a stack of magazines and cut out pictures, words, colors and any other elements that speak to you. Create a collage. Use it to help define your characters or settings. Your subconscious will frequently pinpoint details, conflicts or quirks that you may not have identified. One author shared that she had used taro cards with similar results.

Speech bubbles – draw your character and ask it a question. Then write their answer as a speech bubble. What are they feeling? How do they view the world? What do they want us to know?

Writing prompts– Sometimes your creativity gets stuck. Words won’t flow. Everything you write sounds stupid. You may need to think about something totally unrelated to your current project. Pick a writing prompt and just let loose (like write 500 words about your pet, but include the words clock, pencil and burgundy)

Then there’s non-writing strategies to clear your head:

Color in a coloring book– embrace your inner child and lower your stress through the simple, act of coloring. Use a fancy adult book or a dollar store kid version. Whatever floats your boat.

Take a walk– Get up from your desk and move. Walk, run, yoga, whatever helps clear your mind and silence the demons.

Listen – I mentioned my zen-listening  idea, and the attendees agreed that sitting quietly and experiencing sounds around us could be inspirational.

 

3. Look at the world through a different lens

Young adult author Nisha Sharma had us participate in an interesting exercise. We watched clips from Bollywood movies with strong romantic elements. Because the couples are not allowed to overtly display intimacy (no kissing, and certainly no sex!), and they are speaking another language, the clips emphasized the physical characteristics that built tension.

This helped illustrate how to tap into the essence of your characters to bring their romance, and your writing, to life. I now have a wonderfully rich library of action tags to choose from:

Eyes: sidelong glance to mask interest, lower lashes when caught staring, flicker of a glance to coyly remind them of your interest, and outright staring when you know they aren’t looking.

Hands: gentle touches on the arm, shoulder or hip, reach towards someone and quickly pull away, tuck hair behind ear, put hands behind your back to prevent touching or to enticingly stick out your chest, help them put on their coat or smooth down a lapel and let fingers linger.

Mouth: lick, purse or bite your lips, a sharp inhale when they get too close, a slow exhale after a very satisfying exchange, grit teeth when jealous, mouth drops when first spotting your love.

Behaviors: Talk to a friend/relative and get distracted when the object of your affection walks by. Tilt head or hip when talking, lean in, smother a giggle, offer to pass something then hold onto it or mess with someone else and share a secret laugh/smile about it with lover.

 

There were dozens of other sessions sharing equally valuable tips…but these were the most poignant for me. I hope they help you find some inspiration.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

meditation image

A zen tip to better writing

meditation imageListen to the sounds outside of your head.

I was overly stressed this summer, but the book gods took care of me and sent me a boon. There, on the giveaway book table at work, was “Everyday Zen.”

I’m open for anything, so I scooped it up and stole away for a few minutes at lunchtime to see what I could learn. It didn’t take me long to figure out zen required too much time and effort to change my life. But it did suggest one particular exercise that I found very beneficial, not only for my nerves, but for my writing.

Stress, anger, and even pleasure are all just manifestations of your brain. They are not real. They don’t exist. If you clear your head and let the thoughts dissipate, you can become…enlightened, free, a lamp unto yourself (that’s where they lost me.)

BUT to do that, they suggest turning off the noise in your head and become one with the universe. You do that by listening outside of yourself. Sit still and listen…to traffic, the birds, the rest of life that is happening around you.

It’s a fascinating exercise. I had no idea the cicadas were so loud this summer. They buzz like an alien lifeforce day and night.

No matter where I sat, air conditioning units hummed in and around every building. Clocks tick, the cat snores and on a good day, I could hear the marching band practicing two miles away.

I never gave much thought to sounds before, but all of this can be remarkable fodder for books. Sitting in a grocery store, I now know the cash registers ping with every sale. The loudspeaker crackes like a potato chip bag and the lottery machine plays a tune. How much richer and more vivid my scenes will be with that sort of detail?

I’d like offer a hearty shout out to the Buddha dude, for providing some great inspiration.  😉

Dare to Love cover art

DARE TO LOVE – on sale for $1.99

Dare to Love cover artGet it while it’s hot!

Dare to Love, my regency romance novel is on sale for a limited time. It has earned 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, so don’t even think it’s being “put in the back on the discount rack, like another can of beans” (thank you Billy Joel).

Nope. It’s a charming, amusing, challenging novel featuring Lord Dare Landis, a handsome heartless rake, and Nivea Horsham, the sweet plump sister of Landis’ best friend. She has worshiped him since she was a young girl, but he knows better than to trifle with an innocent. Especially since the Horshams are the closest thing Dare has to family.

Much like Johnny Depp in The Libertine, you will not like Dare Landis in the beginning. He is a right bastard, cold and arrogant toward everyone–friend or foe. But there’s a reason.

And once Nivea discovers that reason, she is even more determined to win his love.

Don’t be concerned that Nivea is nothing but a wilting wallflower. She is surprisingly strong, secure in her own beliefs. Her only weak spot, being the unattainable Lord Landis. Unattainable, that is, until the fateful trip to her family’s country estate.

Please take a peek and let me know what you think. Reviews are always appreciated!

Thank you to Lyrical Press/Kensington Publication for believing in me. While this was my first romance novel, it will not be my last!

How I envision Matt Quinsy

Catching a Pixie

I just finished my second manuscript–Catching a Pixie–a contemporary romance novella.

Can I tell you, it is awesome?!Matt Quincy

Trust me, I’m a professional writer, so I know. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stay up way past your bedtime to finish reading about the romantic adventures of Matt and Lindsay.

There’s still a few rough patches I have to fix. And then I need to find a publisher who will want to print it… but then you’ll see what I mean.

Let me summarize:

Lindsay, a graduate student at Roselle University is pulled over for speeding by a handsome NY state trooper. Turns out he went to Roselle too and he lets her go with a warning. A month goes by and who does Lindsay see at Roselle’s homecoming tailgate? Officer Matt Quincy. Best of all, he drove down to Delaware, just hoping to see her. Despite living four hours apart, they decide to see if they can make it work. Busy schedules and the spector of an old flame threaten to pull them apart, but the magic of love–and a little pixie dust–lead them to a happily ever after.

Excerpts (2)

First a little heat:

He reached for me and I took a step back, shaking my head. “I changed my mind.” Thinking I was kidding, he went for my arm again. I dodged away.

Realizing I was serious, he raised his hands in surprised surrender. “What do you mean?” 

“I can’t do this. I mean…just look at you.”

His hands still raised in the air, he lowered his eyes. “What?” I followed along with him and we both stopped when our gaze reached the growing bulge in his pants. “Is there something wrong?”

“Uhhh, yes,” I squeaked, dragging my eyes upward. Then I glanced down at my ridiculously paltry mosquito bites. “Your chest is bigger than mine.”

He chuckled. “Aww, stop,” then flexed his pecs, the big jerk. “I spent a ton of time at the gym this month. I’ve had a lot of nervous energy, thanks to you.”

“Even so, you are absolutely gorgeous. You can’t want to be with me.”

His mouth dropped open. “What are you talking about?”

I swept my hands down in front of me. “Look at me. I’m built like a twelve-year-old boy.”

He reared back a little, to give me a good, long look. Then tipping his head to one side, he said with complete sincerity, “I think you’re beautiful, Pix.”

It took all I had not to snort. I stared longingly at his pecs covered in a light dusting of hair, his obliques bracketing impossibly defined abs, the happy trail just below his navel, disappearing in the waistband of his sweats. Hell, even his belly button was sexy.

Then my gaze returned to his eyes. They were hungry. Craving.

“Seriously?”

He tugged me into his arms, holding me flush against his obviously appreciative body. “Seriously.”

Clearly the man had no sense, but who was I to argue with him. After a month enjoying the most erotic thoughts ever, I’d be crazy to let him slip through my fingers. So, I launched myself at him and we locked lips like he was my last source of oxygen.

And then a little humor:

Let me just pack it all up into a cooler bag for you.” Matt’s mother reached into the cupboard.

And as soon as her back was turned, I wiggled my butt at Matt. He growled and gave me a quick swat.

“Here you go.” She waved a brightly-colored insulated bag at us before tucking the food and utensils into the compartments. “I know it’s not a long trip, but this way you’ll have something to eat when you get there. Mattie’s always hungry and this will tide you over ‘til you get to the grocery store.” She winked at me. “We don’t want him to be cranky, do we?”

Mattie? That was hysterical. I would never have thought my giant, imposing boyfriend would have a nickname like Mattie. Or that his mom would talk about him like a three-year-old. I loved it!

Apparently, Mattie did not. He strode forward and grabbed the bag off the island. “I’m standing right here, mom. And I don’t get cranky.”

Which was funny, because he certainly sounded cranky. I glanced at his mom and she sent me a knowing look. But she reached up to pat his face. “I’m sorry, dear, you’re right. That was mean. I just want to make sure you both have a nice trip.”

If it sounds intriguing, let me know and maybe I can post a few more sections. Until then, it’s back to editing… now what’s another word for ‘love button”? 😉

Novelrank – another cool author’s tool

untitled“So, how’s your book selling?”

Any author will tell you, that sentence can drive you crazy. Know why?

Because we have no bloody idea how it’s selling. At least I didn’t. My book came out December 1 and my publisher said I wouldn’t get initial sales figures until February.

FEBRUARY! That means over two months of uncertainty, panic, self-doubt and frustration. I begged and pleaded but they wouldn’t give me so much as a hint. As a data-fiend, this was unacceptable to me. During one of my rants, a writer friend told me about Novelrank.com. I signed up immediately.

You click on the link, register your book, and voila! They show how many books you’ve sold on Amazon in US, CA and UK. It also provides sales rank and reviews. I have no idea how accurate their data is (I won’t be able to tell until I get actual sales figures…in FEBRUARY), but it’s nice to have some gauge.

The downside is, they only track from the date you register. Since I didn’t learn about Novelrank until a few weeks after my book launched, I couldn’t track my initial figures. And they only track Amazon, not Barnes & Noble, iBooks or anyone else. But still.

Super cool. Thanks Novelrank!

 

Update (March 23, 2015):

I was finally able to get a rough estimate on my book sales from my publisher…on March 20!

It turns out, Dare to Love has been selling pretty well.

While I expected to strong-arm about 100 copies to friends and family, my publisher said I’ve sold around 650 (all book channels, Dec. 1 – Jan 31). Novel Rank credited me with about 300 sales (Amazon only, Dec. 16 – Jan 31). So, I’m thinking it’s a pretty good tool.Screenshot (5)

Dog says You're Awesome

You are good enough

Dog says You're AwesomeFocus on your own talent

I was perusing my bookcase this week and stumbled across an old motivational booklet, Attitude, Your Internal Compass. It’s one of those hokey “how to realize your potential” books from the ’90s. But one of the essays really struck a chord with me.
Borrowing heavily from Dorothy’s lament in The Wizard of Oz, it chastised people for spending too much time coveting the talent and success of others, without realizing how good they have it right in their own backyard. By feeling as though we aren’t as skilled as someone in a certain area, we get discouraged. Depressed.

What we don’t realize is, we each have our own particular skill set.

You may not be as creative a writer as EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), but maybe you have a better command of grammar and punctuation. You may be jealous of how prolific Nora Roberts is, but Harper Lee only published one book (To Kill a Mockingbird) and managed to have a fairly successful career.

220px-Steve_Buscemi_2009_portraitCan you even imagine what was going through Steve Buscemi’s head when he decided to become a movie star? I mean, seriously, folks. Look at that face. But he had talent and enthusiasm, and he found his niche.

So, when you’re shooting for your dreams, don’t worry if someone is better than you. Find what you enjoy, work at it, polish it, and become the best you can be.

Don’t try to fit into someone else’s box. Find success that matches your skills and experiences.

Why different is better

I had a boss who hated me. I was too outspoken, too concerned about putting a positive spin on things, and not focused on the nuts and bolts of the organization. She wanted me to be just like her–quiet, restrained and precise.

But I was the marketing manager. And she was an engineer. She didn’t enjoy talking to people and couldn’t care less about making reader-friendly documents. Whereas I loved that stuff. And for our business to succeed, she needed me to do that…to be the yin to her yang. She needed a team of people with different skill sets than hers’. Not better or worse, just different.

This is important for authors to remember. There are so many pieces in the publishing puzzle, no one can go it alone. Plot development, snappy dialogue, accurate grammar (my downfall, as I’m sure you can tell), pitching, synopsis writing, marketing, web design, contract negotiations, accounting, the list is endless.

My advice? Focus on what you’re best at, gain a basic knowledge on the subjects where you’re shaky and then build a team who can fill in your holes. Get a good critique partner, editor, agent, accountant, web designer, etc. Just remember to look for people who are not like you…but who are trying to be the best they can be.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters make millions

A lesson for writers…from the guy who sold $10 million in ugly sports sweaters

Ugly sports sweaters

Sorry Tom, my fav Patriot, but this sweater would make even you look ugly.

I read an article in Inc. magazine that began, “Thirteen months ago, Michael Lewis, founder and CEO of Forever Collectibles, didn’t even know that ugly sweaters were a thing. A concept. A fun, dorky theme for holiday parties.”

Yet this year he sold $10 million in sports-themed holiday sweaters. And yes, they are U.G.L.Y.

What struck me most about this article wasn’t his success, but rather his wise, yet incredibly simple marketing philosophy.

See, he’s in the sports collectables business. He started out selling plush teddy bears ($10 each), decked out in officially licensed MLB gear. But when bobbleheads hit the market, he quickly realized that there were more lucrative licensing opportunities…and he just had to be nimble and creative enough to adjust to changing markets.

Here’s the quote that prompted me to write this blog:

At the All-Star Game in Seattle, Lewis, who never went to business school, realized Forever Collectibles was not necessarily in the business of making plush bears. “We’re in the business,” he says, “of making emotionally connected products for people tied to sports.”

Lewis realized people were so invested in their sports teams, they would want to invite them into their holiday celebrations. Make them part of the family, so to speak.

That’s the lesson every single person in business should learn and remember. Whether you’re an author sitting in your tiny office/closet/bedroom, CEO of a company, or president of a university, you need to figure out who your customer is, what they want–emotionally–and how you can adapt your product to give that to them.

Your customers have to want your product…crave it…ache for it. Otherwise, they will fill that need somewhere else.

If you’re an author, you may think that’s too commercial a viewpoint. You want to write whatever speaks to you, and if people want to buy it (and of course they will, because you’re awesome!) then you’ll be successful. But if you’re a novelist, you need to make your characters so compelling that your readers feel their emotions–cry for them, cheer for them, worry over them–that’s why they buy books. To feel, on a visceral level, what is happening in a story.

Margie Lawson offers an entire writing seminar on writing viscerally, helping authors create three dimensions characters. I’m not promoting her specifically, I just know that she provides great tips. Note the difference in this ‘before and after passage’ from my Dare to Love manuscript:

1. Nivea was too shocked to speak

2. Nivea crumpled onto the bench, her head bowed. He’d shocked her well and good. She didn’t move until the sun ducked behind a cloud and she shivered, breaking the spell.

Can’t you picture her sitting there, bereft, physically paralyzed by his revelation? (Sorry, no spoilers. You’ll have to read the book to find out his secret.)

That’s the emotional connection. That’s what you need to strive for in your writing. Good luck!  May the muse be with you!

Happy holidays!

Alleigh 

I Love Amazon’s Author Central

Amazon has added a new feature to their website, called Author Central.

It allows authors (duh) to create a bio page and other services to help them connect with their reading audience. But even better, it posts rankings, showing how well an author’s book is selling compared to all other Amazon authors, and authors of similar genres. So, I can see how well my book (Dare to Love–in case you’ve been hiding under a rock) is selling compared to other Romance authors on Kindle.

They create a fun little graph, that is updated hourly, so I can obsessively chart my progress over time. So, I now know that my overall Amazon bestseller rank today is #19,610 – an all-time high!

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 2.15.37 PM

I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm, because, while this may mean I’m selling more books (increased numerator), it may also mean that other writers are selling fewer (decreased denominator). See, math is fun and useful!

I can access another chart that indicates I was the #957 best selling author of historical romance ebooks last week. Sadly, I’m now down to #1,738, but it’s been climbing for the past day or two.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.09.20 PM

AND according to Amazon, as of 12/11, I’m the #52 best selling author of Kindle ebooks in the category of fiction/historical fiction/British. Sure, if you add enough qualifiers, I’d eventually find myself in the top #100 of something, but I think this is a fairly substantial category.

Thanks, Amazon, for creating this feature. It’s like watching my own private stock market game.

Even more importantly, thank you to everyone who has bought my book. It is an amazing thrill to find people are interested in reading what I’ve written. And…AND…some of them have actually enjoyed it. Look at all the positive reviews!

Life is sweet.

Stephen King Rules!

I have become a recent devotee of Stephen King. Not for his horror novels, although if you like that genre they’re certainly riveting.

Nope, I am reading his legendary “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” In a word, it is awesome. Part autobiography, part “sitting down to bullshit with an incredibly insightful author who is happy to share his secrets to writing.”  I wish I had read it like 10 years ago before I started my novel, but I’m self-aware enough to know that I never would have paid attention. Why should I? I knew how to write!

But now that I’ve started and tossed aside two manuscripts and been mercilessly tortured by my editor on the third (thank you, Corinne), I’ve learned a few things. And Mr. King has been kind enough to package those rules in an elucidating and entertaining format. I’m paraphrasing here, but he advocates:

1. Learn your grammar. I had no idea how little training I had. Sentence structure, tenses, adverb… I thought I could skate by with guessing, but no, that stuff is actually important. And Mr. King explains why.

2. Read–anywhere and everywhere. I love this advice, because he specifically recommended reading on the treadmill. I’ve been doing that for years and my family makes fun of me for not really working out. Now I can say I’m working. The purpose is to study what works and what doesn’t–dialogue, tension, pacing–and figure out why.

3. Write. He’s a pantser (writes by the seat of his pants). He deliberately avoids plotting his book because he never knows where his characters may take him. He recommends writing your ideas, writing every day and getting out a first draft. If you get stuck, take a walk, mull, ponder, put yourself in your characters’ minds and they will tell you where to go.

4. Polish.  Once it’s written, then you fine-tune. Add embellishments. Look for, and strengthen symbolism, Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural. And don’t be afraid to “murder your darlings,” cutting out the precious gems you’ve written that just don’t work.

There’s much more, all written in a much more interesting voice than I could ever match.

Read it. And let me know what you think.