Guest Post: How Do You Picture Your Fictional Characters? by Alana Cash

mirror-clipart-Picture-143-271x300How much do you know about the characters in your writing? Do you know what they look like? I don’t. That’s right! I know everything about their lives and psyches and personalties and quirks, but not always the way they look. I don’t use doppelgängers. I know a few key things that help me write. For instance, in my upcoming novel, The Good Neighbor, Izzy Lane has short, layered hair that used to be long. She’s tall. Her eighty-five-year-old next-door-neighbor and confidante, Mrs. Feldman? I know she’s a vibrant octogenarian, but that’s it. Izzy’s best friend Jade is tall, and has long straightened hair, and Izzy’s cousin Rachel is short, and has short curly hair. WOW. I know hair, don’t I?

But I think I’m in the minority. I think most people really know what their characters look like. And that’s what’s so great about our guest post today. Here, Alana Cash gives examples and tools for really picturing your characters. Is that something you’d give a try?

I’m going to. I’m 75 pages into one WIP and two pages into another. Maybe this new method will spur my imagination in new and unusual ways. 

And that’s always a good thing!

Please welcome Alana Cash to WFW. And share in the comments how you picture your characters!

Amy xo

Picturing Your Fictional Characters

by Alana Cash

mirror-clipart-Picture-143-271x300There are many styles of writing fiction.  Some books are plot-driven with lots of drama or mystery or betrayal.  Others are genre books that set up expectations of romance, sex, crime, fantasy, torture, etc.  Some authors create a great plot and great characters (terrorist kidnapping in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett).  Some authors create a wonderful sense of atmosphere and great characters (railroad yard in 1940s in Pelican Road by Howard Bahr).  Some authors create a fantasy world and great characters (Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling).  The most enjoyable fiction always has memorable characters – people so real they are remembered like historical figures.

The way I write, and the way I taught others to write, is to create a solid character before beginning a story.  This doesn’t mean that the story can’t be genre or plot-driven.  It simply means that if a writer takes the time to create characters so real they seem like neighbors, the story will unfold more easily.  And, if you can get readers to remember your characters, they’ll remember the title of your work.

I taught fiction writing at the University of Texas Informal Classes and, over time, developed a four-part formula for creating characters (based on The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri):

Physical – height, weight, posture, foot size, age, etc.

Emotional – standard mood, in romantic relationship or not, relationship with family etc.

Psychological – IQ, introvert/extravert, educational level, etc.

Environmental – living environment/work environment, socioeconomics, etc.

The list is several pages long and it’s a good exercise for beginning writers to fill in all the blanks.

In the first class of each term, students created a character together, each person taking a turn filling in a blank round-robin style. Trying to make the character interesting, students often picked absurd traits:  5-feet tall, Olympic basketball player and plastic surgeon, blind in one eye, etc.  They didn’t realize that it’s far more difficult to write a story about this type of character – more a characterization – than one they truly developed.  To prove that to them, their assignment for the first week was to write a story about the character created by the group, then create their own character using the formula and write the same story, substituting the new character.  Although based upon the same premise, their stories changed substantially.

I’ve used this formula in my writing and heard from more than one person that my characters seem like real people.  In fact, one close friend actually told me she knew the people I wrote about in a particular story because I had introduced her to them.  I had to laugh as they were made up.  There are times that I’ve populated a story someone I know, changing her/him as much as possible and still suit the story, but not often.  It’s so much more fun to make people up.

This year, I wanted to try my hand at writing a genre book about a shape-shifter, because I thought it would be fun since fantasy and supernatural stories are so far from my normal style of writing fiction.  It wasn’t exactly fun, though, because I don’t think about fantasy or science fiction stories generally and I couldn’t get my fantasy protagonist (or any other important character) fully created.  I found that as I tried to get a handle on her, she did her own shapeshifting.  In the end, I got writer’s block because the story felt contrived and the characters didn’t feel real to me.  I could write, but so much of what I wrote went off on tangents and had to be edited away.

I had to change the story into one that I could actually imagine.  Only then could I get the characters made up.  But since I had played around with my main characters so much, they felt blurry which presented another problem in writing about them.  I considered dumping that story and starting a totally different story with a different sent of people.

Instead, for the first time ever, I went online to look at stock photos of people until I found someone who looked like my main character.  It took a few hours, but I figured, why stop there and went online to look for images of several other characters.  I printed out the photos and looked at them every time I started to write until the story took off.  This kept me on the straight and narrow in terms of my character development and their actions.

So, this year I added a fifth dimension to my formula for creating a character, and I recommend it.  It worked to focus the characters for me and it was a lot of fun.  In changing my story from a fantasy paranormal to an exploration of the paranormal, I also learned to accept that just can’t write certain types of stories.

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Multiple award-winning author and filmmaker Alana Cash is an adventurer. She’s trekked alone in war-torn Serbia and slept in a KGB interrogation room in Prague. She’s been to a gypsy fair in England, a bullfight in Laredo, and parasailing in Acapulco. She wore a bulletproof vest on a ride-along in an NYPD patrol car, and she’s kissed a man inside the Norman Bates Psycho House at Universal Studios.

Here are links to Alana’s blogs:

http://4yearsinbrooklyn.blogspot.com/

http://howyoulovetexas.blogspot.com/

Guest Post: An Author Fearing Forty by Meredith Schorr

Here’s a question for you…do you take your age into consideration when making your writing career goals? Your life goals that aren’t writing related? Have you changed your goals based on how old you are and what you have or haven’t accomplished? 

I had my first essay published in a major newspaper when I was 42. My first novel was published by St. Martin’s Press when I was 49. At 50, I’m ready to ramp up, not slow down, or even accept the status quo in anything. I do know that birthdays are milestones, a way to mark time and accomplishments. Even in THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, my next novel, my main character, Izzy Lane, uses her own 40th birthday as a deadline to make a big change in her life. Birthdays are relatable. We all have them (when we’re lucky). 

Today, Meredith Schorr shares her fear of turning 30 and then 40 — and how her next book tackles the age-old topic of women aging–what that means, and what it doesn’t. 

Please welcome Meredith to WFW!

Amy xo

An Author Fearing Forty

by Meredith Schorr

keep-calm-you-re-only-40-26As a voracious fan of humorous women’s fiction, I’ve read a considerable number of books about a twenty-nine year old woman who is freaking out about the prospect of being single at the ripe old age of thirty. The running theme is that thirty is a major life milestone by which you must be married or else you’ll be designated a spinster. These books make me roll my eyes since I didn’t give much thought to my unmarried status or the viability of my ovaries when I turned thirty. Perhaps this was because I was still in the twenty-something partying phase and had so many friends who were single too. In fact, only a small percentage of my social circle was married when I turned thirty. To me, thirty is still very young, there are many fertile years left, and most women don’t even know what they want until they’ve lived through their twenties and had a chance to figure it out. In my humble opinion, it would behoove a woman to wait until at least thirty to consider getting married.

Turning forty, well that was an entirely different animal for me. I was not okay with it. In fact, I was terrified. From the day I turned thirty-nine, I counted down the months and then the weeks and then the days until my fortieth birthday with an increasing sense of dread and nausea in my belly. This is because aside from several more expertly-covered gray hairs, I didn’t look much different at thirty-nine than I did at twenty-nine and although my partying preferences had definitely slowed down a bit—choosing to have drinks before dinner instead of drinks instead of dinner—my lifestyle was the same as well. I still wasn’t married and I still didn’t have kids. Although a decade prior, I was not concerned by this, I definitely was now. I was afraid after I turned forty, my genes would fail me and I would begin to look older and lose my appeal to men before I found someone to love who would love me back. I was afraid people would start to refer to me behind my back as an old maid or question my sexual preferences. Although I’m not certain I want children, I didn’t like the idea that if I waited much longer, it might not be my decision to make. In short, forty felt like some magical number by which I had to make things happen or risk losing my window to settle down. I was not alone in this fear. I had several attractive and intelligent girlfriends in my age-range who were also single and counting down to their fortieth birthday with dread. Although it made me feel better to know I was not the only one, the relief was not substantial, especially because some of my friends spent our nights out complaining about the lack of decent, attractive, available men.

Almost every book I’ve read about a woman in my age group focused on her early mid-life crisis. Either she was facing an identity crisis, having spent the last decade taking care of her husband and raising kids, or she was divorced after her husband left her for another woman, or she was divorced and sleeping with a twenty-five year old man, or her husband had passed away and she was looking for a second chance at love. Many of these novels were very interesting and well-written, but I yearned for a book that spoke to me and my friends—about women who, for whatever reason, were still single at forty and still seeking their first chance at real, committed, long-term love. And so I decided to write it. My fourth novel, How Do You Know? is being released on December 2nd by Booktrope. It is about thirty-nine year old Maggie Piper who is torn between a desire to settle down by her fortieth birthday and concern that all is not perfect in her existing relationship. Although the book is fictional, through Maggie I was able to express the anxiety I faced as I approached the big 4.0.

For the record, turning forty was not so bad for me after all. Admittedly, it was probably because I had an amazing boyfriend at the time. We’ve since broken up and I am single (but dating) again. Although my worries have not disappeared, it has occurred to me that while my relationship status might not have changed since my early thirties, I have accomplished so much in the past decade of which I am incredibly proud, including the publication of three (almost four) successful novels. I try to keep this in mind when I find myself engaging in a pity party. Relationships are a big part of life, but other aspects should not be underrated. Just because I haven’t reached certain life milestones at the same rate as others doesn’t mean I won’t reach them eventually and when it is right.

After all, there are no deadlines in love.

MeredithClind'Oeil(8)hrA born and bred New Yorker, Meredith Schorr discovered her passion for writing when she began to enjoy drafting work-related emails way more than she was probably supposed to, and was famous among her friends for writing witty birthday cards. After trying her hand writing children’s stories and blogging her personal experiences, Meredith found her calling writing “real chick lit for real chicks.” When Meredith is not hard at work on her current work in progress, she spends her days as a trademark paralegal. She is a loyal New York Yankees fan and an avid runner. Meredith has published three novels, Just Friends with Benefits, A State of Jane and Blogger Girl.

Here’s a link to Meredith’s books on Amazon, and here’s a link to pre-order How Do You Know? 

Guest Post: Multi-Published Author Yona Zeldis McDonough Peels Back Her Women’s Fiction Covers

Yona 1How many of us dream about what our book covers might look like, whether we’re two weeks, two months, or two years away from that process? When The Glass Wives was ready for a cover, I “let go” because not only did I know it was out of my hands and into those of a capable designer (and my editor), but I had no preconceived notions. I knew what I thought wouldn’t work—the popular cupcake, for instance. And if you’ve been around here for a while, or if you glance to the right, you’ll see why I was pleased. The cover for The Glass Wives captured the tone of the book. And THAT was what was most important to me. I have some thoughts (private thoughts) on what I think might work for my next book, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, but we’re not quite at that stage (soon, though, soon).

Today, amazing author Yona Zeldis McDonough who has written more than twenty children’s books and six novels for adults (and more) reveals what she thinks about the covers for her books. If you ask me (you did, right?) they’re beautiful, but we think so much about what our book covers convey and what they don’t. We wince if we think something is too light, too serious, too vague, too specific.

Share your thoughts in the comments. And take a look at Yona’s book covers as you welcome her back to Women’s Fiction Writers.

Amy xo

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Take Cover!

by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona 1Let’s just agree to scrap that old adage about not judging a book by its cover because we know it’s a big, fat lie; we all judge books by their covers, especially when wading through a sea of them on shelves and tables at our local Barnes and Noble or indie bookstores. Covers instantly relay information about the kind of book and author we’re considering. They beckon to some readers and send others heading for the hills. They whisper, they tease, they cajole, seduce and shout. They are of vital importance and so we ought to just own up to that fact: what’s on the cover is crucial to getting a potential reader to actually pick up your book and look inside. As the author of six novels, twenty-three books for children and the editor of two essay collections, I know from whence I speak.

When my first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, came out from Doubleday in 2002, I was mostly pleased with the cover, which was dramatic, bold and intriguing. The dark background suggested the novel’s darker aspects and the placement of the violin suggested the sensual curves of a woman’s supine body. (That the dancer’s foot was depicted in an entirely incorrect position was something that bothered me but not the publisher, who would not change it when I pointed it out.)   The cover was designed to appeal to women but not exclusively so; a man might read the book with censure or embarrassment. This, although I did not fully understand it yet, was a huge plus. My second book with Doubleday, IN DAHLIA’S WAKE, came out three years later. The cover photo—a delicately washed out image of a townhouse in brownstone Brooklyn—was evocative and gender neutral—good things—but also a bit tepid and unmemorable. The book did significantly less well than the first and I do have to wonder about the role the cover played in that.

When I published, BREAKING THE BANK, novel #3, I had switched publishers and was now at Downtown Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Unlike the first two books, which came out in hardcover, this one was a paperback original.   The cover, which showed a woman from behind over whose red umbrella a shower of bills rained down, was a good one—specific to the book, and attention getting in its own right. But the lone female in the red coat was beginning to inch toward chick-lit territory, a neighborhood I would soon inhabit more firmly with the publication of novels #4, A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK and #5, TWO OF A KIND.

The cover of Wedding depicts not just a woman but a bride from behind and the array of hands that fuss with her dress, as well as the Tiffany-box blue background and embossed gold lettering fairly pulsate with the damning words chick lit, chick lit. And the wedding-themed cover of TWO OF A KIND says the same. I happen to love both of these covers and feel they convey essential thematic information about the books. In the case of WEDDING, which is told from several points of view—though not the bride’s—I loved how the bride on the cover was being done to. She was an object, rather than a subject, a fact that underscores something important about the choice of narration I made in the book. In TWO OF A KIND, the couple (seen from the back—natch!) is seated apart, separated by an aisle. The man is looking straight ahead; the woman is turned in profile looking at him. From their body language we sense the tension and dissonance between them, postures that mirror precisely what transpires in the novel.

Novel # 6, YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME, is even further along the chick-lit spectrum. The dominant color scheme is pink and white. And it depicts shoes (read: girl-y) and not just any shoes either. Pink, peep-toed shoes, with white polka dots. And they face a pair of shoes made for a baby girl.   Now I happen to love this cover. It’s is bold and arresting in its own right, and it really does speak to the book’s essential theme: how motherhood is almost a confrontation with a tiny new stranger.   But it is also a very gender specific cover; no guy is going to be caught reading that book on the subway—not even my husband!

The chick lit association these covers also tend to lighten and even cheapen the words inside them. Now let me say something about chick lit here. Despite the fact that women are—and have historically always been—the big consumers of novels of all kinds, the books designed to appeal to our interests and sensibilities are somehow demoted and tainted with that chick lit brush. It’s a bad brush too: it says your book is unimportant, shallow, trivial and not well written. Never mind that when men write about relationships or domestic issues, they are hailed as brave and revelatory. When we women do it, we are relegated to the chick lit ghetto, a place from which it is hard to escape. I’m sorry to report that my very own indie bookstore, a store with the word community in its name, did not want to carry my new book, despite the fact that I have lived in the neighborhood for more than twenty years. When I expressed my disappointment to the owner of the store, he made it clear that he thought my book had little merit—because of its cover. Had he bothered to read or even look at it, he might have thought otherwise.

The ideal cover is gender neutral—one that either a woman or man would want to pick up. (Many women avoid books with high heels, birthday cakes and back views of female figures standing by the ocean or a lake too.) But most writers do not get a say in their covers. And even when they do, they still need to be attentive to the market place. My books are going to appeal to women, and so the covers should be appealing to them as well. If there are times when I feel the cover skims the surface and does not plumb the depths, so be it. As a wise friend said to me, “The cover is an ad. And the publisher is more experience in creating that ad than you do.”   He was right. I am a novelist, not an advertizing copywriter or art director. And I know that the words contained within my covers are not ads. They are best and truest expression of what I think, observe, believe and feel and I can render. And I can only hope readers will find their way to them, whatever the covers that contain them.

head shot (2)Yona Zeldis McDonough was educated at Vassar College and Columbia University. She is the award-winning author of six novels and twenty-three books for children, and she is also the editor of two essay collections and is the fiction editor at Lilith Magazine (www.lilith.org). She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband, two children and two small, yappy Pomeranians. Please visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com and https://www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough.

Guest Post: Traci Borum Asks: Do Books Move Or Manipulate You?

COVER - FINAL VERSIONI love to read while I’m writing. I love to read books that in some way tackle a topic, introduce a character, or explore a theme like one I’m writing. This allows me to not only read like a reader but like a writer. I note what works for me and what doesn’t, how I’d like to accomplish some thing like, or differently from, the author. So when Traci Borum emailed and told me her idea for a post on whether authors move to us authentic feelings or manipulate us — I was sold! What do you think? Do you identify when you feel like something in a book is being pushed at you? Do you mind? Is subtlety enough? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Please welcome Traci Borum to Women’s Fiction Writers! (And check out the trailer for Traci’s book after you read her post!)

Amy xo

Do Books Move Or Manipulate You?

By Traci Borum

COVER - FINAL VERSIONFor authors, getting a reader to care about characters is vital.  If readers don’t care, they probably won’t finish reading the book.  But there’s a fine line between being moved and being manipulated.  If your main goal as the writer is to produce tears in your reader, then be prepared for the backlash.  Your efforts might just produce eye rolls instead of teardrops.  A smart reader, a conscientious reader, can see right through that manipulation.

My friend Karen and I were having this conversation just last week.  She had finished reading a popular best-selling novel that was recently turned into a film.  And although she enjoyed the story, she felt pushed and prodded into liking it every inch of the way.  She could see the writer…writing.  She told me, “{The book} did have some excellent lines, but I didn’t get to feel like I discovered them.  I felt like I was pushed down a neon-lit road to them: ‘Life-changing advice ahead! This way!’”

So how do we, as writers, evoke emotions in our readers without trying too hard?  How do we avoid having readers peek behind the curtain, watching us work, knowing precisely what we’re up to?  It’s actually pretty simple.  Just write the story with truth.  Stay honest in each moment.  Be in that moment yourself, as you write it, and let the character, the plot, the dialogue, all ring with truth.  Don’t worry about the reader’s reaction.  Let the characters tell the story.

Also, it’s important to become invested in your own characters.  If you care about your characters and you write them honestly, it will translate to your readers.  They’ll be right there, alongside you, caring about what happens to these people.

Finally, be aware.  Listen to your gut, your inner editor, and realize when you’re trying too hard—when you’ve got the readers’ reactions in mind more than the characters’ reactions.

A good way to test the “moving vs. manipulating” issue is to let someone read your work—a trusted friend, a beta reader, a critique partner.  Don’t mention what your goal is (to test that your writing is authentic and not manipulative).  But once they’ve read the book or the specific scene you’re worried about, then grill them.  Ask about their reactions to the scene, to the characters.  And be prepared for the result.  If readers feel genuinely moved, they’ll talk about the characters and specifics of the scene, and their reaction will be written all over their faces.  You’ll hear it in their tone of voice—an urgency, an excitement, an involvement in the story.  And that tells you that you’ve succeeded.  But, if readers shrug or feel lukewarm about a scene that should’ve been gripping or life-changing for the character—or if readers use phrases like “I didn’t really connect with it”—it’s time to go back to the drawing board.  You might have to take a different approach, or change the setting or dialogue, or even re-think the entire scene.  Whatever it takes, try again.

Because when readers are absorbed in your story, in your characters, then, trust me—when that character is in pain, or experiences a joyful moment, or when that character dies, your readers will be moved.  They can’t help themselves.  Because by that point, they’ve stopped seeing you write.  They’ve quit trying to peek behind the curtain.  By that point, they’re invested in what happens.  You’ve made them care without even trying.  No gimmicks, no tactics, no forcing of truths or tears.  Just honesty.

Traci Borum pictureTraci Borum is a writing teacher and native Texan. She’s also an avid reader of women’s fiction, most especially Elin Hilderbrand and Rosamunde Pilcher novels. Since the age of 12, she’s written poetry, short stories, magazine articles, and novels.

Traci also adores all things British. She even owns a British dog (Corgi) and is completely addicted to Masterpiece Theater-must be all those dreamy accents! Aside from having big dreams of getting a book published, it’s the little things that make her the happiest: deep talks with friends, a strong cup of hot chocolate, a hearty game of fetch with her Corgi, and puffy white Texas clouds always reminding her to “look up, slow down, enjoy your life.”

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Guest Post: What If You Couldn’t Judge A Book By Its Cover?

If these were the books in front of you, which one would you choose? Uh — you’d have to read a few pages or the back cover copy if there was any. What happens when you can’t judge a book by its cover? Because you know we all do. Today Carole Howard tells us her own cover story and about covers old and new.

Please share some of your favorite covers in the comments!

Amy xo

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A Plain Ol’ Cover Story

by Carole Howard

20140319about-face-ebook2-198x300In a recent nightmare, I was wandering around a bookstore.  I wanted to get some idea of the kind of covers I’m drawn to, since I was going to be working with a designer on the cover of my upcoming Best Seller. (I said it was a dream, didn’t I?)  Plus I wanted a couple of books for summer reading.

I wandered over to the “Staff Picks” table because that’s where I’d found some treasures in the past, probably because the owner/staff were women and we seemed to have similar tastes.  But…..wait a second! All the books looked the same.

There must have been 60 or so books on that table, some old favorites like “Bel Canto” and “The Color Purple,” and some unknown nuggets. They all had cream colored covers with black Times Roman titles and authors.  No pictures, no colors, nothing to indicate genre.  Talk about a blank slate!

Time to wake up and be glad it was a dream.

And yet, in France, covers used to be just that way.  Cream covers.  Simple titles, though not always black, not always Times Roman.  Elegant.  Luscious, even.  And while most of their covers are now just like the ones we’re used to, a French friend told me those old-fashioned plain-vanilla covers are coming back.  Curious, that.

I don’t think the authors would want it that way. Don’t you want the cover of your book to lure potential readers like the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the next room?  That’s what I want, to invite potential readers in by giving them some idea of what they’ll find.

I can only imagine the publishers (or the Academie Francaise, the on-high guardians of everything French) thought it was a way to discourage readers from judging a book by its cover.  It’s a worthy goal, I guess, like school uniforms preventing kids from judging others by their clothes.

Mais, non, I say to the Academie.  It’s not about judging a book by its cover.  It’s about

persuading someone to take your book off the shelf, knowing from the cover that it’s about someone just like her, flip through it a bit before deciding whether to take it home to read.  Then she can judge it.

It’s not surprising that I dreamed about book covers, since I was in the throes of re-designing the cover of my first novel, ABOUT FACE.  The original cover was beautiful, stark, dramatic.  But it didn’t give the reader enough of an idea of what she’d find.  I wanted the cover to show some of the story, a bit of the atmosphere.  Working with a designer was an intense exercise in deciding exactly what part of the story I wanted to portray.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t not my job to figure out how to portray it.)

In a previous life, I taught business writing.  If someone’s thoughts needed clarifying because their writing was contorted, confused, and complicated, I’d ask:  “If you had to boil your message down to one sentence, what would it be?”  The question often resulted in a whole lotta squirming; working with the book designer felt like those students’ revenge.

“Well, there’s the whole ‘doing well vs doing good’ aspect of the story.”

“Or, wait, it’s also about the power of women’s friendships.”

“How about middle-aged identity crises?”

“Got it: Corporate executive on the outside, Peace Corps Volunteer hollering to get out. Yes, that’s it.”

While it would have made my life oh-so-much easier if my cover were the default cream color with elegant title and author, in the end, I wouldn’t have been satisfied.  I wanted my cover to say to browsers, like kids at a swimming pool to their mothers, “Look at me, look at me, look at me.”  And, of course, “Buy me, read me.”

So, do you?

Read more about Carole and her books on her website.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: How One Author Struggled With Body Image And Wrote A Novel

high res coverWe often get so caught up in getting published, being published, finding an agent, promoting ourselves and our books, that sometimes we forget WHY we read and write what many call women’s fiction. It’s because that along with the relatable characters and real life situations — are some really serious issues. Today, Mary Rowen shares with us her own story of bulimia and how body image plays into real life and fiction. Mary is both eloquent and brave, and I hope you’ll chime in with your own body image experience in the comments and how it has impacted your writing.

Please welcome Mary to WFW!

Amy xo

 How Mary Rowen Struggled With Body Image And Wrote A Novel

by Mary Rowen

high res coverBody image. If that’s not a loaded term for women, I don’t know what is. I’d be willing to bet that the earliest human women noticed what the men in their tribes liked, and tried to make their bodies more attractive for them. But I wonder if there was a little bit more to that than the basic human need to reproduce. I’m guessing that even women who lived in caves appreciated being told—perhaps with grunts, or nods, or some early language—that they looked nice. Because let’s face it: it feels good to know you look pretty and desirable.

Evidence of this can be seen in almost all cultures throughout history, as women’s clothing and accessories frequently accentuate our breasts and other parts of our bodies we find most sensual. This often involves pain and personal sacrifice too, as few people would consider corsets, underwire bras, or stiletto heels comfortable. Some women go so far as to have surgery—literally risking their lives to “improve” their bodies—but even those who draw the line at shopping for flattering clothes and/or makeup will tell you that those things are time consuming and expensive.

Of course, it’s not all about attracting men. Many of us dress to attract other women—or just to make ourselves happy—and many no longer see reproduction as a goal. But the majority of women—despite our age—still seek out the approval of others when it comes to appearance.

Now some readers might jump up and scream, “But men seek approval too!” And yes, that’s true. Most men do want to look good, but in most cases, their desire isn’t as extreme as it is with most women. My husband, for example—a software engineer—looks great every time he heads out to work, but as far as I know, he only looks in the mirror while shaving, and perhaps when he runs a comb through his hair. He has a bunch of similar-looking clothing that fits well—chinos, jeans, button-down shirts—and he wears a clean top and bottom every day. Clean is important. But that’s about it for him. His body image is healthy enough to allow him to put on his clothes and go. And based on my observations of his peer group, that’s pretty much the standard. But I—and most of my professional female peers—spend far more time choosing outfits, blow-drying my hair, putting on makeup, and figuring out which shoes look best. I don’t obsess—and as a recovered bulimic, I know all about obsession—but I do check the mirror several times before leaving the house. Not doing so would be quite difficult for me.

But the one thing I don’t ever do—and I mean never—is ask anyone in my household if my clothing makes me look fat. That’s a gift I hope I can pass on to my daughter, who’s a young teenager. Because back when I was about fifteen, I decided—for some crazy reason—that I’d be more attractive if I dropped a few pounds. Therefore, when I read a magazine article warning about the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, I found it more instructional than frightening. I pored over the article—and the other pictures in the magazine—and something in my head clicked. Prettiness, I decided, resulted in happiness, and the only way to be pretty was to be thin. It was a screwed up equation for sure. But for the next fifteen years or so, I believed in—and lived by—that equation with a sick, almost religious fervor. During those years, I attempted to vomit almost everything I ate, and often felt confused, weak, and dizzy. My confidence level hit rock bottom, and I was hardly ever happy.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, if you’re a woman reading this, it probably does. A few months ago, I published a blog post about my eating disorder, and got tons of feedback from women who told me they’d been through a similar hell. Or, if not them, then a family member, a close friend, or a work associate.

So now, every time I start thinking about my weight, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Of course it’s not healthy to be obese—everyone knows obesity’s bad—but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is gaining a few pounds here and there, or going up a size in jeans. Or eating something truly decadent and delicious without trying to cut back on calories for the next few days, or doing extra exercise. Because again, in the scheme of things, a few extra pounds aren’t important. The energy expended on stress and extra exercise can be put to much better use.

I could conclude by saying something like, “Hey, a lot of people prefer a heavier partner anyway.” But that’s not the point. A woman’s body is hers. We’re not here on earth to be eye candy, or playthings. Our bodies have so many functions: transporting us across this magnificent planet, tasting, dancing, listening to music, making music, helping us create the things we imagine, bearing us children if we so choose—and sometimes nourishing those children—providing sexual pleasure, rocking terrific outfits, and much, much more. So yes, I believe we should eat well most of the time and try to stay healthy so that we can make the most of our lives, but thinness does not lead to happiness. The only real road to happiness is being OK with who you are. And while it’s fine to like the way you look, obsessing over appearance always leads to frustration and worse.

I’ve written a novel called Leaving the Beach in which the main character, Erin Reardon, is a bulimic woman who’s also obsessed with rock stars. It’s all fiction, and I hope readers enjoy the story. But I also hope it sheds some light on the ways eating disorders affect people. Most importantly, I hope Leaving the Beach will encourage people suffering from EDs to seek professional help. I really do believe that’s the only way to truly recover.

HeadshotMary Rowen is a Boston area mom with a wonderful family that allows her time to write almost every day.  Leaving the Beach, although pure fiction, certainly draws on some personal experience. As the tagline states, it’s “a novel of obsession and music,” and rock music has always been a driving force in Rowen’s life. She was also bulimic for over fifteen years, and really wanted to write a story with a bulimic main character. Eating disorders are so complicated—and dangerous—and she hopes Leaving the Beach might encourage people suffering from them to seek help.  Visit Mary at: http://maryrowen.com/

About LEAVING THE BEACH

Written with heart and keen observation about the day-to-day struggles of a “functioning bulimic,”Leaving the Beach explores the power of fantasy, then shoves it up against harsh reality until something has to give. In this women’s novel set on the sandy beaches of Winthrop, Massachusetts, we meet Erin Reardon, a lonely person who believes her destiny is to save grunge superstar Lenny Weir. Forget the fact that Lenny reportedly killed himself several years earlier; Erin’s not the only fan to believe his death was a hoax, a last-ditch effort by the drug-addled musician to reclaim his privacy. And Erin has felt a special bond with Lenny for years. So when she gets picked up hitchhiking by a mysterious man who resembles Lenny physically, she makes some quick assumptions. After all, he has extensive knowledge of the music industry, there’s a guitar in his trunk, and he has issues with drugs. She’s finally about to fulfill her destiny…

You can find LEAVING THE BEACH at iTunesBN, and Amazon.

Guest Post: Rona Simmons Takes Apart Some Popular Stories And Puts Them Back Together

cover for websiteWho knew that the summer I went all DIY at home (the crafting and home improvement gods have possessed me) that the first guest post of fall would be about dismantling a story and putting it back together? There is something very satisfying in doing a project yourself, figuring it out, making sense of it all. And that’s just what Rona Simmons shares with us below—and she’s doing it with works of women’s fiction. Lucky us!

As for me, it’s time to paint another piece of furniture or maybe get back to my list of fifty things to make with pumpkin…or, oh right, there’s a WIP I’m writing as I wait for my second round of edits on novel two! (It’s busy here in the empty nest, I tell you.) 

Please welcome Rona to Women’s Fiction Writers and share your thoughts in the comments!

Amy xo

 

Taking Apart Stories—And Putting Them Back Together

by Rona Simmons

cover for websiteI take things apart. I always have. Once, I took a clock apart to see how it worked and later, a vacuum cleaner to fix what was broken. I failed on both accounts, but my drive to see the inner workings of objects persisted. Today, I apply it to the world of writing. I want to understand how the magic happens: how an author hooks a reader on the very first page.

So, with a pliers in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, I selected five works of general or women’s fiction from the top of the 2013 New York Times bestseller list. I bypassed cover art, book blurbs, and introductory quotes, to focus on the authors’ own words, ones that would snare a reader from the start and keep them reading for the next several hundred pages.

My small sample included what I’ll call a “beach read”, a “hot topic” book on drug addiction, a “page-lingerer” chock full of lush writing and internal musings, a tale “based on true events”, and a story that explores relationships and secrets.

I read only the first sentences and paragraphs–up to 150 words, skipping prologues just as some readers might.

The opening sentences of the five novels were as different as night and day:

  • The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”
  • The Husband’s Secret, Lianne Moriarity: “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.”
  • The Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline: “Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door.”
  • The Girls of August, Anne Rivers Siddons: “The girls of August had decided, given our long hiatus and the introduction of a new person–Baby Gaillard nee LucyAnne Gaillard, to be exact–that we best meet ahead of time at my house to map out our strategy and make sure we all felt OK about Tiger Island.”
  • All Fall Down, Jennifer Weiner: “Do you generally use alcohol or drugs more than once a week?”

The authors’ writing styles were equally diverse. The openings ranged from dense, descriptive exposition (49 words per sentence and a reading level of 15) to short staccato sentences filled with internal dialogue (14 words per sentence and a reading level of 6). Three were in third person and two in first.

On the other hand, the openings occurred in remarkably similar situations: a woman alone, worrying. In fact, a lot of worrying took place in those first sentences. The women faced threats of unknown origin and specificity and, presumably, would confront their demons in the pages ahead.

  • The Goldfinch: A woman alone in her hotel room dreams of her dead mother. There are fearful sounds outside her hotel room. She is afraid.
  • The Husband’s Secret: A woman alone at her kitchen table stares at a sealed envelope, addressed in a familiar hand. And then there’s the elephant in the room, the Berlin Wall.
  • The Orphan Train: A young woman alone in her bedroom eavesdrops on her foster parents who discuss their worries and their suspicions about their foster child.
  • The Girls of August: A woman will meet a group of friends after a long hiatus. She worries about the upcoming event and worries about worrying.
  • All Fall Down: A woman reads about alcohol abuse and wonders if her own addiction is worse than she admits and could wreak havoc on her family and young daughter.

All five authors exposed the reader to the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings, their “sixth sense” for lack of a better term. The Goldfinch was the best example: with “innocent” noises outside the door, the reader looks for threatening noises nearby, a bell “tolling” the hour with “a dark edge to the clangor”. I was surprised to find little discussion of the other five senses in the early passages.

Though not snared by the first sentence, after I’d read 150 words or so, I committed to read at least one of the books. Why? And, why would so many other readers invest in these stories?

The answer, I believe, is the presence of strong emotions, the sixth sense, in a tension-packed situation, the details of which are reserved for the later pages.

Will this finding change my writing?

The answer, of course, is maybe. I write my way. I write what I like to read and I hope that it has broad enough appeal to be enjoyed by others, many others–New York Times bestseller list or not. But I will seek more opportunities for my protagonists to express their fears and hopes in my own first pages.

Now, excuse me, I need to sit at my kitchen table, take something else apart, and worry.

WEB-DSC_6354-SIMMONS-HEADSHOTRona Simmons was born in Santa Monica, California. She’s the daughter of a WWII fighter pilot and later career military officer and moved with her family from state to state and country to country, living in 25 different places by the time she graduated from high school. So she’s still astonished that she’s spent the last twenty years in any one place.

Three years ago, she launched her second career using the writing, analysis, and research skills she’d acquired during her thirty-year career in corporate America. Since then she has written several articles for magazines, a novel, and a collection of short stories and was the ghostwriter for the biography of a prominent Atlanta businessman.

Rona’s latest novel, The Quiet Room, was published by Deeds Publishing, an Atlanta-based publishing company. Though this novel is set in the Midwest, and the one she’s working on now in New England, she considers herself a southern writer, drawing inspiration from the wooded acres where she lives with her husband and (she swears) the last member of a passel of cats.

website: http://www.ronasimmons.com

blog: womenatword.wordpress.com

facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Rona-Simmons-Writer-and-Author

Twitter: twitter.com/rona_simmons

Pinterest: pinterest.com/rdsimmons

Rona’s books are available through her website or: Amazon, Deeds Publishing, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers