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.

Headshot-2

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/

Seré Prince Halverson Talks About Book Clubs, Book Covers, And Books That Make Her Feel Less Alone

I met Seré Prince Halverson almost a year ago because we are both members of the debut authors group, Book Pregnant.  Right away Seré captured my attention with her kindness and charm, and that was even before I knew much about her book, THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY.  

Today marks the paperback launch of “Joy.”  Same book, new cover, and hopefully many new, enthusiastic readers.  

When you’re finished reading the interview and getting to know Seré, treat yourself to excerpt of THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY (published by Dutton) by clicking here

But first, welcome Seré to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Seré Prince Halverson Talks About Book Clubs, Book Covers, And Books That Make Her Feel Less Alone

Amy: Seré, congratulations! Today is the paperback release of THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY!  What’s it like to be re-introducing your book to new readers?

Seré: Thank you, Amy! It feels different than when the hardcover came out because it’s not quite such a huge unknown. I’m excited, but I’m happy to say that I’m also sleeping at night, which was something I could not say when the hardcover came out. I had serious Debut Author Insomnia.

I’ve discovered that I really enjoy talking to book clubs and have been blown away by their insightful discussions. A lot of those I’ve visited have had a picnic theme to tie in with the Life’s a Picnic store in the book. So, to celebrate the paperback release, I’m having a Win a Picnic Basket for your Book Club drawing. I thought it would be fun to deliver Sonoma County goodies and wine right to their doorstep! And planning a picnic is much more pleasant than Debut Author Insomnia. Details are here.

Amy: Without giving anything away, can you tell us a little bit about the story and how you came up with the idea?

Seré: A woman walks into a market…That woman was me. I walked out with a bag of groceries, and a vision of an Italian American family. That vision collided with some other visions I’d been having of a young woman, curled up in bed in despair. She had once everything she ever wanted and now had lost it all. But I didn’t know her story yet. And those visions collided with my fear of sleeper waves, my love for Sonoma County, my contemplations of mother/stepmother relationships and how harshly society judges mothers who leave their children, without knowing the circumstances behind that decision. (Yes, it was a rather big collision of visions.)

Amy: Oftentimes paperback editions have a brand new book cover — and that’s the case for TUOJ.  How was the process of having a new “look” for your book?

Seré: First, let me say that I was very attached to the first cover. I loved the beautiful simplicity of it. My paperback publisher, Plume, always creates a new cover, but I was a bit skeptical. Until I laid eyes on it. Very different from the first, but I fell in love all over again, this time with the vertical treatment of the horizontal photograph, the water reflection, the little girl—together, they capture important elements of the story.

Amy: Do you have something you’d like readers to take away from your book? 

Seré: My favorite books pull me in and make me feel like I’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, whether they’re Birkenstocks or Manolo Blahniks or old holey Keds with a flappy right sole. The best books also make me feel less alone–even if the characters’ lives are completely different from mine. And I love books that challenge and move me. Those are the kinds of things I hope readers feel when they read The Underside of Joy.

Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

Seré: Such a hot topic these days. Definitions are sometimes necessary, especially for marketing, but they’re also limiting. I like to think the definitions are evolving. The Underside of Joy is a story about motherhood but also about family, war, food, love, death, grief, joy, resilience—lots of things that involve women and men. The book had a pink flower on the cover and now the paperback has a little girl on the beach—clearly marketed as women’s fiction, right? Right. And yet, I’ve received such thoughtful e-mails from a number of male readers, ranging in ages from 25 to 89.

So I’m going to say I see women’s fiction as an extremely broad category of fiction, which is marketed toward women but can usually be read and enjoyed by both women and men. (Men who aren’t scared off by feminine-looking covers, that is.)

Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Seré: My advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction is the same as my advice for aspiring authors of any fiction, in fact it’s the same for aspiring anyones—anyone who is working at something they’re passionate about. Writers love this one because we need it in the face of all that rejection: It’s the Winston Churchill quote—a favorite of my dear friend and writing sister, Elle Newmark: “Never, never, never, never give up.” Just don’t. Keep going. That doesn’t mean you can’t break away for periods of time if you need to, but keep rolling your work-in-progress around in your head, and always come back to it.

It took me hundreds of rejections and three completed novels before The Underside of Joy was published. Even if it hadn’t been published, I wouldn’t regret the years I’ve spent writing and learning my craft. Passion is a good thing. Elle also said, “Passion is our consolation for mortality.” She died last year, after a life of writing and living passionately—a life very well-lived. I learned a lot from her and am learning from her still.

Thanks so much for these great questions, Amy! I’m looking so forward to reading The Glass Wives!

Oh, thank you, Seré, all of that means so much to me!

Seré Prince Halverson worked as a freelance copywriter and creative director for twenty years while she wrote fiction. She and her husband live in Northern California and have four (almost) grown children. The Underside of Joy is her debut novel. Published by Dutton in January 2012, it will be translated into 18 languages.

You can find Seré on her website, blog, and on Facebook.

Don’t forget to read the excerpt of THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY by clicking here

Author Terri Bruce Counted Her Rejections But Didn’t Count Herself Out

I have, at times, been guilty of putting my head in the sand — but not when it comes to publishing! When I queried my novel I counted every rejection, every helpful hint, and every nibble. I did not want to miss a thing.  Author Terri Bruce also was keenly aware of her rejections – but she put them to work for her, making her more determined to find a home for her novel.  And she did.

Please welcome Terri Bruce to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Terri Bruce Counted Her Rejections But Didn’t Count Herself Out

My story is pretty usual—I’ve always been a writer; I wrote long, rambling stories as a child, wrote stories I posted on the internet during college, and then set writing aside after I graduated, as the demands of a budding career took over. After a four-year lag of doing no writing, I came home from work one day in 2001 with a story hammering in my brain. I sat down at the computer and started typing furiously. After a couple of hours, my husband leaned over my shoulder to see what I was doing. “Hey!” he said. “That’s pretty good!”

Nine years later, I finished that story.

In between, I battled Lupus, bought a house, changed jobs twice, and joined a local writers’ group with the intention of getting serious about writing. It was hard, during those years, to find the time to write—there was too much “life” getting in the way. The writers’ group was definitely the saving grace for me; while there were times I submitted less than a page for critique, the accountability of being in a group ensured that I kept writing and moving forward, even if it was an inch at a time.

When I finally finished that manuscript, I cried with joy. It was the first full-length novel that I had really poured myself into, and I had proven (to myself) that I could take the time to craft a comprehensive plot, build realistic characters, and polish a raw first draft into something ready to submit for publication.

I pitched that story live to an editor at a writing conference and I queried it to about twenty agents and publishers, but alas, I very quickly realized the story fell into the “experimental fiction” realm, for which there is a very small market. I decided to “trunk” that manuscript, as I was already nearly finished with another story, one that I was sure was much more “commercial” in nature—it was the story of a directionless thirty-something woman who has to struggle with the fallout from her life choices when she dies and finds herself stuck on earth as a ghost. This story, eventually called Hereafter, “only” took two years to write, so I was feeling pretty good when I began sending query letters.

Then, the rejections started rolling in—10, 20, 30, 40…

At first I was stunned, then hurt and bewildered. Finally, I became numb. I began to play a game on Facebook—every time a new rejection came in, I posted the tally: 45, 50, 55, 56, 57, 58…

So I revised the query letter. I revised the opening chapter. I revised my list of prospective agents—widening the search. I began querying small presses as well as agents.

Amy’s definition of Women’s Fiction is a story in which the main point of the book is for the woman to improve herself, her situation, her life, her relationships and the focus is on internal growth of self, [and] the most important part of the book is not about moving toward romance. THIS is the story I had written; THIS is the story I wanted to tell. Interestingly enough, though, I didn’t consider Hereafter Women’s Fiction at first—Women’s Fiction was serious stuff, written by literary greats! Plus, my story was clearly paranormal—it had a ghost!—or maybe Fantasy Lit—it had humor!

However, two things quickly became apparent: 1) without a romance element, Hereafter wasn’t Fantasy Lit, and 2) those that read the manuscript felt that the story, in terms of emotional weight, was much more on the Women’s Fiction end of the spectrum than the Chick Lit. Looking once more at Amy’s definition, I realized that, yes, I had actually written Women’s Fiction.

However, people kept urging me to change the story—add more action, make it more light-hearted, and definitely add some romance—in ways that would have moved it away from Women’s Fiction. Interestingly enough, no one suggested dumping the paranormal element so it would fit more squarely in the Women’s Fiction category. [To be clear, none of these suggestions were “revise and resubmit” requests from agents, which I might have more seriously considered; these were more off-the cuff suggestions from people who read the story and couldn’t find anything wrong with it/didn’t know why agents weren’t taking to it.]

I had 62 rejections on Hereafter before I received a single request (a partial) from an agent—which ended in rejection. The tally continued to go up—70, 71, 72, 73, 74…

My family didn’t understand why I didn’t stop sending queries. My husband encouraged me to “try again”—to write a different story, one that more easily fit into one genre. However, I believed in Hereafter. It was a good story, I was sure of it.

I managed to rack up 84 rejections before I got my first request for the full manuscript—which also ended in rejection. I began to feel like I was playing that Cliffhangers game on the Price is Right—I “only” had 120 prospects on my list. Would Hereafter get picked up by an agent or publisher before I ran out of places to submit it to?

My friends and family, though horrified in that “watching a train wreck” kind of way by my tally posts, kept my spirits up with “their loss” kinds of comments (though in much saltier language). Other writers going through the same trial by fire were astounded by my tenacity. Most gave up long before I did, opting to return to the drawing board and write another novel, with the hopes that the next one would be “the one.” I, too, was working on another novel; unfortunately, it was a sequel to Hereafter. If Hereafter didn’t get picked up, then I had just put more eggs in a losing basket. I wish I could say I kept going because I believed in myself so strongly. However, the truth is, at this point, there didn’t seem to be any reason why I wouldn’t just keep submitting to the rest of the names on my list—there really weren’t that many left.

My lucky number turned out to be 92—the 92nd response (after 8 solid months of querying) was an acceptance by a small press. Responses 93 and 94 also happened to be acceptances, by two other small presses, putting me in the happy situation of getting to choose between three offers. After I signed the contract with Eternal Press, I received several belated rejections, bringing my final tally to 112 rejections.

112 rejections

I look at that number now and part of me thinks, “Holy cow! How did I keep going?” and the other part thinks, “Pffttt! That’s not really a lot in the grand scheme of things—many people get even more rejections than that.” The take-aways from all of this, for me, are that tenacity is key to getting published, and agent/publisher rejection often has very little to do with a writer’s talent and more about personal taste and ease with which they can slot your book into a particular market. The more I hear about other authors’ long paths to publication, though, the more I think that, perhaps, perseverance alone is the dividing line between success and failure in this industry. As the saying goes: never give up! Never give up! Never give up!

Terri Bruce has been making up adventure stories for as long as she can remember and won her first writing award when she was twelve. Like Anne Shirley, she prefers to make people cry rather than laugh, but is happy if she can do either. She produces fantasy and adventure stories from a haunted house in New England where she lives with her husband and three cats.

Author Juliette Fay Says Worry Less And Write More

I hope all of you in the path of Superstorm Sandy are safe — and that you have power, internet, chocolate, some of your favorite people around you — and I hope you have books!  It might be a perilous day on the East Coast, but for author Juliette Fay, it’s also an important day — the publication of her third novel, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. Juliette shares with us what she thinks of the fact that her book is labeled women’s fiction even though it’s about a man, how she allows her ideas to simmer for a year before she writes them, and what it’s like to revisit characters from her first novel, SHELTER ME, in THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. 

Please welcome Juliette Fay to Women’s Fiction Writers!

And of course, stay safe, my friends.  

Amy xo 

Author Juliette Fay Says Worry Less And Write More

Amy: Congratulations! Today is the release of your third novel, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. Would you tell us a little bit about it? I know the story revisits the setting from your first novel, SHELTER ME, but isn’t exactly a sequel.  Can you explain?  And what is it about the setting and characters that drew you back? 

Juliette: The Shortest Way Home is about Sean Doran, a nurse who’s worked in devastatingly poor areas around the world. He’s at risk for Huntington’s Disease—his mother died of it when he was young—but like many who are at risk, he has never wanted to be tested to find out if he has it, too. To avoid the possibility of passing it on, he’s never married or had children.

Sean makes what he thinks will be a quick trip to his hometown of Belham, Mass, also the setting for Shelter Me. There he finds that his elderly aunt who raised him, his sister, and his nephew are having a crisis of their own. Sean is drawn progressively deeper into the family drama, and finds it harder and harder to leave.

The reason I set it in the town from Shelter Me is that people often ask for a sequel to that novel. Unfortunately, I just don’t have an entirely new story with those same characters to offer. And I didn’t want to trump one up, because a bad sequel is more than just a bad book—it also has a way of ruining your memory of the first book.

I decided to set The Shortest Way Home in Belham, and used some of the characters from Shelter Me, so the reader would know, peripherally, how things worked out for them. As a result, Cormac the bakery owner, who was the cousin of Janie, the main character from Shelter Me, is the best friend from high school of Sean, the main character from The Shortest Way Home. Cormac was one of my favorites, so it was really fun to write about him again. The two stories are connected but stand alone, too.

Amy: Has your process for writing a novel changed since SHELTER ME and your second novel, DEEP DOWN TRUE? What have you learned between book one and book three? (and yes, we have all day!) 

Juliette: I wrote Shelter Me without any idea if it would ever end up on a bookstore shelf. There’s a certain amount of freedom in that. You just write want you want to write with no sense of an agent, editor or readership looking over your shoulder.

With Deep Down True, I felt the pressure—it was internal more than anything else. I had to work hard to shut it out. Also, I was promoting Shelter Me, so it was like having two jobs, and a bit distracting. My editor for Deep Down True did a lot of trimming, and at first I was resistant. But she was (mostly) right, and it was a crash course in getting rid of anything extraneous. I learned to write cleaner and clearer. In the end I was very grateful.

When I turned in The Shortest Way Home, my editor joked that I had learned the lesson so well, she had almost nothing to do! A little clarifying here and there, a little buttressing this theme, trimming down that one, but generally her edits were fairly minor. It was so satisfying.

Right now, I’m almost done with book four, and I hope she’ll find that I’ve continued to hone the skills she’s taught me.

Amy: How did the idea for your novels strike you? What was the inspiration?

Juliette: A writer has to live with a story for a long time—for me, a year or more. So while none of my books are autobiographical, they’re all about things that intrigue or worry me: the sudden death of a spouse and learning how to be a single mother; how female friendships can get stuck in a middle school cycle of trust and betrayal, and how we always have that insecure middle schooler inside us; living with the threat of an incurable terminal disease.

My inspiration for The Shortest Way Home was a friend whose mother had Huntington’s. This was before the test was available and I watched my friend live with the terrible uncertainty of not knowing if she might have it, too. When she found out she didn’t, her life changed. She started looking at things with a sense of permanence. I was fascinated by this, and wanted to explore it through a story—not about her, but about a character dealing with a similar experience.

Amy: We’ve talked about this a few times on WFW, but how do you think books with male main characters fit under the women’s fiction umbrella?

Juliette: I think they fit fine. It’s not like readers of women’s fiction don’t want to read about men.

But maybe there’s a different question you’re asking: how does the gender of the writer affect the way a book is labeled, regardless of the gender of the main character. If that’s what your wondering, and if I’m being completely honest … I think that if someone in possession of a set of testicles had written this book, it would be called general fiction. After all, it’s not just about a man—it’s about a single man with no children. But since it’s ultimately a family drama, and I have ovaries, it’s called women’s fiction.

Amy: And this leads us to…what is your definition of women’s fiction? And does the hullaballoo surrounding “the label” bother you? 

Juliette: I think of women’s fiction as family drama, and I wish they’d use that label instead. But the women’s fiction label doesn’t really bother me, because a rose is a rose. Happily, there are a lot of people who want to read family drama/women’s fiction—and, hey, I’m here to help.

What bothers me is that sometimes it’s assumed that women’s fiction isn’t as well written or serious as other categories, despite the fact that there can be gorgeous prose and weighty subject matter found in women’s fiction, just as there can be some bad verbiage and fluffiness elsewhere. Every genre has a wide range of both writing style and “seriousness.”

All this is to say, the label itself isn’t so bad; it’s the assumptions that aren’t always helpful.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Juliette: My best advice is to be a really good friend to yourself. A really good friend would be encouraging yet honest, would kick you in the butt when you’re getting lazy or being a fuss pot, and would make you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously.

Let that really good friend be the voice in your head. Let her drown out the voices that sound like critics or the growing laundry pile or that one mean English teacher you had high school.

That really good friend (who is you) would say: Worry less and write more … so stop talking to yourself and get going!

Juliette’s latest novel, The Shortest Way Home, is due in bookstores on October 30th. Her first novel, Shelter Me, was chosen as a 2009 “Book of the Year,” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress (which makes it government-related, right?) Her second, Deep Down True, was short-listed for the Women’s Fiction award by the American Library Association. She lives in Wayland, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.

You can find out more about Juliette and her books on her website, on Facebook, and by following her on Twitter @juliettefay.

Author Kelly O’Connor McNees Says: Recommit To Your Purpose Every Day, And Write The Book You Want To Read

It’s been just about 18 months since I launched Women’s Fiction Writers, can you believe it?  And in that time I’ve featured debut women’s fiction authors, best-selling women’s fiction authors, some indie women’s fiction authors.  But one of the most special things to me is when the author being featured is an author I’ve admired for a long time.  Another favorite thing is when an author is an IRL (in real life) friend.  Well, Kelly O’Connor McNees is both!  So this is an extra-special day for me (oh, this isn’t about me? oops!).  I connected with Kelly because I read and adored her first book, THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT. I looked up the author website and sent an email, because that’s what I do, and did, even before I had a publisher or an agent (always appreciated by authors, by the way).  Then last Spring or maybe late Winter, we met in real life, in downtown Chicago, with another author friend, Renee Rosen.  We made that transition from acquaintances to friends.  From online to in real life.  And then Kelly’s second book came out, another historical novel, IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE, and I knew that it fit neatly under the women’s fiction umbrella we’ve discussed so often here at Women’s Fiction Writers.  It’s a book with a lot of visual history, which to me means it creates pictures in my head that are vibrant, detailed, and real, ones I refer to again and again. And the three main characters are ones I was thrilled to follow on their literal and metaphorical journey to Nebraska where they went to meet their husbands.  I highly recommend both books (that doesn’t surprise you, I’m guessing!)

Please welcome, my friend, Kelly O’Connor McNees, to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

P.S. I’ve shared more photos of Kelly and me at the end of the interview! 

Author Kelly O’Connor McNees Says: Recommit To Your Purpose Every Day, And Write The Book You Want To Read

Amy: Kelly!! Congratulations on the publication of your second historical novel, IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE! Can you share with us where you got the idea for this novel?

Kelly: I had been thinking for a long time about a story that involved women homesteaders in the years following the Civil War, when the government was offering cheap land to Americans willing to move west and settle it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what shape the story would take until I found Chris Enss’s book Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier, and I knew I wanted to write a novel about women who arranged to marry men they’d never met.

Amy: How was it different publishing your second novel from publishing your first?

Kelly: It’s an awful cliche to say that book publishing is in a “time of transition,” but it is true. My first novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, was published in 2010, and I have seen change even since then. The big challenge continues to be how can authors connect with readers who haven’t heard about their books? Of course we have plenty of avenues online–Goodreads, book blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and more–but I think most people still buy the books they hear about from their friends. To me, that means the most important thing a writer must focus on is writing compelling, well-crafted fiction readers will enjoy.

Amy: Aspiring authors, and published authors, can get increasingly discouraged. How do you side step the publishing-me-blues? Or don’t you? Any tips appreciated!

Kelly: I think you have to recommit, every day, to your purpose as a writer. I also think you have to control what you can control, and let the rest go. For me that means keeping my focus on practicing and improving my writing, reading widely, and participating in my literary community. I cannot control how many copies of my books will sell, and whether I will continue to be published. But I can control how hard I work.

Amy: We’ve discussed the definition of women’s fiction here many times – and the broad umbrella the genre provides. There was no doubt that IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE falls under that umbrella. What is your definition of women’s fiction?

Kelly: I have mixed feelings about this term because to me it means, simply, fiction about women’s lives. But to others in the reading world, it is a disparaging term. I had a man ask me recently whether In Need of a Good Wife was “for guys,” and I had to take a deep breath before responding. The idea that a story that focuses primarily on women will not interest men is alarming to say the least. I and most women I know read about men’s lives all the time. Most lauded fiction is concerned with men’s experiences. Your wife is a woman; your sisters and mother and daughters are women, but women in fiction don’t interest you? I’m sorry, but what a crock of shit.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of any kind of women’s fiction?

Kelly: Write the book you want to read.

Kelly O’Connor McNees has worked as a teacher and editor and lives with her husband and daughter in Chicago.

You can find out more about Kelly and her books on her website.

The author and her book at The Lake Forest Book Store in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Kelly reading from IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE. This was before the smoke alarm went off in the store, and in every store on the block.

Me and Kelly after the alarms were turned off. We’re smiling because we’re happy, and because it’s quiet.

On a 100 degree day in Chicago, me, Kelly, and Renee Rosen chill with fish tacos and wine on Michigan Avenue.

Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel

As a rule, I don’t like rules. But, when I read Karen Stivali’s post that explained her perception of the rules of romance novels, and why her books did not fit that mold — I was smitten. I don’t write romance — and I know that. What I wasn’t sure of was what constitutes that line between some women’s fiction and some romance novels.  Let us know what you think in the comments.

And please welcome Karen Stivali to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel

When my debut full-length novel, Meant To Be, released a few weeks ago I got a lot of questions from curious friends. There’s one conversation that I’ve been having over and over. It goes something like this…

Friend: What kind of book is it?

Me: It’s a love story.

Friend: Oh, it’s a romance novel?

Me: No, it’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements.

Friend: So, it’s a romance novel.

Me: No, it breaks too many romance rules.

Friend: But you said it’s a love story.

Me: It is. And it’s romantic as hell, but it’s not a romance novel in the traditional sense.

Most readers, and even many writers, are not aware of how strict the rules are where romance novels are concerned. I’ll admit, as a reader and a writer I always thought the rules were a bad thing, but now that I’ve written both romances and women’s fiction I can see why the rules are in place. And why I sometimes break them or cross genres.

Back when I first started writing I remember reading an interview with Nicholas Sparks where he vehemently denied writing romances. That floored me. Has he ever written a story that wasn’t romantic? Not to my knowledge. But technically the vast majority of his books can’t be considered romances. Why not? The most common reason is the lack of a happily ever after ending. He writes love stories. His fiction focuses on love and romance but is classified as either mainstream fiction or, as women make up the vast majority of his readers, women’s fiction.

Romance novels are popular. There’s no denying that.  For decades they’ve had a huge, always-growing audience of devoted readers. Part of the reason for that is those readers want to know what they can expect from the stories. That doesn’t mean they want the same story churned out over and over again, but it does mean they want certain elements to be guaranteed. Romances guarantee the reader that they’ll find a story where the hero and heroine only have eyes for each other and where, no matter what obstacles they face in the course of the book, they’ll wind up with a happily ever after ( or at least happy for now) ending. They’re also guaranteed that the romance will drive the plot. Sure, there may be sub plots or side characters that aren’t romantic, but the focus of the story will be on the path the hero and heroine take to becoming a couple.

Women’s fiction is far harder to define. Some define it simply as books that will appeal to a primarily female audience. Others say it’s fiction written by women, for women, with a female main character (which would mean Nicholas Sparks doesn’t actually write women’s fiction either, as he’s clearly not a woman). Women’s fiction can have a romantic plot, but it certainly doesn’t have to. It can be a story of sisters, of friends, of mothers and children, husbands and wives, careers, losses, achievements, or any combination of those. Sometimes, however, women’s fiction does focus on a man and woman falling in love, or on the trials of male/female relationships. That’s the kind of women’s fiction I write.

Wait, you ask, then why don’t you write romances instead? The answer is sometimes I do. I have published several erotic romances that are all sweet, sexy love stories involving a man and woman falling in love and having great sex as they work toward their happily ever after ending. I just signed a contract with a new publisher on a (non-erotic) contemporary romance that’s a friends-to-lovers/second-chance-with-an-old-crush story in which the heroine has to decide if she can juggle having a career and the man of her dreams. I loved writing those stories. I love those characters. But sometimes the stories I have in mind don’t fit the romance mold. That’s the case with my women’s fiction, like Meant To Be (and its sequel, Holding On).

As a writer I stay very true to my characters and insist on telling their story. I don’t worry about rules or genres while I write, I write the story I have in my head. Period. Meant To Be is a friends to lovers tale with a an unusual twist. My main characters, Daniel and Marienne, are both married to other people when they become neighbors in a small New Jersey town. (Romance rule breaker number one—hero and heroine MUST be single at the beginning of the story.) The two couples become friends, sharing meals at each other’s houses, commuting to work together—normal things neighbors do. (Romance rule breaker number two—story must focus on the romance between the hero and heroine, not on other relationships.) Daniel and Marienne discover they have a lot in common. Similar likes. Similar histories. As their marriages begin to unravel they rely on their friendship.

Although it becomes clear to the reader that they’re beginning to fall for each other, there is never even a hint of cheating. In fact, they both stay loyal to their spouses, trying to make their respective marriages work way past the point where they’re truly viable relationships. Even when they both wind up single and available they struggle with the decision to risk their friendship to see if the romantic feelings are returned.

Since I write books that focus on relationships and since, in my opinion, sex is an important facet of most adult relationships, I write open door sex scenes. Sex is not just a physical act, it’s an emotional one. The interaction between characters during a sexual encounter can be far more telling about the relationship than a conversation or even an argument. For that reason, both main characters are shown having sex with their spouses. It’s very telling about the state of their marriages. It’s also romance rule breaker number three—the hero and heroine cannot be shown having sexual relations with anyone other than the hero/heroine (except in the case of consensual ménages, which I don’t write in any genre).

Romance rules aren’t the only ones I break with this story. By some definitions of women’s fiction I break a major rule of women’s fiction writing. Meant To Be is a story about Daniel and Marienne. As individuals, as friends, as two people falling in love. It’s about the journey they both take. They are each point of view characters and are equally important to the story. Although they both grow, mature and change throughout the course of the book, in many ways this is more Daniel’s story. In other word’s it’s by a woman, for women, but not just about a woman.

I often say this story is one long prelude to a kiss. Readers have told me they waited, breathlessly turning pages, dying to see if Daniel and Marienne would eventually find their way to each other at the end of this story. As I said, it’s a love story. It’s romantic as hell. But it’s not a traditional romance novel. It’s women’s fiction, with strong romantic elements. And a happily ever after ending. An ending that told me I wasn’t done with these characters and their journey yet, which is why there’s a sequel releasing at the end of November.

The sequel, Holding On, explores how even when you marry the person of your dreams, and have everything you ever wanted, relationships still aren’t easy. When you have everything you ever wanted the hard part is holding on. Is it a romantic story? You bet. Is it a romance? Nope. (Romance rule breaker—the hero and heroine cannot already be married to one another as the plot must focus on them falling in love and a married couple is, in theory, already in love.) It’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements, because I like my women’s fiction with a lot of love and a lot of heat…and a happy ending…but not the traditional romance novel path.

So, it’s your turn to tell me. Do you like your women’s fiction with hearty doses of romance? Do you enjoy having dual point of view from the hero and heroine in your women’s fiction? Or do you prefer if romantic plot lines are left in romance novels and women’s fiction focuses on the woman’s journey?

Karen Stivali is a prolific writer, compulsive baker and chocoholic with a penchant for books, movies and fictional British men. When she’s not writing, she can be found cooking extravagant meals and serving them to family and friends. Prior to deciding to write full time Karen worked as a hand drawn animator, a clinical therapist, and held various food-related jobs ranging from waitress to specialty cake maker. Planning elaborate parties and fundraisers takes up what’s left of her time and sanity.

Karen has always been fascinated by the way people relate to one another so she favors books and movies that feature richly detailed characters and their relationships. In her own writing she likes to explore the dynamics between characters and has a tendency to craft romantic love stories filled with sarcasm and sexy details.

You can find MEANT TO BE on AmazonAllRomanceEbooks,Barnes & Noble,and Turquoise Morning Press.

You can find Karen on her website, on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon.

In case you’re curious about Meant To Be, here’s the blurb:

Sometimes you’re already committed to the wrong person when fate finally brings you the right one.

When NYU professor Daniel Gardner’s career-obsessed wife convinces him to move to the suburbs, he hopes it’s a first step toward starting the family he longs to have. Instead of domestic bliss he finds his neighbor, Marienne Valeti. She loves her freelance design job, but must contend with a growing sense of isolation created by her husband’s indifference. A penchant for good books, bad movies, and Marienne’s to-die-for brownies sparks a powerful bond between them. Passion simmers, but they resist its lure, surrendering only in the seclusion of their minds. Their friendship helps them weather every hardship, from divorce to widowhood, leaving them both secretly wondering if it can survive a first kiss.

Women’s Fiction Author Kellie Coates Gilbert Asks The Tough Questions, And Then Writes A Novel That Answers Them

I loved the title of Kellie Coates Gilbert’s novel, MOTHER OF PEARL, right away.  I love a play on words, don’t you? Then I saw the cover and loved that!  But what I love most is how Kellie describes how she asked herself questions and then wrote a book that answered them.  I haven’t done that exactly and think it’s a great idea.  Kellie shares a lot of insights and ideas with us today — so please give her a warm welcome to Women’s Fiction Writers. Then, share your own thoughts in the comments.  I promise – we don’t bite – but we might write back! 

Amy xo

Women’s Fiction Author Kellie Coates Gilbert Asks The Tough Questions, And Then Writes A Novel That Answers Them

Amy: Congratulations on the release of your novel, MOTHER OF PEARL! It’s a relationship story about a mother and a daughter — I won’t give away more than that, but can you tell us what sparked the idea for the book?

Kellie: I knew my first novel would focus on mothering and the perils women face in this role, especially during the teen years. I didn’t even know how many things there were to be afraid of until I had my first child. From the moment the nurse placed that tiny infant in my arms, a fierce need to protect bubbled from the deepest part of me.

As a novelist, I asked the question: What would a mother do if suddenly life took a turn and she learned the child she thought she’d protected had fallen into the hands of someone unsafe?  And what if she found out too late?

Early, when the inception of this story was still noodling in my brain, I saw a sadly recurring event on the news, the story of a coach who had inappropriately been involved with a teenager. While the cameras honed on the major players, I couldn’t help but wonder if the girl’s mother stood just out of view. What was she feeling?

Amy: I love your website’s tagline: Stories for Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Girlfriends…. What prompted you to be so specific about the type of stories you write?  

Kellie: I’m a former legal investigator and trial paralegal who worked on many high profile cases, including the Jack-in-the-Box e-coli litigation in the mid-nineties and the largest cattle fraud case in the United States.  People are often at their most vulnerable in these tense situations where much is at stake, giving me a unique perspective on the human psyche.  Early in my legal career, I recognized there could be value in telling stories about women facing relationship fractures, betrayal, and loss and how we often exhibit strength and dignity in these journeys.

My agent urged me to write romance to break into publishing.  I did, and my first novel sold.  But that story was not one that burned in my heart as I wrote. When the publishing house switched directions and pulled back even before we got the contract to sign, the situation was an easy one to let go of.

I am meant to write stories for women that focus on relationships, and the deep places in life. People have many layers, and never more than in family dynamics and hard times. I’m intrigued with the coping mechanisms we employ to fill our empty places. These are the stories of my heart.

Amy: Can you share with us a little about the timeline and circumstances of your journey to publication?

Kellie: Like many authors, I am an avid reader. Strangely, I never considered a career as a novelist. Instead, I pursued a sensible legal career with predictable income (especially while my boys were in college). But in 2004, I attended my first writing conference and left with an overwhelming feeling that I was always meant to write novels. The experience is hard to describe, but I knew in the deepest part of me I would publish a novel.

So, I lifted an outrageous prayer and asked for the impossible.

But first, I had to learn to write well. So, I spent seven years going to writing conferences and workshops, taking courses, reading every craft book I could find. And a published novelist mentored me.  She started off our first session by saying she was like a dentist who only works on the bad teeth.  She meant to encourage by reminding me I had a lot of good teeth. But frankly, fixing a broken novel is sometimes as painful as a root canal. But, with her help, I learned the tools of how to create a good story.

My biggest challenge can be time management.

I often wake early and spend the first twenty minutes of my day talking with my husband before he leaves for work.  Then, I spend some time reading before heading out for my morning swim.  This is where I think through the upcoming scenes and plot points in my current manuscript.

After breakfast, I head directly into my office.  My first attention is directed to Facebook and Twitter, connecting with readers and publishing folks.  I try to start my actual writing no later than ten in the morning (and meet this goal most days).

I enjoy a quiet, organized place to write with lots of light streaming through the windows. Often I have Pachelbel’s Canon playing and a steaming cup of coffee on a coaster next to my Mac computer.

Amy: Are you a plotter or a pantser (meaning, do you write by the seat of your pants)?  Can you share any early draft tips with WFW readers?

Kellie: I’m a combination of both, but lean heavily to the pantser side. Early, I create a notebook with photos of my main characters and think through what lie they believe about themselves, and why. I jot down notes about who they are and why these elements are key to the general story.

I also make sure I know the inciting incident that pulls the main character from her regular world. I note her goals and brainstorm all the threats to achieving that goal.  In the end, I have a general framework of where I am going with the story, which keeps me from wandering too much.  But if I over-plan, I seem to clench up and can’t write.  Plus, I enjoy discovering the story as I write.

The downside of this method is a messier first draft, which needs a lot of editing.

Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?

Kellie: I personally define women’s fiction as a story about a woman (or women) that tells more about her inner journey than her outer experiences, where relationships are key and the journey evokes a lot of emotion.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Kellie: Read.  Don’t get in a hurry. Learn as much about the craft of writing as you can before you start submitting. Get a great agent (and editor). And read. Then, read some more. In the end, great story trumps great craft.  If you have both, you’re far ahead of the pack trying to break in.

And here’s a bit of a secret:  Publishing a novel is as fun as you think it will be. Nothing compares to a reader email that says she couldn’t put your book down and your story will remain in her heart.

A former legal investigator and trial paralegal, Kellie Coates Gilbert writes with a sympathetic, intimate knowledge of how people react under pressure.  Her stories are about messy lives, and eternal hope.

Kellie’s novel, MOTHER OF PEARL, Abingdon Press Sept 2012, tells the emotionally compelling story of a high school counselor who discovers her own teenage daughter had an inappropriate relationship with the football coach . . . and how she risks everything to bring him to justice.

For more information, go to http://www.kelliecoatesgilbert.com