Sweet Inspiration: How Food Network Helped Jumpstart My Writing Career

Can you believe it? It’s me, writing a post on my own blog.  Going to try to do it more often from here out. I’ll write about my new book, The Good Neighbor, about writing, about life. They all intersect on most days, so why not? 

Grab a cuppa and tell me about your first or most unusual inspiration in the comments!

Amy xo

Sweet Inspiration: How Food Network Helped Jumpstart My Writing Career

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I’ve read the Sunday paper on and off my whole adult life. Lucky for me, in September of 2006 my reading stint was “on.” I stood at my dining room table, sorting through sections for what I wanted to carry to the sofa. Full disclosure—I hate the feel of newsprint—so the fewer pages to turn once sitting down, the better. Then, while still standing, a column caught my eye. I don’t remember the title, or the byline, but I do remember it was about kids’ soccer games and soccer snacks.

Something bold crossed my mind. “I could do that.”

Naiveté can be a beautiful thing.

Through some research I discovered the author of that piece was the editor of the Perspective section of my Sunday Chicago Tribune. By that time I’d had a popular “slice of life” or “mommy blog” for six or seven months. I had a background in journalism. I had moxie.

I also had nothing to lose.

The worst that would happen was that I’d get no reply.

I emailed the editor and introduced myself. I asked if they ever used freelance writers for Perspectives. I explained why I could write columns that would meet their needs and I attached links to my most popular blog posts.

And she wrote back the next day. She told me that there would be a new editor for Perspectives and that he’d be in touch. He was. Then for two months we talked and brainstormed. He wanted my first piece to really hit the mark. I emailed ideas for columns very similar to things I’d blogged about—life as a Jewish single mom in the suburbs. None of my ideas bowled him over. I remember him saying we’d find the right idea at some point, and that I should think about writing something about the holidays. It was November. I wracked my brain. I made lists. None of them were any good.

Then one night while walking through the family room en route to somewhere else, I passed the TV, which was on. This is normal at my house. Also normal at my house is Food Network. So, the TV was tuned to Food Network and there was a commercial for a show about baking cookies. I stopped in front of the screen.

Everybody loves cookies. I said it out loud. Then I said it again. EVERYBODY LOVES COOKIES!

I ran right to the dining room table where I kept my laptop, next to all the homework papers, backpacks, and folders. I wrote my column about holiday cookies in record time. Then I rewrote it. Then again. I researched some holiday cookie names. Then, after my kids went to bed, I pounded another column about the differences in speech from Philadelphia (where I was born and grew up) to Chicago (where I was raising my own kids), and I focused that piece on some of the words associated with Hanukkah. I was up until midnight, which is not my m.o. If you know me well, you know I’m in bed by ten.

The next morning I emailed both columns to my editor.

On December 6th, 2006 All-Purpose Treat Brightens Every Holiday Tradition was published in the Sunday Perspective Section of The Chicago Tribune.

On December 17th, 2006, At Hanukkah, How You Pronounce Latke Makes A World Of Difference was published.

After that I wrote about ten columns for Perspective over the next 2-3 years, until the Trib stopped publishing that section.

I believe that first column set in motion everything that has happened since.

That experience took me back to my journalism roots, somewhat, as this was part of the newspaper, with headlines (not titles) determined by space, not by cleverness. Although these were more essay than article, I worked with a seasoned newspaper reporter who was the interim editor. He showed extreme confidence in me. He explained every edit, talked through every change. He pushed me farther in my writing than I’d been pushed in fifteen years. He even encouraged me to link my blog to my columns. In retrospect, I should have. But at the time my blog was anonymous, just like the blog in The Good Neighbor, penned by Izzy Lane. The difference is that I wanted to be anonymous so that I could tell the truth. The truth about my meeting my ex’s girlfriend for the first time, the truth about the guy who met me for lunch wearing a wrinkled trench coat and didn’t even buy me a Diet Coke, the truth about life in the suburbs. In The Good Neighbor, Izzy is anonymous because she’s lying.

But just like Izzy, I realized there was only one way to go and that was forward, onward, upward. Life was no longer about being a blogger — this was about being a published freelance writer. Those Chicago Tribune columns were often picked up by other Tribune newspapers around the country. I pitched other publications and was published in them. And the very next year, I decided to try writing fiction. And we all know how that turned out. 😉

It’s true I took action that day in September when I read the column about soccer snacks. I could have just thought “I could do that” and not emailed the editor. But I did. (I could have said I wanted to write a novel, too. And not done it.)

But—walking through the family room and being hit with the inspiration for the story about cookies from a TV commercial? That was good timing. That was being open. That was realizing if I didn’t try, I’d never know.

That was sweet.

Inside A Writer’s Mind: Why I Blew Dry My Hair To Be On The Radio

A benefit and a drawback of writing and editing and blogging at home is the tendency — my tendency — to fall prey to The Pajama Syndrome.  TPS is common among writers, both aspiring and published, although with the advent of Skype, TPS rates have decreased somewhat with book club authors, from what I’ve heard.  It’s easy to cozy up with the laptop and write, plaid flannel pants with a thread of silver sparkle make an excellent base for a lap desk.  The quiet I need to write well — oh hell — to even write poorly — seems more likely with morning hair, even if it’s noon.

Or so I thought.

While much of my writing has been done while donning slippers and drinking coffee (pumpkin spice today, it’s finally Fall) sometimes the tranquil nature of stretchy clothes is counterproductive.  Sometimes I want to look the part of the professional even if no one is going to see me.  Granted, I can pretend I’m all spiffed up if I’m on the phone with a client, but it’s sort of like false advertising.  To myself.  I know the clients don’t care if I read and edit their work at 5am in a Snuggie (after all, it IS a leopard print Snuggie) but sometimes, I care.  And sometimes it’s better to talk the talk AND walk the walk. Even if I’m walking alone.

Back in September when I was scheduled to appear on Annmarie Lockhart’s Fifteen Minutes of Poetry on BlogTalk Radio, not to talk about poetry, but to talk about fiction, I decided it was time to look the part.  I blew dry my hair, put on jeans and a tee (I have my limits) and even *GASP* a pair of — wait for it — shoes!  What I liked most of all that when I looked in the mirror I thought that I could actually be talking to someone in person, face to face, IRL, and saying the same things the same way.  I didn’t expect that to happen — and because I have dogs I did cordon myself off in my bedroom to be on the show.  And when I was on Curtis Sliwa’s radio show in 2009, I stood in the bathroom.  There are just a few things even a coiffed do and a glossy lip can’t cure. My annoying rambunctious dogs are two of them.

I think I could have pulled off the interview even in my pj’s — because it was fun talking to Annmarie — and because I am always willing and eager to talk about writing craft and my own work to other writers and I’m thinking I’m more likely to be believable to myself when I look in the mirror and see the professional me.  It’s a good reminder that while lovely prose and snappy dialogue are not predicated on the fashion-sense of the author, those of us who work alone – at home – can also use the confidence a good hair day imbues.

So, how do you know when you’re too deep in TPS?  Perhaps when your sixteen year old daughter gets in the car after school and asks, “Why are you so dressed up?”  The fact that you happen to be wearing jeans and black long-sleeved T-shirt is not lost on you.  You ask, “Why do you say I’m dressed up?”  And she says, “You’re wearing a necklace.”

Indeed, I was.

The Three P’s of Writing Women’s Fiction

Sunday night I watched The Glee Project with my daughter. In the show, talented twenty-somethings compete for seven guest spots on GLEE.  In each episode a regular cast member gives the contestants advice and a challenge.

In this episode, the cast member, Max Adler, who plays Kurofsky, told the hopefuls they needed three things to make it in this (show) business.

Passion. Persistence. Patience.

I said, “OOOH, I’m writing that down.”  And I did.  (Who says television isn’t a teaching tool?) And then I thought about how those three P’s apply not to writing in general, not to the pursuit of publishing, but specifically to the writing of women’s fiction as I see it, and as we’ve discussed on Women’s Fiction Writers.

Sometimes it’s the little reminders — a word here, a phrase there, a Post-It note — that make the biggest impact because they take up the least amount of physical and mental space.  (I like to leave as much room as possible for my characters to breathe and grow and dance around. Did I just write that and post it? Yes. Yes, I did.)

PASSION

In women’s fiction the main character’s passion for her personal journey must supersede her passion for discovering or keeping a romantic partner. The passion is for making it on her own — with others perhaps along side, but not always.

As a women’s fiction writer, my passion is stories where women are champions of their own lives, and to show readers how my characters get to that point. For me, there’s also a passion for writing what some women might be uncomfortable admitting is true for them or someone they know.  Imperfect parenting, snarky retorts, occasional selfishness, ignored red flags, big secrets. Occasional wardrobe lapses.

PERSISTENCE

In women’s fiction the main character may not always be persistent — her journey may take a detour — but someone in the story persists, or the antagonist persists or the situation persists and spurs the main character to action.  This hearkens back to the fact that in every bit of your writing the character must want something — even if it’s a glass of water.  She must persist to make it to The End.

As a women’s fiction writer I’m persistent.  As I dip into my reserve of clichés, I stick to my guns and I dig in my heels and I don’t budge an inch when someone rolls his or her eyes at the genre.  I just keep writing women’s fiction.  Even more so, I keep reading women’s fiction, buying books, doing interviews, joining groups, promoting the cause.  I also persist in communicating what women’s fiction is — and what it is not.

PATIENCE

As a women’s fiction writer I’ve learned to have a lot of patience, not only in the writing, querying and publishing processes but in learning that being part of a women’s fiction community can be an uphill battle.  It’s not this, it’s not that, we like you, we don’t, we want you here, now get away. Sometimes I only realize I’m at the top of the the hill when I stop and look around.  And by “at the top” I don’t mean with a book deal or bestseller, I just mean — I’m at the best part of my writing career for me at this particular moment.  I am where I need to be.  I can’t be further along because, well, I’m just not farther along. I can’t go backwards because, well, that’s plain ridiculous.  I’m patient because the alternative is not to be patient, which accomplishes nothing.  I don’t twiddle my thumbs.  I write and revise my novels. I read, read, read. I learn about craft.  I communicate with my agent.  I write and publish short stories.  I do not get perturbed or panicked too often.  I’ve also learned patience when it comes to fielding questions from folks who want to ask “Why choose patience when you can choose self-publishing?”  I’m patient as I watch the industry change and as I figure out how it all impacts the books I want to write.

And I believe that because of this patience, I can be even more persistent when focusing on my own passion — my journey as a women’s fiction author.

Are you passionate, persistent and patient? How does it relate to your women’s fiction writing? 

When A Man Writes Women’s Fiction

I’m honored to introduce Keith Cronin, author of the novel ME AGAIN (September 2011, Five Star/Gale) to Women’s Fiction Writers. ME AGAIN is women’s fiction written by a man and written from a male POV — just like many of us have mentioned, questioned and pondered right here on WFW.  

So, how does a guy end up writing women’s fiction? What’s it like to be the only fella in the room? How does this even happen?  Can Keith help us define this genre?  And…what’s his best advice for all of us? 

Read on and find out.  

Many thanks to Keith for his thoughtful and thought-provoking answers. His perspective will make you nod in recognition — when you’re not scrambling to take notes!  

Q & A with ME AGAIN author Keith Cronin

ASN: Would you tell us a little about yourself and your book?

KC: I’ve been writing “seriously” (does that mean I have to scowl a lot?) since the late 90’s, and ME AGAIN is my second completed novel. My first one, a Mafia comedy, attracted a major agent, but ultimately went unsold. After that I wanted to take a different approach. I found an old unfinished short story that I had put away a couple years prior, and got really excited when I re-read it; I loved the premise, and both the emotional conflict and the voice were much more complex and poignant than my previous book. It really felt like an opportunity to dig far deeper emotionally than I had ever done before, so I developed the story, and sure enough, the two main characters really came to life for me. In a nutshell, ME AGAIN is about two young stroke victims who each have to choose whether to look at brain damage as a handicap, or an opportunity to lead a new life. Neither of these characters are based on real people, but the female’s main problem – that a stroke has radically changed her personality – was something that had happened to a friend’s sister, and ever since she told me about it I’d always found her situation just hauntingly heartbreaking, so I used it as the basis for this character’s journey.

ASN: When you were writing the novel did you know it would be “classified” as women’s fiction? How did you feel about that as a male author?

KC: I didn’t realize it would end up classified this way, but I did consciously set out to write a book that women would want to read. As a musician I travel a lot, and I’ve found that airplanes are a great place to get a sense of who is reading what. In my travels I would consistently see more women than men reading on airplanes – and reading a wider variety of authors. So I decided I needed to try to reach them, by writing a book with a strong and compelling emotional focus. But I’ll confess, when I started writing ME AGAIN, I just thought of it as the male character’s story, although I knew there would be a major female character. It was only as I immersed myself in writing the book that it became clear that the female character’s conflict and ultimate transformation were really key to the overall point of the book. When Five Star expressed interest in the book for their Expressions line, which is their romance and women’s fiction line, I was delighted – it seemed like an excellent fit.

ASN: Were there any unusual or interesting reactions to your book because you’re a guy? Have you been “accepted” into circles of women’s fiction authors?

KC: I’ve been surprised and delighted by how open and welcoming everybody has been thus far. I rather hesitantly joined the Romance Writers of America this year, and recently skulked into my first local chapter meeting, with one eye on the exit just in case it was too weird or uncomfortable. But the people were incredibly friendly, and really embraced me – I wound up spending the entire day hanging out with a core group of them, and now I never miss a meeting. Likewise, I’ve joined a few online groups that focus on romance and women’s fiction, most of which are populated entirely by women, and they’ve been equally open and warm to me. It can be daunting to often be the only male, but nobody has had a problem with it, and if anything they seem to welcome the sheer novelty of having a Y chromosome in the room. And I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the women’s fiction panelists at this year’s Backspace Writers Conference in Manhattan, which is both a huge honor and yet another sign of how well I’m being accepted into the women’s fiction community.

ASN: Do you think men will be more likely to read the book since you’re the author?

KC: I don’t know – I guess I hope so, but it saddens me that anybody would have more or less interest in a book based on the gender of its author. I just don’t think like that. But I know many people do – particularly men. So yeah, I guess maybe between a man having written it, and the book not having a “girly” cover or title, maybe more men will read it. We shall see…

ASN: Did you ever consider using a pseudonym?

KC: No, not really. It’s not an uncommon strategy for men who write romance or women’s fiction to either use a pseudonym or a sexually ambiguous set of initials. But both my parents were journalists, so I’ve been raised with a healthy appetite for the byline. I’ve wanted to see my name on the cover of a book for a long, long time, so I wasn’t inclined to give that up just because of how my book is being marketed. And frankly, a woman who wouldn’t read my book just because I’m a man is not a reader I’m likely to connect with anyway.

ASN: How do you define women’s fiction? What makes it different from “general” fiction or what some call a family drama?

KC: I really like your own definition of women’s fiction, in which the woman is responsible for solving her own problems. Another one I like a lot is that women’s fiction is storytelling that takes the issues women care about seriously. A much more succinct definition – and one that I fear is probably more true than I’d like to admit – is that women’s fiction is fiction that men won’t read. Ouch. In my own attempt to cobble together a definition, I came up with this: In men’s fiction we want the reader to care about what the characters do, but in women’s fiction we also want the readers to care about what the characters feel. But I think the Women’s Fiction chapter of the Romance Writers of America does one of the best jobs of capturing it. They have a detailed definition posted on their website, and although they are defining it within the parameters of a romance-reading audience, they identify what I think is the essential component of women’s fiction: that it needs to focus on the personal growth and transformation of the main female character.

ASN:  ME AGAIN has a male main character. Why does it work well as women’s fiction? 

KC: ME AGAIN is written from the first-person viewpoint of a male character, a young stroke victim who awakens from a six-year coma with no memory of who he is. The blank slate that he begins the book with creates a vulnerability that I’m hoping both female and male readers will find compelling. Early in the book he meets the main female character, a young woman who is trying to cope with how a stroke has changed her own personality, making her a stranger to her husband. The two are drawn together by the strangeness of their respective situations, and ultimately begin to understand each other better than anybody else – including her husband and his family. As the book progresses, the male character and (I hope) the reader will begin to see that the female character’s problems are in many ways more pressing, creating a more urgent need for some sort of transformation or resolution. I think that’s why Five Star chose the book for their women’s fiction line, but I’m aware this is atypical for a women’s fiction book, and I suspect there may be some women who will pass this book by because it doesn’t follow the typical format of setting the female as the main POV character. But my hope is that if they take a deeper look and try to consider just what the female character is facing, they may find the story compelling and satisfying. This is a woman constantly reminded by her husband that she isn’t the woman he married, with the implicit message that he wishes she were somebody else – and it’s someone she can never be.

ASN: Do you compare your writing to anyone in particular?

KC: With ME AGAIN I’m shooting for sort of an “American Nick Hornby” vibe. Although many people categorize Hornby as writing humor or even “lad lit,” I think if you take a closer look you’ll find he’s often writing about very serious topics, and the humor in his writing comes from the clever and/or quirky viewpoints of his characters, and from the ironies that real life so often injects into our existence. Plus he does wonderful female characters, such as the protagonist in How to Be Good, and two of the four first-person narrators in A Long Way Down, and the main female character in Juliet, Naked. He frequently uses an approach that I would summarize as “serious things happening to witty people,” which is definitely a model that resonates with me.

ASN: Do you read women’s fiction in addition to writing it? What are some of your favorite books/authors and why? And what are some of your other favorite books?

KC: I never really consider genre when I read, but I certainly read plenty of what is considered women’s fiction. I tend to like stories with a humorous angle, so I particularly enjoy writers like Jennifer Crusie, Lani Diane Rich, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Helen Fielding and of course Jane Austen. Crusie is a particular favorite: I loved her modern-day fairy tale Bet Me, as well as Tell Me Lies and her most recent novel Maybe This Time, which is a reimagining of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Plus she is an amazingly generous writer who blogs, hosts online forums, and does weekly podcasts analyzing a series of popular movies along with her friend Lani Diane Rich. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is one of my “desert island books,” which I think still qualifies as women’s fiction, although both the male and female characters make important emotional journeys. I’m also a big fan of some emerging women’s fiction writers who write in a more serious vein, like Susan Henderson, author of Up from the Blue; Jael McHenry, whose excellent debut The Kitchen Daughter just came out; and Danielle Younge-Ullman, whose first novel Falling Under was just jaw-droppingly good. Other writers I really enjoy include Nick Hornby, James Ellroy, Sara Gruen, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jon Clinch, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and I’ve just recently – and quite belatedly – discovered Elizabeth Peters. I know I’m forgetting about a million others, and my stack of to-be-read books is reaching a life-endangering height!

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

KC: Two things. First, make sure your protagonist is a driver, not a passenger. In women’s fiction in particular, you’ll often see inexperienced writers working on novels where the protagonist’s group of friends – often portrayed as a “sisterhood” – is really what carries her through the book. Or she gets into a scrape and a Big Strong Man ultimately saves the day. In both cases, the story is happening to the protagonist, which can make it difficult to connect with her or care about her. Second, make sure your conflict is big enough. Often women’s fiction focuses on fairly down-to-earth things that are a part of most people’s lives, like divorce, illness, grief, infidelity and so on. So your challenge is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary, the special thing that makes your story unique. Donald Maass gives some great insights about this in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, in which he really emphasizes the importance of inner conflict and escalating personal stakes. It’s one thing to be realistic; it’s another to be mundane. In this incredibly challenging fiction market, you need to ensure there’s something really distinctive about your story that makes people think, “Wow, I gotta read that!”

Keith Cronin is the author of the novel ME AGAIN, coming in September 2011 from Five Star/Gale, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith’s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at www.keithcronin.com or www.facebook.com/keithcronin.


Remembering To Love Your Own Story

I’ve embarked on another round of revisions on my novel and you know what makes me nervous? Keeps the word doc closed? Lends to procrastination? Makes me write blog posts instead of clicking track changes?

Sometimes I forget I like — no, love — my book! I forget my affection for the characters, the setting, the twists and turns, the thimble full of romance, the private jokes in plain sight — and the ending.

It’s not always easy to admit you love something about yourself, a creation of your own making.  But it’s the critical part of the writing process that we can let slip — but shouldn’t.

You must love the ones you’re with.

I think sometimes in writing women’s fiction we can get very caught up in what it’s all about. The theme, the lesson, (drumroll please…) the arcs — both character and plot.  And I have found that in getting caught up we can get bogged down. Creating bigness is critical — but details are what drive great women’s fiction.  The details are what make readers love what they read — writers what they write.

I don’t usually read a book and think or say, “Gee whiz, that universal theme of self-acceptance hooked me on page one” or “Dagnabbit, the arc of that protagonist really had me intrigued.”

Nope, I don’t.  What I think might mean that, but it’s the details that embrace me and add up to a great reading and writing experience.

So, in order to fall back in love with my old friends in my novel, I am focusing on a few little things without even attaching their meaning. Just remembering these, and smiling, meant I was itching to wake up Monday morning, brew a pot of Folgers, pull back my bangs into a hair clip and away from my eyes and get started.  I knew the rest would just happen and it did.

These are the details I dug up for myself about Evie, my main character. These things mean something within the context of the novel, but even without their literary baggage, these tidbits are enough to make me smile — and remember.

Evie bakes classic cookies with a twist, has a master’s degree in United States history and can tell how tall a man is when he walks through a doorway. 

😀 See? I’m smiling.  These are details that remind me of more things which in turn remind me of more which makes me very excited to get to work on my revisions. So I do, and I find even more. Totally If You Give A Mouse A Cookie for the writer set.

I sometimes forget what I had for breakfast (French toast with strawberries on Sunday, a peanut butter sandwich on Monday, thankyouverymuch) — but I don’t ever want to forget any details — or my love — for my story.

Because if I don’t love it, chances are no one else will either.

And I need to remember that too.

Would you share a few things you love about your story or characters? Keep it simple. Nothing deep. No explanations. Just details that will make you — and all of us — smile. 🙂

Sidekicks, Best Friends and Nosy Neighbors in Women’s Fiction

When I think sidekick, I think Robin.  As in…Batman and.

When I think best friends, I think Monica, Rachel and Phoebe from Friends.

When I think nosy neighbor, I think Mrs. Kravetz from Bewitched.

These aren’t literary examples, but as I contemplate my WIP, I’m focusing on how I portray my main character’s posse, the people that surround her, support her, and the ones whom she, in turn, supports and surrounds.  Does she need a sidekick? One best friend? More than one? A nosy neighbor?

Is a sidekick even desirable in traditional women’s fiction?  I don’t think so.  I tend to think that in classic chick-lit the MC always has a gay best friend or a sensible sister. He or she exists because the MC needs him or her to exist.  The sidekick might be endearing and fundamental to the story — but is only there to serve.  Like Robin. (At least the real Robin. Kazam!)

So, maybe nix the sidekick.  But is a best friend necessary in women’s fiction?  Not always, but a main character does need to get and to give, so there needs to be someone or a few someones with whom to have those exchanges and dialogue.  For this reason, ensemble novels can be very satisfying in women’s fiction. In an ensemble novel the story is equally focused on multiple characters.  Like Friends. I believe The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton is an ensemble novel, but I saw on Twitter (source of all excellent and pertinent information) that someone considered Little Bee by Chris Cleave an ensemble novel. I never thought of it that way because there were two main characters, the story was told from two points of view.  Little Bee is captivating literary fiction — not sure it’s women’s fiction — although it’s the story of two women told from each point of view.  Written by a man.  (A blog post for another day.) I just finished my Cathy Lamb feast with Such a Pretty Face*. I might consider it an ensemble novel because although told from one point of view – in first person – I was equally enthralled by each character’s storyline and they were all woven together, dependent on one another.  If I’d taken away one character the story would not have been the same.  It would have unraveled.

I do think there needs to be a special relationship for MC because that person is who will help the MC into or out of trouble — or a quandary.  Along with the main character, someone needs to be cognizant of the changes going on, even if they don’t like them.  In my current novel my MC — Evie — has two best friends.  I envision one as the angel on her shoulder and one as the devil on her shoulder.  But each character has a life of her own the reader is privy to. Each has a character arc, storyline and a past. Ooh, gotta love those pasts. They could exist without the main character in another story.  They’re not sidekicks.

I suppose in women’s fiction the nosy neighbor would be the trouble-maker.  The antagonist. The one who throws up the roadblock. Every book needs one or more — and in women’s fiction we often find this in the form of internal demons or an external nemesis. (Cue creepy music) I had a hard time identifying the “bad guy” in my current novel because even the one who should be, is a sympathetic character.  Sometimes.  But she is the one who throws the curveball and makes the MC questions herself more than anyone else.  And yes, sometimes the antagonist is a bitch.  Again, only sometimes.

Sidekick, best friend, nosy neighbor, cousin, storekeeper, co-worker, butcher, baker, candlestick maker…it doesn’t matter who it is or what you call it.  What matters is that each character has a raison d’être — a reason for existence beyond taking up space on the page.

Guess that could be said of real people too.  But that’s another blog.

Tell me about your main character and her posse and your favorite ensemble novels.

* Such A Pretty Face was my least favorite of the five Cathy Lambs novels I’ve read in the past few months. That being said, I really liked it – just not as much as the others.  So, if you’ve not yet read Lamb’s books, and you’re open to suggestions, start with Henry’s Sisters or The Last Time I Was Me. And then let me know what you think!

Quirky Characters In Women’s Fiction

To me, the sign of good women’s fiction is when I finish the book and wish I knew the characters — quirks and all.

When I write I keep that in mind.

I think the best way to write a quirky character is to think of her as being transparent to the reader.  We  know everything about a character the author chooses for us to know — we write whatever we want our reader to know.  And you know what? That is probably more than most of us know about our real life friends and neighbors, and maybe even more than we’re willing to admit about ourselves.  These can be external and internal quirks — endearing and annoying quirks.  Quirkiness just skirts the edge of weirdness, allows us to see inside a character  — even if the other characters cannot.  Maybe it’s a twitch, a habit, an obsession.  It could be a secret or a wish. By adding a bit of quirkiness to the character the reader gets to see the unique way your character handles a real life situation — because that’s what women’s fiction tackles – real life in all in it’s exceptional and ordinary ways.  Your women’s fiction must be unique to make it in todays market — quirks will make your character unique. Quirks will make your characters real and relatable.

In the book I’m reading now, Such a Pretty Face by Cathy Lamb, the main character hides every time she sees her handsome neighbor. At first I found I wondered if she was just being silly or over-reacting, but as I got to know her better I realized that I was privy to her personal ritual, what made her tick. She was a self-conscious woman — which to me is cliché.  But she hides behind bushes! That’s quirky. She’s unsure of herself.  That’s real. She’s scared of what his reaction might be to her. That’s relatable.

In Meg Waite Clayton’s The Wednesday Sisters, one of the characters wears white gloves all the time – this is obvious to all the characters and her secret is hidden from them as well as the reader.  The gloves? That’s quirky. The other characters wonder about the gloves but don’t bother their friend about it. That’s real. There’s a secret in this woman’s past. That’s relatable. (This book is about women who get together to write, which is one of the reasons I loved it, I’m sure. I still want to hang out with these characters.)

For me, quirkiness is always in progress in my writing.  In a WIP my main character loves to dust because it gives her a reason to touch her favorite possessions and not feel like she is obsessed with them  — even though she is. These items represent a promise she made to herself  about the life she wants. In my novel that’s in the hands of my agent, my main character loves to bake because it distracts her — and feeds her need to nurture.  And when she feeds her friends, she can also distract them.  And it works for her.

For the record — I don’t dust or bake.  Makes it all the more fun to write women who do!

Do quirky characters appeal to you?  Tell me some of your favorites — ones you’ve read and ones you’ve written!

Girl Crushes — or — Four Women’s Fiction Authors I Love And Why

It wasn’t too long ago that my IRL BFF listed her girl crushes on Facebook. I don’t remember who they were but the likes of Penelope Cruz and Angelina Jolie were on the list, along with funny girls like Kathy Griffin and Tina Fey.

Whatever.

When someone poses the question “if you could have dinner with anyone in the world, living or dead” I’m ashamed that people like Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King don’t pop to mind.

Should they?

I am an author groupie, my girl crushes are on women’s fiction authors. I dream about book signings and having a favorite author follow me on Twitter — or — take a deep breath — find this blog. Last spring I dragged asked three of my closest friends to accompany me to a book signing an hour from our little town. On a weeknight. During the school year. Being the amazing friends they are, they not only went with me, but they scored me a seat near the front by rearranging the furniture sheer luck.  After the reading and Q&A, they waited in line with me for an hour and a half. I’ll let that sink in for a few seconds. One, two… An hour and a half. And then I got up to the table and was tongue-tied. Me, who is rarely at a loss for the spoken or written word, was star struck.

This author was Jennifer Lancaster. And while Jen’s books to date are memoir, they’re written in a women’s fiction tone and her first novel (not fiction novel, just novel) comes out this spring. By reading Jen’s books I learned/was reminded that poignancy and eloquence can go hand in hand with humor and snark.

And if that’s not awesomesauce, I don’t know what is.

I'm the one on the right. In pearls. Like Jen.

If I could pick one person to have dinner with living or dead…I’d pick Jennifer Lancaster. But I will tell you that it would be a really boring meal because I probably wouldn’t talk.

Did I mention that she lives near me? (Yes, an hour and a half qualifies as “near.”)

My author-on-a-pedestal is Jennifer Weiner. And that’s pronounced like “whiner” not like “hot dog.” I didn’t know that for a long time, which is why I feel it’s ok to correct anyone who says it wrong. I would most likely giggle incessantly if I met Jennifer Weiner. Why? Her first book, Good In Bed,  knocked me on my derriere. I was so blown away by a plot twist mid-book that I knew I had to revise my entire book (maybe it was the second draft?) so that I could elicit that type of reaction from readers. I’m grateful – even beholden.  Reading Good in Bed showed me how fabulous it is to drop a reader right into the action – no backstory, little lead-up. This was published in 2001, but I didn’t read it until 2007.  At which time it led to me making the middle of my book the beginning, the end became the middle and the beginning became a fond memory of what I used to think of as good story-telling.

Although I consider myself well-read, my writer-friend Janna recently introduced me to Elizabeth Berg. I couldn’t believe I considered myself a women’s fiction author and had never read Elizabeth Berg. She lives near me too.  If I had to pick two words to describe Berg’s books? Followable complexity.  (I think I made up one of those words, but this is about fiction, so, fine.)

Another friend introduced me to Cathy Lamb. (Hello? Where have you been all my life?)  I am reading my fifth Cathy Lamb book and am duly annoyed I have to wait until summer for the next one. What fascinates me about the Cathy Lamb books is how she writes extremely quirky characters whose underpinnings are incredibly normal. She is also a master, in my opinion, of writing a fully developed cast of characters using first person. I was struck by this first in Henry’s Sisters and it inspired me to try my latest WIP in first person.  There are many romantic undertones and a smidgen of church in Cathy Lamb’s books, so I wondered if they were 1) romance or 2) Christian fiction.  Then I remembered that these books are all about a woman’s journey of self — the details are specific to Lamb, and give the characters heartbeats.  It’s good ol’ women’s fiction.

Yes, it’s true, I am now a Cathy Lamb junkie seeking rehab. But just until August.

I don’t mean for this blog or this post to be about an author popularity contest.  These are my go-to writer-gals because I want my books to be like their books — in quality, in story, in tone.  I admire many writers, male and female.  I read many books — not all women’s fiction.  I read a lot of literary fiction and some historical fiction and all good books are teaching tools for aspiring and published authors.  I also know a lot of aspiring authors. I’ve read a lot of great drafts of one-day-to-be-published books.  I didn’t write this to leave out anyone, but simply to highlight these four authors, for now.

We take away from our best teaching books what we need for our own growth as story sculptors.  That is the gift of one writer to another – the lesson not in the story, but in how the story is told, how the words are used, how the sentences are constructed, how the cadence is artfully managed.  These writerly lessons are like the french fries left at the bottom of the bag after you’ve finished your entire shouldn’t-really-be-eating-this-junk-food lunch.  Something you didn’t expect to find — but are really, really glad you did.

Who are your favorite women’s fiction authors and why? (We can talk about authors of other genres another time…and how those authors help us with our specific genre and craft.)

Women’s Fiction Defined

There is no harder genre to define than women’s fiction.  Lordy, lordy! Is it fiction for women or fiction written by women?  Is it feminist fiction? Is it any book with a female protagonist?  Is women’s fiction simply an dumping genre for writing that isn’t romance but isn’t quite literary?  Is it anything that just wouldn’t appeal to most men? Does it have to be about a family or does that make it a family drama and is that different? Must the protag be over thirty but under sixty?

Figuring this out has exhausted me and I write women’s fiction.  Can you imagine how hard it is for folks who don’t write it to understand exactly what we’re doing?

To me, women’s fiction is a book about a woman or women. Ok, that’s the not the hard part.  The hard part is that the protagonist’s journey is about self-discovery, self-preservation, self-acceptance or self-improvement.  And this journey is taken in the company of others who affect the main character, influence her, but do not save her.

In women’s fiction, the main character saves herself.

Are there romantic undertones in some women’s fiction?  Absolutely.  Is it the driving force of the novel? No.  Is it what makes the main character tick? No. Could there be some paranormal elements in some women’s fiction? Sure. Is it the driving force of the novel? No. Is it what makes the main character tick? No.

Do you see a theme emerging?

Women’s fiction isn’t the same as chick-lit (and I love chick-lit).  To me, chick lit is always light in tone and nature and voice — and that’s not always true of women’s fiction.

The driving force of women’s fiction is the motivation of the main character to get herself from point A to point B to point C, learning and changing and growing and making mistakes along the way.  What makes a women’s fiction main character tick is the methods by which she learns and changes and grows and makes mistakes.

Women’s fiction tackles extraordinary real life issues and emotions.

For me, the sign of a great women’s fiction book (don’t get me started on calling it a women’s fiction novel, I just can’t/won’t/wouldn’t do it for a million bucks. ok, well, I’d do it once for a million and a half) is when I close the book or click the Kindle and wish I could meet the characters.

Does it doesn’t bother me there isn’t a “man’s fiction” genre or that I write with women in mind and know my novel probably won’t appeal to men. Nope.

I realize some genres don’t have steadfast rules and writers call their work whatever they want to call it.  I have been in classes and groups where writers have said to me “HEY! I WRITE WOMEN’S FIC TOO!” And then I read a page or an excerpt and find it’s not what I think of as women’s fiction.

A journey to find a man or a new pair of Christian Louboutins are both worthy journeys indeed but for the sake of this blog, and my sanity, women’s fiction is commercial and/or literary work that focuses on a women’s journey of self.  Whether or not she wears high heels.