Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, July 27, 2009

Heirloom Gardening

Male Hooded Warbler (Photo to the left)

As the summer grows hotter and more humid here in North Carolina, I'm working to keep my roses alive and relatively healthy, despite my aversion to spraying and chemicals. And I'm amazed at the serendipity of life in general. You see, I didn't always grow roses, much less heirloom, or Old Garden Roses, as I do now and it is strange to see how a little thing like a rose has played such a large role in my life.

Way back when (well, 15 years ago) I was single and living in a condo. I figured I'd never get married or realize my dream of living in the country. I was resigned. But much to my surprise, I met a wonderful man through my hobby of bird watching and he lived…in the country. The photo of the male Hooded Warbler shows you why I love bird watching to this day, and it's not just because I met my husband through this hobby. :-)

(And in another bizarre bit of serendipity, I went to college to become a biologist, but in the end switched majors. But my husband is a biologist, which means I can pretty much understand what he's talking about and I don't get grossed out by the peculiar contents of the bottles I find in the refrigerator.)

So with a great deal of delight, I sold my condo and moved to thirty acres that back up to a swamp. The mosquitoes and snakes are generally less delightful, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, we purchased a house that had been built by a woman who grew roses. There weren't many roses left, but a huge Tea rose called 'Marie van Houtte' (shown below) managed to survive the neglect while the house was for sale and "between owners". At the time, I didn't know what it was, but I loved its loose, soft cream and pink blooms. And the previous owners generously sent me three more roses as a house-warming gift. (Folks in the country really are very, very nice.) And I wanted a few more. I bought the standard Hybrid Teas and every blessed one died on me. I figured I had a black thumb. Plus, I really hated spraying because we also wanted to turn 3 acres into a wildlife sanctuary (not to mention that my dogs kept eating the rose hips). I almost gave up.

But while I was getting used to gardening, I started searching rose catalogs and reading up on roses. I found Old Garden Roses, that is, roses that were hybridized before 1900 and generally only bloom once a year but are rich with fragrance. They don't need to be sprayed—yippee! And after a few seasons, I joined a local rose gardening club. I won awards at a few rose shows, and even managed to identify my beloved 'Marie van Houtte'. And I discovered Tea roses and Noisettes that seem perfectly adapted to this area and actually rebloom throughout the summer. In fact, Noisettes were originally hybridized by Mr. Champneys in Charleston, SC, so the southeast is a good home for them.

And while the Hybrid Teas burned up too quickly from the heat, humidity and disease, Tea and Noisettes flourished. In fact, I (perhaps unwisely) purchased two Noisettes, 'Reve d'Ohr', (show to the left) to plant over a metal arbor leading to my vegetable garden. Then I had to add two more metal arbors to hold up the huge climbers. When 'Reve d'Ohr' literally crushed all three metal arbors, I cut them back and my husband built a massive wooden arbor. Within a season, they had clambered over that and covered it completely, providing excellent nesting habitat for a series of wrens, sparrows, and the occasional mockingbird.

Completely absorbed by my new-found friends, I dug deeper into the literature and collected every possible book on roses and historical roses I could. And I ran across myriad stories of the Empress Josephine and her rose garden at Malmaison. She may be credited with really started the systematic collecting, hybridization and cataloging of roses. She even had an arrangement with the French and British fleets in the middle of the Napoleonic wars to allow her to acquire roses and seeds from Britain and to allow a visa for Mr. Kennedy—a famous British plantsman—to come to France and help design her garden. Eventually, her gardens were so extensive and well-known, she had to hire guards to patrol it because people were stealing her roses at night!

At about the time I was reading about Malmaison and Josephine, I resurrected another dream of mine: to be a writer. And between my love of roses and the fascinating historical detail of robbers stealing roses out of the gardens at Malmaison, my historical romance, Smuggled Rose was born! After all, those stolen roses had to go somewhere and we know there was a great deal of smuggling going on, so it's only natural to assume some of those roses made it back to British soil.

That's how, serendipitously, I realized three dreams I once thought I had to abandon: I married a wonderful man; I moved to the country; and I became a writer.

And I grow luscious, beautiful roses and never spray them, at all.

Something Fun—Easy Rose Water

Because it is hot and I do grow roses, here is a wonderfully refreshing face tonic. I use it to rinse my face in the summer. This makes a very small batch. You can easily double it, e.g. 1 cup rose petals and 2 cups of boiling water, but I prefer to make small batches so I can be sure to use it up while it is fresh. This can even be used for some Near Eastern recipes that call for rose water.

½ c. rose petals (pack them in) from bushes that have not been sprayed

1 c. boiling water

Place the rose petals in a Pyrex glass bowl or large measuring cup. Pour the boiling water over the petals. Let steep until it cools.

Pour into a very clean bottle and keep in the refrigerator.


—Amy Corwin

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Romance Writers of America Conference, 2009

Good News (If Any)

Got a few leads to check out (one thanks to writer Monica Burns). Saw many, many friends that I don't get to see very often. All of my critique partners have "hit it big" and are doing exceptionally well--I was so pleased to see them: Monica Burns, Kristi Cook, Charlotte Featherstone, and Jenna Black.

Also got my covers from the art department for my paranormal.

What I'm Reading Now

I'm actually not reading anything at the moment—I'm rather overwhelmed with work. J

What I'm Writing Now

Post-conference, I'm revising my contemporary mystery. My editor will shortly be sending me my first edits for my paranormal, Vampire Protector, so I expect I'll be busy with that soon, too. I'm also considering changing around a few things. I may start offering short pastiches, or short stories, as free reads, first from my newsletter and then perhaps also as PDF-formatted downloads. I've always considered this to be bad—if you are a professional and trying to earn a living, you actually need to earn money for your work and not give it away for free. However, perhaps it would serve as self-promotion, so I could feed my capitalist, "I actually need money to live on streak," with the balm that I'm not really writing for nothing if it works as shameless self-promotion.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

Went to a bunch of different workshops at the RWA conference. Learned some new techniques (and was again awed by the sheer ego of some writers—I mean even if you are a best-seller, do you really, really think other writers must read you if they are serious about becoming better writers? Of course it could be true and maybe the fact that I don't read most best-selling authors is a terrible flaw that will keep me forever off the NY Times Bestsellers list. It is an interesting notion.)

Found the following information interesting and helpful. It also made me realize that I'm at a slight disadvantage, never having taken a single writing class in my entire life. I'm hoping the conference workshops do qualify, however, as some sort of training.

Jennifer Crusie

Went to a workshop held by Crusie on turning points to solidify the concepts of turning points in a novel and beats in a scene. She did a great job and has indicated she will be posting the information in her blog, with a link from her website at

In a nutshell, some of the information that resonated with me included:

  1. You need about 5 turning points, realizing that the beginning and ending themselves are turning points 1 and 5. Turning points are those events that happen in the novel that take the plot into an unexpected direction and worsen things for the protagonist. If it's a great turning point, the reader will react with "Wow, I never saw that coming!"
    1. One is the turning point that thrusts the protagonist into the action of the novel at the beginning. It should preferably occur on page 1.
    2. Two is first time you twist the action into an unexpected direction and worsen it for your protagonist.
    3. Three is the classic "point of no return" where the protagonist has changed so much through all that has happened so far that even if s/he could miraculously return to her life on page one, she would not be the same person.
    4. Four is the darkest moment for the protagonist. S/he will fact the antagonist and lose everything that she holds dear—for the moment. But the protagonist will make one more super-human effort to overcome and her efforts will lead to turning point five…
    5. Five is the final metamorphosis, the conclusion of the character's arc/change, and the resolution of the story. The detective unmasks the killer. The guy gets the girl.
  2. As you go through the story, the turning points need to come closer together. This gives the reader a sensation of things getting rapidly worse for the protagonist, heightens the tension, and makes the book a "page turner" where you can't put it down because things are moving so quickly. For example, in a 100,000 word novel, you might have the turning points at the following places:
    1. One (of course) goes on page 1, e.g. at 150 words. I'm giving you 150 words to "set the stage" J for the turning point.
    2. Two could then be placed between pages 140 – 180 or between 35,000 – 45, 000 words. (+35,000 from TP 1)
    3. Three could be placed between pages 240 – 280 or between 60,000 – 70,000 words. (+20,000 from TP 2)
    4. Four could be placed between pages 300 – 340 or between 75,000 – 85,000 words. (+15,000 from TP 3)
    5. Five could be placed between pages 340 - 380 or between 85,000 – 95,000 words. (+10,000 from TP 4)

      Of course those page number/gaps between the turning points are just "made up" to give you a feel for how the distribution of turning points *could* be arranged.
  3. When planning a novel, it can often work best to just write the first draft, i.e. the writer's draft, that lets you get it out on paper and work through the characters. Then remove the first three chapters. This is really true in my case. The first three chapters are frequently used by the writer to get to know the protagonist before really thrusting her into the action and many times, these chapters can be safely removed. In fact, their removal helps the story by moving the first turning point (Call to Action) onto page one where it belongs.
  4. Then, once the writer's draft is done and the first three chapters deleted J, you can begin the real work of identifying the turning points and cutting/editing/rearranging them so that they occur at closer intervals to speed up the action and increase tension toward the end.
  5. BEATS in a scene are rather like turning points in miniature. They are the turning points in an individual scene that change the direction of things, reveal new information, etc. Jennifer illustrated it as a conversation between a married couple, as follows:
    1. Man and woman are arguing about a coffee table. So the first Beat is the start of the argument: "You never liked that coffee table," the wife said. Then they argue about the relative merits of the table, until…
    2. 2nd Beat: The conversation has a turning point when the wife says, "You don't like it because my mother gave it to me." Then, they start arguing about the relationship of the mother-in-law to the husband and wife…
    3. 3rd Beat: The next turning point occurs when the husband says, "This has nothing to do with your mother or the table. I just don't like you. I want a divorce."
  6. You'll notice that beats, like turning points, move from bad to worse to worst within a scene.

So Crusie's talk gave me another tool to try in my editing arsenal. I had not thought about marking out the turning points physically and then ensuring they fall at closer and closer intervals as they move toward the book's conclusion. And same with beats. I think it is incredibly useful to highlight both beats and turning points to improve tension and make sure you are carrying the reader along swiftly.

Donald Maas

Went to a workshop held by Maas on creating a breakout (bestseller) novel. In short, it revolves around characterization and creating deep/deeply flawed and yet heroic characters who fascinate readers. The material mostly came from his book/workbook on writing a breakout novel, but it was very, very useful to sit down and write out your antagonist and protagonist's flaws, good qualities, and identify where you are showing these things. Worth noting: antagonists (villains) have to have good qualities, too, you know, to give them depth. And in a romance, the protagonist and antagonist are often the hero and heroine, and they switch roles depending upon point of view as they lock horns in their conflict.

If you have not read Maas' stuff, I recommend the workbook. The value in his information comes in the doing—not the reading of his writing (good though it might be)—so the workbook will actually make you do the writing exercises he presented in class. Applying it to your novels makes for some interesting, "Oh, shoot—I can't believe I didn't do this before" moments.

Characterization is important. If you can't grab the reader and get that emotional investment in the characters, you're going to have a hard time selling the story. Or making anyone read it past page 1.

Other Workshops

I attended several other workshops, including one on High Concept and developing a novel from a High Concept (or identifying the High Concept in your novel). That was very, very useful and interesting. A High Concept is that brilliant idea you can summarize in 25 words or less that people instantly grasp and gravitate to, e.g. "I see dead people." That's the classic High Concept. You need to be able to identify the essence and theme of your story and summarize it in a brief sentence to sell it. Whether you like it or not, after you've spent four or more years writing your opus, you still have to find an editor or agent and sell that darn thing. And that's where it is critical that you come up with a way to grab the attention of these busy, overwhelmed people.

It is an art to come up with these things. I am not good at it, but it's something I intend to work on.

Finally, many of the authors repeated the same notion in different ways. That notion was: Identify your theme(s). This will help you identify which genre(s) will work best for you and allow you to write both to your strengths and your interests. For me, recurring themes in my books are always: redemption and acceptance into society—or at least making peace with your fellow man and yourself. And finding justice. Those themes resonate with me and underpin everything I write—which is why so much of what I write is either a mystery or has a mystery subplot. Often, especially in the case of someone falsely accused, finding justice also means redemption and acceptance back into society. I believe the writer Charles Todd also plays with those themes in his Rutledge mysteries. For Rutledge, solving a murder and fighting for justice is redemption for him, both mentally and career-wise.

There was a lot more I learned, but that was at least a taste. It was a fascinating three days.