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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Finalist in the 2010 Linda Howard Award of Excellence Contest!


The results are in for the preliminary round of the 2010 Linda Howard Award of Excellence Contest. I have an entry that is a finalist. Here is the title and category:

The Loving of Lord Loxley ~ Finalist, Romantic Sensual and Sizzling Category

An hour ago, I heard the telephone ring. DH said, "Alabama is calling." I thought, "Why would Lynn Raye Harris' state of Alabama be calling me on New Year's Eve?" You see, she is the only one I know who lives in Alabama, and so, whenever I hear "Alabama," I naturally think of her. Well, it was the Linda Howard contest coordinator, calling to let me know that my entry is a finalist. I've been a contest finalist and category coordinator, but before this call, neither had I ever received a call from a contest coordinator nor made one to a contest finalist.

With the heavy use of e-mail and snail mail in this industry, you forget that authors, editors, and agents have voices—wonderful voices with Southern drawls, Northern twangs, and foreign accents. Of course, I had to ask, "Is Lynn Raye Harris a member of your chapter?" The coordinator said, "Yes." So, instead of thanking her for calling me with good news (which I should have done, of course), all I could think to say was, "You must tell her that you called me in New York." And as I hung up, I wasn't thinking so much of my contest final, but rather of this wonderful, though too brief, connection to other people in my writing world.

Congratulations to all finalists!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Famous Authors Who Broke The Rules, Part II

Today, I picked through boxes of romance novels. For the second installment of my on-going series about famous authors who broke The Rules (see prior posts with the label The Rules), I chose Jennifer Wilde's Love's Tender Fury. When I did my first installment (see "Famous Authors Who Broke the Rules, Part I"), I'd thought Kathleen Woodiwiss' Shanna was the first "bodice ripper" (I can hear the screams of outrage, but well, take a look at the cover) I'd ever read, but now I think it might have been LTF, as it came out the year before.

Before commenting on LTF, let me share something I remember about this book that I've never seen with another romance novel. It was advertised on television ... yes, you read correctly, it had its own television commercial. I can still see it in my mind--a beautiful, lush, red-head standing on an auction block with a dark, tall, and handsome man among the crowd of bidders below. But there are a few things about this book that I didn't remember, which now have my head spinning.

Here, take a look at this excerpt:

I lighted the lamp and took off my dress, hanging it up in the enormous mahogany wardrobe with its heavy door that never shut properly. MY GOD, IT'S WRITTEN IN FIRST PERSON! HOW COULD I HAVE FORGOTTEN THAT? I removed shoes and stockings and, wearing only a white muslin petticoat, took down my coronet of braids and shook them loose. Hair fell to my shoulders in abundant red-brown waves, coopery high-lights gleaming. Sitting in front of the mirror, I brushed it until it gleamed even more, and then I put the brush down and stared at the woman in the mirror. THIS IS THE 3RD PARAGRAPH INTO WHAT IS A 9 PARAGRAPH, 3 PAGE PIECE OF NARRATIVE ON PAGE 24. IN FACT, FOR SIX PAGES ALL AROUND THIS PIECE, THERE ARE ONLY 5 LINES OF DIALOGUE.

The petticoat was exceedingly low-cut, my breasts more than half revealed. The bodice was form-fitting, the full, flaring skirt adorned with row upon row of white ruffles. In this elegant garment, and with my hair falling about my shoulders in such rich profusion, I looked totally unlike the demure Miss Danver with her severe hair style and drab brown dress. Lord Mallory desired me. He would desire me even more if he could see me like this, I thought, and then I frowned, my blue eyes once again dark with concern. I left the dressing table and moved over to sit in the large, comfortable pink chair in front of the windows.

The sky was ashy gray now, and the world below was etched in gray and black and dim whites. The lamp was low, and shadows spread inside the room multiplying beyond its softly diffused pool of light. I thought about Lord Mallory, and there was a strange ambivalence that hadn’t been there before. I detested him, I told myself, yet I was undeniably attracted to him. JUST FOR THOSE READERS WHO DON'T KNOW, LORD MALLORY IS A MARRIED MAN. I remembered that kiss. I remembered his tall, strong body, his arms crushing me against him, and I remembered the sensations that had exploded inside me like tiny buds blossoming.

Recalling what he had said about my mother, I wondered, did I indeed take after her? I was a virgin, and I had never even contemplated sleeping with a man before. I was respectable and decent, yet, even though I hated him and everything he stood for, I couldn’t deny that I found Robert Mallory physically attractive. REPETITIVE. I knew that I would never willingly submit to him, but if he took me by force would I really be as distraught as I told myself I would be? IS THE HEROINE ACTUALLY SAYING SHE WOULDN'T MIND IF LORD MALLORY RAPED HER?

Could Tom Huff aka Jennifer Wilde sell LTF to a New York publishing house today? It's doubtful, I dare say. Yet, I can't deny LTF is riveting, as much now as it was in 1976. And why is it so riveting? Could it possibly be because Tom Huff broke The Rules in LTF?

By the way, I came across this on Wikipedia regarding Tom Huff: "His historical romances were noted for being written in first-person, from the heroine's perspective. Many of his books also featured multiple male protagonists, and the man who first captures the heroine's heart isn't always the one who ends up with it." These words strike a chord in me, but not with Tom Huff in mind. I can't help but think of Kelly Fitzpatrick, 2009 Golden Heart® finalist for Pleasant Lake, P.D. Kelly wrote PLPD in the first person, and the story has two heroes, the one who first catches the heroine's heart and the one who ends up with it. Wow, Kelly, you are in the good company of Jennifer Wilde.

For the author who introduced me to the world of the "bodice ripper," I have these words:

Requiescat in Pace, Tom

Excerpt from Love's Tender Fury © 1976 Jennifer Wilde. All other material © 2009 Madeline Smyth. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Double Finalist in the 2009 Wallflower Contest!

The results are in for the preliminary round of the 2009 Wallflower Contest. Both of my entries are finalists. Here are the titles and categories:

Aliya Arabesque ~ Finalist, The Rose Division (prior first place manuscript category)

The Loving of Lord Loxley ~ Finalist, Scenes Division: Best Scene Category

And my CP, Marie Robison, has an entry that is a finalist. Here is her title and category:

Wolf Cry ~ Finalist, Genres Division: Paranormal Single Title Category

Thank you to all judges.

Congratulations to all finalists!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Mentor, Janice Lynn, Has a New Story

My mentor—the beautiful, talented, and generous Janice Lynn—has a new story entitled The Nurse's Miracle Baby. It is included in this Mills & Boon anthology with stories by two other known authors and an introduction by none other than the great Penny Jordan. Recently, Janice wrote: "There are 3 stories in the book and an introduction from the fabulous Penny Jordan--yes, THE PENNY JORDAN, and yes, I get a little light-headed every time I see that cover with her name and my name. WOW. Totally a pinch worthy moment. She's so fabulous!"

I had the pleasure to cross paths with Penny Jordan (only in the most distant way, mind you) when I belonged to the Romantic Novelists' Association. I got light-headed every time I saw an e-mail from her arrive in my in-box, not as an aspiring romance author, but as one of her long-time readers. What a special delight it is for me now to see my mentor's name on the same book cover with Penny Jordan's name!

You can order this book at Amazon.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Famous Authors Who Broke The Rules, Part I

Recently, while having some fun (see my post entitled "Beauty and the Beast, Continued"), I dug out my copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss' Shanna. Now, I'd never want to say or even suggest that there is a single flaw to find in Shanna, such is my adoration of Kathleen Woodiwiss' writing. Yet, as I stood in the dim light and then sat on a crate turning the pages, Shanna rendered me speechless because for the first time I saw it through the critical eyes of a contest judge, not the hungry eyes of an adoring reader.

Here, take a look at this passage:

HEROINE'S POV His mouth was upon hers again PASSIVE VOICE, and his tongue was insistent PASSIVE VOICE until she met it with her own, first with hesitancy, then with welcome, then with passion. He was pressing her down PASSIVE VOICE upon the velvet seat.

Her sanity argued, this is madness! Her passion whispered slyly, let him come!

And he came to her, a first sharp piercing pain that made her gasp followed by a warmth deep inside that made her sob with pleasure. UNREALISTIC FOR HER TO SOB WITH PLEASURE AT THIS POINT, ESPECIALLY AS SHE ISN'T IN LOVE WITH RUARK, AND HE'S FORCING HER TO MEET THE TERMS OF THEIR BARGAIN. He began to move, and he was kissing her, PASSIVE VOICE caressing her, loving her --

Suddenly from without, Pitney's shout roared above the pelting rain, and the pace of the carriage changed. Cursing, Ruark raised his head, realizing they were stopping. SWITCH TO HERO'S POV Then he heard another voice answer the hail from Pitney; and he recognized it as that of the third guard, the one who had stayed behind with the prison van.

"Ahhh, damn!" Ruark groaned in frustrated agony. "Damn you deceiving little bitch!" He snatched from her roughly "SNATCHED FROM?" and flung her away. "I knew you couldn't hold to our bargain!"

With much urgency Ruark began to secure his garments, his teeth showing in a savage snarl as he cursed her viciously. Shanna cowered in the center, her hands clutched over her head as he vented his wrath in searing words. TELL, NOT SHOW In the dim light his sneering eyes raked her cruelly, marking her pale, quivering breasts and the soft lovely thighs still naked to her gaze. POV ISSUE. IF IN HERO'S POV, HE DESCRIBES HIS OWN SHOWING TEETH AND SNEERING EYES. YET, IF IN HEROINE'S POV, SHE DESCRIBES HER PALE, QUIVERING BREASTS AND SOFT LOVELY THIGHS. SO, PERHAPS IT'S OMNISCIENT POV.

"Cover yourself," he groaned out derisively. And then more harshly, "Or do you wish the guards to take my place?"

Shanna snatched REPETITIVE USE OF "SNATCHED" the cloak tightly about her as if to shield herself from his ridiculing jeer and penetrating glare. A second later the door was jerked open, PASSIVE VOICE and the wide muzzle of Pitney's oversized pistol gasped IMPROPER VERB CHOICE its raw threat at Ruark's chest.

"Out!"

Everything in Ruark rebelled. He had been pushed, shoved, beaten, prodded, goaded, tempted, and finally betrayed at a most degrading moment. PASSIVE VOICE A ragged growl tore from his throat, and before anyone could react, he kicked the gun aside and launched himself, feet first, against Pitney's chest. The force of his attack sent them both sprawling to the mud. Cries of alarm sprang from the guards.

"Catch the bloke! Hicks'll 'ave our 'eads rolling!"

Shanna cringed as they fell upon him. SWITCH TO HEROINE'S POV Muffled oaths and grunts of pain detailed their battle. The guards were bulky, large, and heavily muscled; Hicks had chosen them for strength to see the prisoner back to his cell. Each outweighed Ruark by at least two stone, and Pitney was larger than any of them, but Ruark displayed an extensive knowledge of brawling. He fought like a man possessed.

It was several moments before they could subdue him, and even then he was only slightly more battered than his captors, two of whom held him secure now on his knees in the mud with both arms outspread, while the third  hurried to fix the manacles to his wrists.

Pitney stood nearby, trying to scrape some of the mucky soil from his cloak. He massaged his shoulder as if it pained him and flexed his arm. Glancing up, he paused as he saw Shanna's face illuminated in the lantern's glow, SWITCH TO PITNEY'S POV and following his gaze, the guards also halted their labors ...

So, Kathleen Woodiwiss broke The Rules (see my prior posts with the label The Rules), and yet, an editor bought her manuscript, a publisher published her book, and millions of readers (including me) put Shanna on their keeper shelves. It makes me wonder whether the advent of the internet and RWA chapter contests hasn't impeded the raw creativity of aspiring authors. In other words, what would the late and great Kathleen Woodiwiss say if we said, "Oh, no, you can't switch POV during a scene."

By the way, I attended a private young ladies' academy in New York during elementary and high school. It was a most wondrous place with 19th century buildings, sprawling lawns, apple orchards, and stables, all enclosed by a six-foot stucco wall interspersed with black wrought-iron gates. All that I am, all that I can be, I owe to the Academy. Anyway, one spring, under a big oak tree near the stables, I read Kathleen Woodiwiss' Ashes in the Wind to my best friends ... and we discovered exactly what boys wanted from girls.

So, in memory of those days, I'd like to say:

Requiescat In Pace, Kathleen

If you are an author, do you follow The Rules?

Excerpt from Shanna © 1977 Kathleen Woodiwiss. All other content © 2009 Madeline Smyth.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Do Writing Contests Crush Your Spirit or Encourage Your Creativity?

Do you hesitate before opening those returned non-finalist contest entries? Have you ever stared at your computer screen in shock at the nasty things some contest judges say (the ones who never put their name on the score sheet, of course)? Do you get excited when you find that one golden nugget among contest comments (usually from a published or soon-to-be published author) that sends you not only back to the manuscript with an idea for revision, but on to another contest with the hope for a better result?

We have all been there, sad to say. And we all have the battle scars to show for it. But I have something to share with you that came out of the 2009 Golden Gateway Contest, something I hope will give you hope, even if just a glimmer. Sometimes, you find yourself orbiting the right planet, or perhaps it's that the judges happen to be orbiting your planet. And when this happens, you feel as if your world is perfectly balanced, as if it's rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun just as it should be.

I entered three entries into the 2009 GG Contest—Aliya Arabesque, Deus ex Nosferatu, and The Loving of Lord Loxley. Aliya Arabesque had won the 2008 Wallflower Contest (a contest in which published and unpublished authors had competed against one another), but that contest had been a 25 page contest. The 2009 GG Contest permitted up to 55 pages for novels, and up to 45 pages for novellas. So, for Aliya Arabesque, it would be a test of the next 30 pages, and for Deus ex Nosferatu and The Loving of Lord Loxley, it would be their first appearance in any contest.

I had no expectations whatsoever. Contests are contests. I've said it before (see my April 3, 2009 post entitled "Can You Hear Your Voice?"), and I'll say it again. "When you lose a contest or receive a rejection, don't take it to heart. It mightn't be as complicated as the possibility that you don't have voice. It might be as simple as the fact that you didn't have the luck of the judicial or editorial draw." So, when I heard that all three of my entries were finalists, I realized I'd had the luck of the judicial draw for each of them. In sum, I'd drawn judges who'd heard my voice.

But the experience of having judges hear your voice isn't only about them telling you what makes your writing good. It's also about you listening to them tell you what could make it better. Yes, even when you have entries that final, you should grab hold of any and all golden nuggets in the comments. As I've said before (see my May 30, 2009 post entitled "Revisions, Revisions, Revisions"), I believe my words aren't written in stone, but are as fluid as an ocean.


In the 2009 GG Contest, the judges not only gave encouraging compliments, but also made excellent criticisms. I considered each criticism and made revisions before submitting the entries for the final round. No matter what happens in the final round, I'll come away with manuscripts that are better post-contest than pre-contest. So, for hearing my voice in this contest and giving me several precious golden nuggets, I sincerely thank the judges.


Have you gotten back contest comments that crushed your spirit or encouraged your creativity? If the former, I am here to tell you that contests aren't always a negative experience, but sometimes can be a very positive one. Yes, it's actually true—contest judges can encourage your creativity. With the 2009 GG Contest judges' words of encouragement in my mind, I'm off to write, write, write, leaving you with my words of encouragement: If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.


Keep Writing!

All Text © 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Triple Finalist in the 2009 Golden Gateway Contest!

 
The results are in for the preliminary round of 2009 Golden Gateway Contest. All three of my entries are finalists. Here are the titles and categories:

Aliya Arabesque ~ Finalist, Single Title Category

Deus ex Nosferatu ~ Finalist, Romantic Novella Category

The Loving of Lord Loxley ~ Finalist, Romantic Novella Category

Thank you to all judges.

Congratulations to all finalists!

And last, but not least, I've a special word for the non-finalist entrants (especially those who have never finaled in a contest): Don't despair, but just keep writing, as this moment will pass and your moment will come.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Author of Near Perfection Revealed!

Who is the author of Near Perfection?

Do you remember my posts about Near Perfection—that outstanding entry I judged in the 2009 Winter Rose Contest? If not, let me remind you. I first encountered Near Perfection in the 2009 Winter Rose Contest. I'm a tough judge because I was an English major, but a fair one because I am a lawyer. I always explain my reasoning for a low score and suggest possible revisions for a higher score in the future; I never let a score in one section influence a score in another; I always put my name on the score sheet because I never say anything to anyone that I'm not willing to stand behind. I gave Near Perfection an almost perfect score.

To my delight, Near Perfection became a finalist in the 2009 Golden Heart® Contest (see my prior post entitled "Hook, Line, and Sinker"). But then, to my shock, a month or so later, it didn't final in the 2009 Winter Rose Contest (see my prior post entitled "Contest Woes"). Well, now, to my disappointment, but not to my surprise, it didn't win the 2009 Golden Heart®. I say "not to my surprise" only because, with each passing day, I come to realize more firmly that there is little room in the romance world for truly unique voices.

When I first saw Near Perfection on my screen, I will confess I reared back with the thought: "What is this?" But I'd made certain pledges to the 2009 Winter Rose Contest entrants (see my prior post entitled "A Promise to Contest Entrants"). So, I took another look, and within a page or two, I couldn't pull away. After my second or third burst of laughter, DH asked, "What's so amusing?" He knows it takes a lot to amuse me. I read him a couple of my favorite lines. DH, who can be quite perspicacious, said, "She'll either go nowhere or everywhere. That's what happens with true talent." He should know, as he's not only a graduate of Columbia, but Eastman School of Music.

Well, I'm delighted to tell you that the author of Near Perfection has taken the first step on her journey to somewhere, and hopefully, everywhere. And I'm honored to have been one of the authors who recognized and appreciated her talent in her pre-publication days. So, what is the true title, and who is the secret author, of Near Perfection?



The title of Near Perfection is Pleasant Lake, P.D. and the author of Pleasant Lake, P.D. is none other than 2009 Golden Heart® finalist Kelly Fitzpatrick.







And here is Kelly's first step on that journey:



Welcome to Wonderland! Population in the four digits. Folks in Wonderland primarily die of old age or hunting accidents, but all that's about to change because Lily Tucker has come to town.





Lily in Wonderland ~ coming soon from Cerridwen Press


CONGRATULATIONS TO KELLY FITZPATRICK!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Writing and the Law, Part II: Untenable Plots

In a prior post entitled "Romance Writing and Law, Part I," I wrote about the inherent dangers of romance authors creating plots involving legal concepts without the consultation of an attorney. Today, I'd like to give a few examples of often used, but legally problematic, plots. Before doing this, I want you to understand I appreciate that authors have used these plots, editors have bought these stories, and publishers have printed and sold these books for years (and will continue to do so). However, this doesn't make the plots legally viable.

Here they are (in the order in which I've seen them most often appear):

1. The "Hero and Heroine Must Marry to Inherit under a Will" Plot. The heroine and hero must marry under the terms of a will in order to inherit. Under the laws of most states in the U.S., a condition is unenforceable if it encourages disruption of a family relationship, discourages formation or resumption of such a relationship, or seriously interferes with a beneficiary's freedom to obtain a divorce or exercise his or her freedom to marry. So, it is highly unlikely that a court would enforce a will provision requiring the heroine to marry the hero, and vice versa, in order to receive a bequest or devise under a will.

2. The "Hero Wrests Control of the Family-Owned Company from the Heroine" Plot. The hero wrests control of an American privately-held (often a family-owned) company from the heroine by getting one or more stockholders to sell his or her shares. But privately-held companies and all its stockholders are often parties to a stockholders' agreement that restricts the stockholders from transferring their stock. The purpose of a stockholders' agreement is to prevent an outsider from becoming a stockholder.

 
3. The "Hero Pulls Off a Secret Take-Over of a Publicly-Traded Company" Plot. The hero takes over a publicly-traded company by swooping in and buying up a controlling interest on the New York Stock Exchange, thereby wresting control from the heroine. I don't know where to start with this one. Suffice it to say that take-overs (usually by one company of another) are strictly regulated, highly publicized, and often bitterly opposed affairs.

4. The "Hero's Sperm is a Misfired Bullet" Plot. The hero stores his sperm at a sperm bank, and the facility mistakenly uses it to impregnate the heroine. I saw this last in a story set in New York in which the hero was an unmarried Arab concerned about his line of succession. The most common method for a man to provide his sperm at a sperm bank is masturbation, but masturbation is forbidden under Islam. Should I bother to go on and point out that a wealthy and powerful Arab would most likely not be a bachelor, but have a wife (if not four wives) ready, willing, and eager to give him a child? So, even if a plot set in the United States doesn't violate applicable federal and state laws, it might well run afoul of the laws or culture of the land of the hero or heroine, making it less likely for that hero or heroine to engage in the behavior required by the plot.

5. The "Heroine Acts as a Gestational Surrogate Carrier" Plot. The unmarried and motherless heroine carries a baby for another couple, sometimes with the hero being the genetic and biological father, and the genetic mother having been killed off in one way or another. Some states, such as Texas, have a gestational surrogacy statute. Among a few of the specific requirements, the gestational surrogate carrier must have already had a child to qualify as a carrier, the couple and surrogate must enter into a court-approved agreement prior to the creation of the child at issue, and upon the birth of that child, the genetic mother is automatically listed as the mother on the birth certificate.


Most romance authors can't resist creating plots involving the corporate, trusts & estates, and family law areas, perhaps because they provide a juicy way of forcing a hero and heroine together either as partners in business or marriage. I do think there are ways of using these areas of law to create viable and exciting plots, but authors shouldn't attempt to do so without consultation with an attorney. Yes, romance writing is about creating a fantasy, but it shouldn't be about committing the fantastical.

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Single Biggest Writing Mistake

© 2010 Madeline Smyth
 I've written about the ten most common writing mistakes (see my 1/24/09 post entitled "Ten Common Writing Mistakes"). Among the greatest culprits: back-story dump, lengthy narrative, passive voice, dialogue tag overuse, head hopping, slow pacing, telling rather than showing, unrealistic actions/ reactions, poor characterization, and lack of GMC. I failed to add a few simple mistakes, such as clichéd plots, goofy dialogue, and repetitive wording, thinking they were obvious. But upon reflection, I also failed to mention the single biggest writing mistake. What was I thinking ... or not?

In my humble opinion, here it is: ASPIRING AUTHORS OFTEN WRITE THE STORY THEY WANT TO TELL, NOT THE STORY READERS AND EDITORS WANT TO READ. How can I explain this? Well, imagine that you are a reader standing in an airport store looking for a good book to pass the time on a long international flight, or that you are an exhausted editor sitting at your desk having to go through a pile of manuscripts on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. What do you want? An interesting plot, fast pace, well-developed characters, good writing? Actually, the answer is simpler than that.

And once again in my humble opinion, here it is: READERS AND EDITORS WANT TO BE SEDUCED. Whisper in their ears, intrigue their minds, tempt their hearts, inspire their souls. Oh yes, seduce them! That is what readers and editors hope for when opening to the first page, and by the way, that is what will make them hunger for more after reaching the last. And it's the only reason to write, isn't it? If you are like me, you have used your words to draw others into the make believe world of your mind since childhood.

Now, go back and read your manuscript, as if you are a reader or editor. Does it seduce you? Do you become so mesmerized while reading the first few paragraphs that you don't look up until after the first hundred pages or so? Do you have to continue until you reach the end, no matter what time of day or night it is, no matter what other responsibilities await? If not, rewrite the story, not the one you want to write as an author, but the one you want to read as a reader.

Happy Writing!

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Contest Woes

Today, my post is one of tears for an aspiring romance author.

In my February 20th post entitled "Ten Common Writing Mistakes," I wrote: "Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call "hook, line, and sinker." In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple."

Then, in my March 26th post entitled "Hook, Line, and Sinker," I wrote: "Well, to my utter delight and absolute thrill, this contemporary single title is a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist. I did not judge the 2009 Golden Heart® Contest this year, but I did judge the 2009 Winter Rose Contest. And that's where I first saw this wonderful piece of near perfection. Congratulations to the author!"
 
Now, on this beautiful Easter weekend, I have taken time away from cooking, entertaining, mothering, etc. to add a postscript to "Hook, Line, and Sinker." The wonderful piece of near perfection (I'll call it Near Perfection) didn't final in the 2009 Yellow Rose Contest. Yes, that's right—an entry that is a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist didn't final in a 2009 RWA chapter contest. How can this have happened? I suspect the author might say it doesn't matter because she's a Golden Heart® finalist, but I think it does matter because it says something frightening about contests.

Near Perfection wasn't the typical contest entry. It wasn't a winning entry because of plot, characterization, GMC, hook, etc. No, don't get me wrong. It had all of those in buckets, but it had something far more extraordinary. It had V O I C E. Never have I read such a voice, not among aspiring authors, not among published ones. This author has an unparalleled facility with language, as if the words roll back and forth over the tongue before spilling out to overflow the reader's cup. More, when you lift this golden cup to your lips, you take a sip of what appears to be mineral water only to feel the effects of the headiest red wine.

In my April 3rd post entitled "Can You Hear Your Voice?" I wrote: "When you lose a contest or receive a rejection, don't take it to heart. It mightn't be as complicated as the possibility that you don't have voice. It might be as simple as the fact that you didn't have the luck of the judicial or editorial draw." Well, the author of Near Perfection didn't have the luck of the judicial draw in the 2009 Yellow Rose Contest. I suppose Stephen King is right about being successful at writing—it takes talent, perseverance ... and luck.

I've decided that contests can mean little to nothing, no matter that some aspiring authors think a contest win is the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Most judges (especially those who are aspiring authors) look for a reason to shoot down entries, often on the basis of their prejudices and especially when stories are outside of the box, whereas editors seem to like stories that don't look like a thousand others they've read, or in other words, stories that are outside of the box. Perhaps for this reason I've come across contest winners who have never published and published authors who have never won a contest.

Before you place your writing soul in the hands of judges, know this unspoken truth about contests—contest wins can hinge on luck, not talent. If all you're looking for is some feedback from mostly other aspiring authors, and don't mind paying for it, go for it. However, if you're thinking you can win a contest on talent alone, or that an RWA chapter contest win or two is going to lead to publication, or any of the other scenarios in which your writing dreams are fulfilled, you might want to rethink your expectations of contests.

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hook, Line, and Sinker

In my February 20th post entitled "Ten Common Writing Mistakes," I wrote: "Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call "hook, line, and sinker." In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple."

Well, to my utter delight and absolute thrill, this contemporary single title is a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist. I did not judge the 2009 Golden Heart® Contest this year, but I did judge the 2009 Winter Rose Contest. And that's where I first saw this wonderful piece of near perfection. Congratulations to the author!

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ten Common Writing Mistakes

Judging the writing of aspiring authors is often a lesson in the most common writing mistakes and sometimes an encounter with the most effective writing techniques. If only we could all begin as proficient writers, but as with any profession, writing requires an apprenticeship. This apprenticeship, often painful and frustrating, but on occasion exciting and rewarding, can develop and refine an aspiring author's raw talent into a powerful writing force.

In the contests I've judged, I've come across ten common writing mistakes. Before saying anything more, let me tell you that I'm not too proud to admit I made many of these mistakes in my earliest writing endeavors. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here is my list of aspiring authors' ten common writing mistakes:

1. Back-Story Dump. Aspiring authors often embed back-story (i.e. events that happened prior to the opening of the story) in narrative. However, an author can also embed back-story in dialogue. For example, in a recent contest entry, I saw a nine page opening conversation between the heroine and another character that was a huge back-story dump about the heroine's life before the story opened. I appreciate that all aspiring authors know and love their characters and want the reader to know and love them too, but let the reader into their pasts only a bit at a time throughout the ms.

2. Lengthy Narrative. I've seen this most often in the writing of talented aspiring authors because writing narrative is a gift. I can recall an entry in which the author devoted more than a page to beautiful narrative describing a walk from one cottage to another. However, no matter how beautiful the narrative, if it is lengthy, it delays the reader's return to dialogue and loses her interest. So, try to limit narrative to no more than three short paragraphs at a clip, if possible.

3. Use of Passive Voice. Most aspiring authors know that the use of passive voice is a no-no. But they may not realize how sneaky passive voice can be. Let's take a look at some examples: "The bell was rung by the cowboy" and "He was sitting on his mustang" and "She let him dance her around the barn." Which sentences contain passive voice? Would you be surprised if I told you all three? Let's reword them in active voice: "The cowboy rang the bell" and "He sat on his mustang" and "He danced her around the barn." The secret of conquering passive voice is thinking "lights, camera, action."

4. Dialogue Tags Versus Beats. Most aspiring authors have the limited dialogue tag/beat preferable rule down cold. However, in quite a startling number of entries, I've seen authors mix one character's action or POV with another character's dialogue. For example, I recently saw something similar to this in a single paragraph: "He has just come out of surgery." Susan rose as the nurse crossed the waiting room. "All went well." So, who is speaking—Susan or the nurse? Well, the author intended for the nurse to speak the lines of dialogue, but she put Susan's action between the nurse's lines of dialogue, jarring the reader out of the story. The mixing of one character's dialogue and another character's POV or action breaks the flow because the reader has to pause to figure out who is saying, doing, and thinking what.

5. Head Hopping. This remains a problem for many aspiring authors. In an entry I judged recently, the author broke the first chapter into twelve different "scenes" (using *** between each one), sometimes to end a scene and start a new one, but other times to merely switch POV during the same scene. The result was a choppy read. In addition, with all the switching back and forth between the hero's and heroine's POV, she mistakenly started a new scene at a point in time prior to the end of the prior scene. This is especially jarring to the reader because she must pause to figure out where the characters are in time, and so, she loses the flow of the story. I've found that it's best to use *** between scenes where there is a significant time lag and/or location change, not merely to switch POV during the same scene. As to POV, write a scene from one character's POV, or switch POV about half way through the scene (that is, until you are a published author and need not follow The Rules any longer!).

6. Slow Pacing. Back-story dumps and lengthy narrative can lead to slow pacing, but IMHO, the most common cause of slow pacing is the aspiring author's choice of scene. For example, if an author places the heroine at a table having a conversation with a friend, or walking through the forest or driving in the car by herself, she is condemning the scene to slow pacing. An action scene with the heroine and hero drives a fast pace; a reflective scene with only the heroine or hero crawls at a slow pace. Structure the story to put the hero and heroine together on the page as soon as possible and try to keep them together on every page thereafter with a lot of action around or between them.

7. Told, Not Shown. Aspiring authors often tell readers about their characters rather than show them. For example, he is honorable, she is kind, etc. Instead, create a scene to showcase the hero's honor or heroine's kindness. Do you see how the choice of scene can affect not only pacing, but also characterization?

8. Inadequate Characterization. Many aspiring authors rely upon back-story for characterization. When they are denied back-story, they can flounder with characterization. There are many ways to breathe life into your characters—setting the scene to portray the character(s), using dialogue to characterize, using deep POV to draw a reader in. Most importantly, don't hold critical material back from the reader. Let her into the heroine's and hero's thoughts to make her feel their emotions. As my mentor, Janice Lynn, has written: "The characters have to come alive. From the get-go, you have to get the reader/judge inside the character’s head, make them feel the emotions the character is feeling." Or as she has told me more than once: "Emotion, Emotion, Emotion!"

9. Unrealistic Actions/Reactions. There is perhaps nothing that will try the reader's patience and lose her interest faster than when a story has a character with unjustified, unrealistic actions/reactions. In an entry I judged recently, the writing was exquisite, but on the first day that the hero and heroine met, the hero told the heroine he intended to marry her (his desire to marry her seemed to be based only on her beauty). Have a care with characters' actions/reactions. A reader will accept almost anything by way of a character's action/reaction, but only if the author has laid the groundwork to justify that character's action/reaction.

10. Lack of Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. I've seen stories with the hero and/or heroine having no goals (other than falling in love with one another) as well as stories with no conflict between the heroine and hero. The most beautiful writing in the world can't overcome this deficiency. As Janice has written: "Doesn’t matter if the contest is for 3 pages or for 55, if you don’t establish that there are goals, motivations, and conflicts, odds are you aren’t going to final, even if you have a fabulous writing voice and your style is as smooth as satin." So, give your hero and heroine goals, motivations, and conflicts (both external and internal). Without GMC, there isn't a story you can write that is worth telling.

Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call "hook, line, and sinker." In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple.

When I judge the writing of other aspiring authors, I often spot mistakes I can't spot in my own writing ... and sometimes see perfection I can't match with my own words. It is such an eye opener, more valuable than any writing workshop. So, if you are an aspiring author who is serious about writing but has never judged a contest, I highly recommend you judge a contest or two or more.

Happy Writing and Judging!

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Tribute to My Mentor—the Beautiful, Talented, and Generous Janice Lynn

This is the start of a new year, and with the promise of its endless possibilities, I want to take a moment to look back to the best of the old year with a tribute to a very special person who has profoundly influenced my life as an aspiring author.

For aspiring authors, writing can be a lonely endeavor, not when you're moving about the stage breathing life into your characters, but when you’ve written the last word of that scene or that chapter or that manuscript. How do you know if what you’ve done is any good? Yes, you can turn to best friends, critique partners, and contest judges, but how do you assess the subjective comments of so many, and especially of those who aren't editors or published authors. How do you decide what comments to take or toss? And, always there lurking in the back of your mind, how do you know if you have what it takes?

I lived in this shadowy and uncertain world until last year when a multi-published author took me under her wing and taught me how to fly. Now, my world isn't made up of shades of gray, but a palette of pure white, brilliant blue, vibrant green, burning orange, and bold red. Because of one very special person, the new year is filled with endless possibilities.
Who is this person who colored my world? And what did she do to fill my New Year with such promise? Come with me. Read on about her...and my moment in time with her.

Let me tell you about my mentor—the beautiful, talented, and generous Janice Lynn. As many of you know, but for those of you who mightn't, Janice is a beloved wife, adored mother, practicing nurse, American Title I Winner, 2003 Golden Heart® finalist, multi-contest winner, and multi-published author. When it comes to her writing, all her contest wins and releases are too numerous to list, but I'll mention a few, if only to wow the aspiring authors in the crowd.

Her first release was Jane Millionaire ~ Dorchester Love Spell, 2005, the American Title I Winner and 2006 Golden Quill Winner for best first book. Among the many positive reviews, Suzanne Coleburn of Reader To Reader Reviews/The Belles & Beaux of Romance wrote: "Don't miss this fabulous book. Janice Lynn is definitely an author to watch!" and The Romance Studio, 4 hearts commented: "After reading Jane Millionaire, you'll want to keep Janice Lynn on your authors to watch radar."

No wonder then that her 2007 release entitled The Doctor's Pregnancy Bombshell ~ HMB Medical 11/07 became the 2007 National Readers' Choice Award Winner. What a thrill she had to win this award at the RWA National Conference in San Francisco last summer! Also last year, she had two releases for Harlequin: The Heart Surgeon's Secret Son ~ HMB Medical 3/08; and The Doctor's Meant-to-be Marriage ~ HMB Medical 5/08.

This year, we'll see several more of her releases: Surgeon Boss, Surprise Dad ~ HMB Medical 2/09; The Doctor's Meant-to-be Marriage ~ HMB Medical 4/09 (US version to tie into the eHarlequin read); eHarlequin.com Medical read ~ May 25, 2009; The Playboy Doctor Claims His Bride ~ HMB Medical 8/09; and The Nurse's Miracle Baby ~ Mills & Boon Presents 11/09. And, for 2010, Janice currently has two scheduled releases, although both are still untitled.

Needless to say, Janice is on the go 24/7/365. Yet, when Helen Scott Taylor, author of The Magic Knot ~ Dorchester Love Spell, 1/09, the American Title IV Winner, and 2008 Golden Heart® finalist, approached her with the idea of being my mentor, she generously agreed. I don't run in the circles of the Janice Lynns and Helen Scott Taylors of the writing world. A year ago, my only connection to Janice and Helen was From the Heart Romance Writers, which, by the way, I can't recommend highly enough to aspiring authors.

Oh, how anxious Janice was at the outset, perhaps even more than I was! It must be daunting to take on the role of mentor to an aspiring author, especially when you don't know the nature or abilities of your protégé. I suppose she must have asked herself, "Will she get angry with me if I'm honest?" or "Will she ignore my advice after I've given her my valuable time?" or "Why am I doing this?" But, as she soon discovered, I was ravenous for a dish of her guidance. How relieved she was when I welcomed and embraced every comment! But I'll share a secret—her relief with my love of revision couldn't possibly have outmatched my delight with her advice on revision.

So, what made it work so beautifully? I can only say that it was as simple as this—Janice heard my voice in the darkness...and I saw the light of her lantern as if it were a beacon calling me home.


Contrary to many critique partners and contest judges, Janice's focus isn't about showing not telling, beats not dialogue tags, active not passive tense, fast not slow pacing, etc. For those of you who are new to writing, these are some of "The Rules" (those rules usually unknown to new writers, zealously followed by aspiring authors, and often disregarded by published authors). No, rules aren't Janice's thing. She's interested in substance—GMC, emotion, reactions, characterization, hook—and in voice. With her gentle guidance, I revised and polished until my story was my story, but written with greater depth and breadth, and yet written in my voice.

In retrospect, even though our time together was to make golden my words, Janice's words, not mine, fired the lantern that lit my darkness. Last year, she wrote to me: "You have VOICE. All the other stuff can be fixed, but VOICE is one of those things you either have or don't have." And this brings me to my final thought about Janice as my mentor and her most profound gift to me as her protégé—she discovered me, and in her discovery, I found myself as a writer. Perhaps that's the thing I needed most from her and she didn't let me down.

Now, with Janice's golden words lighting my way, I fly alone just beyond her wing, soaring in the brilliant blue toward the burning orange, breathing vibrant green into my characters, and painting a pure white canvas with streaks of bold red...knowing that, with her generous spirit, she'll spread her wing over me should I falter and fall back to Earth.

And so, to you, Janice, I make this tribute from the depth and breadth of my heart and soul.

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.

Welcome to My Blog!

Welcome to my blog!

When I was a teenager, Charlotte Brontë touched the depths of my soul and Kathleen Woodiwiss stirred the passions of my heart. At university, I became a student of the Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Joel Oppenheimer. However, instead of becoming a writer, I became an attorney. Recently, though, I decided to fulfill my long held desire and seek publication as a romance author.

What dreams do you dream? What desires do you deny?

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.