I have a confession to make: for many, many years I did not understand what was meant by the word trope. I started writing long before Google could answer all our questions, or Alexa or Siri would provide information on topics we never considered asking about before the advent of such all-knowing apps.

I gradually came to understand, thanks to certain publishing houses, what was meant by the word and I thought that I would likely never be writing such things. My books didn’t fit the mold of billionaire cowboys or secret babies.

Or so I thought.

I attended a monthly presentation of my writer’s group a few months back and the topic was just this subject, only it focused more on characterization than on plot. To my surprise, I came to realize that I was guilty of using some of these stereotypes, even if in a superficial way, and it’s changed the way I look at my characters, especially my heroine. (A quick shout out to the presener, Katharine Ashe, for her insightful and eye-opening workshop!)

These characterization tropes included:

  • the misogynist – the woman-hater who just hasn’t met the right woman
  • the harasser – the guy you’d call HR about at work if you didn’t label him the hero
  • the rebuilder – he destroyed her, now he seeks to rebuild her
  • the exception – she’s the only woman in the world like this
  • the stooge – a woman so clumsy she can’t walk to the car without falling down

There were other plot tropes discussed – two people vastly unequal in terms of wealth or sexual experience, stalkers, coming to the rescue, the evil overly-sexed female who seeks to foil the H/H.

I think tropes are used because they are easy, or as easy as it gets in writing a book. They lend themselves to some fairly straightforward conflicts and resolutions and many readers like that “formula” for their books. But I think in a genre that is largely written by and for women, we need to do better. Now don’t think I’m waving a feminist flag here – I’m not intentionally doing that. I’ve nothing against feminism but I’m talking primarily about good fiction. The fact that it lends itself to strong female characters is just a bonus.

As writers, we need to push the boundaries at all times, on all subjects to move our genre forward, to attract new readers, and explore the topics that are meaningful to our audience. Could you imagine 30 years ago reading a story about female spies in WWII (The Alice Network) or a biracial romance set during the Civil War (An Extraordinary Union) or a female economist who hires a male prostitute (The Kiss Quotient)? When I starting reading romance in the early 80s, it was about virgins in their early twenties who fell for the wounded, rich, powerful male in his mid to late thirties.

Flip that trope. Smash it. Tweak it in new and exciting ways. Use this diverse, wonderfully chaotic world we live in to set the stage and background for your characters to explore. It can be frightening – what if your editor or reader don’t like it? Tropes are safe. Tropes sell.

So do things that break the story ceiling. Harry Potter. The Help. The Firm.

It won’t be easy but as they say, nothing good every comes without hard work. We’re writers. We’re used to hard work.

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Speak to the dragon

I went on a writer’s retreat recently. Nothing fancy or organized; just me and another writer friend hold up in a nice cabin in the mountains with nothing to distract us but a lot of trees, the view and a hot tub. Since it’s July the hot tub wasn’t all that distracting, but man oh man that view could suck up your attention.

I’m starting to fight the effects of carpal tunnel and even with an ergo keyboard my left wrist is not happy with all the hours I spend typing. I even bought a new keyboard recently – one of those very expensive split keyboards – to see if that will help. It arrives on Wednesday so I’ll report back later. But in an effort to stem the pain, I’ve been looking into Dragonspeak, or something similar, and my friend actually uses the software.

His process is more manual. He writes out his pages long hand then simply dictates them; what he calls ‘talking to the computer.’ I thought of trying it but found my writer brain is not a linear thing. I write a sentence, then edit it, go back a few paragraphs, edit some more, tweak another couple of words, add a comma, delete a comma, fix the typos then erase the whole thing and start again. It’s not a process that lends itself to dictation.

I know many writers that use such software so I’m very curious how they get it to work for them. Perhaps it’s like so many other things associated with writing a novel  – it takes practice.

Meanwhile, I wear a lidocaine patch on my left hand and wait for my new keyboard. I’m also going to see the chiropractor to see if she can help.

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If you didn’t know that means too stupid to live.  I’m not sure who came up with the term but it’s a common ailment in horror movies where the busty blonde tries to escape the serial killer by going down the dark stairs into the even darker basement while wearing 4 inch stilettos and a bra that wouldn’t hold a lusty thought much less the triple-D bosums bouncing in a too-small shirt.

I had an epipheny during a random binge of apocalypse movies. Writers use TSTL in order to create conflict. The family fleeing the coming zombie horde always goes back for the missing teddy bear and gets eaten by the zombie hiding in the living room. The lone woman survivor who has the last working car stops for the poor stranded guy and has her car stolen, if she’s lucky, and gets murdered and/or raped if she doesn’t. The idiots fleeing the pending volcanic explosion can’t find water when the  landscape is literally covered in snow and the earth is exploding in fire. Oy.

This is not conflict in case anyone is wondering. Or at least not good conflict. Yes, it creates a situation for excitement and creates a need for characters to make hard choices but they are usually (intentionally?) wrong choices in the heat of the moment. Then these wrong choices become fodder for the next series of fake conflicts and bad choices until, by luck, a few survive their own stupidity to make it to the end of the story.

Conflict is different than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Conflict requires sacrifice. Conflict requires growth. Conflict requires opposition, not just physical opposition where there’s a zombie coming to eat your brains but opposition through moral and ethical dilemmas that test a characater’s mettle. So if you want to use the zombie coming at you to eat your brains for a conflict, at least add the twist that the main character can save only one of their two children in the room.

Think of the classic Romancing the Stone when Jack has the long sought after emerald in one hand and a dangling-off-the-cliff Joan in the other. Now that’s conflict! One dream or the other? The right thing or the wanted thing?  While the choice may seem easy to you and me, for Jack it takes a moment’s thought and it’s not “do I let her die or keep the big shiny rock?” It’s more a decision of “can I have them both?” Because that’s so often what conflict comes down to – can your character have both what s/he’s always wanted/dreamed of/worked for AND this new thing they didn’t even know they wanted until they had it in their grasp?

The answer is usually no and when they finally make the leap they discover that this new thing was worth it and what they really always wanted. Happily ever after ensues.

Don’t forget the zombies or the dark basements or the volcanic eruptions because let’s face it, those make for good reading. Just don’t let that be the only conflict in your book.

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Memories of romance

I am working on a romance story and trying not to kill people. No, not REAL people. Imaginary people. I primarily write romantic suspense and this is a straight romance but that mystery element keeps poking its head into my story. Even in the first book of this series, there was a minor mystery element so hopefully I can get away with that minor mystery element again.

I started to think back to my (much) younger years and my early dating days, that first moment you see someone, that first touch, the first kiss.  But I also started to remember those other moments, the moments that don’t normally get pegged as big romantic moments but hold a special place in the memory nonetheless. What makes you feel romantic when with that special someone? Not a tear-their-clothes-off kind of feeling. This is gentler, sweeter.

Here are a few of my memories that generated the heart-melting, breath-stealing moments.

Sitting next to one another in the car. Not just both in the front seat, but sharing the driver’s side, thighs touching, one hand entwined with the other person’s, leaning into one another on the turns. You’re sharing space and it surrounds you with intrigue and possibility.

Holding hands. Have you ever had someone hold your hand, and their thumb is making little circles on the inside of your palm or wrist? The warmth radiates outward from that single point of contact. There’s nothing sweeter in my opinion than holding hands with the one you love. Or even like a lot.

That smile when they see you unexpectedly. And you can tell from the way the smile reaches their eyes and fills their face they are truly happy to see you.

Comfortable silence. It takes a certain level of security with another person to sit in silence and not feel the urge to fill that with pointless conversation. Not to say that your voice is unwelcome. But it’s ok to not say anything.

Grocery shopping. OK. I know that’s weird but one of the best relationships I ever had was with a person with whom I enjoyed going to the grocery store. We would plan a meal, or even get a craving for something weird and go shop for the ingredients, come back to the house and cook. Easy conversation filled the time. Laughter when we’d mess up the recipe which happened quite often. Delight when we got it right.

So those are my memories of romance. Since I’m feeling less than romantic these days, I try and pull out these memories when writing because I do remember that heady feeling when you see your special person enter a room. It’s a feeling I want to capture for my readers.

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Building the business

Passion. Obsession. Dream. Delusion. All are words that have been used when speaking about me and my writing. I’ve received my share of eye rolls and my share of pats on the back. Contest wins and losses. Rejections. Classes and conferences and speaking engagements. Even publication. Through it all, I’ve tried to “sell” both myself and my books with varying degrees of success but I never approached it like a business until 2014. 

I think this is where writers fail the biggest, not as writers but as business owners. Read that word again: OWNERS. Whether we self-publish or go a more traditional route or do a hybrid journey to the printed word, we own our words, lock, stock and barrel. It’s up to us to build the store front, keep the inventory stocked and push the merchandise.

There were three facets to my business plan I’ll share with you.

The first was my brand (my storefront). A Writer’s House. I didn’t want to tie my brand to a single pseudonym because I write under several, and had several more planned. I thought about this long and hard, knowing how difficult it is to push ONE name to easy recognition. Using A Writer’s House gave me what I needed and I began to build my family of writer names. With the website, came Twitter and Facebook, then there’s all the other social media, and it’s a lot of upkeep to maintain a presence. Someone much wiser than me said to pick three (which is my lucky number) and then focus on those.

Next came the inventory. I was writing and publishing but I needed to add another element and thus developed Cypress Press, my editing service. Also captured under the umbrella of A Writer’s House, it is more than just for the published writer. I have beta reading, proofreading, story development and coaching. I don’t pretend to be an expert but I think I’ve garnered enough experience to assist the novice and advanced beginner craft a better story. At least I hope my clients think so!

The last leg of my journey is about education. I actually did more of this before I was published which I find a bit ironic. Now my focus in 2018 is to get back out there with the classes I’ve developed over the years and present at chapter workshops and conferences, possibly even online. I’m also doing more freelancing than ever before and wondering if I could make a go at it full time.

Regardless of which I’m working on, they feed back into the #1 goal for my business: build the brand. No matter which writing persona I’m wearing, I want to lead people back to the entire world I’ve created with multiple pseudonyms and business offerings for the writer. I’d like to think I’ll be big enough one day to only focus on writing but until I get there, the electric company and student loans demand monthly sacrifices from my pocketbook.

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Researching my heart out

I wrote an article called Weapons of Mass Characterization recently for my chapter’s newsletter and it got me to thinking about the research books that I use regularly. As my daughter will attest, I’m something of a research book whore. I have boxes of research books, even though I can easily call up the info on the internet. But I can’t quite make myself get rid of these. Some of them are out of print, I’m sure. Even more are probably out dated. Yet, they still fill up a corner of my home office. (And DD, they likely always will).

So what fills these boxes?

I find that many of them deal with characterization. I use them to flesh out my characters, build the GMC or the backstory. I use Linda Goodman’s Love Signs for this. Even though I’m not a believer in astrology, I like the information presented on how people interact. It gives me strengths and weaknesses, flaws and weapons. Weapons are what I call those elements of a character that drives their reactions. For instance, a person who has been on the receiving end of great betrayal will react to deceit a different way than someone who thinks people are basically honest.

The Emotions Thesaurus is relatively a new addition to my library. With the motto “show don’t tell” ringing in my brain, I like how the thesaurus not gives me the traits that go along with a particular emotion, it gives me physical responses. Anger can be shown as a clenched fist, but also as a steely silence.

Do you ever find yourself using the same words over and over and over…yeah, like that. The Synonym Finder is an easy reference thesaurus that is much more user friendly than a typical thesaurus. It’s arranged like a dictionary and I find it much easier to thumb through the listing.

And what keeper shelf is full without Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon? Between this and the Writer’s Brainstorming Kit, both from Gryphon Books for Writers, I’m not sure which I use more. Given my propensity for charts, these books just tickle my fancy in every way. GMC helps me build a skeleton while the Brainstorming Kit puts flesh on the bones. The Brainstorming Kit helps me find unique ways of looking at a trait that could be a cliché.

Since I like to murder people (in my books) I’m also a fan of the Howdunit Series which publishes fun books like Modus Operadi: A Writer’s Guide to How Criminals Think and Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine. I’m not a gritty police procedural writer but I want things to be relatively accurate

When I was writing historicals, I loved using the Everyday Life in America series. Whether you’re writing Colonial America or post-Civil War, they had good books that gave the textural elements of small towns or big cities, general info on housing, transportation, marriage, family and the changing landscape of a country changing day by day.

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Maybe I’m not a romance writer anymore

I started writing romance when I was 15. I fell in love with the genre after reading a series of historicals by Patricia Matthews and Kathleen Woodiwiss. I think I loved historicals initially because it was about women doing things they wanted or had to, in an environment that didn’t support them. I wanted to be that brave. I wanted to be that free.

Fast forward a few years, when the desire to be a writer was strong but the reality, as my dad was quick to point out, was that making a living as a writer was not practical. Thus came the degree in chemistry. But the desire never went away. I wrote. In secret, of course, because writing was not practical. And writing romance was enough to send my mother’s eyes into the back of her head. I certainly didn’t tell people I was a writer.

I came out of the closet as a romance writer, and proudly tell people I’m a romance writer. I still love the genre. I still love the fairy tale endings. Lately, though, writing romance is not like it used to be. I think that’s because dating is not like it used to be and since I’ve pretty much given up on romance and dating, I think I’m going to have to change genres.

My interest of late has been the zombie apocalypse, but any end-of-the-world scenario will do. Not sure what that says about me. Guess we’ll find out.

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