Author Archives: Kay Springsteen

A Rose by ANY Other Name


Trademarks and Made-up Names
By Kay Springsteen

If you’re writing fiction for a Big 6 publisher, or screen plays for hit TV shows or mega movies, you likely don’t have to worry about mentioning trademarked items or copyrighted names in your work. After all, such companies would have resources to gain rights needed to make the references. But if you’re still a relatively little fish in a sea of other little fishes in the writing world, the mere mention of copyrighted names (Luke Skywalker, Zorro, Superman, Batman, etc.), or even the names of real people (Martha Stewart, Bruce Willis, Sharon Osborne) in a book can bring about nightmares. Most small publishers also request the use of generic equivalents or made-up names for brand-name (trademarked) products (Hershey’s, Keebler, Minute Maid, Coke, Purina, etc.). In some cases this is not possible. Perhaps there is no simple generic replacement or the description is complex (take Mylar balloon for instance; it’s not quite the same thing… getting a bouquet of Mylar and latex balloons versus a bouquet of metallic-looking plastic and latex balloons). In these cases, some publishers will allow use of trademarks if the reference does not paint the product in a negative light. That is, if your serial killer likes to stop at Starbucks for an Iced Caramel Macchiato before every murder, using the branded name in your scenario, you could be construed as stating the drink is responsible for the murder. It’s a stretch but that’s where it gets tricky. Because these days, people stretch. And if you are one of those aforementioned little fish, you will want to take steps so people can’t possibly stretch the connections in a way your writing will come back and bite you. This could involve you, the author, or your agent, acquiring rights from the appropriate person for the appropriate use before you submit (after you submit, it’s often too late unless you want to put your release date on hold while you procure these rights).

Some authors feel—and rightly so—that using brand names in their work helps readers identify with the story better. It lends an air of the familiar, the recognizable, and sometimes these things help readers identify with a character. Unfortunately, that benefit is currently overshadowed when you are published through a smaller press, by the fact that these smaller presses cannot afford the actual cost of defending usage or even the negative publicity surrounding a lawsuit. And there is no way to determine, without having secured the rights to use product names, which companies will sue or why.

The thing is, when you want a fashion doll, for instance (thank you to Iris Blobel for the inspiration here), and you cannot use “Barbie,” well, using “fashion doll” also becomes old and tired in the manuscript, and, dare I say a little impersonal and sterile? So over in the Astraea Press Authors’ group, where we tend to really let go and have fun with such things, we got everything from several suggestions of alternate names, to more specialized names such as Catalina Cathy or Santa Monica Monique (the equivalent of Malibu Barbie–thanks, Jeanne Theunissen) to suggestions for descriptions to take the place of the name. “Doll,” with the qualifier of “overblown bosom, totally unrealistic… etc.” (thank you, Meg Mims) to simply describing it as “statuesque plastic fashion doll” (Jeff Salter’s suggestion). Besides the impersonal, distancing factor when using only description, the phrasing itself can become boring, not to mention quite cumbersome. And if that doll happens to be a major prop in the story—that is, the favorite companion of a child who plays a large role in the story—naming it “statuesque plastic fashion doll,” becomes far too cumbersome.

This is not only true with fashion dolls, but anything. If your cat has a favorite brand of cat food, and you mention feeding him more than a couple of times in the story, “Tippy’s favorite cat food,” in any incarnation, is just too much. And while it’s true you may be able to describe the blue bag with the red and white checkered box on the front as the cat’s favorite, and then forever after simply describe the character as feeding the cat his favorite food, and sometimes just feeding the cat. With other things, though, such as the aforementioned fashion doll, when it’s a critical part of characterization and shows up on every page or every time the character puts in an appearance, even describing it in great detail, and then using doll or fashion doll throughout the rest of the text is distracting because of the repetition.

One solution? Make the doll its own character. No, not one that walks and talks, but a child’s best friend. And of course the doll will have a name. So make one up. Follow the trend closely enough to acquire the same rhythm (Malibu Barbie becomes Santa Monica Monique) and describe the doll once or twice in different ways. For example, from the mother’s PoV:

“Mother!” wailed Tiffany. “I can’t find Santa Monica Monique!”

Jeanne rolled her eyes. Her daughter was always misplacing the fashion doll and expecting others to find it for her.”

Later, in perhaps the PoV of the mother’s love interest (aka the hero), the description can be furthered, since the mother wouldn’t likely think beyond what type of doll her daughter has lost, but the hero might notice things about it the mom takes for granted:

The dark-hair child kept her eyes focused squarely on the statuesque plastic fashion doll Grasping the red-headed doll around its unrealistically thin waist, Tiffany hopped the figure from room to room in the pink plastic doll house. Good thing the doll was made of hard plastic or its overblown bosom might have given it a concussion the way the kid bounced her around.

“Tiffany, don’t forget to put Monique on the shelf when you go to bed tonight so the dog doesn’t get her again,” said Jeanne as she flounced into the room, her perky walk making her look a little too much like bouncing “Monica” in Trent’s estimation.

The differences in perspective give all the description necessary to tell the reader that this is a mock-Barbie and naming the doll lends credibility by removing the sense of stability. You can do this with any branded item in a story. Need a big box store? Instead of Walmart of K-Mart, try Star Mart. Need a grocery market? Piggly Wiggly can magically become Fred’s Fresh Foods. You don’t have to go crazy, but have a little fun with it. It’s your story, and you’re a creative person…so show off your creativity. Don’t stress because your publisher prefers generic names or made-up names, go ahead and make them up! By making them up instead of going completely generic, you will add dimension to your stories by staving off the sterility of the nonspecific name.

Try it! Pick a brand name and change it to something else. Let me know what you come up with.

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Balancing Extreme Tension With a Dose of Realism


by Kay Springsteen

Cooking is a balancing act.You have to measure the ingredients so they blend into the perfect flavor, and then you have to set the cooking time and temperature and choose the correct method of cooking…

Writing is also a balancing act. You have to set the scene, the characters, the plot. And you have to write for the balance of the Big Three that acquisition editors look for these days – goals, motivation, and conflict. Want your story to be one readers won’t put down until the last page is turned? Heighten the tension in the GMC of your characters.

The opportunities for creating conflict in a story are limited only by a writer’s imagination.  Conflict creates tension and tension returns the favor to create more conflict. However, tension needs to come about in a natural fashion, rising from and subsequently interfering with the goals and motivation or it will not be believable. Additionally, characters require convincing reasons why they muddle through instead of giving up once those circumstances of conflict occur. Readers must also be given the tools to understand and believe the reason why opposing characters are thrown together and why they are kept together during subsequent conflict. Each character’s external goals and motivation must be woven together by circumstances so characters cannot avoid the conflicts being tossed their way. The internal motivation of characters—their mental and emotional makeup—must be such that it is impossible for them to give up no matter what happens. Conflict should be driven by tension between the characters as well as outside of the characters – mostly through the primary characters, but also through each secondary character. Each character must have a reason to be in the novel, which means each character must have his/her own GMC, however small a role those may play to the novel itself.

It is often the little things that advance the story. Though it often is, tension does not have to be overt (i.e., with characters who are at odds with seemingly no room for compromise and thus they constantly argue). Characters don’t have to act like they’re in elementary school where boys hate girls. In adulthood, people tend to compromise or avoid each other rather than continue sniping, and if they cannot avoid each other, they will at least behave in a civil manner. Those who do not, rarely get beyond the “I hate you” stage to a point of civility, so going forward to affection and falling in love isn’t a logical progression of events – particularly when going from “I hate everything about you” to a mad passionate embrace. Thus, constant bickering that leads to attraction isn’t always believable because one wonders how they get past the anger and criticism to discover they like each other after all.

Sometimes subtle conflicts seem more realistic, a male with a sense of over protectiveness and a female with a need to make her own decisions might find themselves at odds because he insists on driving her everywhere. That’s a setup for overt tension. But tension can present in the fact that he’s a neat freak and she squeezes his toothpaste from the middle of the tube, which irritates him until he erupts in anger. The author should strive for believable realism BUT needs to balance this with interest in the characters and their dilemma. Things like mundane chores, basics of self-care, walking the dog should only be included in depth when they add to the story in the form of characterization or provide the readers with clues/foreshadowing of upcoming events, and even then, shouldn’t be overdone to the point of becoming boring. The trick is to balance a taste of routine realism with a dose of grandiosity to make the characters and story larger than life. To find the tension in the little things along the way that builds up or perhaps adds to already established larger bits of tension. Each scene should have some sort of GMC, even if it’s about toothpaste.

~Kay Springsteen – find me on Amazon

Just Write It


By Kay Springsteen

Hooker with a heart of gold meets rich man who rescues her from the streets: A lighthearted look at the life of a prostitute who hits the big time and then turns around to rescue the man who rescued her. Pretty Woman is one of those movies I love to watch. I don’t care that it’s older, or that the premise is extremely far-fetched. It’s fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense. And the interactions of the characters is amazing, as is the job the actors themselves do of portraying this complex group of people. Pretty Woman is billed as a romantic comedy, but did you know it didn’t start out that way?

The screenplay for this movie was originally written as a highly emotional, somewhat dark trip through the world of prostitution, an examination of the differences in class. The dead body in the opening of the movie originally played a much more prominent role and there were no funny snails at dinner scenes, lazy days in the park or quarter of a million dollar necklaces for trips to the opera. The story was seedy and gritty and heavy.

But the producers saw more potential in the story than that. By turning it to a romantic comedy they played to what the audiences of 1990 wanted. Pure, fun escapism. But not so much of an escape they couldn’t dream of that romantic rescue happening to them.

Add in an already established hit song by Roy Orbison, and you have audience appeal.

But what does that have to do with people who are writing fiction today? Everything. The plot of Pretty Woman was only loosely reminiscent of the original. But the author, J.F. Lawton, worked with the studio and producers and agreed to the changes that shot that movie to one of the most successful romantic comedies ever.

And?

Oh right, the lesson. Well, the lesson is simply to be flexible. Write what calls to your heart while you’re in the creative stages, but don’t write with a closed mind, and when you type that last word, don’t let it be written in stone. You never know who might come along with an idea of tweaking your story just enough to make it one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of its time. With a handful of tweaks, you might find yourself sitting on “the next big thing.”

All because an editor or a publisher or… a producer… says to you, “I really like your story but would you be willing to make a few changes…?”

So…would you? Or do you feel J.F. Lawton should have stuck to the original script?

I write highly emotional-charged stories. I don’t do romantic comedy nearly as well as I write drama. But if Hollywood called and asked me to change one into a romantic comedy, would I allow it? In a heartbeat. Time enough later to be a prima donna. First you gotta get to the top.

“You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.” (Melanie Griffith as Tess  McGill, Working Girl)

Happy reading and writing!

Kay

Bri Clark Talks About Social Media


You can’t turn around these days without hearing the name of the most popular social media sites around. And new sites are added every day. Some catch on, some do not. But whatever your favorite social sites, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing: The Internet has made the world infinitely smaller. Celebrities and other public figures have a vastly increased reach by simply posting status updates. People who follow public figures get to experience a sense of intimate connection that cannot be gained from attending concerts, watching entertainment shows, or reading magazines.

As relatively new authors, we may not have reached the level of notoriety of musical geniuses Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi, and our books may not consistently sit in bookstores rubbing jackets with Nora Roberts and Linda Howard. But we have readers, people who recognize our names. We often have a public face and a private one. And it is important to many of us that we keep our private lives out of the public eye. It might be something as small as a desire to maintain mystique over our age or our day jobs or to hold onto a bit of privacy regarding our families—significant others and children. Or maybe we don’t want to admit we were nerds growing up.

And the thing is, we shouldn’t have to. But for some reason, once we hit social media and our friends and family hit it with us, we  are open for secrets to be spilled that we otherwise might prefer to remain…well secret. Perhaps we’re in our fifth marriage and would rather not have the world know our first four went bust. Maybe as an author and an editor, I don’t want the world to know my writing/editing shortcomings. Everyone has things in their past and present that they’d rather not have the public tearing apart. For some reason, though, once we get to a level of public interaction, our friends and family sometimes don’t understand we’ve reached a cutoff point where it’s no longer acceptable to drop certain things into a conversation. And while it’s true they aren’t always aware of our personal/public boundaries, it’s frustrating that they just make assumptions that it is okay to keep on with business as usual, and to mention things like children, or a painful past is airing laundry in public that the person wants kept private.

How to handle this. It’s not nearly as easy as you might think. You don’t want certain information “out there,” but you can’t always rely on the boundaries of family/friends, and you can’t always trust they are aware of your public cutoff line. So, short of giving your family and friends an all-inclusive list of “do not say,” what are your choices?  I sought out Bri Clark of Belle Consulting for some answers.

Kay:  After an author is published, how can she help friends and family understand that she must present a more professional sense of decorum? Things that are typically joked about or even ranted about in private are not appropriate for public consumption. Yet over and over I have noticed an author’s friends and family posting inappropriate things on theirsocial media. And sometimes worse, they have been known to take over a thread on social media that was designed as a way for the author to stay in touch with readers and other writers and twist it into a conversation that is often not appropriate or at the very least is not about the original topic. Without hurting feelings, is there a way to separate friends and family from the professional?

Bri:  No there’s no separation. Your family and friends were where you began on social media for most of us. I’d draft a letter sent to them personally expressing how their support has been the cornerstone of your success. With that said the image you project is scrutinized like never before. So you’ll be making it a point to police posts, tags and comments. Because you guys have been so supportive I’m confident you’ll understand. Then don’t say a word when you have to delete things.

Kay:  So, I’m wondering if it’s a common thing for family and friends to simply not realize they are crossing lines, or that things have changed now that an author is more of a public figure.

Bri:  Absolutely. They will never get that you are a potential celebrity. Or that people in society see you as something other than what your friends and family have known you as all your life. Like for me, my brother always sees me as his big sister. I’ve been at my kids’ schools and given speeches. Their friends were authorstruck, but my kids were unimpressed and wanted to know what time was dinner.

Kay: Okay, so obviously we don’t want our families treating us too differently, just want them to understand that we’re more in the public eye and  we have a persona and a level of decorum to maintain.

Bri:  However big we get, there will be three kinds of perception among those that knew you.
A. Those who are so proud and happily brag about knowing you before you were big.
B. Those who are secretly envious and will do all they can to discredit and dog you.
C. Those who are the same because to them it really doesn’t matter one way or another.

Kay: Sometimes a friend or family member will get a little too familiar and tease about something that I don’t really want out there in a public forum. They don’t seem to have the same boundaries I require for my “author mystique.” I know they really don’t mean anything – and maybe they sometimes show off because I’m getting attention and that means they do also. Sometimes they respond well when I ask that they stop and sometimes my social media gets hijacked with silliness that has little to do with my initial post. And because I have the potential to reach many people, I often will post community service things – items about adopting animals (one of my pet causes) or about military service personnel, and so on. But I also sometimes will post a question or comment directed at my readers – a general question or a snippet from a book. When these threads get hijacked by friends, even well-meaning friends, they stop serving their purpose – which is for me to connect with readers. Is there a nice way to let people know their over-the-top responses or giving away of story plots in these threads is distressing?

Bri:  Well me being sassy as I am would have to start out with a blog post or a note on my Facebook profile defining what a “reader” was. Then questions meant for readers or authors would begin with “Attention Readers…” or “Dear authors…” If a family member attempted a hijacking a warning and a link to the note would be linked.

Kay:   The other thing I sometimes see happen on my media is other authors who have a different sense of promo than I do. I often promote for fellow authors – in and out of the publishing house where I am published. But I don’t appreciate when someone posts their promo on my wall without asking. I don’t do that to other people – authors or non-authors. So do I just keep up a policing act and simply remove things or do I follow the same procedure I use with family and ask that they simply ask me before posting these things?

Bri:  I’d say once would be a warning then police it. That’s like the unspoken rule of etiquette among authors. There are exceptions. Such as if I am excited about a review and I want to share it with YOU personally and post a link with an explanation on your wall. But not blatant promo. That’s just unclassy.

Kay:  I’ve been just removing them and I get that sometimes writers don’t realize it’s poor etiquette, so I guess we should touch on the rules of author etiquette with social media promo. Any words?

Bri:  Oh, I’ll have to get heels, sunglasses and big hat first if we are going to discuss etiquette brb

First a respectable author speaks more of others blog post, books, and reviews than themselves. Second an author of caliber supports those in shoes they have already traveled. What I mean by that is we have all been down the publishing road and there are loads before us, stumbling it is our job to help where we can when we can. And third is do not spam. I’d say if you want to share something of your own 2x’s in a 24 hour period is enough. As in if you want to share a blog post share it 2x’s in 24 hours on your own wall or tweet it. And if sharing on groups or communities like that only once.

Kay:   A lot of authors are gaining attention with more than just their buy links – for instance on the blog hops with other authors or by writing their own blogs, etc. So am I correct in thinking these types of posts are the same as other promo? You wouldn’t post your blog AND your buy link within a close time frame? So what if an author has multiple blog posts, reviews, blog hops, etc. in a day? How do they decide? Obviously they shouldn’t blanket the internet with all of them all in the same places? Is there a method for choosing what to post where and when that follows the rules of decorum without socially shooting yourself in the foot?

Bri:  Personally I use services like Hootsuite and Social oomph. If I find out about a review I am excited about and a blog post on the same day that published then I would draft a status update and schedule it for the next day of one or the other. If you are somewhere else I’d say it’s acceptable to post that along with your own blog post. It’s two separate things. The point is that you aren’t posting the same thing over and over. Because then people just ignore all you post.

Kay:  So what is the bottom line in advice you can offer an author with regard to the public personal and use of social media where they not only interact with their public but with their friends and family as well?

Bri:  If you are like me and your fingers are flying over the keys or the screen of your touch pad before you hit post reread what you just typed. If you don’t hesitate to have your mother, your clergy, or your child’s teacher read it then post.

Kay:  So never post anything in the heat of the moment and remember what gets out there stays out there forever.

Bri: I did not give any sage advice like that and don’t you dare put that kind of expectation upon me!

Kay: Folks, this is the consultant you want on your side. Give us an idea where we can find you, Bri!
2012 author photo

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Too Hard, Too Soft, or Just Right?


By Kay Springsteen

Does it matter if your heroine is wearing a red shirt or a white one? Does it matter if the hero notices the color? I firmly believe in adding sensory details – what the characters experience on every level: see, hear, taste, smell, feel, and think. But it’s been argued that such details are unnecessary, boring, weigh the story down, or that the reader might prefer to fill in the blanks.

Certainly, a fine line exists between too hard, too soft, and just right. That sweet spot in the middle between too many details and too few is the “just right” of writing. But it’s not so much how many details you use as how you present them.

If I want to show the reader how my heroine is dressed, I can describe it.

She chose a red shirt with a plunging neckline and flared sleeves, then pulled on the pair of faded blue jeans with the wide bell bottom hem.

Well, we know what she’s wearing but even I yawned halfway through the sentence, and I wrote it. Now, we could have her examine herself in the mirror and think about how the red adds a bit of vibrant color to her skin and she doesn’t look so pale. We could mention pulling on her favorite red shirt and then describe the outfit from the hero’s point of view.

So what’s the most relevant part of the description to the story? What do I want to show? A flash of color maybe? Or the fact that she’s casually dressed? What the plunging neckline does for the hero? In this case, I opted to show that the shirt was loose and red because the color is what will come back later in the story (when she sees the splash of red and finds her ruined shirt in her suitcase).

The breeze whipped around the side of the house and plastered the loose red shirt to her body, outlining every delicious curve and asset for his eager eyes.

But this doesn’t show the plunging neckline or the flared sleeves. Are they important? Not especially but in order to paint a fuller picture, I can add these details in a sprinkling can fashion further along in the passage. For instance, the hero can embrace the heroine and trail kisses from her neck along the plunging neckline of her shirt to stop where it meets in between her breasts. Or the breeze can make the heroine chilly and she can rub her arms, pushing her hands beneath the flared sleeves of the shirt.

The trick is to use a watering can to sprinkle in the details rather than a fire hose to saturate the reader with sensory overload.  Happy reading and writing!

And check out the Goodreads giveaway for the Regency romance I wrote with Kim Bowman! A Lot Like a Lady giveaway.

~Kay

The Marks of an Editor


By Kay Springsteen

With the rise in the rates of e-published books by independent companies and self-published authors, calls are going out for editors. As a senior editor at Astraea Press, I’ve been looking at editors’ tests with the goal of assisting in decisions about whether or not to hire applicants. And it’s because I’m seeing the same mistakes over and over that I decided to share what good editors must know to be successful at helping an author produce the best polished manuscript.

Thorough and demonstrable understanding of the mechanics of writing. This includes grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Knowledge of the elements of story construction. This includes such things as point of view and how to recognize inappropriate shifts from one head to another in the scene (point of view breaks), recognition of telling where the author should be showing, the proper use of dialogue tags, and the ability to identify plots and subplots with an eye to ensuring these all move the story forward to some degree, that they are all wrapped up, and that no holes exist.

Communication skills. This would include the ability to communicate ideas and needs with senior editing staff and publisher as well as to accept direction or request clarification in the event such direction is not well understood. In addition, of utmost importance is the ability to clearly correspond with each individual author. The editor must explain why a specific change is needed, and should, in most cases, never make the change him/herself but instead explain to the author what is needed and ask the author to use his/her own words and author voice to make the correction. It’s okay, encouraged even, for an editor to make suggestions in order to show the author more clearly what is being sought. However, the editor must resist the urge to rewrite the story out from under the author. Just because you feel your own personal word choice or a plot/subplot direction is better does not make the author’s choices incorrect. Above all else, the story must remain the author’s story.

People skills. These days, little direct contact is made between editor and author. Most of the communication is done through email and through the notes in the margins. It is important that an editor explain why changes are requested in a manuscript, and in many cases illustrative suggestions should be offered—but not in such a way as the editor rewrites the book. Edits should be accomplished with the utmost respect regardless of what an editor thinks of the story or the author. And they should be made showing kindness and courtesy, not autocratically. Basically, it goes back to attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar. Unless you run across a colony of masochistic flies, honey is definitely the bait of choice. A little sugar goes a long way toward the working dynamic between two creative personalities. Thus, it is not enough to request editorial changes, even with an explanation. The editor needs to recognize an author’s bits of brilliance, and it’s important to show the author what he or she has done well along the way. That’s where compliments from the editor help. By providing positive feedback, the author is encouraged to continue doing what he/she has done right. Make all those red marks count!

With these tips in mind, I wish anyone who is of a mind to apply for an editing position the best of luck, and maybe one day soon I’ll be working with you. Anyone interested in applying to Astraea Press for an editing position, please submit your resume and qualifications with a letter of interest to Stephanie Taylor at stephanietaylor@astraeapress.com – good luck!

The Details Start the Engine


by Kay Springsteen

Imagine building a car and forgetting to install a crucial part of the engine. If it starts at all, it’s not likely to run well, and it may end up stopping rather abruptly. Those who assemble cars, no matter what stage of the car they work on, follow a blueprint—detailed plans that outline exactly what part goes in what position. Every part has a place and every place requires the part that fits.

Writing is much the same. A story is made up of various elements, to include characters, plot, setting… And it’s the details of each of these that are built upon to present the whole picture. A thought here, a bit of dialogue there, the way the wind pushes the curtain or a ticking clock fills a silence.

When my collaborator, Kim Bowman, and I wrote A Lot Like a Lady, we researched the historical details surrounding our chosen time period and our setting. We probably didn’t get it all right but we’re confident that some of it, at least, is as authentic as we could make it. But because of our research and desire to get it right, our writing actually suffered. Kim and I both tend to write in deep third person point of view and we love to show our characters’ emotions to the point where the reader feels them along with the character. We also like to pay attention to details of the setting – not heavy paragraphs loaded with description but a kind of filtering in of the details as the characters (remember in deep third pov) might experience them.

But in the writing of A Lot Like A Lady, it was as if all the research into the history meant something had to be displaced—the filing cabinet was too full and the detail folder slipped to the rear, or the detail tool bar slid to the side and we failed to notice it. So we wrote a good story between us. We knew what things were called, we found the procedures, the hierarchy of nobility, what servants did what…

And then we went to editing. We were thrilled to have one of the best historical fiction analysts out there as our content editor, J. Gunnar Grey. The attention to historical detail Gunnar gives when writing is carried over into the editing field. This was it. Picture Kim and I giving ourselves high fives. Our good story was about to be made better.

And then the sound of a whip cracking could be heard amid the partying.

“What room are they in? Is it light?”

“Does sunlight filter through the window? What does it hit?”

“Do sounds reach the characters from outside?”

“Are there any vases of flowers sitting around? Is the fragrance light and pleasant or overpowering?”  

Page after page of questions like this. Now imagine Kim and I looking at each other in confusion. Did we really write our story and forget all the settings?

The short, and somewhat embarrassing answer here is simply: Yup. We did. At least for the most part our first draft of A Lot Like A Lady had our characters telling their story in a vacuum.

Now, once we were made aware of this by our jewel of an editor, it became a simple matter to do what we both always do—that being to run back through the entire manuscript and filter in the details that show what the characters saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. We added splashes of sunlight and gentle breezes, the scent of lilies, the splash of a brook.

To soften the blow of pointing out our mistake, our editor did, very nicely, tell us that it was obvious we had simply overlooked layering in these details during our first self-edit in our zeal to provide a more historically accurate picture.

Bottom line here? The details make all the difference. We added a few thousand words worth of details and our characters were no longer telling their story in a vacuum.

~Kay

Find A Lot Like A Lady on Amazon, Astraea Press, and Barnes & Noble

So Sweet I Got a Cavity


by Kay Springsteen

Many people know that I write sweet romance, published by Astraea Press. Many times I’ve been asked why. “Why sweet romance?” There seems to be a perception among some people that those who write without graphic depiction of sexual acts or use of cursing are somehow lacking in their writing abilities. Sweet authors often are criticized as writing stories with unrealistic plots and inauthentic language,  and characters who aren’t fully rounded or who have relationships that are not fully developed because they don’t curse or are not shown having sexual relations.

As both a writer of sweet romance, and an editor of sweet romance and YA fiction, I must respectfully disagree with this assessment. When we write “sweet,” we simply take our stories in a different direction from explicit sex, cursing, and graphic violence. There are more and better ways to demonstrate a character’s anger than spewing curse words, which in my opinion are often over-used in some stories to the point where they become numbing and unnoticed, and that leaves the writer with no stronger language to use when the tension builds.

As for the romance and sexual side of that statement… We have plenty of romance in our sweet stories. We simply lean more heavily on the emotional side of the love story than the physical, and our plots don’t particularly revolve around showing sexual gratification. However, not showing explicit sex does not mean writers of sweet romance do not show sexual tension and chemistry. There is far more to romance and the chemistry of love than what is to be found between the sheets and sweet romance authors can and do show this side of the story quite well.

So why do I write sweet? For the same reason some writers write spicy or hot. Because it’s about the story. And some readers simply don’t feel the need or the inclination to follow a couple into the bedroom, and while swearing may be slowly becoming part of everyday life around the world, there still are some people who don’t care to hear or read it. Clean reading is designed for these readers. But it is not necessarily only for such readers.

I don’t feel a book needs to be filled with anything more than a good story to be fully enjoyable. I read many different authors and heat levels. In fact, I have written some steamier books myself, and have been published – I write those things under a pseudonym for the benefit of my readers who have come to appreciate my clean writing – so they will have absolutely no confusion about what they will find between the pages of one of my books. And just as I’ve heard romance authors being criticized for writing steamy bedroom scenes, I have had sweet writing criticized for being “so sweet it causes cavities.”

The thing is…there are certainly enough readers to go around, and as many writers with different ideas of what to include in a story. But no reader should be made to feel like he or she has to skip parts of a book if it carries the potential to offend, just as those with the proclivity for a steamier read should and do have such reading at their fingertips. It really is a matter of to each his own. My only wish is that those who write more explicitly and graphically be allowed to do so without being called smut authors, and for those who write to the sweeter side not be criticized for being unrealistic or boring. As a friend and fellow author once said, “Can’t we all just write?” For me, it’s really all about the story.

Happy Reading!

~Kay (find me on Facebook)

And please check out the Regency romance I co-wrote with Kim Bowman, A Lot Like A Lady

Ladies’ maid, Juliet Baines has gotten herself into a pickle by agreeing to go to London and taking the place of her mistress and best friend, Annabella Price, stepsister to the Duke of Wyndham. After all, what does a servant know about being a lady? But Juliet soon finds that pretending to be a lady isn’t nearly as hard as guarding her heart against the folly of wanting a man who’s completely out of reach.

Graeme “Grey” Roland Dominick Markwythe, Sixth Duke of Wyndham, approaches his duties as a nobleman with great dedication and meticulous care. And he’s a man who is not easily fooled…except when he tries to convince himself he’s not utterly and madly in love with the beautiful imposter who has turned his life upside down. Will society and his responsibilities to his noble status keep him from opening his heart to the woman he loves?

Research and Re-writing History


My very first historical romance, a Regency romance that I co-authored with my pal, Kim Bowman, is due to release tomorrow. A Lot Like A Lady became our passion and took over our lives back in December when we first started plotting and researching. And OH! The research. And more research. And even more research. And as we wrote, we had a kind of ongoing research, which extended even into the editing phase, as our editor, author and historian, J. Gunnar Grey, would ask us to elaborate on scenery and other details that helped make the story. I think at one point, somewhere in the middle of the project, Kim and I wondered if we’d lost our sanity. My own kids asked what was wrong with my speech as I even found myself speaking with the more flowery and formal style of the period.

But finally, we got through the process, and the final result will be available to the public tomorrow. Am I exhausted? Oh, definitely! Writing and editing Lady was more tiring than writing my romantic suspense or my contemporary romance I’ve, even though I research just as much for a novel that takes place today as I did for the Regency romance. But when I research a novel that takes place in the present, I’m researching the familiar using familiar terms. As we researched for the historical, we learned all new names for clothing, lighting, actions. The list is endless. In the end, no doubt we have cast just a bit of our modern shadow on this historical – we were not there in person, and it’s not likely to find a 200-year-old person to interview. But we did write a story that was as true to the time as we could from our research, and we truly hope that those who read it will forgive us any historical inaccuracies and sit back and enjoy reading what we absolutely enjoyed writing.

My advice to writers? Research. Whether it’s historical, contemporary, futuristic, paranormal, alternate reality…research until you can’t do any more research…and then research some more.

A Lot Like A Lady, coming March 27!

Notes From the Editor


By Kay Springsteen

The publishing industry has been through so many changes – with many more still to come – it would be impossible for the old masters, the authors of the typeset era, to recognize some of the requirements for manuscript submission today. When you add in that each publisher has its own specific preferences regarding file format, font type and size, line spacing, and margins, you might see your manuscript go through many variations depending on the number of publishers you submit to.

For submitting, it is best to locate the guidelines for the publisher to whom you are sending your work and follow these to the letter. This is often the author’s first test. If you can’t be bothered to format your document the way their guidelines call for, why should they want to look at your work? Even if you are completely word processor ignorant – that is, you know how to turn on the computer, open the program and begin typing, and you do all that with a sequence of sticky-note instructions – you will still have to learn how to format your document for your chosen publishing target. And, should your story be accepted, you will have to learn to work in the editing phase using track changes and comments. So take a class in Word Processing, my recommendation would be for this class to be in MS Word, since it is the program most called for by publishers.

But there are other things you should be aware of…things that will make your editor particularly pleased (and a happy editor means a happy edit, which makes for a happy author). For instance, be aware of the tools on your word processor. And turn most of them off. I’m editing a manuscript right now which the author wrote with something called smart tags turned on. These are tags that label street names and what Word perceives might be street names and give the writer the option of looking up the street on a map and acquiring directions. There is absolutely no need for this in fiction and it is best left off since it has the potential for creating problems when the manuscript goes for final formatting. Likewise, unless the publisher states otherwise, turn off curly or smart quotes. And since most publishers use first line indent, turn this on, and set it for 0.5 inch from the left. Then ignore your tab key for the rest of the manuscript.

You also want to be careful about using features and fonts that can potentially slow down the reading flow. Emphasize too may words with italics or apologetic (aka “scare”) quotes, and the read will feel choppy and jarring. Put in too many parenthetical statements (with parentheses or with the em/en dash) and your story will appear to have attention deficit disorder. Too many ellipses and you have a slow thoughtful story that hints at long (insert yawn here) pauses. If you want to determine the smoothness of your manuscript, read sections with these formats aloud – even record yourself reading it – and you will get a sense of the pauses and emphases you’ve perhaps unknowingly written in.

These are just a few of the formatting and mechanical issues editors find themselves presented with on a daily basis. But if you work on even one of these things, your editor will require less chocolate to work on your book.

Find Kay on Facebook

The Twisting Tale


by Kay Springsteen

I once had a dog named Hero. His tail was broken in three places before he even left his puppyhood behind because he had been born with tail bones that were on the brittle side. His tail had a natural curl over his back, then it twisted severely to the right, then to the left, and then back toward his rump. He never seemed to feel the breaks when they happened. He kind of just accepted them. One break happened when he was born. The second when he was about 8 weeks old and got it caught in the wires of the puppy pen. The third break we were never sure what happened. We went out for the evening and when we came home, he had another broken place.The twists and turns of his tail became woven into his personality. In the same way, the various twists and turns our stories take become part of the personna of the tale we are telling.

Most people read or write fiction in order to escape into a story that takes us out of our daily lives, and puts us smack in the middle of someone else’s life. Maybe we crave more excitement, maybe we want to forget the fact that our electric bill tripled this month. Either way, without a little creative storytelling, a few unexpected twists to the plot, or breaks in the tail, there is no story to tell. Enter the writer’s friend: The Plot Twist.

Who cares if we can relate because the heroine’s fiance broke up with her? That’s old news, possibly even happened to us once. So honey, suck it up and get on with life. But when the heroine who lost her fiance gets on a plane to track him down in a foreign country, meets a cute but somewhat shady French native. loses her passport, can’t get it replaced, and finds her cute new friend used her luggage to smuggle something through French Customs…THAT’S more exciting. In case you don’t recognize the scenerio, that’s French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. In the same vein, how many Cinderella stories can you tolerate? Who really cares about the hooker on the street corner? But put one on a corner being picked up by an uber-rich hunk of a guy with a brooding nature, who wants to pay for the pleasure of her company for the rest of the week and then falls in love with her…that’s fodder for Hollywood, baby. That’s Pretty Woman. Writers take the mundane, everyday things of life, such as a group of men and women with a passion for fast cars, and spin it into an adventure of street racing, rivalry, murder, and high-stakes highway robbery (The Fast and the Furious).

So what can we, as writers, learn from Hollywood fiction? Everything. Movies are generally 1-1/2 to 2 hours of story with tight dialogue, visual stimulation and interesting plot twists. Watching how the story unfolds via the movie will give you an idea how to tighten your writing, how to develop plot twists.to make them hook the reader/watcher.

What drives your story, the characters or the plot? How do you decide where your story will take the reader and how? Do you plan the overall plot, the subplots, and the various twists ahead of time? How do you make sure the story flows without becoming too cumbersome?

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“Tag! You’re It!”


by Kay Springsteen

If you were a director, or producer, would you make a movie that was nothing but a blank screen and a bunch of people talking? Maybe every once in a while a light would come on and show who was speaking so people wouldn’t lose track. Would that help?

How about a book? Would you write a book that was nothing but dialogue with an occasional “said John” or “Jane said,” tossed in?

Your characters have a lot to say. And it’s up to you to sort through it all and help them say it. Now, as the story teller, the writer has a fair idea of how things are unfolding. The writer hears it as the character is saying it, sees it happening as the character does it. The writer knows what the characters feel, what they think, what plans they may be making. The reader has only the knowledge the writer imparts. So a writer may have a firm grasp of the scene, but the reader starts out with absolutely no clue.And that’s where the writer’s job come in. The writer advances the story through action, thinking, dialogue, and narrative, all wound up into a presentable package that the readers shouldn’t want to put down until they get to the last page.

To set up mood in a scene, there is nothing better than action. Clenching fists, punching a wall, stalking away — great demonstrations of anger. Biting fingernails, lip chewing, fidgeting in the seat, shuffling from one foot to the other — great depictions of nervousness. The author can use dialogue here as well. “Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m not sure I want to.”

In the past, extensive use of dialogue tags and adjectives conveyed the tone to the reader. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded angrily. The most recent trend has been to eliminate all but the most common dialogue tags and to limit the use of adjectives, especially those ending in -ly. In the light of this trend, how can the writer make certain the emotions are communicated? With the tag and the adjective eliminated, we have the simple statement: “Where do you think you’re going?” The words themselves show a possible degree of firmness. If two people are in an argument and this statement is used, there is little doubt the words are said with at least a somewhat angry tone. But to emphasize it, the writer has the option of inserting an action. Actions, when used in passages with dialogue are the punctuation that explains the emotion. “Where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed her arm and jerked her back against him. “Where do you think you’re going?” He slapped his palm on the door and slammed it shut before she got it all the way open.

But what if the tone is not meant to be angry? “Where do you think your’e going?” he asked playfully. Take off the tag and the adjective and add an action and the picture becomes crystal clear. “Where do you think you’re going?” With a chuckle, he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her back into his embrace, tickling her until she burst into helpless laughter.

The actions in your story give the readers a visual to go with the audio they are reading. Combining action in dialogue passages not only keeps the reader immersed in the story but also keeps the story from becoming stagnant and motionless.

The F-Bomb and Other Manuscript Intrusions


I write mainly sweet romance and I enjoy doing so. I do, however, read a mixture of books at a variety of graphic levels. I ask of the books I read only that they make sense and that the elements included be present to show characterization or to move the story forward. When something is placed in a story simply because it’s a trend the writer appears to be cashing in on, it becomes obvious to me, and it detracts from the story. This is true in terms of sexual explicitness, graphic language, and even paranormal elements.

Characterizing a hero or heroine as a sailor-style cursing fiend doesn’t mean that you have to demonstrate every graphic curse in thought or dialogue. In fact, a few peppered words will leave a greater impact on the reader than if every page is filled with cursing. The F-bomb I’m referring to in this case isn’t the one you might be thinking of. It’s F-requency. If you use a word or type of word too frequently, the reader will begin to gloss over it and when you need it to increase the meaning or signal increased tension/danger/heat, you won’t have anything left. This holds true whether your character uses graphic cursing or fluffy words.

I’ve often seen questions from other writers – How much is too much ___ (insert topic)? They are looking for the easy formula. How far can they go in sexually explicit scenes? How much foul language can they include? All publishers have guidelines. These range from very strict to fairly lax. So the easy answer to these questions is know the publisher you’re aiming at.

On a personal level, however, in my capacity as a writer, crit partner, and editor (at two very different publishing houses), as well as in my role as a reader, the best advice I can give a writer is to develop your writing skills so as not to rely too heavily on any one element in your craft. Learn how to show the rough side of your hero without having every other word out of his mouth be the F-bomb (the original meaning). Learn how to show the sensual side of your heroine without having her lose her clothing at every turn. Unless the story is completely about sex, sprinkling some sexual tension throughout the book is great but pages and pages of sexual encounter between two mutually attracted cops while the bad guys are out robbing banks does nothing for your story. When you do have a hot scene to include, the one that counts (that is, the one that shows the change in relationship between the hero and heroine) will have much greater impact if you haven’t written five of them previously in the same story.

And lest folks think I’m picking on the more graphic genres, anything can be overused. It doesn’t have to be those elements which lead a story to be classified as high heat or graphic language. Comedy can miss the mark when used too frequently. Convenient coincidence can be too convenient. Too much mystery can leave a reader with too much confusion.

Remember, the F-requency Bomb is not your friend. Overuse of any story element only creates boredom in the minds of your readers. Be creative in the way you show things, and always be on the lookout for the next trend YOU can set.

Happy writing, happy reading!

The Thumper Rule


Mark Twain

by Kay Springsteen

Three rules in life get me by. The first is The Thumper Rule (“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The second is The Mark Twain Rule (also known as the anti-moron rule: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”). And the third is the Common Sense Rule: If you don’t like it, don’t look.

The above was part of a response I gave on the blog of a family member, and about an entirely different subject than I’m about to discuss. However, as I was preparing my article, it was my memory of these words that kept surfacing.

Have you ever made an impulse purchase of a stranger’s book? Maybe it was on sale and you picked it up on a whim. You may have paid 99 cents or $1.99, and you took a chance, not knowing anything about the author, never having read anything by him or her…but the blurb intrigued you enough to make the purchase.

And from the first page, you hated the book, maybe even didn’t finish it. If you had plucked the book off the reduced rack at Barnes & Noble or the endcap of the book aisle at Walmart, would you have found a way to review the book? To tell others far and wide to stay away from this book because you felt it was shoddily written and the author shouldn’t quit his/her day job?

Most people probably wouldn’t go out of their way to post a review of a physical book. At most, we might say to a friend, “Man, I read a terrible book I just picked up at the store.” Out of all my friends and family, I can honestly say, no one has ever said to me, “I just bought a horrible book.” I have, on the other hand occasionally heard these same people say things like, “I just read a fantastic book—you should get it.”

For some reason, I’m noticing the opposite is true regarding reviews of books purchased on line. Actually, more than just books, but since I’m a writer and this is a blog about books, I’ll stick to that. Sales sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others encourage book ratings and reviews. And some of the reviews I’ve read on these sites range from glowing to downright mean—sometimes about the same book. You can chalk a lot of the glowing ones up to possibly being from friends and family trying to help the author out—even thought that is NOT necessarily the case.

But what’s with the mean reviews? Do readers really feel the need to warn fellow readers away from a book because it’s “that bad”? When I read reviews that stress “not worth the money,” or “don’t waste your time,” I admit to feeling a bit surprised. Obviously the book made SOME impression on the reader if he/she took the time to go to Amazon and write even a short review. But truly, what is the motivation behind a bad review that is not only bad but delivered in an unkind manner with no explanation of why the reviewer didn’t like the book? I’ve taken to clicking on “see all my reviews” on some of the more cruel reviews and have been outright shocked to find that quite often the reviewer in question ONLY writes 1-star reviews with a mean-spirited feel to their words. I’m going to leave you all to draw your own conclusions about that because I don’t understand it myself—there could be any number of motivating factors for such behavior but I can’t condone any of the reasons I can think up for being mean about a review.

The key words in any review are often not even written – “in my opinion.” And yet that’s all reviews are—the opinions of our readers. As authors we’re advised to enjoy the good reviews and let the bad ones roll off our backs. It’s not always easy, since sometimes there seems to be no rationale behind the low scores. But you know what?

As a READER who also writes and sometimes reviews, I try to recognize that what I like or don’t like may not be what someone else likes or

Thumper, what does your father say?

doesn’t. So if I found a story lacking to the point where I can only give it 1-2 stars out of 5, I apply the Thumper Rule (see above).  I do this as a courtesy to a fellow writer—rather than throw them over the cliff and dash them on the rocks below, I simply don’t comment. I do this whether I know the person or not because I believe just because a particular book is not MY PERSONAL cup of tea, someone else may not feel like that.

And while some reviewers may rationalize that they are compelled to give 1-2 star reviews so others will not waste time and money, I invite them to show some compassion and explain their reasons with their opinions for two reasons: (1) So the author can get some quality feedback, and (2) so other readers can decide for themselves whether what you found to be an impediment to your enjoyment will be a problem for them.

How about you? Do you review books? Do you have a personal review policy?

Kay is an author of edgy-sweet romance, a Sr. Editor at Astraea Press and part of the editorial staff at Secret Cravings Publishing. Find her on Facebook.

Breaking Through Like the Boss


By Kay Springsteen

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…Or is it something worse?” ~Bruce Springsteen, The River

Bruce Springsteen has long been an iconic superstar in the music business. You might love his music or hate it, but you know who he is and more than likely you’ll recognize at least one of his songs. Born in New Jersey in 1949, he had a life that was fraught with many of the elements and tensions other kids his age grew up with. But instead of letting his family angst get the better of him, he used the emotions he experienced in his music. It wasn’t immediately accepted. Before he made it to the big time with his particular blend of music, he played the bar circuit. His popularity grew and he had moderate success in his early career.

And then he wrote an emotion-packed, story-song that Springsteen refers to as: “A breakthrough song for me. It was in the detail.” The song he refers to is “The River,” and it was based on conversations he’d had with his brother-in-law after the man lost his construction job and was struggling to support his wife and child. The wedding in the song refers to Springsteen’s sister and brother-in-law, who married young. The exquisite attention to the small details and the seamless way Springsteen presented them in the song told an emotional story that haunts the listener in the same way as the broken dreams and faded memories he sings about in the song.

As writers of fiction, we struggle with our creations, too. What to include, what to leave out. How much does the reader need to know? We may have had some moderate successes but maybe we haven’t hit The New York Times top ten yet. So in the meantime, we learn things and practice them…we hone our craft.

It’s no surprise to me that Springsteen’s breakthrough song was “The River.” When Springsteen states the success is in the details, he may have been speaking of all the emotional minutiae of the story that he told from beginning to end—not only did he tell a story but the song conveyed the feelings of sadness and frustration and the longing for happier times. He did this quite well with the words. But he also did it with the way the song is paced, which is, in itself, a detail. The verses that speak of the ongoing story itself are slow and carry a sad flavor. But with the mention of the river and all the carefree memories and sense of youth the river represents, the tempo of the song picks up to a livelier and happier beat.

As romance readers, we feel anxiety to get to the heart of the story, to see the couple come together that first time in a kiss, or a caress in the moonlight. We are restless, wanting to see them work through their issues and come to an understanding. Depending on the heat level we read, we might want the big reveal love scene. Knowing these things are ahead of us is part of what keeps us turning the pages of the book and reading the story.

As romance writers, it is a struggle to not simply skip the preliminary dancing around the mat and get to the center of the ballroom for the big dance. After all, we know what we want when we’re reading a book – to get to the meat of the story. So why not start at the meat and heat?

When we read over our own creation, however, maybe it seems to fall a little flat. It doesn’t produce that same desire to keep turning the page. We may lament and wonder why it doesn’t flow as smoothly or what it’s missing. When I’m asked this question as an editor, the answer in almost every case is the same. The writer moved the couple from encounter to encounter, and gave nothing in between these interactions to show who they are, what’s happening to them as individuals, and what is keeping them apart.

The answer is in the details. Some details the reader needs to know. And some details are part of the overall story. If you leave these out, you risk unbalancing the story. Is it still a make-up love scene if you omit the fight that sets up the need to make up? What to use or leave out is all in the detail of pacing. If you don’t lead your readers along a trail of fear and trepidation, or allow them to remember when they used to be happy, give them a taste of future happiness…if you don’t take the time to build the chemistry between the couple through evoking emotional responses in the readers, when you get to the love scene, you’re shortchanging those readers by showing them just another day in the life of a romantic couple. You’ve removed the C from the GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict), and reduced your readers to nothing more than voyeurs in the lives of ordinary loving couples.

If I could offer new romance authors one bit of advice, it would be to build chemistry between your main characters by setting a pace that will at once interest and frustrate your readers. The balance is tough because you don’t want to send your readers into tearing out their hair saying “get to it already.” But the romantic aspect needs to follow a reasonable progression of time and events. Not only that, but it must take a few back steps that also follow reason. Consider this romance you’re portraying like a sword fight, to include dancing (around the subject), engaging (sometimes nicely, sometimes with a sharp edge to the tongue), parrying (giving back as good as they get), and, well…you get the picture. I promise if you build slowly and evenly, rather than diving headlong into the kissing and sexing, when you finally get your reader there, the explosion of emotion will make an unforgettable read.

It really is in the details – what to include and not include…all the elements that drive the pace.

~Kay (storyteller, editor, and romantic at heart)