How to Use Your Travels to Make Your Story Sparkle

Rachel Magee~ By Rachel Magee

Vacations. We all love them. Just the sound of the word can bring stress relief. We plan, research, save for and dream about them all year long. And when the time gets near, we go shopping, buy new outfits and struggle to cram them all into our over-stuffed suitcases. No? Just me? Well, moving on, then.

If you’re anything like me, you’re never truly on vacation from writing. I may get away from the norm, but my creative mind is always spinning. Vacations fill me with inspiration for new stories or ideas for my current WIP. More than once, I have come home from a trip with a new story completely plotted from beginning to end, or with a scene written out in beautiful detail that had previously stumped me. One time, I had so many ideas for a new novel I spent the entire three-hour fight home scribbling out plot points and character profiles on a stack of index cards. When we landed, the man next to me commented that he hadn’t seen anyone write that fast or that much in a long time. My cramped hand had to agree.

All those precious vacation moments can affect your writing in two different ways. Itcan affect how you, as the writer, write. Or, you can use those tasty travel tidbits to send your characters on vacay. We’ll explore both ways, but first let’s talk about you, the writer.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture your last vacation. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Can you see yourself there, standing in the middle of a scene worthy of being captured on a picture post card, doing what you love, relaxed and invigorated at the same time? Those are the moments, memories and feelings that can fuel your writing. Here are a few ways you can incorporate them in your writing.

  • Seductive Settings. Readers want to be whisked away, and what is a better place to take them than someplace near and dear to your heart? If you don’t want to set your next novel entirely in your last vacation destination, try incorporating elements into whatever setting you do use. A favorite restaurant you tried or a beautiful garden you visited can be great inspirations to add to your settings.
  • Capture the Culture. One thing I love doing on vacation is exploring the culture of the place I’m visiting. I love the little nuances that make every place unique. Recently, I was visiting family in the Florida Keys. I love it down there, everyone is a little more relaxed. They have an unofficial shoes-optional policy. It’s not uncommon to spot locals hanging out in Starbucks or running into the grocery store with bare feet. No one is ever in a hurry, unless the fish are biting. Then they can’t get their boats into the Gulf Stream fast enough. Use these little nuances to create deeper, richer, more interesting characters, or to influence how your characters react in different settings.
  • Making Memories. Did you come home from your last trip with a crazy story? Use it! My books are full of slightly altered versions of crazy things that happened on vacation, and they are usually the scenes that readers say they love the most. Which scenes, you ask? Nope, not telling. But if you think ‘that could not happen,’ there’s a good chance it probably did. Sometimes our best inspiration comes from things that happen in real life.
  • Enriching Experiences.  Experiencing new things expands your world knowledge and broadens your understanding which, in turn, can make you a more interesting writer. Consider every new experience you try to be research for a future novel. Sure, you’re not going to use everything you do in your next manuscript, but add it to your memory bank to use when you need it. Even if all you did on vacation was veg by pool with the intention of keeping your step-count as low as possible, that state of ultimate relaxation can be an experience you might want to pull from someday.

hat and shoes on beachDon’t forget that your characters can benefit from travel, too. Having your characters pack their suitcases, or even their overnight bags, can add an interesting element to your story. Consider how sending your characters on a getaway could affect your story:

  • Taking them out of their norm can changes their mindset, shift the relationship dynamics, or help them see things differently.
  • New experiences can play an important role in your character’s arc. It can be the spark that prompts change.
  • A romantic getaway, or a getaway that turns romantic, can be just what your characters need to jump into that relationship. I mean, we do write romance, after all.

I’m going to leave you with a few helpful tips to harvest the most benefits from your travels.

  • Take pictures. They can help you remember not just the details of the settings, but the feelings that went along with them.
  • Keep a journal to jot down your thoughts. 
  • Enjoy yourself! The more fun you have, the more experience and memories you have to take home.

So, what do you think? Anyone else ready to book their next vacation? It’s all in the name of research, after all. Happy travels!

Rachel wrote her first novel when she was twelve and entered it into a contest for young author/illustrators. Unfortunately, the judges weren’t impressed with her stick figures. So she dropped the dream of becoming a world famous illustrator and stuck to spinning stories. When she’s not busy working on her latest book, she loves to travel with her family and friends. By far, her favorite destination is the beach, which tends to work its way into most of her stories. In fact, her debut novel, Happily Ever Afters, is about strangers who meet and fall in love while on vacation.

Between trips, you can find her at home in The Woodlands, TX with her wonderful husband, their two adventurous kids and a couple of spirited pets, all of whom share Rachel’s love of the ocean. Well, except the cat and dog. They’re both afraid of water. Find out more about what Rachel has been up to at

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2017, Shakespeare, and a Dose of Inspiration

rebeccagraceallen~ By Rebecca Grace Allen

Let’s be brutally honest here: 2016 totally stunk. As a writer and, well, a human, I struggled on every level. My creativity shuddered to a halt. I hit a massive writers block. My relationships suffered. I gained ten pounds. There were times when I wondered why I was doing this whole writing thing in the first place. Then I remembered, it’s because there are stories bubbling up inside me that I have to tell. Stories that I hope will be timeless, ones that will live on beyond me. And sometimes, to write that kind of timeless tale, I need a little inspiration.

Sometimes I find that inspiration in Shakespeare.

I saw my first live Shakespeare performance when I was 14, in a black box theater in Manhattan. I immediately fell in love—with the language, the costumes, the drama, and how the themes of betrayal, corruption, deception and love still rang true today. In high school English class, I adored reading Hamlet while everyone else rolled their eyes at the iambic pentameter. I became an English major in college, and rushed to enroll in a Shakespeare course, dutifully carrying my 2057 page, coffee-stained Riverside Shakespeare around campus. (I also went to a school where a lot of student-run events took place in a building named Falstaff’s. Eat, drink and be merry, anyone?)

These days, I don’t crack open that old Riverside (which, yes, I still have) all that often, but I do watch movie versions. And I’m still amazed at the timelessness of the stories, the classic romance and angst, and how we continue to make his work relevant by creating modern adaptations of it. So I thought I’d share some of my favorite modern-ish adaptations:

West Side Story (1961)

It’s not modern, but it’s the best variation on Romeo and Juliet in my opinion. (Don’t get me started on the Baz Lurhamn version *shudders*.) The idea of putting those star-crossed lovers from rival families into warring gangs and setting it all to music was just brilliant. As an aside, I once performed in an adaptation called South Shore Story, where the North Shore conservative Jews of Long Island were foes of the South Shore Reformed ones. “I feel frummy, oh so frummy...”

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

This one isn’t a modern take at all, but rather what I consider a perfect portrayal of exactly what The Bard intended. The performances are perfect—I heart Kenneth Branagh’s “Love meeeee! Why?” Plus it’s got Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington and Robert Sean Leonard.

Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

I’ve always loved this comedy of errors, and the idea of characters falling in love with the wrong characters only to finally end up with the right ones. That’s what romance is made of, right? And with Kevin Kline as Bottom and Stanley Tucci as Puck, how can you go wrong?

Hamlet (2000)

Modern setting, techno music, classic language, and Ethan Hawke. Did I mention Ethan Hawke? Oh, and yeah, Ethan Hawke.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

This modern version of the Taming of the Shrew will always be one of my favorites. Classic 90’s. Classic Shakespeare. And Classic *sigh* Heath Ledger.


Now in 2017, I think of myself, and all the rest of us writers, contributing to the collective cannon of literature. It’s a tough time in the world out there, and I know now, more than ever, we creative types have to keep creating. After all, it wasn’t easy in Shakespeare’s time—bear-bating and no indoor plumbing!—and he kept writing. We can keep writing, too.

Rebecca Grace Allen writes sweet, sexy and soul searching romance, emphasis on the sexy! A caffeine addict, gym rat, wife, and fur-mommy, she lives in upstate New York with her husband, two parakeets, and cat with a very unusual foot fetish. Her newest release, TAMING SUGAR, is a modern day, BDSM, Taming of the Shrew, and releases on January 19, 2017.

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Diving Back Into My World

melinafive~ By Melina Kantor Note: This post was written in August, 2016.  Confession: A few days ago, I opened my WIP for the first time in. . . Well, I don't know how long it had been. But let's just say it had been long enough that when the document opened, I swear I heard a creak. Like all of us, I've been busy with a lot of regular life stuff (new rescue puppy, busy schedule, etc). But busy I can handle. What's hard is that I now write for my day job, and after work I just can't look at a screen, much less force my brain to produce yet more words. So what changed a few days ago? Well, I've been in research mode lately, looking for details to spice up last year's NaNoWriMo project. It doesn't hurt that I'm currently visiting my family in Crete, where the book (and the two books that come before it), take place. Having extra time to write has helped, but what's helped even more is living in the non-fictional version of the world of this trilogy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: World building is just as important in contemporary romance as it is in fantasy and science fiction. For readers, it's the little details that make the world of a book relatable and believable. For writers, those same little details of our imagined worlds can keep us connected to our stories and spark our imaginations even we're not actively writing. And yes, while the vacation photos I'm about to subject you to are from somewhere exotic, I could make the same point with photos from my own neighborhood. Here are some of the powerful little details that have helped me jump back into my world.


Greece being Greece, the book naturally has a lot of scenes with food. One of my characters, after having been away from Greece for six years, returns and is served snails. In the original scene, that's it. A relative is cooking snails. But thanks to an actual experience in my cousin's kitchen, the scene now has the added flare of a snail climbing out of the pot.


And about the snails, they were collected in the mountains after heavy rains (no, I couldn't bring myself to eat any, though I've been told that I'm missing out). I also realized that I have a scene where a character is served wine. When I was recently served wine, it occurred to me that I'd forgotten to mention the traditional copper pitcher.


Then, to my delight, I got my hands on some family recipes, including the recipe for a cake that appears in the opening scene of the second book of the trilogy.


Around the Village

In my fictional world, the village bakery is owned by protagonist Katerina's family.

Here's the real thing, complete with dakos.




On a whim, I decided to tell the real-life baker that I was writing a book about a Cretan bakery and asked if I could look in the back. She gave me a quick tour, but wouldn't allow photos.

Still, I now have a better idea of what I'm writing about.

Then there's the village museum, old church and school where protagonist Evi spends time with Mathaios.

IMG_3142 IMG_3146 IMG_3151

Whenever I pass through the area, I feel like they're going to show up.

(Note the retsina bottles in the museum window. I haven't decided how to work that into the story, but the possibilities are endless.)

The Beach

Let's not forget the beach. My characters spend a lot of time there, doing yoga, drinking frappe, taking boat rides, swimming, etc.

IMG_3124 IMG_3057 IMG_3133 IMG_3521

Enough said.

The Donkeys

All three books revolve around a fictionalized version of a donkey sanctuary that's in the mountains right above the village. While I was writing the drafts, all I had to go on was the sanctuary's Facebook page. But now I can say that I've actually been there and I've fallen in love with the donkeys and the rescue dogs. IMG_3314 IMG_3356 13166005_10207561755415516_5222794573132564215_n Because I've learned what it feels like to hug a donkey (they're so dirty and fly-covered, but it's worth it), I must, must, must rewrite a few of the scenes. I also visited the sanctuary's gift shop, which they use for fundraising. Some of my characters paint rocks and knit toy donkeys, and now my descriptions will be more authentic. IMG_3359 IMG_3360 IMG_3457 IMG_3459 As an added bonus, on the way home from the sanctuary, I got to visit a farmer who picked fruit for us and introduced us to his animals. IMG_3430 IMG_3402 IMG_3413 IMG_3417   My books are already filled with goats (and sheep, “and stuff”), but now I have this experience to draw on. I can't wait!

The Bees

The second book of the trilogy involves complicated scenes involving beekeeping. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the village beekeeper gives workshops and was thrilled to answer my many questions. 14051625_10208326681538191_7412875337126664034_n14051632_10208326667377837_8137894373846029079_n 14095799_10208326672177957_7987520462519058911_n 13907016_10208326676298060_6847223864717613641_n  13938564_10208326673257984_528589258876330168_n14045737_10208326670457914_4757292418618400564_n                 In Greek, my name means honeybee. Sorry about the silly selfie, but here I am in front of "my name."


The beekeeper is anxiously waiting to read my books, which may have something to do with the fact that I promised to put him in the acknowledgments.

Whatever the reason, I appreciate the pressure.

The Pretty

Lastly, I'll leave you with some random but pretty village pictures that are rotating as my desktop wallpaper as inspiration. IMG_3483 IMG_3531 IMG_3478 IMG_3475 IMG_3474

Now What?

I know that most of my writing won't happen here, but I'm thankful that I've got my photos, my souvenirs, and my memories to keep me going once I leave. I've also got YouTube, so I can close my eyes and pretend I'm there. (Cretan music sounds nothing like "Zorba." It's its own genre.) There you have it! Let's give the science fiction and fantasy writers a run for their money. If you need some inspiration, take some time to build your world. Take or find photos (even make a collage), listen to music (even create a playlist), bake (smell and taste are surprisingly powerful), or do whatever it takes to dive head first into your contemporary yet fictional world.

* How do you build your world? Leave a comment and let us know! 

Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy. You can visit her at  

The 5 Podcasts to Inspire and Motivate Every Writer

Liat Behr~ By Liat Behr

Podcasts are a hands-free way to learn new things, especially when you’re on the go. Think of them are your own personal radio show, custom-tailored to both your interests and time-slot. If you aren’t yet listening to them, you should be.

Here are my favorite 4 podcasts that will inspire and motivate every writer.

Magic Lessons With Elizabeth Gilbert

You don’t necessarily have to be a writer to enjoy this podcast. But you do have to be an artist - or one who embraces a creative life.

This podcast is #1 on my list for writers, because as writers we all know what it is to become stuck; we can’t write, we fill with self-loathing, we feel empty, vapid and don’t believe in our creative abilities.These feelings weigh us down and pull us into a downward vortex from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. But it’s Elizabeth Gilbert to the rescue. Through her Magic Lessons podcast, and her interviews with amateur writers, artists and even experts, we’re better able to understand the process of creativity which helps us learn to be more patient with ourselves and ultimately helps us crawl out from the depths of despair and triumph to the pinnacles of our creativity.

The Creative Penn

The Creative Penn is the inspiring and motivating podcast from author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn. It sometimes takes time for Joanna to actually start the interview because she very sweetly acknowledges her listeners’ comments on social media - usually Twitter (so, yes, if you enjoy the podcast take the time to let Joanna know - @thecreativepenn). But when Joanna does get to the podcast, it’s sheer value. You will always learn something new. Joanna meets with different guests -authors, entrepreneurs and other creatives, and together they tackle discussions on the writing process, writing techniques, nifty tools, tips and other helpful information that will inspire and motivate you to become more efficient, productive and better writer.

This Portfolio Life

earbuds in vaseThis Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins is  another podcast for creatives, not necessarily writers. But it’s definitely a podcast every writer needs to be listening to.

The crux of the podcast is that as creatives our portfolio consists of many different activities. And that to be a successful creative you must consistently create. So you may writing in addition to creating images (if you’re a photographer or graphic designer) and blogging and travelling - or any number of different things that make up your life. Jeff Goins, master blogger and writer chats with creatives to learn how they’re making a living from their life’s portfolio, talks about their passions and struggles. Listening to this podcast you’ll gain insight and perspective into making your work and our world more rich and exciting.

Writing Excuses 

Writing Excuses is the podcast with the most comic tagline - “fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not smart.” The real reason that Writing Excuses is short (a bit longer than 15 minutes but not usually longer than 25) is because listening to this podcast is a great writing excuse - but it’s a short writing excuse to remind you that you took a break from writing only to get back to it with renewed energy. Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler are knowledgeable, intelligent, and entertaining. They do their listeners a great service by discussing different elements of the story - what works and what doesn’t, conducting great interviews, and fielding questions from their audience - but not all at the same time. You can however consistently count on them for a thoughtful and inspiring prompt as well as a book recommendation.


Longform was recommended to me by my friend and columnist Tiffanie Wen. It’s a podcast of compelling conversations with journalists, authors and editors. At times it  focuses on reporting experiences, other times it will give you a rich insider’s view of the writing life. Alternating Longform hosts Aaron Lammer, Max Linsky and Evan Ratliff are skilled interviewers. And every single time you finish listening to this podcast, you will walk away feeling fascinated, excited and inspired to keep writing. Because though the writer’s life is not a glamorous one, it is exciting and authentic living that will always lead to surprises.

I know I said 4, but here’s a bonus podcast from Melina (aka Melissa):

How Story Works

How Story Works, hosted by author and teacher Lani Diane Rich, is just one of the many podcasts produced by Chipperish Media. Any podcast from Chipperish will spark your imagination, improve your craft, and teach you about story. But How Story Works delivers bite-sized writing tips and answers your burning questions about storytelling in a straight to the point format. Note: While you're checking out Chipperish Media, grab a drink and listen to Will Write for Wine, the podcast that started Lani's podcasting empire. You'll learn as much about craft as you would from graduate school, but you'll laugh your heart out while you're studying. Trust me.

* Do you listen to podcasts? Which have helped you? *

Liat Behr is a copywriter, novelist, and blogger. When she's not writing she's either reading, learning a new skill or listening to a podcast. Her evening hours are devoted to her family who love her pizza and sushi but hate just about everything else. You can visit her on her blog - The Behr Truth at

Where I Get My Hero-spiration, a.k.a. The Top Ten Reasons Why I Love Supernatural

Rebecca Grace Allen~ By Rebecca Grace Allen I have been a fangirl of the CW’s Supernatural for years. If you don’t watch the show, or never got past some of the more gory, monster-of-the-week episodes, I am sad for you, because in my opinion, it’s one of the best-written shows out there. It’s about Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who hunt all things evil in an attempt to save the world. Played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, the two characters were the inspiration for my heroes in the first two Portland Rebels books. Want to know why the two of them are worthy of Hero-spiration (or just why Supernatural rocks the Casbah)? Here are my top ten reasons:

1. Sam without a shirt on.

(I could stop here, because seriously, do you need more reasons than that?) Sam

 2. Dean’s expressions.

Dean is the soldier of the two brothers, powering through no matter what, but he’s also the comic relief. And whether he’s smiling, laughing or crying, Dean makes some of the best faces out there. I sometimes work on writing down the way he looks to practice how characters express emotion. Check out this Buzzfeed post of the top 25 Swoonworthy Dean faces.

3. Real men do cry.

Sam and Dean are some of the toughest characters out there. They’ve lost both their parents, as well as their pseudo father figure Bobby Singer. They have both literally been to hell and back.  Everything in their worlds wrecks them, so when their emotions break lose, these guys aren’t afraid to cry.  And their beautiful crying faces motivate me to write characters whose sadness breaks through in the same way.

Sam and Dean

4. Smexin.

This show has some of the most incredible made-for-TV sex scenes I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for some hot and heavy inspiration, here’s Sam and Ruby. You’re welcome.

5. Angels watching porn.

Sam and Dean are both befriend by the angel Castiel in season four, and many of their adventures with Cas have him trying to understand human behavior. I’m always struggling to put a bit of comedy in my books—they’re usually extremely angsty—so I’m always looking for comic inspiration. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything funnier than an angel trying to understand porn. [embed],h_227,w_400/t_mp_quality_gif/rhj7niisngg9p1npxwdw/5-simple-reasons-we-love-supernatural-365681.webm[/embed]

6. A seriously badass soundtrack.

AC/DC to Iron Maiden, Metallica to Led Zeppelin, and even nabbing Kansas’ “Carry on My Wayward Son” as the theme song, Supernatural is a classic rock lover’s dream. I’ve often pulled songs from it for some of my writing playlists. Even the actors rock out to it.

7. Awesome pop culture references.

While the overarching theme of the show is on the dark side, many of the episodes are on the lighthearted side, and the writers are always poking fun at pop culture. This doesn’t necessarily help with my writing in anyway, but it is pretty entertaining! Season 6, episode five is about vampires and is titled “Live Free or Twihard.” One of my favorite episodes, “The French Mistake” has Sam and Dean magically appearing in a world where Supernatural is an actual TV show.  There is also more than an occasional reference to the Back to the Future movies. (Thanks to Buzzfeed for this awesome side-by-side comparison.)

8. The concept of brotherhood.

I don’t have any siblings, which makes it challenging to write about both sibling rivalry and the bond that exists between brothers. Supernatural has both in spades. Sam and Dean often poke fun at one another, but they will also do absolutely anything for one another. They literally have died for one another. (And come back to life afterward several times over– yay for TV’s reality-bending rules!) Nothing is more important to these two than family, and the actors are really like brothers in real life, which I love. Here they are at Jared’s wedding.

 9. “Wink wink, nudge nudge” moments.

The writers are always putting in little mentions to current events which break across that fourth wall, such as this awesome line from Crowley, the King of Hell, in Season 11, episode 22.  He’s another character you can be inspired by, because he’s a villain and a bit of comic relief all rolled up into one with a lovely accent to boot.

10. Jared’s always keep fighting campaign.

Recently, Jared admitted to suffering from depression, and has now become very vocal about it with his Always Keep Fighting Campaign. I’m always impressed when any celebrity speaks up for mental illness, and in recent months, he has spearheaded a bunch of fundraisers. Other cast members from Supernatural have gotten on board with his campaigns as well. If all that’s not enough to get you watching, and maybe gaining some hero-spiration of your own, I don’t know what is. Check back with me this November after I go to my first Supernatural Con! Rebecca Grace Allen writes sweet, sexy and soul searching romance, emphasis on the sexy! She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with a double concentration in Creative Writing and Literary Comparison, as well as a Master of Science in Elementary Education, both of which seemed like good ideas at the time. After stumbling through careers in entertainment, publishing, law and teaching, she’s returned to her first love: writing. A self-admitted caffeine addict and gym rat, she lives in upstate New York with her husband, two parakeets, and a cat with a very unusual foot fetish. Her new release, The Theory of Deviance, is out on August 2, 2016.

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My Five Gifts to Aspiring Writers

Marilyn Brant--author photo~ By Marilyn Brant  Note: This post originally appeared here Dear Aspiring Writer: A recent conversation I had with a multi-published novelist friend made me think of you...and how difficult, stressful and frequently frustrating it is to break into this "challenging" (read: "OMG, it's so chaotic and insane...why do we DO this to ourselves?!") industry. How we need so much emotional bolstering and moral support (and, also, boxes of chocolate truffles and pitchers of margaritas...) from friends and family to see beyond the soul-crushing rejections or reviews, the steep learning curves, the unpredictable publishing changes and the banquet of fear/insecurity/self-doubt that this particular calling creates. I know what you're dealing with out there. Really. I do. My author friend and I were aspiring writers together a decade ago, and we still help each other remember that long, arduous climb toward getting any kind of professional feedback, agent interest, editor requests and -- eventually -- publishing contracts. And, yes, the industry has changed, and we all have digital opportunities that didn't exist just a few years ago, but that doesn't mean the roadblocks and the aggravations have all disappeared. They haven't. Not even when you're published by a New York house. Or the winner of a big literary award. Or the #1 placeholder on some kind of coveted list. But, while I could devote a lengthy, meandering post to how hard it is to get published and stay that way (or to self publish and gain discoverability), I will, instead, pull out my magical fairy wand -- just a little trinket I picked up over spring break -- and bestow upon you what I think are the FIVE GREATEST GIFTS a writer could ever have. None can be purchased, lost or stolen. And none require anyone else's consent to possess them. So, Aspiring Writer, these are for you:

1. Persistence

Yes, rejection sucks. It sucks for everybody. You can pout for a day or two (want some Belgian chocolate? a grande margarita?), but then you need to revise your manuscript if there's room for improvement -- and, let's face it, there usually is -- and submit the damn thing again. How many times? Well, IMO, until you get the answer you want to hear.

2. A Killer Work Ethic

Be responsible. Get done what you say you're going to do. Or, to quote the wisdom of one of my favorite fortune cookies: "Always over-deliver & under-promise. (Lucky Numbers: 28, 29, christmas-xmas-gifts-presents-large16, 52, 38, 14)" It's stunning how often people don't follow through. Unless a family or health crisis prevents you -- because, on rare occasion, there ARE legitimate reasons for not finishing a project on time -- show how incredible you are by not being a slacker.

3. Creative Thinking

There will be moments when readers won't get your story's humor (trust me on this) or like your "unusual premise" or relate to your offbeat characters/plot/narrative style. Still, don't play it safe and write something that doesn't have a shread of risk in it. Use your imagination. You're special. It'strue, you REALLY are. Show us your unique vision in some way.

4. Optimism

Yes, rejection sucks. It sucks for everybody. (Do you hear an echo?) I'm not advocating rampant Pollyanna-ism. It's useful to see the world as realistically as you're able...BUT, there's no need to be the Loudest and Most Insistent Voice of Doom in the Tri-State either. You're allowed to grumble sometimes. (Though, if at all possible, try to avoid tactless ranting on social-media sites, okay?) But then, if there's any kind of a bright side or silver lining to be found, please try to find it. It'll most likely make you feel better, and it'll most certainly make other people more inclined to want to lend you a hand.

5. Curiosity

What do you care about? What are your passions? What makes life worth living, in your opinion? If you can't answer these questions, for heaven's sake, don't work on a manuscript right now. Go out into the world and experience some of life until you DO know. Ask yourself, "What if?" Ask other people, "Why?" and "How?" and "Then what happened?" When you're bursting with something you just have to try to express, THEN go home and write about those sensations, thoughts, emotions, situations and complications... Attempt to write what you care about so passionately that it inspires curiosity in others. And above all, Aspiring Writer, hang in there. It's a long road, this journey of ours, but you can do it. Here's wishing you the fulfillment of your every literary dream~ Marilyn p.s. I don't think my list of gifts is an exhaustive one. What qualities would YOU give to other writers? Marilyn Brant is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of contemporary women’s fiction, romantic comedy & mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato. 

Reality Check [REPOST]

becke purple~ By Becke (Martin) Davis When I was a schoolgirl, I held one truth to be self-evident: that I could write. I might suck at a lot of other subjects, but give me a creative writing topic or even an essay, and I knew I could pull off an A. I’m not a schoolgirl anymore, and in place of essays I now write blog posts. I sweat those as much as algebra these days – not that there’s been much call for algebra in my adult life, thankfully. Along with a lot of my childhood beliefs that were tarnished by reality, my belief in myself as a writer is no longer set in stone.  It isn’t enough to enjoy writing, I’ve learned, and a bright idea for a story isn’t the same as bringing that idea to fruition in the form of a completed book. Publishers, agents and readers have higher expectations than my lovely English teachers did. And there’s a whole world of competition now, instead of twenty-odd classmates who didn’t have “published author” on their career wish list. A neatly typed essay with no spelling errors could make the content of my grade school papers appear almost scintillating. And I learned early on that a touch of creativity could disguise a multitude of sins. For example, when I tossed A CATCHER IN THE RYE aside after a few chapters (apologies to J.D. Salinger – I much preferred mysteries in seventh grade) it left me critically short of material when my teacher sprung an assignment on the class that could have severely tarnished my grade. He asked us to write an essay from the point of view of any character in the book besides Holden Caulfield. I wracked my brain and vaguely remembered a dog. There’s always a dog, right? My essay, written from the point of view of the barely-remembered canine, garnered an A plus. The teacher raved about my paper, while I squirmed with the knowledge that the dog’s POV was an action of last resort rather than a brilliant stratagem.  That’s when I began to suspect I wasn’t a real writer. Instead of becoming the investigative journalist I’d planned on becoming, I married young and worked in the advertising department of a couple newspapers and magazines. I knew writing ad copy wasn’t real writing, but it did help pay the bills. When we bought a new house that had zero landscaping, I began a crash course of self-taught horticulture. I noticed all the books I’d come across were by British gardeners, and having lived in London for several years, I doubted that the plants I’d grown there would survive a Chicago winter. This thought kicked off a period of intensive research that led to a 20-year career as a garden writer. This career shift confused my parents, since I had no training in horticulture. My dad couldn’t understand why professional landscaping associations would hire me to write for them when I had no credentials, specifically no horticulture degree. Instantly, I discounted all my research, all the workshops I’d attended, all the professors I’d interviewed about their work. Why were these people paying me, anyway? I reminded myself that I’d been hired to speak to master gardeners at the University of Illinois, so that must count for something – getting a paycheck from a university instead of writing checks to them seemed like a win/win. My paychecks went a long way to convincing me I was real garden writer, but wasn’t I just relaying factual information about plants? I had a talent for translating complicated facts, but did that make me a real writer? As always, I had my doubts. The difference was, real writers invented stories out of the whole cloth. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – be a real writer until I succeeded in fiction. By that time, I’d sold over 1,000 garden articles and written five books on landscaping. Apart from playing with some mystery short stories, I hadn’t attempted to write fiction in years.  I read about a book a day, so I knew fiction like I knew my own face.  How hard could writing it be? Make something up and write it down. Et voilà – a book! About a million words later, I knew exactly how hard fiction could be. Pretty. Freaking. Hard. I was old, for Pete’s sake, and I’d been a teenager when I got married. I hardly dated at all. How could I write a contemporary romance if I wasn’t even contemporary? Imposter Syndrome set up a suite in the writing quarters of my brain, reminding me of all the reasons I might not have what it takes to be a real writer. But here’s a reality check: I am a real writer. Not published yet, but I will be one day. Believe it. I almost believe it myself. Becke (Martin) Davis moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at until the forums were discontinued last year. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. She has written six garden books and one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke has two adult children, an awesome granddaughter and two cats. She has been married almost 44 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

How I Prepare to Write Fast — Character and Plot [REPOST]

jadechandler~ By Jade Chandler So all of us have different styles of writing, and I am naturally a quicker writer, words flow, sometimes faster than my 60wpm fingers can type. Other times, not so much. So this year I added to my prep work before typing my first sentence. I hope you find something you can use among the tools I’ve found that help me best. So I write romance, steamy to erotic usually, and I believe character rules in romance, not that I ignore plot. So first I get to know my characters. I use up to three tools, depending on how secretive my character is being –as you know—some won’t quit yammering in your head. My go to character steps include the Character Target Tool and Character Pyramid Tool because they focus on traits that lead to emotions and emotions that reflect action. This way my characters do more than smile every time they are happy. I am sold on the whole Positive Trait, Negative Trait and Emotion Thesaurus series. They also have lots of other handy questions. I also use a character questionnaire for quiet characters, like this one, but there are thousands if you google it. So now I know my characters. I then write their internal and external Goal Motivation Conflict. Simple stuff. Avery wants the town and bikers to get along because she secretly wants to be a biker’s old lady but her father is the main voice against the motor cycle club. Once I get that down, I move to plot. Here I have to say thank you to Jamie Gold’s blog for these awesome Excel spreadsheets for plot. I like Story Engineer best but have used them all and now have created my own sheets that fit my plotting style. These excel sheets give you the key plot points for a book on an excel sheet. Based on awesome magic, not only does it give you descriptions of what those points should do, it gives you a corresponding word count where each one of these happen. I fill the skeleton of my plot into these worksheets, and make sure the ideas I have actually work, and that I have enough conflict. Pacing and good conflict were two of my early weaknesses. Then I outline, you outline to the degree you want, I just use bullet points that encompass the chapter’s POV, a couple sentences about setting, word count for the chapter, and 5-7 plot points for the chapter… Generally my chapters are about 4,000 words long. As I outline, I match my word count in the spread sheet. For example, fun and games begins at about 20,000 words and is where the characters usually get to know each and fall in love. I make sure I outline lots of good sex and fun dates, along with some minor disasters in this section. This outlining method helps me make sure I have tension, highs and lows in each chapter and give each major plot point enough attention. Unless I’m working with a publisher who needs a synopsis before I write the book, this is where I start writing. Otherwise I complete the dreaded synopsis. My last hint is how I sit my butt down to put words on paper. I like to write in 15 to 30 minute blocks with no interruptions. But sometimes, I don’t know a fact or remember a name, so I use this trick…. I type #restaurantname and move on to the next sentence. Now, I use *** to mark scene, POV, or time breaks in chapters, if you use ### then pick another symbol. The beauty of this is that you can search the symbol and go back later and fill in the blanks easily, without missing any. Writing is an art and a craft. I find that my best writing comes when I write every damn day. When I take breaks, days or weeks, I have to retrain my body and mind to write again. And that sucks. So why do you care? This formula has given me about an extra 1,000 words a session as I have lots less time I need to stare into space deciding what should happen now. Instead I keep writing. Last year I completed four novel-length books, this year my goal is five. And to be fair, I give you this disclaimer, I work full-time, do kids, family and all the stuff that keeps everyone busy. Generally I have two hours a day to write, occasionally more, and on some days no time. You can use these tools whether you are a panster or a plotter, and believe it or not, I’m primarily a panster, as my characters change the freakin’ plot all the time, and I don’t outline in depth. But this style keeps me from needing to cut pages of back story or too much sex, and gets my first draft done in 3 to 8 weeks, depending on my motivation and focus. Happy writing! And feel free to email me if you have questions! Jade Chandler is a new author who lives in Kansas City Missouri, with a hubby surrounded by a house full of girls–two daughters, a dog and a cat. A life-long lover of romance, she decided to write romance in 2014. Her first book in the Jericho Brotherhood MC series will be released Summer 2016 by Carina Press. @jadechandlerrom || ||

You Go! [REPOST]

 lauraflorand~ By Laura Florand When Melissa first approached me about writing a post for this blog, I wanted to talk about craft. I wanted to talk about texture, which is one of my personal “things”. (I think it’s a huge benefit to authors to get out from behind their computers and go out into the world and absorb as much texture from it as they can, so that it will underly their writing. I could go on and on about it, but…) But then I thought about how many times I’ve heard a writer say, “I came back from that workshop so inspired I rewrote half my work in progress” and how much that made me wince, every time. Because I really don’t want to read what some other author told you to write, not even if that other author is me. If I want to read what some other author wrote, I’ll pick up her book. (Even if it’s mine.) And I think that because of the exceptional generosity of so many wonderful authors in sharing their own knowledge and tips, and because of our own perfectionism and desire to “get it right”, to be the best we can be, and, of course, our own vulnerability about our work, that a lot of us fall into that trap: of writing and rewriting our work according to someone else’s model. Of trying to follow someone else’s established path. Because it works for them, we love their work, we want to be as successful, as good, etc. And humans, you know…we can often be quite careful. Checking around to make sure we fit in with our social group, trying not to stand out too much from the pack. There are good reasons for that. It’s one heck of a lot safer, to start. The problem is that there are about five million previous paths, at the very least. So from workshop to workshop, from book or post about writing to book or post about writing, we zigzag in place and never establish our own paths. Which might be frontier paths, straight into uncharted territory. Where the going will probably be tougher, the money less easy, of course. So you may want to ignore me. That choice is up to you. There are benefits to playing it safe. Definite, visible ones. But I guess I’m saying that what I personally want to read is a love story, and a love story with a happy ending. It might even be a love story with a happy ending that includes hot sexy billionaires or Navy SEALs. (Actually, let’s take it as a given that whoever the love interest, I probably want him to be hot and sexy.) So it’s true that if you write a love story with an unhappy ending and it’s gorgeous or you write mysteries that are fascinating and compelling but don’t contain a significant (happy) love story, you still won’t end up with me as a reader. (You’ll probably end up with someone else, though.) But I’d love it if you sat down and wrote the story you want to read, which, if you’re a writer, is probably a little bit different than all the other stories out there. (If you were getting what you wanted from all the other stories out there, would you really be compelled to write your own? It’s one heck of a lot easier to read someone else’s, I think we all know.) It may not be a lot different. It may be that little twist on a hot sexy billionaire story that came from your dissatisfaction with the other hot sexy billionaire stories you’ve read. But it will still be your story. And you can’t write that if you’re too busy following everyone else’s advice. Advice is helpful, don’t get me wrong. We’ve all benefited from it, and I think about most advice I run across at least a little. I’d be an idiot not to. But there’s a lot out there, and we can spend too much time following it and not enough time following our story. So I’m not going to write about texture. (Although, if you’ll take my advice, ahem, I still think my grandfather was right when he told me, “Go live life first and then write about it.”) I’m just going to say: You’re a risk taker. I mean, for crying out loud, you write stories. You put your heart and ideas down on paper (or virtual paper) and put them out there for the whole wide world to read. You are crazy. You should probably be seeing a therapist about this completely insane thing you do. But you don’t. Because it makes you feel sane. So while you’re taking this insane risk, don’t spend too much of your time and energy trying to keep to the safe path. It’s too late for that. Sure, there are some safer ways across the lava field (desert? vast dangerous ocean?) of writing and publishing than others. Feel free to note where the birds seem to indicate the possible existence of an island ahead and keep an eye on the stars for your direction. It’s always nice to have a healthy survival instinct and a dose of intelligence, after all. But don’t try to do what everyone else does and go where everyone else goes, no matter how many different directions that sends you. Don’t play it too safe. The only way to do that is to turn off your computer and go watch TV instead. And you know what will happen if you do that. You’ll wish the story you’re watching had gone a different way, you’ll start thinking how that heroine would be so much better if only she showed a little gumption, you’ll start wishing the hero had done this at that moment, and… You’ll be back writing stories again. So you might as well go for broke. Explore. It’s all right. The worst thing that will happen if you get something wrong is that you’ll have to write another book. Which is what you wanted to have to do anyway, right? If not, there’s the TV option again. In short, if you’ll take my advice…it’s to not take my advice. You go, girl. Explore. You can make your own path. And if not, if you screw up, if you find out your story tastes are weird and no one else likes them (which I doubt will happen), then you’re big enough to pick yourself up and dust off your skinned knees and try another path that appeals. Or keep going down this one a little longer to see if it gets better. You’re off to great places. So you go. And enjoy the journey. Laura Florand is the international bestselling and award-winning author of fifteen books, including the Vie en Roses series (Once Upon a Rose), the Paris Hearts series (All for You), and the Amour et Chocolat series (The Chocolate Thief). Her books have appeared in ten languages, been nominated for RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Book of the Year, received the RT Seal of Excellence and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and been recommended by USA Today, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal. She was born in Georgia, but the travel bug bit her early. After a Fulbright year in Tahiti, a semester in Spain, and backpacking everywhere from New Zealand to Greece, she ended up living in Paris, where she met and married her own handsome Frenchman, a story told in her first book Blame It on Paris.  Now a lecturer at Duke University, she is very dedicated to her research into French chocolate. For a glimpse behind the scenes of some of that research as well as recommendations for US chocolate, make sure to check out her website:  

8 things about Garth Brooks that might change the way you write

Susan-Meier ~ By Susan Meier Note: This post originally appeared here.  This is a blog I posted about a year ago...I read it (to remind myself of a few things) and realized this was some perfect "new year/new start" advice... Happy New Year! Enjoy! ... A few weeks ago, I had a bad cold and spent a Saturday and Sunday in bed. If you know anything about weekend TV, you know I was bored to the point of tears and ended up watching a "special" about Garth Brooks. But, man, am I ever glad I did. The show was designed so that Garth himself didn't do much talking. His friends talked about him, his work ethic, etc. After a while I started making notes. :) And here they are ... 8 things about Garth Brooks that might change the way you write. 1. He loves music and wants everybody to love music. That sounds pretty simple, until you really think it through. Because he loves music he promotes well...but he also writes, produces and sings the best songs. The best songs. And what does that mean for his audience? He doesn't shortchange them. They always get the best. So...If you really, really, really love WRITING and your genre, you should be looking for the best ideas. You should be doing YOUR best when you write. Your love of writing (or your genre) should shine through your work. 2. He has respect for other musicians and songwriters. You have to have a healthy respect for what you do and everyone who does it in order to be your best. If you only half-heartedly love romance, I genuinely believe it shows in your work. If you're working hard, if it takes you months to write a book, if you study writing, if you tear your scenes apart again and again to make them perfect...So are your peers. Lots of people are working full-time jobs and writing. Lots are caring for kids, elderly parents or disabled adult children. We should never, ever, ever discount the trials and tribulations of other writers. It just plain makes us better people to be kind to each other. And God likes that. :) 3.  He has a good range. Garth might be a country singer, but his songs transcend the genre.  Because of #4... 4.  He loves telling a good story. That's so true. His music is all about storytelling. And he does it well. He picks subjects that resonate, and he makes them vibrate with reality and emotion. Literally. LOL I heard Elton John talk about storytelling and music once and it totally changed the way I looked at music. He said smart songwriters tell a story because people love stories. Well, lucky us! That's our business. But that takes us back to not shortchanging your audience (something I talked about a few weeks ago in the Hybrids blog), to figuring out what they like to hear, to learning to write your story is the best it can be. 5. He is an entertainer. And so should we be. People get a show when they go to see Garth. People want to be entertained when they read our books. So many times we get caught up in word counts and craft that we forget we're entertainers. Nora Roberts wasn't afraid to break a few rules. Suzanne Brockman took regular romance "hook" or trope stories and turned them  on their ears. Laura Kaye's writing vibrates with sensuality, even as her characters charm you to death. LOL When I pick up a book, I want to be swept away. And it took me a few books (like 20 -- sometimes I make my younger self sound like a real idiot) before I realized, as a reader, I wasn't special. All readers were like me. A book doesn't have to have tons of action or ideas that transcend the norm. The writer simply has to take her genre or subgenre's conventions and use them to entertain readers. We are entertainers. So...entertain. :) 6.  He has a respect for his audience (very much, his friends said, like another successful guy...Frank Sinatra) The pundits  used to tell us our audience was bored housewives. We now know that's not true. Our audience is lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, secretaries, nurses, business owners...Everybody.  You should appreciate the fact that a reader picked up your book. You should give her her money's worth. But most of all, you can't talk down to her. Readers are very smart. If you write poorly, they will spot it. If you don't research, they will know. If you don't like what you're doing and "phone in" your book, they'll see it. And they won't come back. So even your books with the tightest deadlines have to be your best work. (I'm talking to myself here because I'm a week late and tempted to write fast and get this turkey in. Instead, I slowed down...God help make sure the book is the best it can be.) 7. He's never afraid to be passionate. And don't we love that? Being passionate, I think, is part of being a good entertainer. And we're all in the entertainment industry. I love category romance. :) I love the point in the story when the tension is so tight you know it could snap. The story could change. The characters could do something they regret. It puts me on the edge of my seat. That's what I want to see in books I read. That's what I want to get into my stories when I write. Granted, I'm not always successful...but I'm not afraid of that passion. Not afraid to confront it. In fact, smart romance writers use it! We are, after all, in the passion business! LOL 8. Even with success he remained a nice guy. :) Ah, would that we all could be. Sometimes I think it's easy for the uber successful to be nice guys. Let's face it. They're making the money. Readers are stroking their egos. Their Facebook fan page numbers are through the roof. Amazon loves them. Agents call them out of the blue. Editors call their agents and ask them to write something for them... Sigh. I could be nice if I were on top! That's what we all think. But the funny part of it is, the people on top have greater struggles than those of us hovering in the middle. There's constant expectation. Not just from their publishers, but from readers...AND THEMSELVES. When you are on top, you want to stay on top and there are thousands of wannabes nipping at your heels. So whether you're on the top or in the middle or just starting out, know this: You're going to have bad days. There will always be somebody who is doing better than you are. You will question your talent. There will never be enough hours in a day or days in a deadline... That does not give you license to be mean. In fact, given that we're all in this together, being nice to people is a way to form support groups, critique groups, lifeboat groups and make the friends who may someday save you. :) But being nice is just plain the right thing to do. Jealousy, meanness and condescension only make you sadder than you already are. In other words, you're hurting yourself. So grab your talent by the handle and get going. Don't worry about what anybody else is doing. Don't think you're better than anybody else. Don't worry that you're not getting the recognition you deserve. Just write your best book. Enjoy the process. And be a well rounded person. Enjoy your family. Love your spouse. Go fishing (or swimming or bingo playing or shopping). Have other passions aside from writing. Because nobody's ever clearly the best. Rankings change. Genres go in and out of style. Things like Facebook get invented and change everything. :) Don't be so one-dimensional that you can't be happy unless you're the best. :) And think of Garth Brooks. :) Be passionate, love your industry, love your audience, love your craft, love your peers, be a storyteller. A great storyteller. Be proud of yourself. :) As a special treat, we'll leave you with one of Garth Brooks' best "story-telling" songs:

 Are there any songs that have taught you about craft and story-telling? Leave a comment and let us know! 

Susan Meier is the author of over 60 books for Harlequin and Silhouette, Entangled Indulgence, Red Hot Bliss and Bliss and one of Guideposts’ Grace Chapel Inn series books, THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. In 2013 she lived one of her career-long dreams. Her book, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHER was a finalist for RWA’s highest honor, the Rita. The same year NANNY FOR THE MILLIONAIRE’S TWINS was a National Reader’s Choice finalist and won the Book Buyer’s Best Award.Susan is married with three children and is one of eleven children, which is why love and family are always part of her stories.