Saturday, March 5, 2011

Women, Writing & Adversity

    Whenever I've had a little time to share thoughts on the writing process with you, I've tried to give simple, practical tips to apply to your fiction projects. Today's musings are rather more complex but, I hope, will prove just as valuable to your writing. And perhaps in other ways, too. I'm talking about: theme. And a particular theme at that! This is all about women coping with adversity and overcoming past trauma to transform their lives, and create a better environment for themselves and their families.


Oddly enough, when I started working on my most recent novel, The Gentleman Poet, I wasn't thinking about poetry or about a man. I had in mind a young woman in 1609 who, like many women today, faced difficult challenges and must have been feeling very much alone in the world. You see, Elizabeth, my heroine, is based on a real 17th-century serving girl who was traveling from England to Jamestown, Virginia on a ship. She had lost her own family to disease and other cruelties of the times. She had no money of her own, few skills, no friends, and it appeared her life would continue on its grim, loveless path.

    But I know the hidden strengths that women, throughout time, and all around the world, possess. When they become empowered and believe in themselves, they are capable of turning around truly tragic lives. Sometimes with a little help, but ultimately because they are determined to seek a better, more productive, fulfilling life for themselves. This was what I wanted for my orphaned Elizabeth. It's what I wish for women everywhere, actually. Whether they live in the U.S., Egypt, Libya, China, the Ukraine or any other spot on the planet, I hope they will find the strength to seek their higher selves. To turn their backs on abuse, loss, poverty and depression, and then to look to their true potential as a means of betterment.

In my novel you'll read how, in my imagination, Elizabeth might have spun her life off in a new and brighter direction. Her tale, I've been told by my readers, is nothing less than inspiring. In real life, I can assure you that women, just as brave and determined as she, are even now seeking the means to protect themselves and their children, to move forward with their lives, to build something valuable from the dark days of their past. I'd love to hear from you about women you've known who have faced down adversity. Perhaps this woman is even you! (Below, I've given you a way to share your story with others.)

    But wait! I was helping you understand why theme is important to a short story, novel, or memoir. Think of theme as the glue that keeps the plot, characters, and everything else involved in your literary work stuck together. Theme also adds weight, timelessness, and universality to your writing. When we write about "the power of love," we know that readers will sympathize with the characters because the reader has experienced love, in one form or another. When we use "compassion for other human beings" as a theme, we depend upon our audience to understand the inherent goodness in caring for others, even if they are strangers.

Think about how you might use theme to enrich your stories. How does a person (man or woman) rise above circumstances and create a safe and satisfying life for her/himself, and for those they cherish?

Best wishes and happy writing days—even during those tough times! Kathryn

An invitation: Do you know a woman who has risen above adversity to make a better life for herself and her family?

Tell us about her! (You may prefer not to mention names.) I'll be guest blogging tomorrow (3/6/11) on Borders: True Romance site ( If you send your comments there when the blog goes live tomorrow (or any time after that and before midnight, East Coast time, on Wednesday 3/8/11), I will donate $1.00 (up to a total of $500.) to the Washington, DC House of Ruth, for each person who shares their story or thoughts on this topic. (Don't send me money; I'm making the donation for you! You are making a difference just by sending your comments.)


In case you'd like to learn more about this amazing organization that assists over 600 women and children in the Washington, DC area alone, here you go… The people they help have been living in stark poverty and violent, abusive surroundings. They are given safe shelter and guidance in achieving their goal of a better life,

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Long Time…No See Blog

I love to offer writers free tips to help them with their work in progress, whether it's a short story, a novel, or a memoir. But I feel as if I've let folks down in recent months because the blogs just haven't been flowing. It's not that I haven't wanted to be with you. My lack of blogging has been an unfortunate side effect of my latest novel, The Gentleman Poet, which launched in September. For the uninitiated in the publishing world, this is how it works…

    The author spends a year (or two, or in this case, four) researching and writing his/her novel. It takes another 12-18 months for the publisher who buys it to complete the editorial process, announce the book in their catalogue or website, and produce printed copies. During those months of waiting for the publisher to do its thing, the author will respond to suggestions from the editor for revisions, review the copy-edited manuscript, and read the galleys (page proofs) for errors. But even more of the writer's time will be devoted to "getting the word out" on the book. That means lining up venues for book signings and speaking engagements where the book might also be sold, hunting for special sales opportunities, lining up blog tours, contacting alumni associations and other organizations that might help promote the author's book in their newsletters. In short, the author is out there scrambling to prepare the world for "The Book"!

    In my case, while waiting for The Gentleman Poet to appear in local independent bookstores, the chains, and on websites like Amazon, I was also teaching at The Writer's Center in Washington, D.C. and keeping up with my talented clients, whom I mentor and edit through You could say I was a pretty busy gal. But now I'm drawing the line. I need to get back to my writing buddies and give them the support I've always tried to offer in my blogs. Nothing fancy, just common sense advice on writing, either for personal satisfaction or with an aim to publish. So tune in when you have a free moment. I hope to also offer a few freebies in the upcoming months. When I do I'll post the news here. In the meantime, I'll also be posting guest blogs at a few favorite sites. You might enjoy checking them out, particularly if you enjoy historical fiction. Below are a few to start with!

    Happy writing all…Kathryn

A few neat blogs for writers and readers. You may see me there!

Friday, August 13, 2010


Where do best-selling authors get their great ideas? Sometimes when we mortal writers struggle to find an interesting topic, we feel as if we're drawing from a dry well. Our brains simply refuse to come up with anything original or interesting enough to hold a reader's attention (or even our own interest!) for more than a few pages. What then do we do?

    Do we wait until we feel "inspired"? Until that one gem of an idea comes to us out of the blue?

    No. Real writers write. You've heard that before. And catching up on cleaning out a closet, or knitting a grandchild yet another sweater that may never again be worn after Christmas day, isn't going to produce the novel you dream of writing.

    Great ideas for fiction come from all around us. We just have to watch for them in their raw, and sometimes least appealing form, then write them down. But you can't stop there. Next you'll need to weave details around the basic concept to make it your own. It's this owning of the plot germ that makes a story special, and will eventually make it resonate for readers as "original" and exciting.

    Let me give you a few examples from my experience. Years ago, not long after the end of the Vietnam War, there were a lot of newspaper and TV reports about the concerns of veterans over PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as a result of exposure to the horrors of battle. At the time, I was working to develop a Young-Adult novel. Although a great deal was being written for adult audiences on the topic of the after effects of war on soldiers—both fiction and nonfiction—I hadn't yet seen anything in the library or bookstores from a young reader's perspective.

    It seemed to me that in any family whose mother or father was suffering from the emotional anguish of wartime trauma, the children would also be feeling the effects. So I developed a plot in which the teenage daughter of a veteran had to cope with her father's disturbing flashbacks. That plot became the basis for Pocket Change, my first published novel. The idea came from real-life news, but I made it my own story by altering the viewpoint to that of a child, and then used information I was able to gather through the Veterans' Administration.

    Another idea came to me as a result of moving to Texas. Having grown up in New England, the move out west was an exciting and startling adventure. We ended up in San Angelo for a time, then later in Houston. All around me were real-life cowboys, men (and women) who rode around with rifles on the window racks of their pickup trucks, and the legends of gunslingers were everywhere. I loved it! Now, how could a Connecticut Yankee who loved romances write a Western? That was my challenge.

    The solution I came up with was to develop a heroine who was familiar to me. She lived in the Northeast and was struggling to raise her child as a single parent. And my hero? He was a lawman from the Old West…and a ghost. I brought them together in a romantic time-travel adventure, which allowed me to visit this romantic period in American history through my New England heroine's adventures with her cowboy hero. Although hundreds of stories have been written with cowboy heroes, this one seemed to intrigue my readers, and Time and Again (written under my penname, Kathryn Jensen) outsold nearly all of my other romances.

    Most recently, I've become interested in more distant historical periods and settings, and started looking at writers who have fascinated me and influenced my own writing career. I thought, why not write about these amazing people? I could include them in a story that is both adventure and love story. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I chose the writer who is often named as having the greatest impact of any writer on the English language—William Shakespeare. I had loved the film Shakespeare in Love, and I thought, if the writer of this screenplay can create a film that makes Shakespeare human and fun for movie goers, I can write a novel that brings him to life for my readers. And that is what I did in The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare's "The Tempest".

    That isn't to say there weren't challenges to pulling it off. I wasn't (still am not) a Shakespearean scholar, so I had to do some homework and lots of reading. I also had to create a heroine through whose eyes the story would be told, because I sure as heck wasn't going to try to get into Will's genius mind or write in his style—that was just too daunting a task. And I needed a heart-wrenching love story.

I found both my heroine and hints of her love story in a very old account written in 1609, a copy of which is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The journal, written by a William Strachey, is an account of the wreck of a ship that was bound for Jamestown, Virginia. And along with that account I found a ship's manifest that lists the passengers, including an "Elizabeth Persons, maidservant," who (according to Strachey) later wed the ship's cook. Elizabeth and Thomas married on the island of Bermuda, where they and others aboard the ruined ship had managed to find safe haven for the nine months it took the survivors to build a new ship and complete their journey.

    My point in these three examples is this: you take an idea that might seem simple, too-often-done, or just mildly interesting. You don't wait for the spectacular concept to strike you, because it's just never going to happen. Take what's around you, but don't stop there. Make it your own by adding your personal touch or a new twist, or by relying on real accounts of an event. Pull threads from wherever you find them. When you work this way, you'll never run short of ideas for stories. Soon you'll discover so many intriguing plots and characters that you'll complain there isn't enough time in your life to write all of your stories.

    Don't wait for inspiration, fellow writers, grab it by the throat and make it happen.

    Happy writing! Kathryn    


Monday, March 15, 2010

Do you fall into the Muddle-in-the-Middle Trap?

    When attempting to write a novel—that is, fiction that's book-length, say 80,000 words or so—some novice writers never get past the first few chapters. All of the excitement and enthusiasm they felt when inspiration grabbed them by the throat and shouted, "You must write this story!" suddenly leaves them high and dry. Sure, you have a good idea where the story needs to end. That's part of the reason you're writing--to share that fantastic scene you envision near the end of your tale that blows away your readers. But how to get from Point A to Point Z?

    Although most writers recognize the danger of running out of steam in the middle of a book, those who are experienced realize that a lot of work is done in those central chapters. In fact, if you do all you should as a novelist, there's so much material for you to play with, you need to choose carefully to avoid stuffing too much into one story. Here are six tips you can use to keep your novel on track, moving forward, and holding your readers' attention without wandering, repeating information, or padding with unnecessary scenes.

  1. Further develop the main character(s). Instead of dumping details about your characters' personalities, childhood, education, jobs, or friends and family at the beginning of your novel, save these for the middle. By now you've hooked your reader with strong writing, active scenes and conflict that readers will want to see resolved. Now, you can use conversations, flash-back scenes, or a character's thoughts to reveal more about what makes this character tick. You'll enrich your paper people and create an even stronger bond between reader and character.
  2. Move the plot forward by increments that feel natural. Instead of leaping from conflict revealed in the beginning to conflict resolved (resulting in a far-too-short book), give the characters time to work things out for themselves (with a little help from you). This creates a much more realistic feeling story and will help avoid the dreaded deus ex machina conclusion. (In a children's book God takes the form of Mom or Uncle Joe, who supplies the solution to the child's problem.) Readers generally want their favorite characters to resolve their own problems.
  3. Steadily increase the level of conflict and tension by making things worse, then even worse again for the central character. When the same problem occurs over and over throughout the story, the reader becomes immune to the danger, threat, or issue at hand. Using the middle of the story to "up the stakes" will guarantee your readers will stick around to see how their favorite character handles the ever-more-complex crisis.
  4. Details make the story, but writers often forget to continue filtering them throughout the book. You may have described Main Street or the family homestead in Chapter 1, but by the middle of the book several days may have passed for the reader. Work, family demands, interruptions of all sorts may have wiped away the vision of the story's setting that you worked so hard to create in early chapters. Now you need to refresh the reader's mind. And my returning to a particular setting in your story, you strengthen the reader's belief that it might actually exist. However, never stop the forward motion of the plot to spend a few pages of solid description. Some readers simply skim passages that seem to have nothing happening in them, that are simply picture windows into the setting. Better to weave details through active scenes and keep the plot moving forward.
  5. If you get lost in the middle of your story and don't know what should happen next, or you have written yourself into a corner, return to your plot outline. If you didn't write one, now is an excellent time to take a short break and brainstorm possible scenes, complications and solutions for your mid-story. Relax, pour yourself your favorite beverage, sit down in a comfy chair and write down everything that comes to mind without censoring yourself. In fifteen or twenty minutes you may come up with a dozen or more possibilities. The next day, look over your list of ideas. Some will be off the wall, not at all useful, and you can eliminate them. But there will be a few gems. Recharging your muse in this way will usually break you out of your block and give you new fuel for those middle chapters.
  6. Reach out for support. Sometimes we need to know what's working and what isn't. We lose confidence and need someone to tell us we're on track and need to keep going, or there really is something wrong that needs fixing. Finding a writer's organization, critique group, professional writing mentor, or another author willing to partner up with you can be just the help you need to urge you on toward completion of your novel. Many published authors today rely on a personal support system they've developed for those times when they become too close to the book to make effective decisions about one or more elements.

Remember, writing to completion is important. To sell a novel you need more than a great idea. You have to get it down on paper—all of it—before you can hope to interest an editor or literary agent. Fight your way through that nasty middle by using the skills above, and you'll soon arrive that that exciting climax scene you've been dying to write! Happy writing, all--Kathryn

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow Day!

    It started snowing on Friday…and just didn't stop. Not until Saturday night. By then we had over 2 feet of snow in Washington, D.C. and didn't know what to do with it. (Although…I hear tell that nigh on 5,000 people showed up for a neighborhood snowball fight in Dupont Circle!) Granted folks in other parts of the country get a lot more snow, and regularly. But we don't. In fact, a few inches is usually enough to send us into panic and school-cancelation mode. So to say we were overwhelmed is an understatement.

    Now what does this have to do with writing? Well, I can't think of a better inducement to working on another chapter of the work-in-progress than being snowed in. It's Monday and the roads around my neighborhood still aren't drivable. There's food in the fridge, and—thank goodness—we still have electricity for heat and lights. Yes, the phone still works, darn it—so people can call for no good reason and destroy my concentration, but I'm not above turning off the ringer.

    All of this makes me wonder if anyone has ever made a study of the relative number of novels produced in various climates. Are writers in Missoula, Montana ten times more prolific than those in Birmingham, Alabama? Do Maine writers (other than Stephen King) hit the bestseller lists more often than those who hang out in Key West? And why should we wait for snow to trap us inside to feel we need to write, write, write? Why is it so hard to focus when writing is really what we want to do anyway?

    I'm not contemplating moving to a colder climate. But I'm seriously thinking about giving myself a periodic "snow day". I'll pretend I can't move the car for the imaginary drifts blocking it. I'll turn off the phones and put a pot of soup on the stove. I'll reschedule appointments, ignore emails, cozy up with my laptop on the couch and lose myself in a scene of my own imagining.

    And the one I'll work on today? It will have palm trees and pink sand and a ship in full sail, skimming across tropical blue water. Enough of this snow! –Happy writing, Kathryn

Sunday, January 10, 2010


    I write to music. Many of my writing friends do. I'm not sure why it works so well to help concentration. But, for me, it has to be a particular type of music to not be distracting. Never any lyrics. If voices are singing, their words ramble through my head, stealing my attention. I'm then thinking about the story they're telling, rather than the one my characters are building on my computer screen.

    I have favorites, but they're nearly all classical. These seem to me the most conducive to getting words on paper. But I know other writers who enjoy creating to the tune of hard rock, country, jazz, R&B, or Top 40's. The trick is finding the music that best turns off your inner nag. You know, the one that says, "You really should put in a load of wash while you're sitting here staring at this monitor." Or, "The kids will be home in less than an hour; what good is another 45 minutes going to do you?"

    This weekend I had a chance to hear one of my fave performers, live. We drove into D.C. to hear the National Symphony. Nicolaj Znaider was the soloist, playing the Elgar violin concerto…and it was gorgeous. I've heard him before and love his passionate playing. (And it doesn't hurt that he's absolutely adorable in that black Euro-style tux!) Anyway, I already had one of his CD's but they were selling a new one that he'd just recorded…of the same piece he was going to play that night, so I bought it. Now I'll be able to listen to it any time I like.

He was signing the CD's after the concert, so we got a chance to chat with him. I'd intended to tell him that I enjoy playing his recordings while I write. But my husband, bless his heart, used up the brief time we were allowed before the next person in line was called forward. He felt somehow compelled to ask Nicolaj if he sweated a lot while he was playing! I nearly fell through the floor, but Nicolaj didn't so much as blink. He smiled and said, "Yes, in fact I do. My shirt was drenched by the time I finished tonight." I couldn't stop laughing as we walked away. My husband said, "What?" I just shook my head. Guys find different things about the arts interesting, I guess.

    Now I'm not sure I can listen to Nicolaj while I write. I'll forever picture this hunky young guy in a wet shirt, playing a luscious melody…just for me. Sigh. Back to writing now, Kathryn…


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chasing the Latest Literary Trend—Smart, or Not?

    Okay, so vampires are hot. Seems like all you have to do is stick a blood thirsty (literally) vamp in your novel and it will sell like hotcakes. Or so you've been told. Or maybe you're tempted to write a techno-thriller, in the style of Tom Clancy, or a fantasy inspired by Harry Potter's success. Why? Because, again, these genres have sold millions of books, bringing wealth and fame to their authors and agents. Why not cash in on what works?

    Well, there's no reason why anyone shouldn't try. Except…think about it a moment. Is it the genre itself, or the author who spawned it that's the reason for these stories working so well? When a trend begins in the fiction world, it usually happens because of the passion and talent of an individual writer. This writer follows a vision of the novel he/she wishes to create, and often takes a substantial risk that, because it's something new and different, the book may be rejected by publishers who are more interested in safe, tried-and-true types of stories. When a book like Twilight first appears, it's a surprise and takes a while to catch on…but if it does, it has the possibility of becoming a sensation. The possibility. Readers are the ones who decide whether or not a book actually will become a bestseller.

    And what about all the other vampire tales and fantasies that have suddenly appeared in Twilight's and Harry Potter's wake? Aren't they selling well? Many are. Then why shouldn't you, an author trying to break into publishing, benefit from the feeding frenzy and create yet another, say…Dracula clone? Well, there's no reason you can't. But take a look at the scores of vampires and werewolves and shape shifters competing for shelf space in your favorite bookstore. Does your passion for this type of story promise to raise your novel above these as well as the truckloads of similar novels that weigh down literary agents' and editors' desks at this very moment?

    The point is…following a trend seems to work best if you are lucky enough to have a book ready to go in the earliest days of readers' enthusiasm for the new type of story. If it will take you a year or more to write the book you imagine will be the next Twilight, you're probably already too late. Trends are ephemeral things; they burn themselves out. And no one knows what the next one will be, until some lucky editor spots that book that takes fiction in a slightly new direction, and makes an offer on it.

A lot of what goes into coming up with the next literary sensation is luck, but some of it is passion, extraordinary writing, and belief in your story. And, yes, the willingness to risk failure. I love to see an author take a risk, write a magnificent story, then be "discovered" by readers. And I hate to see new writers desperately trying to copy today's hot trends, because I worry that by the time they finish that first novel their market will have evaporated. Then they may give up without ever letting their unique talent shine.

    So, here's a suggestion. Instead of trying to jump on the bandwagon, write from your heart but also take the pulse of your prospective readers. What kind of story would you love to read? Into what sort of novel do you think your friends, co-workers, family might enjoy escaping? No, there aren't any guarantees you'll be rewarded for your effort, but I for one believe your chances of success are better writing something you really care about…rather than slogging away at a borrowed idea or character model with which you have no emotional or artistic connection. Give me, and the world, something marvelous to read, something to take our breath away and make the rest of us writers say, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"

    Happy writing—Kathryn.