In honor of the arrival of 2012 I am taking a look back at my very first year of blogging—2011.  Here are the five blog posts—some written for “From the Write Angle” others for my personal blog—that I consider my best work.

The top of my list HAS to be “Voice, It’s Not Just for Manuscripts Anymore” discussing how essential it is for writers to infuse their query letters (the letters they use to try to attract a literary agent) with their unique voice.

I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well. 

Number two is “Give me A Little Kiss — Sex and the Historical Novelist,” in which I discuss and defend the place of sex in straight historical novels (not just historical romances).

The inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum.  It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel.  Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea.  The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.

At number three I have selected my reflection on the very act of blogging itself and how it can become a digital distraction from the author’s most important task—writing books:

Blogging takes an enormous amount of time compared to most on-line community participation. A tweet is a quip; a facebook post can be a couple of sentences or a useful link. A blog requires topic selection, thoughtful analysis and a couple of hundred solid words in support of your argument.

So if blogging is such a huge time-suck, why do we do it?

 Blog number four tackles the question of why our sisters (or more broadly our siblings) are NOT very much like us.

I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve thought how can my sister and I have had such a different experience of the same childhood or how could we have played the same games (together), walked to the same school (together) and heard the same family stories and yet turned out so very differently? If you have a sibling chances are you’ve had such thoughts as well.  At the heart of my questions lay the idea that nurture shapes people, and since my sister and I were raised in the same environment that should have made us similar.

Turns out that’s just dead wrong when it comes to siblings.  Being raised in the same environment helps to make us different.

And finally, sitting at number five, is the first blog I ever wrote—“Not THAT Sophie.”  This one is all about the marketing lessons I learned from a teething toy.  Half-a-year after I wrote it, as I struggle to build my author brand, I still marvel at the power of Sophie the Giraffe.  And yes, she STILL comes up before I do in an Amazon search and she continues to top the ranks of baby items.

Coming behind a rubber toy in a “suggested search” list is a humbling experience. But when I looked more closely at Sophie G, I realized I could learn a thing or two. Sophie is NUMBER ONE in the Amazon “Baby” bestseller rankings (we will not discuss how far from number one I am on any list presently). She gets an average of 4.5 stars from reviewers. And she is able to command some serious cash for a figure only 7” tall. In fact, a single giraffe teether costs $7.00 more than a copy of my novel. Wow (hint to readers, buy the book – I don’t care if you chew on it).

Sophie G is obviously doing something right. Here’s what I think. . .

 Happy New Year all!!!

My approach to life is to charge along being myself (in case you haven’t guessed that is outspoken, slightly eccentric, and rather type A).  But sometimes life presents me with a situation that can’t effectively be handled the “the Sophie way.”

When my strategy for dealing with a particular situation isn’t working, and I face the dilemma of finding an alternate approach I often ask myself, “what would my sister do?”  And while some of you might find my approach less authoritative than asking “what would Jesus do” or less humorous than asking “what would Brian Boitano do” as they do on South Park, I like to go with what I know.  I am more familiar with how my sister thinks (or at least how I THINK she thinks) and how she acts than I am with the actions and reactions of nearly anyone else on the planet.

Considering my predicament as if I were my sister is a great way to stop running in circles on my little problem wheel and gain distance from a situation.

The first step to applying “sister think” is to break an issued down into its facts – as if I was going to relate the problem to my sister with minimal editorial comment (and I am NOT good at eliminating editorial comment).  Sometimes this step alone is enough to trigger a creative new approach because it backs me away from my gut reaction to the problem and lets me see it more dispassionately.

If seeing the issue broken into discreet pieces isn’t enough to spur a solution, I go the next step.  I put myself in my sister’s shoes (metaphorically of course, because sisters do NOT appreciate having their shoes pilfered and worn, particularly before they’ve had a chance to scuff the bottoms).  I imagine that I am Irma (this is NOT my sister’s name and I have selected it because it is likely to make my sister laugh hysterically) dealing with the recalcitrant child, or the uncooperative co-worker and address the situation accordingly.

Of course I can’t really be Irma.  The best I can hope to achieve is a Sophie-channeled approximation.  Still, this temporary personal transformation can work brilliantly—particularly if the problem at hand calls for strengths my sister possesses that I do not (diplomacy and limitless patience come to mind).  And I consider this convenient alternative-perspective on life and its situations one of the great gifts that having a sister has given me.

How about you?  Do you ever put on your sister’s shoes or borrow your sister’s strategies for dealing with life’s problems?

Share/Save

This post inaugurates a new series—Literary Sisters—giving me a chance to reflect (rather randomly) upon some of the great sister pairings from literary classics.  And what better way to start than with my favorite sisters of all time, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Why Jane and Lizzy?  Well, I will admit they remind me (strikingly) of myself and my own sister.  But narcissism aside, the way the Bennet sisters are portrayed by Austen—as caring, supportive, best-friends—offers a refreshing change from a large number sister depictions I’ve read more recently.  You know the type—bitchy sisters, sisters who steal each other’s boyfriends, sisters who are rivals first and fellow-family-members second (or not at all).

Now I understand there are many unpleasant sister relationships in the real world (and I thank Divine Providence daily that I do not have one) but for HEAVEN’S SAKE, I refuse to believe they represent the majority.  “Nasty” certainly doesn’t describe most of the sisters I meet as I move through life.  The majority of sisters I come in contact with love each other to death.  They would lend their sister their last dollar, or give their sister a kidney if she needed it.  And they are far more likely to drive to their sister’s boyfriend’s house and kick his butt for dumping sis than they are to steal their sister’s fellow (“do you think anything might tempt me to accept the man who has ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”).  Certainly sisters fight (and those fights can be wicked, as they poke at every childhood sore), and yes sisters can sabotage each other occasionally, but most of the time they play on the same team.  Why then do writers (or perhaps it is publishers—after all they buy the manuscripts) assume only dysfunctional sister relationships are interesting to readers?

It’s the rule of conflict with a capital “C.”  Conflict is essential in fiction, that cannot be denied.  And nice is considered dull.  But there is no rule (none, I checked the rule book for writing good novels) that says the central conflict in a novel involving sisters has to be between those sisters.  It is possible to write a compelling “sisters versus the world” book.  Or a book in which the main characters are sisters and each face independent difficulties.  I would certainly argue that Pride and Prejudice is gripping and has conflict enough without Jane and Lizzy at each other’s throats.  I’ve read the book upwards of a dozen times and I am not tired of it yet. 

While Pride and Prejudice is not alone in offering a positive portrayal of sisterhood, there is room on the bookshelf for a few more books celebrating sisters as “comforter in chief,” in times of trouble and “celebrant in chief” in times of triumph.  And it is possible to write such books without whitewashing or over-simplifying the complex relationship between female siblings.

Why do I care so much?  Why do I pine for more books which, like Pride and Prejudice, give us positive models of sister relationships?  Because just as fiction imitates life, life imitates fiction (or rather culture in general). 

When our culture disproportionately depicts sister relationships that are riven by conflict or that are dysfunctional as they are daily lived, we imply that such relationships are the norm.  When something becomes normative we may, unwittingly, excuse people from trying to make bad behavior better.  Frankly, if (or when, because my kids sure aren’t perfect) I see my daughters behaving as some sets of sisters in books do, I will punish them and punish them severely.  I ask them to be Lizzy and Jane—to tease each other with love, to worry when they see each other looking pale, and to bust Mr. Darcy’s chops if he blights their sister’s hopes.  And in my library I keep a separate copy of Austen’s work for each, inscribed with an expression of my hope that they will find not only entertainment between the pages, but elucidation of what sisters should be.  After all, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood aren’t bad examples either.

So, we are getting my son a puppy.  My son is the shy type and likes constant companionship so a dog seems like a perfect fit.  A boy and his dog. . .you know the stories (not Where the Red Fern Grows or stories like that—the HAPPY stories).

I phoned my sister to tell her the news.

“This is going to be his dog right?” she asked.  I sensed a certain skepticism.  Perhaps she didn’t think he could handle a dog at nine-years of age.

“Oh yes, we’ve talked about the responsibilities,” I babbled.  “He helped select the breed and we picked an ultimate people dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.”

“You’re missing my point,” she replied somewhat impatiently.  “How are you going to keep the dog from bonding with YOU?  You are such an Alpha.  You had better line up a trainer before the puppy even arrives.”

Wow. ‘A trainer for who?’ I was tempted to ask.  My son, the puppy, or me?  But the question would have been facetious.  As soon as the words were out of her mouth and bouncing off the satellite to my mobile phone I knew exactly what my sister meant, and was left wondering why I didn’t see it before.  I am a very “in charge” person.  Dogs are attracted to dominant people. . If this dog is really going to be my son’s dog we will need some advice on how to get it to bond with my son and see him as the pack leader.

No.  I am not going to continue blogging about dogs.  I am going to blog about sisters.  Because what this story really illustrates (you were wondering, admit it) is one of the driving themes behind my novel, The Sister Queens—our sisters act as mirrors for us; when we forget who we are or when we fool ourselves into thinking we are something we are not, they call us on it. Continue reading »