Friday, November 22, 2013

Grit is the Quality Most Correlated with Success: TED Talk with Angela Lee Duckworth

I saw this video on Facebook this week and found it to be the most inspiring piece I've seen in a long time. I hope you watch and are inspired, too!

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth discussed in a TED talk the factor most significantly correlated with success in life. 

(This video is from the Huffington Post at or from YouTube at

That factor was not social intelligence, good looks, physical health, or IQ, but rather a factor she calls grit. Here is how she defines it:

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon not a sprint."

And here's what she said about talent and grit (they aren't necessarily related): 

"Talent does not make you gritty. Many talented individuals don't follow through. Grit is unrelated or even inversely related to talent."

This is the greatest thing! To realize that as writers, we can learn our craft, that through dogged effort and determination, we can succeed. Talent, shmalent--it's all about rolling up our sleeves and investing our hard work and mind power.

Dr. Duckworth discussed how you How you build grit in kids but this is important for us every day as well. Kids did best on a task, (i.e., persevered), when they had growth mindset, i.e., the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed but can change with effort. These kids were more likely to persevere when they fail because they don't believe failure is a permanent condition. 

This is so inspiring to me as a writer, where goals take long to achieve and the road is often fraught with many ups and downs (I'll say ups and downs instead of words like despair and desperation). The downs can create such torment that they make you want to quit forever. But if you believe this video, that's just when you've got to believe that continuing to work hard will show results.

I used to play tennis in high school. I was basically a kid off the street, no lessons, nothing, when my coach discovered my best friend and I hitting balls against a brick wall. (This would never happen these days when kids basically have to be groomed from the womb to play sports. The coach simply told us, show up for practice tomorrow at 9 am and bring your racket.)

That one invitation opened up a whole world for me and I will be forever grateful for it. What I learned from tennis was that it's not only a physical game that requires skills and practice. When you're up against an opponent, the game becomes mental. Your own mind becomes the dragon on the court.

Writing to me is a lot like that. We slave for months over our work, mostly alone. Every day when turn on the power button we must slay doubts, face rejections, face fears that we aren't good enough, that we suck. Often there is no one over our shoulder telling us otherwise--we have to reach deep inside ourselves to come up with the dogged inner strength--the grit--to say--yes, we are.

I wish everyone who struggles with self doubt to watch this video and realize you are not alone. That achieving any kind of goal in life is never easy and with writers, what goes on inside our heads is just as important--no, far more important--as the events that occur outside it. 

So, today, hug your writer friends and let's all go forth and be gritty!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Getting Ready for the Golden Heart Part 2: The Writing

So are you polishing your Golden Heart entries? Great! Last week I talked about Story—making sure yours was big enough, had the right elements to be a romance, and how friends can help you to see those big-picture things.

Today I want to focus on the Writing.

At the end of this blog post are some resources I used that I’ve found to be very helpful. Three articles were written by Ruby Sisters, members the Golden Heart class of 2009, now published authors, who contribute to the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog which is always chock full of great writing and career advice. (see

Scene Level. First off, every scene in your story should have a structure. I had absolutely no clue what this was until two years ago despite taking many workshops, reading craft books, etc. But I can tell you that a huge amount of writers don’t get this and to write to get published, you have to! This is the reason I have four manuscripts under my bed which will stay there forever. I’m telling you, this is really important!

Every scene starts out with your character having a tangible goal. The scene must end with yes, she/he got that goal but life gets worse anyway, or no, she/he did not achieve the goal and furthermore, life gets worse anyway. This is a complicated topic but well worth learning about. If you’re interested, I did a whole blog post for Romance University on that topic here.

Cut the Backstory. Read through your first pages and highlight any explaining. Then, as Hope Ramsay suggests,  go back and cut all of it. Find ways to disseminate this information in dialogue or show it with action instead of telling it. It’s like Margie Lawson says:  backstory is like taking a piece of paper and ripping it up into tiny pieces and placing tiny pieces of it throughout the story. Ask youself—what are the ONLY things my reader needs to know RIGHT NOW and CUT the rest.

Start at the right place. Don’t describe the beauteous scenery. Don’t have your heroine walking and thinking. Find the point in your story where, as Hope Ramsay says, two people are fighting something or about something and cut everything before this point. Open with a situation, a problem, with action. People want a dilemma, a struggle—but they want it from your character’s deep point of view.

Make sure your character has a goal and make it clear from page one. (Hope Ramsay)

A point to remember about all this action:  no one will care about action if they don’t care about your character. Some say you only have one paragraph to get the reader to like your character. As Jeannie Lin says, readers want to recognize your heroine/hero as someone “unique, admirable, sympathetic, or likable.” The action has to be tied to this character’s deep point ov view, i.e.—we must experience the conflict through that characters eyes, ears, skin, taste, smell, etc.--oh--and most important of all, through their HEART. 

Your hero or heroine must be well motivated and likeable or at least redeemable. If they are arrogant, gruff and distasteful—no! No one is going to want to keep reading. Remember, in a romance, you want your reader to fall in love with your hero. (I am not an expert at this. But even if you have a character with real issues, there has got to be something in their makeup that makes people want to cheer for them.)

Characters have to be:  wounded, unpredictable, yearning, passionate, complex, resourceful, and gutsy when challenged (James Scott Bell workshop). They must confront their worst flaws, challenge their beliefs, and face their biggest fears (Lori Wilde workshop).

Characters must be unique—they have personality and this comes out when they speak. For your own benefit, give them traits (sassy, shy, fearful, argumentative when pushed, etc.) and make sure every time they open their mouths to speak, they are exhibiting one of those traits.

Start with a great first line. (Usually not a description of scenery). Really work on this line. It will draw your readers in. Don’t initially refer to your main character as “he” or “she,” leaving the reader to wonder for paragraphs who they are—give them a name.  Should we know where they are, what time of day, what season? Set the stage appropriately to orient your reader.

Are high stakes apparent from the get-go? Do your reveal a secret, ask an intriguing question, create high stakes (Alexandra Sokoloff workshop)?

Read your work out loud—you’ll catch all kinds of problems with flow, rhythm, etc. Check for white space—long paragraphs cause people to fall asleep. Watch for overwriting—too many adjectives or adverbs (Jeannie Lin) that may make it seem you are in love with your prose.

Golden Heart Checklist (not inclusive—I’m sure there’s more!)
  • Does your scene have a goal and structure and end on a “disaster”?
  • Have you begun with action/conflict/some tension between people, people and a monster, etc.
  • Great first line
  • Identify the characters, setting, time, season if important 
  • Emotion, conflict, likeability—make these things evident up front
  • Character with a great desire, passion, a yearning, gutsy, resourceful, likable?
  • Deep Point of View—the POV character experiencing life through her/his senses. Don’t forget smell and touch if appropriate.
  • Show not tell
  • Axe the backstory.
  • Don’t describe things unless relevant (slows pacing) (Katie Graykowski has a really funny line that will never let you forget this here)
  • Watch your dialogue tags. Replace some with body language, e.g., “”You bet,” he said, vs. “You bet. He took a long, slow pull of beer.
  • Watch for too much blow by blow body language:  “He grabbed the beer bottle and sat down, turning away from her. He picked up his book and walked to the kitchen She took a sip of beer then set her bottle down.”
  • End your entry on a significant hook. Again, action without emotion doesn't cut it but be sure to adjust your pages so that you've ended on a hook that will keep your readers wanting more!

Final WordDon’t Forget the Romance! Checklist
  • Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. Important, important, important.
  • Romance permeates all aspects of the story in one way or another.
  • Be clear who the hero and heroine are from the beginning! This sounds ridiculous but don’t let the heroine’s best friend overshadow her or a platonic male friend of the heroine be mistaken for the hero!
  • In category romance, if the hero and heroine are not together, they are apart and thinking about each other.
  • The hero must have a heart of gold and act heroically even if he has issues.
  • Heroine must not be petulant, self indulgent, or merely be acted upon—she must act!
I hope these accumulated tips that have been so helpful to me are helpful for your work in progress even if you're not aiming for the GH this year. Now go forth and polish! 

If you have any more tips that can be added to the checklist, please comment and I'll add them and republish the complete list next week.


The First Five Pages…and the Red Line of Death by Jeannie Lin

Tips for Improving Your First Fifty Pages by Hope Ramsay

Five Things Every Contest Newbie Should Know by Katie Graykowski 

Make a Scene! Or, Why Scenes Should Be Seen and not Heard by Miranda Liasson 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Getting Ready for the Golden Heart, Part 1: Your Story: Make it a Good One

Today and next Friday, November 15, I'm going to post some pointers for those of you who are planning to enter the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart Contest, which opens to entries on November 12. (For more information, go to and look under "Awards" and then "Golden Heart." Here's the link:

What does it take to final in the Golden Heart? This year, on my sixth try, I finaled in two categories and won the Contemporary Series category. (What follows is based on my own experience, so please take what helps and ignore what doesn't.)

First off, finaling takes getting through five preliminary round judges who judge your partial manuscript ("the partial"--approximately the first 50 pages) on a fifty point scale:  Plot/Story 10 Points, Romance 20 Points, Characters 10 Points, and Writing 10 Points. Entrants who final need to get 90% of the total possible score or above. (I did not find this on the RWA website, but on my score sheets, it said that final scores are calculated by dropping the high and low total scores and averaging the remaining three total scores. This helps to protect from very lenient or very harsh judging. )

Here are the three things I think you need to final:

--A Good Story that meets or exceeds the expectations of your genre and offers the reader an emotional experience that captures their hearts.

--Writing that shines and is free of amateurish mistakes.

--Luck! In a perfect universe, all judges would be impartial and fair. Well, welcome to real life, where some judges are tough, some are easy, and some will either really love or really hate your story. Luck of the draw which ones you get! Stories that are entered one year may not final while the next they do…so who knows? This is one aspect you have no control of.

So let's talk about the first point--The Good Story. It's not enough to write a story about nice people doing nice things. (Trust me, I know, my first four manuscripts were like this, unremarkable, low-tension stories.) It's a feat to come up with a story idea, let alone write and polish 50 pages and submit a synopsis. Yet you must write a story that keeps tension, conflict and angst high so your reader wants more--so she/he is really sad when those fifty pages end. Not being boring for that many pages requires a lot of skill.

Good stories start off with a bang (in the middle of action, something going on) and grab the reader with emotion. But even the biggest action sequence will fail to impress if no one cares about your characters. So the action does not have to be big, Hollywood action--but it does have to be some situation where the characters are doing something besides walking through lush scenery thinking of the hot guy they just met. (Starting with description--probably not the best idea.)

End your partial with a big hook. Again, leaving your heroine dangling off the old London Bridge (as I did in one ms) is great but don't throw in action for action's sake. The big hook at the end can be as simple as a long awaited/forbidden/unintended kiss. It should be emotionally big, not necessarily action-packed-big. One of my finaling entries ended with a kiss that someone had second thoughts about--pretty simple. The other ended with a revelation that the long-lost love the heroine thought was dead was alive. Again, go for emotional impact not big Hollywood set piece.

If your 50 pages as it currently stands does not end on a hook, what should you do? My answer: manipulate your pages so that for the GH it does.

Is Your Story Big Enough to Sustain 200-300 pages of conflict? If you're writing Category Romance, study Romance Tropes. These are plot devices like enemies to lovers, mistaken identity, fake engagement, revenge, redemption, boss-employee, reunited lovers, etc. Typically for category, you need three tropes per story. Reading extensively in the genre you are targeting will give you a feel for this.

If you're writing Single Title, you need a High Concept idea. This is the kind of idea that makes you exclaim Wow! Why didn't I think of that?! or I've got to read this! when you read a back-cover blurb. It's original, emotional, compelling, and clever. If you don't know what this is, check out Lori Wilde's Got High Concept? workbook available from her website. High Concept is the idea that makes your story stand out from the rest.

The point is, if you are writing romance, you must know the kind of book you are writing. You must target your market by doing research. It's not enough to simply write the book of your heart. If your book does not have the tension to sustain an entire book, no one is going to judge it well in contests no matter how great your writing is and no one is going to publish it. The idea and the characters must hook your reader from the beginning--from Paragraph 1.

Remember the Essence of a Romance.  Your main goal in writing a romance is to tell an emotionally powerful story about people whose flaws get in the way of their leading the fullest life they could and how love for another person gives them the impetus to overcome these flaws by making choices under pressure so they can become the people they were always meant to be. Characters must be pushed to grow and change so they are not the same people at the end as they were at the beginning.

Check your story:  does it have external conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart? Does it have internal conflict keeping them apart? Is there a romance? I've judged contest entries where the entry is all romance and no external situation at all. And others where the hero doesn't show up until page 40.

Force yourself to share your work. My recommendation is that at least three people besides yourself should read your pages before you submit. I think this is truly hard for some of us, especially when we are just starting out. It's scary to share something so close to your heart!

Why, you say, is finding reading friends/critique partners so important? Because we burn out. We become overfamiliar with our story and our words. We cannot be objective about our own work. If you have time, putting your entry away for a week or two and looking at it again helps a lot, but having somebody else's eyeballs besides your own is crucial. But remember the bottom line:  trust your own judgment. Your best friend may unintentionally crucify your voice. A good rule is, if more than one person points something out in your manuscript as not quite right, look hard at those things. It's tricky--knowing when to trust your gut and when to believe what a reader tells you.

So there you have it, my take on Story. Hope this helped. Next week, I'm going to talk about writing tips and a first page checklist to help polish your entry. Any questions…ask away! And keep polishing!