Please join me in welcoming our special guest blogger, Haywood Smith. (We need an announcer's voice here.)
First, thanks to Mary and the Pink Fuzzies for this chance to e-meet new readers and writers.
How I got here.
For those of you who think it’s too late to pursue a dream, I’m living proof that it’s not. I don’t go to Plan B very easily, so it took me a lot longer than it should have to realize God didn’t want me to be a residential real estate broker/associate and appraiser. First, He sent me mostly psychotic buyers and sellers—with a few wonderful exceptions—then He allowed me to be assigned to a subdivision sales trailer with no bathroom and a partner who propositioned my teen-aged son. Then He topped it off with a real estate recession and 14% interest rates.
But the son thing was what tore it. So I called my precious friend Carolyn Stovall and asked her, “What can I do? I don’t have a college degree. All my experience is in real estate. My arthritis is so bad, I can’t even get a job as a greeter at WalMart for the benefits, because I can’t stand on the concrete. And I’m so numerically challenged that one of my personal bankers gave me two boxes of promotional candy to take if I let my checking account die a natural death, then open the new one with their competition!” (Scout’s honor.) “If I tried to run a cash register, I’d probably end up arrested as a felon.”
She responded by asking, “If somebody told you you were going to die in two years, what would you do?”
I heard my voice say, “I’d write a book and try to get it published,” and the minute I heard it, I realized I finally know what I wanted to be when I grew up!
They say, “Write what you love to read,” and I loved to read accurate historical novels. But, being a businesswoman, I looked into it and found out my best chance of getting published was in the romance genre, so I joined Georgia Romance Writers and learned all about the art, craft, and business of writing Historical romances. It took me five years, but my first historical, Shadows in Velvet, was nominated for four national awards. I was forty-seven before I saw my name on a book, but it was well worth the wait.
In the next five years I wrote five more single title historicals (Secrets in Satin, Damask Rose, Dangerous Gifts, Highland Princess, and Border Lord), which all won critical and reader approval. Each one featured a strong heroine, a hero who was a real man, great love scenes between husband and wife, and accurate history. And in each one, I tried to focus on timeless women’s issues that I and my friends were facing, like abuse and loss and senile parents, so my readers could relate personally to the stories. I also included a strong dose of humor with the drama, because that’s what I like to read. All my historicals end with positive resolutions because life gives me plenty of grief for free, so I don’t want to spend money or precious time finishing a book and saying, “Bummer.” (Can we say, Oprah’s book club?)
How I changed from historical romances to hardback women’s fiction.
Then, after thirty years of marriage, I found out Prince Charming was a toad. I was devastated and destitute—totally on my own financially for the first time in my life. I loved my historicals, but that genre didn’t pay enough for somebody like me with chronic health issues to maintain insurance, so I decided to switch to humorous women’s fiction for Baby Boom women, using my divorce as the inspiration for Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch, a fictional story about a woman who loses everything after being married to the same man for most of her life, but becomes whole and joyous on her own.
So the worst thing in my life (besides my only son’s having liver cancer) ended up sowing the seeds of my success. Only after the fact did I realize that God didn’t want me living in danger and deception, and now I’m happily living across the street from my son, his wonderful wife, and my three grandbabies.
Though reality might inspire me with ideas for characters and stories, all my characters and stories are fictional, including Lin in Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch. I let her do everything I would never dream of doing (including cussing the worst word in the English language, in quadruplicate). Well, I actually did climb up in God’s lap, beat on His chest, tell Him I hurt, and cussed the air blue. But I outgrew it, and He was big enough to take it.
And, ironic as it may seem, my heroine—who came from my own subconscious—was further along in the healing process than I was, so she became my guide to recovery. I threw in thirty years’ worth of lies, damned lies, gossip, and innuendo from eight small towns in my area, and voila! My first hardback women’s fiction novel was a hit!
Queen Bee sure was cathartic, not just for me, but for so many of my readers who’d had to put the pieces back together, themselves. It’s so humbling to read their e-mails sharing their own challenges.
When that book did well, I decided I wanted to do a girlfriend book about Baby Boomers, so, inspired by Jenny Josephs’ wonderful poem “Warning” and my own high school experiences in Atlanta during the sixties, I wrote The Red Hat Club about a group of “girls,” friends since high school, who help one of them get the goods on her cheatin’, lyin’ lawyer husband. Instead of going after the mistress, the wife gets all the financial ammo she needs, then packs her husband’s things, takes them to the secret condo where he’s stashed his mistress, who’s thrilled to hear the wife hand over her husband to marry the mistress. Which, of course, is the last thing the husband wants to do. Can we say, seriously unhappy ex . . . and alimony for life, whether she remarries or not? Grin, grin.
I didn’t find out about the Red Hat Society (inspired by the same poem) till I was halfway through the book, but I thank the Good Lord for the Society. I joined immediately and love to go speak at their regional get-togethers, which are always a hoot. I’m now Queen Mother of two chapters.
The Red Hat Club did so well that my editor tabled Ladies of the Lake, a sisters book I had written, and asked me to do a sequel to The Red Hat Club, so I wrote The Red Hat Club Rides Again, in which the prodigal, Pru, falls off the wagon with a 9 on the Richter Scale, so the girls have to stage an intervention in Vegas, then act as her family in rehab whether she likes it or not. To celebrate her return to sobriety, the rich one takes them all on a month-long, carte blanche plastic surgery cruise!
No, there’s no such thing. Don’t ask me where I get this stuff. I’ve always had a seriously overactive imagination, the only difference now is, everybody knows about it.
Rides Again did so well, I wrote Wedding Belles—a romp about mothers and daughters, weddings, unsuitable suitors, and having or becoming mothers-in-law—which is available September 2, 2008, in hardback and CD. My editor cut the flashbacks to each Red Hat Club member’s wedding from the final edit, so I’m posting those as a special exclusive for visitors to my web site, haywoodsmith.net.
Right now, I’m just finishing up a complete revamp of Ladies of the Lake, about four sisters from Atlanta who have to spend ninety days without families or friends in their grandmother’s derelict house on a remote lake in the North Georgia mountains (Can we say, mommy camp?), so they can inherit and sell the valuable land. Since it’s a comedy, they find two mummified bodies (one in a WWI doughboy’s uniform) sitting in great-grandpa’s masterpiece hand-carved chairs, with a moonshine still, in the walled-up root cellar. It will be out next fall. Check out my web site at haywoodsmith.net for more about that.
What’s great about writing and what’s not.
What I love most about writing is hearing from or meeting readers whose lives my books have brightened.
What I don’t love about writing is rewrites and not having the time (or brain cells) to read for pleasure anymore. And I never read the genre I’m writing, for fear that I might inadvertently imitate another author.
How I do it.
Since writing is my livelihood, I approach it like a business and work at least forty hours a week (usually a lot more) on business chores, marketing, or writing.
Some of my wonderful writer friends (Patti Callahan Henry, for one) can sit down and do a complete rough draft in a few weeks. But I’m a real plotter, so I plan my books out completely before I write the first word, and I talk to my editor while I’m planning, so we’re both on the same page. I usually get serious about that about halfway through the current book I’m writing, which gives me a great incentive to finish, so I can get to my new story. I’m currently working out four specific high-concept story ideas for my next four novels.
As for planning, first, I come up with a concept. Then I think a lot about my characters and the conflicts. Then I fill out a twelve-page character analysis questionnaire I developed, one for each main character. These include the psychological profile for each character, which provides believable motive for their actions. Then I do a “tell sheet” that provides verbal and visual cues into each character’s state of mind. I print all that out, then summarize the key info (description, husband(s), kids, schooling, birthday, etc.) onto one page for quick reference while I’m writing, with the detailed info behind it.
For Ladies of the Lake, I tried using a big 3-ring notebook with subject dividers (for each character, the synopsis, the outline, reference material, etc.), and it was a whole lot easier than constantly shuffling through a giant accordion file, so I’ll be using that for future projects, too.
After firming up the characters, I use color-coded cards for each main element in the story, including only what the editor has to know, in brief, punchy sentences. Then I put them all together. Typed up, that’s my synopsis. It’s not a blow-by-blow, but a brief discussion of the high concept, conflicts, and resolutions.
Only then do I use 4” x 6” index cards like a movie storyboard, briefly writing down what’s going to happen in each chapter and scene, what the objectives of that scene are, and any secondary elements (like metaphors) I want to use for enrichment. My final question before recording that is “How can I make it funny?” or “How can I make it touching?” Then I transfer that to my computer and print it out as a chapter-by-chapter outline. That way, I stay focused, and every scene is already vivid in my mind, but the characters have leeway to do what my imagination might add in when I sit down to write.
Where do I get my ideas?
As for inspirations, I find them everywhere. People think their lives are unique (including me), but the truth is, there are no new stories. The costumes and the props might change, but basic archetypal characters and stories have resounded through the drama and history of every culture and religion. For me, writing is like making a colorful quilt. I didn’t weave or dye the material, but I can choose what to use, cut it out, and put it together into something that’s unique to me.
For information about my teaching seminars and workshops and appearances, please check out my web site at haywoodsmith.net.
I’d be happy to answer any questions that would be of interest to readers or other writers, but time doesn’t permit me to go into details about specific projects. At this time, I cannot read or critique material from other authors, though if I could clone myself, I’d be glad to do that, too!
My answers are based on my own experiences, so if they don’t jive with your needs or experiences, please feel free to disregard them.
My direct e-mail is email@example.com. Please reference BLOG in the subject line. I’m looking forward to e-meeting you all.
Please join me in welcoming our special guest blogger, Haywood Smith. (We need an announcer's voice here.)