LizAnn Carson

Releasing the stories into the world


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Staying within the Lines

Secret Garden, not quite finished

Secret Garden, not quite finished

I have a new coloring book. I love it. (If you’re curious, it’s called Secret Garden, by Johanna Basford.) It has page after page of these wonderful, flora-themed line drawings to color and play with.

As a child, I was always a first-rate colorer. I knew how to take my time, to stay within the lines. As I got older, I remember being frustrated by the juvenile nature of most of the available coloring books. This was long before grown-up coloring books became popular, of course. Now you can get coloring books to help you study anatomy or botany, coloring books that mimic stained glass windows, coloring books with patterns ranging from old wallpaper patterns to crazy paisleys, and everything in between. Being an adult colorer has never been easier.

No one ever told me, back in those childhood days, that you could draw your own pictures. That you didn’t have to be confined by someone else’s lines. It was as an adult that I discovered that I could draw, if I put my mind to it. Or that I could create Zentangle drawings that blew my mind. Nobody told me.

I’ve picked up some of those skills now, to some extent anyway. But I’ve also colored my way to my relatively ripe age, happy as a clam.

Funny thing, though. When I look at my coloring in my new book, I realize I’m not quite as good at staying within the lines as I was.

Being me, I have to wonder if this is symbolic. I’ve never personally wanted to stay within the lines. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of why I became a romance author.

Pity the poor romance author! Given no respect, no credibility. And yet we account for an enormous percentage of fiction sales. And while not all romance writing is great, a lot is nothing to be ashamed of. We can write, dammit. But it really does feel sometimes like we’re on the outside looking in, waiting for someone to notice us and say, hey, wait a minute, this book is actually good.

I’ve heard it said that romance writing is writing to a formula. In some cases it plays out that way. But not all cases. Having the lines pre-drawn, as in a coloring book, means you know the beginning and the ending before you start writing. But then you get to choose the colors, fill in the blanks. How the beginning and ending happen, and all the steps in between, are yours to tint. My finished drawing, or book, isn’t going to look a thing like yours.

And then there’s the business of coloring outside the lines on purpose. Now we’re getting exciting—and scary. My new coloring book actually encourages you to draw your own lines, add to the patterns. I’m not sure I have the courage for that (the old what-if-I-mess-it-up thing starts happening). In writing, sure, I’ll try it. It’s called finding your voice. It’s called ignoring convention and going with your gut. It’s called making your book the best darn book you can, on your own terms.

I bought a new pack of markers to go with my new coloring book. And that’s what I’ll do this afternoon after tea, having written all morning. I’ll stay within the lines or not. I’ll layer colors. Maybe I’ll add a trailing vine or a red flower. I’ll make the picture my own.

(One last note. In amazon.ca, Secret Garden is a number one best seller in children’s coloring books. Kids these days are a lot luckier in their selections than I was!

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The Agony of the First Draft

I’m about two-thirds of the way to finishing the final book in the Calder Creek series. What this means, in terms of my process and my sanity, is that I’ve got the figurative bit in my teeth, I’m obsessed, I couldn’t stop writing if I tried, the finish line is so close I can almost touch it …

Unfortunately, it also means that as of now, everything I’ve written and everything I’ll write until the first draft is done is officially garbage. Awful. Boring. The worst tripe I, or anyone else, has ever produced.

Why, oh why, do we do this to ourselves? Writing is bliss, writing is hell.

For me, getting the first draft down on the page/screen is the hardest part. I become convinced that I can’t do it, that it will never be any good. I hate this. And the sad reality is that a lot of that first draft needs attention. I’ll put the whole thing aside for a few weeks, then go back to it. That’s when the fun starts. For some reason I don’t mind the revising, reworking, rewording, reordering, and generally cleaning up the mess that is currently Calder Creek 3: Mel.

This may not be usual. A fellow writer sweats her first drafts so they’ll be as good as they can be, because she dreads revising. Most articles I read imply that the revision process is akin to pulling teeth without novocaine. So maybe I’m lucky. All I have to do is survive that first draft and the rest is play.

I write quickly, and I put in the hours, so I fully expect to get to first-draft-completion nirvana in a couple of weeks. I sure hope so. This not-good-enough feeling is depressing. Those around me suffer. I eat too many carbs. I resent it when friends want me to come out to play. My sleep patterns go skewed. Not pretty. Not pretty at all.

I can already see some of where the book falls short: I don’t have a good enough handle on my hero. I know what he does, I know his motivations, I know what he looks like and how he feels. But there’s something in the essence of him that I haven’t been able to capture yet. I’m relying on that few weeks’ breathing room and the revision process to bring him to life.

Well, never mind. I love my heroine and I’m having a good time with the mess … er … situation she finds herself in. I’m glad she has a happy-ever-after in her future. There’s nothing wrong with a little romance, especially as winter drags on. (Even here in the Pacific Northwest where the plum trees and rhododendrons are in bloom and the spring bulbs are all up, days are chilly and gray.)

I’m going to stop typing now and make some supper; at this stage in the process I’m a master of fast meals. Then, I think I’ll write for a while. That finish line’s getting closer …


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To Cuss or Not to Cuss

You have a hero – or a heroine, but let’s keep it simple – a hero who lives in a serious man’s world. Maybe he has a healthy temper. Maybe he’s had a bad day. Whatever, it’s easy to picture him using, shall we say, colorful language.

So. You’re a writer. Do you write the swear words?

When I was a kid, the offensiveness gradient for the set of “bad” words was very different. We substituted ‘darn’ for ‘damn’; nowadays, ‘damn’ barely makes it onto the list of swear words. My grown children wouldn’t blink an eye at the F-bomb, and in some moods I don’t, either.

In my world of romance, where swearing is concerned, some authors use it, some don’t. I’m amused at the moment by one of the series I’m addicted to, Maya Banks’ KGI series. Her heroes swear. But the wife of one of those heroes is on his case to clean up his language. Hmm. Even heroes can learn, yes? This is a minor but realistic plot twist.

In the second book in my upcoming trilogy, there is a very tense scene, bordering on violence. I wrote it with a lot of profanity. The words worked. They belonged. This is the kind of language both Alan and Pat (my hero and heroine) might well use in the sort of confrontational situation I put them in. I thought the words were necessary to convey the hostility of the moment. It’s how they would speak, at that moment in their relationship. And because they are who they are, I scattered a few of these words  through the rest of the manuscript, mainly in internal dialogue, to convey frustration, dismay, disbelief.

Then my husband read Pat’s story. Thank heaven for husbands; they can be very useful to have around! He pointed out to me that however realistic the dialogue might be, it’s not what my readers would expect.

I was breaking faith with my readers. And that’s not a good idea.

But this left me with a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up to. Could I convey the tension and violent feelings in the scene, without either character swearing? One way or another, I had to try.

In the meantime, I was given hope from an unexpected source. Have you read anything by Harlan Coben? I recently read Missing You (Dutton/Penguin 2014). Now, this is a first-rate thriller. It has a heroine who’s an NYPD cop, an old murder, assorted killers, and a bad guy who will keep you awake at night. But about two-thirds of the way through, I realized what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have profanity.

OMG. (Does that count?)

This phenomenal mystery/suspense writer doesn’t use bad language! And believe me, he gets his point across. In spades. When things are bad in his books, they are very bad. But I’d be willing to bet that you will read this book and not notice that the characters don’t swear.

So it can be done. I went back into Pat’s story and excised the language. Added more action and visceral responses (gut clenching, muscles liquefying, that kind of thing). I like the result. It really is possible to create the tension without the language. It’s a challenge, but it’s possible.

To write is to experiment, and I’m pleased with my most recent experiment in writing. But isn’t that what we writers try to do? We convey the essence of a situation, yes, but in a way that’s congruent with personal style and readers’ expectations. I love Pat’s book; I think it’s my strongest work so far. I hope you’ll agree. Only, darn, it’s not ready for me to show it to you yet …


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Writing Winter Memories: Snow

Back story: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Later, when I had a young family, I lived in Montreal.

So when I write about the Solstice/Christmas season, what do I write about? Snow.

Depending on the setting, of course. Seducing Adam occurs in coastal British Columbia, in the springtime; no snow in this one. But when the setting works … oh, yes.

As someone who’s lived in Atlanta and New Zealand and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, I can testify, first-hand, that a lot of the world doesn’t have snow at the end of the year. But somehow that’s become the staple romantic image, hasn’t it? All the stuff about sleigh bells, snowmen, ruddy-cheeked kids coming in for hot chocolate … you get the idea. In fact, whether you live in a snow-coated part of the world or not, by now, you may be heartily sick of it.

Well, I agree. And yet I scoured my little city looking for artificial snow to add romance to my (artificial) Yule tree – and failed. I’d left it too late. All the rest of Victoria got there first. I envy them their romantic trees with sprayed-on snow.

I haven’t seen snow at Christmas in years. And I’m old enough now to put that longing for the whole sugary image aside and be grateful for clear sidewalks. Christmas Day in Victoria was brilliantly sunny and about ten degrees (call it fifty Farenheit). We went for a walk along the waterfront, along with every other resident and dog in the city. Would I, in my wildest imaginings, trade a snowscape for this? Not likely.

So, as I work on the first two volumes of the Calder Creek Trilogy, what do I write? Snow. In Amanda there’s a whole Christmas day in which half of Calder Creek has no power and the storm of all storms is raging. In Pat there’s a family snowball fight. Writing those scenes had a funny effect on me. The setting and the events stayed with me for days: the whole package of cooking the celebratory dinner, taking the kids out to play, collapsing around the fire feeling warm and loved … and the snow, always the snow.

How do you write a snow day that fires the romantic imagination? Well, you throw in all the tropes – almost incidentally, without clichés. You include the romance of watching snow fall through a window, perhaps with a hot drink. Add a fire, and cozy pyjamas. If it’s a holiday, add food to die for – and let your characters overeat (just a little, we don’t want discomfort here). If your story has kids in it, give them an afternoon of happy play, indoors or out. Allow everyone a time at the end of the day to collapse in blissful content. In short, buy into the myth, using that writers’ rule: show, don’t tell.

Once you’ve got all that, by all means throw in the emotion and conflict of a good novel. They’ll play well together; trust me. In fact, a romantic setting with less than romantic events ramps up the tension very nicely.

If you’re in snow now, I hope you enjoy it. If you’re not, rest assured life’s just as good! And you can share the snow experience when you read, listen to seasonal music, dream. With the advantage that you don’t have to shovel sidewalks …

Best wishes for 2015.


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Failure as a Woman

Okay, I admit it. I’ve failed the woman-test.

Makeup? I’ve never learned the mysteries. Foundation? Powders and blushes? My mother never taught me, and I never learned. My occasional dabblings have failed to enhance. Plus, I get bored trying.

Hair? At least I do get it professionally cut nowadays. With standard instruction to the stylist: whatever it looks like when I wake up in the morning is what it’s going to look like for the rest of the day. Minimum maintenance, that’s me.

Clothes? Put me in anything flirty and feminine and mentally I go straight to cow-in-a-dress. Way back when, I had my colors done – remember that? Thank the Goddess for that! Now at least I know I should stay away from forest greens and oranges and such. The problem is, I really, really don’t want to be condemned to a life of pink. Personality-wise, pink is so not me.

But my big guilty secret? I’m not interested in shoes.

This at least means that my feet are in good shape. But it affects every aspect of my external presentation. I rarely wear skirts, mainly because I don’t have the right shoes. My sturdy lace-ups would look dumb, even I know that. So I suffer wardrobe challenges on a regular basis, and mainly wear jeans. On reflection, I don’t get invited to up-market restaurants very often …

I have a life-loving, girly-girl heroine coming up in book three of the Calder Creek Trilogy, so I foresee challenges ahead. Writing what I know clearly isn’t going to work, this time out.

This is where an active imagination shows its worth. Because even though she is so different from me, I do know how Mel feels in her clothes. She feels damn good. Ready to play, complete in herself. If her long, carrot-red hair is frizzy today, she doesn’t care – perfect with a peasant blouse, one she can pull just a little bit off the shoulder. If her shorts are, well, really short, it’s a hot day and she’s likely to be chasing a Frisbee. Clubs? Something diaphanous. Work? A shade less flirty, maybe a ruffle at the neck, stronger in the color department; nothing shy and pastel about Mel.

Have I learned something about my heroine by writing this post? Yep. And isn’t that one of the joys of being a romance writer? I’m getting to know someone now who was never me, a special someone heading for the happy ending I already see on her horizon.

I’m an absolute sucker for falling for my heroes – don’t we have to love them a little to write whole books about them? But we fall for our heroines, too, or at least I do. They’re our friends and our daughters and ourselves, we learn about them and learn with them.

Yeah. Writing romance is a good thing.