We've Gone to Look for America

Hubby and I are in Florida, currently visiting what's known as The Forgotten Coast--the NW Gulf coast. We landed in Orlando at around midnight on Monday, rented a Chrysler 200 convertible, spent the night in Orlando, and then took off in the morning for The Forgotten Coast. We have business in Orlando from Friday-Monday, but wanted to see the part of the state that we haven't seen before, prior to our time in Orlando.

Traveling the back roads, as we wanted to do, I was reminded of the Simon and Garfunkel song, America. The link is of a YouTube video of the song, which was popular when we were young'uns in college.

We spent Tuesday night in Panacea, and then this morning visited Wakulla State Park. On a boat tour, we saw many birds, alligators and some manatees. Here's a picture of a baby alligator who posed for us.

Afterwards, we headed west to Panama City, which is about 120 miles from Panacea. We've been eating local fare, and while two meals of it were okay, we've now had our fill.

People here speak with a southern accent, and every meal seems to come with hush puppies (which are some kind of little mound of deep fat fried cornbread highly seasoned with onion) and also cheese grits, which aren't cheesy enough, IMO. In addition, last night's dinner included coleslaw and all you can eat scallops. Half of what they gave me was plenty.

We had lunch today in Appalachicola, at the Seafood Grill, which has been in business since 1903. It's a real hole in the wall, but hubbie had some tasty grouper, and I had local blue crab cakes. The grouper was far better than the crab cakes. I'm sure they were excellent crab cakes, but I just didn't like them very much. Too mushy. The gumbo, though, was super tasty.

Apparently this area harvests 80% of the nations oysters, and so signs for oysters are everywhere. The Seafood Grill served them 17 different ways, but we're not fond of oysters, so we passed on them.

The historic district of Apalachicola has quirky shops such as the one pictured below, the Apalachicola Sponge Shop, boasting antiques, handmade soap with little pieces of sponge stuck in them, and metal art--I almost bought a flying pig to go with my collection of "When Pigs Can Fly." And all of the viewing is to the tunes of Eric Clapton.

The weird little guy, above, is sitting in front of the sponge shop, holding a sponge.

This afternoon, we went out on St. George Island, which is a long thin barrier island off the coast. The bridge to get to is is something like an eight miles long.

These pictures were taken from the lighthouse on St. George. You can see the bridge in the center top of the picture.

Finally, we circled back to Panama City, and instead of staying in its historic district, we're in the modern part of town  I was getting a little worried about most of what I'd seen today. It seemed as if everything had been built about 50 + years ago, and then forgotten about, as if we were in some weird time warp.

But in modern Panama City, we found strip malls and big box stores, food chains--had a nice dinner at Chili's. The beer was selling at 2-for-1; we split some nachos and then split a chocolate volcano cake for dessert, and thus had dinner for two for around $20 total. Not bad. (Also, not very nutritious!) I truly miss eating as I've been eating for the past six weeks, which is lots of fresh fruit and veggies, and just a bit of meat each day, although I did have a huge spinach salad for breakfast yesterday. Yeah. I know. It was weird eating spinach for breakfast.

It's off to Tallahassee in the morning, and depending on how much time we spend there, we'll either stay the night or swing on down to Tampa and St. Petersburg, and be back in Orlando mid Friday afternoon.


Goodbye old bathroom, hello sweet new one!

Our old bathroom, above, hadn't been updated since we built the house in 1979. I took these pictures about a month ago, just before we gutted it.

The new bathroom. The youngest grandkids had to make a special trip to Grandma's house to try out the new tub, even before I had managed to apply the wallpaper border. They were disappointed they couldn't slide off the edge anymore, but c'est la vie. Things change.

The Sunday Salon

Phew! I finished most of the tasks I'd set out to do over the three weeks between our California vacation and the Florida vacation. My newly remodeled bathroom is now complete with a wallpaper border that I hung yesterday. The master bedroom has new carpeting for the first time since we built our house 34 years ago, along with a new comforter, curtains and oodles of matching pillows in a theme called Maui. (Think sunset colors.)

Lived-in houses begin to have a story to tell after a while. After I painted the master bedroom Ecru (quite a nasty color, but blends well with the new color scheme overall), I had my son-in-law rip off the trim around the closets, the door, and the base, in prep for the new carpeting and new trim. That revealed the history of paint colors in that room: mint green (original); bright gold (second color) and now Ecru, which is beige with a distinct greenish undertone. Each color change got a new comforter and curtains over the years, but not new carpeting, until now.

In prep for a dual birthday party this afternoon (hubby and son's), I had hubby hang new curtain rods in three rooms so I could install the new curtains, and the family could see all the improvements.

I also created a slideshow of about 150 pictures and several short videos from our California vacation, to show the family at the party.

And I managed to find a beautiful collage photo frame at Pier One for under $100 (my goal) that I'll use to insert a dozen of our own pictures from Hawaii, to hang in our now-Hawaii-themed bedroom. It was a project I'd started last week, thinking I'd buy professional photos, but I didn't want to spend $600, which was what it would've cost. It's true that none of our pictures will be larger than 8x10, and only one at that, but I guess I can always just stand closer to look at them. : >)

Hubby and I also applied for a Passport for the first time ever. We'll be flying the RV-7 into Saskatchewan around the Fourth of July, and to do that, you need more than an enhanced driver's license; you need a passport.

As for writing this week, no writing on a manuscript, but I I did spend most of Friday writing A-Z blog challenge posts, and am making good progress on them. During the week, I also finished reading and judging the Golden Heart contest entries, 550 pages' worth, and so I did a lot of reading!

I'm feeling good about leaving for our Florida vacation which, it turns out, we depart one day sooner than either hubby or I remembered. Good thing the airlines sent us a reminder.

The third book of Lauren deStefano's Chemical Garden trilogy, Severed, was released a couple of weeks ago. I LOVED Whither, the first book, but wasn't nuts about Fever, the second, and so I didn't finish it. But I was reading some reviews that claimed Sever was the best book of the three, and so I bought it. I read to the first quarter last night, and except for reading about two big things that happened in Fever, it's as if the second book doesn't need to exist. We're back where we started (location, characters), and I don't feel lost in the least.

From NetGalley, I downloaded The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abe. I love her historical romances, and this appears to be her first offering for Young Adults. She's a wonderful writer.

I also got He's Gone by another favorite author, Deb Caletti. This appears to be her first adult offering, or perhaps it fits into the New Adult category ... we'll see.

I was also able to get Lindsey Schiebe's debut, Riptide, that I was planning to read for the 2013 YA Debut Author Challenge via NetGalley.

I'm ashamed to say how many other books I got from NetGalley, that I have yet to finish reading and reviewing, but I WILL read and review them all. Three of them, I just need to write up a review. (The Beginning by Karen Kingsbury was an e-short teaser to The Bridge, which authors are doing often now as a marketing tool):

Then there are these wonderful Inspirational titles to read and review, most of them YA:
And these wonderful historical titles that I'm excited to read:
Now that I'm finished remodeling/spring cleaning for at least a couple of months, I'll have more time to read in the evenings. I plan to read two books, write two reviews each week over the next eight weeks, until I'm square with NetGalley again. It's such a wonderful opportunity to be able to choose and read these books for the mere price of a review.

How was your week, reading, writing, or otherwise?


What I Learned by Judging the Golden Heart 2013

If you’re not familiar with the Golden Heart contest, it is Romance Writers of America’s biggest and most prestigious annual contest, with about 1200 entries in seven categories (Short Contemporary; Long Contemporary; Short Historical; Long Historical; Paranormal; Inspirational; Young Adult). Besides being a RWA member, the one requirement is that you’re unpublished in narrative prose of 20,000 words or more (by the contest entry deadline).

By entering the contest, you also agree to judge entries from a different category than the one you entered. My entry was in Young Adult, and I elected to judge historical romance. I accepted two judging packets, meaning I judged 10 entries instead of five. One packet was Short Historical and the other was Long Historical.

After the preliminary round of judging, which is done by contest entrants, the field is narrowed to approximately 100 finalists, which will be judged by acquiring editors from romance publishers. Many finalists go on to sell their manuscripts because of this exposure. Obviously, it’s a BIG DEAL to be a finalist. In addition to having your entry read (and maybe bought) by an acquiring editor, there is a huge Awards Ceremony at the RWA national convention in August.

For many reasons, simply entering the contest was a great experience for me, which I'll write about sometime in another post. In this post, I’ll focus on only one reason: THE OPPORTUNITY TO JUDGE.

I got the chance to pretend I’m an agent or editor. And if I were an agent or editor, I would want to look at the full manuscript of three of the proposals I read. Each was very strong in all of the judging categories: the writing; the story/plot; the romance, and the characters.

I’m not at liberty to be specific about the proposals I judged, but I think I can say some general things I learned about Golden Heart entries. 

Of the three I’d like to read the complete manuscript, the writing in one was unusually nimble—literary with sparkling and totally apt figurative language—a delight to read. The characters were also unusual—if made into a movie, I could see Helena Bonham Carter playing the "wicked" mother in the story whose tone overall was droll and delightful.The hero and heroine are delightful and what keeps them apart (the plot) is believable, as well as the development of the romance. I could say far more about this entry, but it has a traceable history on the internet, and so I need to stop here. In one word: UNIQUE! Unique story; unique writing style. Will UNIQUE be a finalist, or go on to win, this year? We'll see. I am so happy to have been given the opportunity to read and judge this one.   

Of the other two that I would like to read the full manuscript, one was totally perfect in every Romance marker way—great romantic development, plot, characters, writing and synopsis. I’m sure it will final, and I can’t wait to see it among the finalists.

The last of the three, although exceptionally well written, with interesting characters and an interesting plot, cannot be classified as a romance, but as a story with a strong romance element. I suspect that will take it out of the running. We might see it on general fiction shelves someday, but it will not be published with Romance on the spine. It’s sad, because last year, there was a category for stories such as this. But the powers that be have decided that RWA is about writers of romance. It does not include the broader umbrella of novels with a strong romance element. Romance as a genre has a certain shape to it, and certain reader expectations. The romance is always the “A” story, and everything else, if there is anything else, is the “B” story.

Of the ten entries, one other wasn’t by definition a romance, although it also had a strong romance thread. It suffered from other problems as well: the characters weren’t unique; the writing was way over the top. Historical romance is lush by definition, but this writer seemed to think that if two adjectives are good, three are better. Also, the emotional reactions were so overblown that I’d hate to think how the characters would react if they found themselves in a situation where truly strong emotion were required. When emotion has already been amped to the max, there’s no place to go with it.

Of the remaining six, two were relatively strong in three of the four categories they were being judged on, but suffered in one area. In one, I couldn’t figure out why the hero and heroine didn’t get together soon after meeting—there was little of any true significance holding them apart. What happens is that you end up with a plot that keeps hitting the same note.

The hero and heroine can’t get together because of [this one thing], rather than because of [this, and then this, and then this]. It’s true that the internal reason stays constant throughout a romance, but in this case, there was no compelling internal reason or any truly significant external reasons. I felt like I was reading the same conversation in every scene, page after page after page, although I loved the setting and the characters and the writing.

The second of the two that I rated in the middle range was very well written but it seemed, unfortunately, like a story that’s been done a thousand times over the years, and probably has been. I couldn’t discern any new twists, and while the hero and heroine each had a seemingly compelling internal reason to keep them apart, any reasonable person (such as these two appeared to be) should be understanding about it from the get-go. 

As a rule of thumb, if a hero and heroine were to sit down and have a simple conversation that would clear up the issue between them, then the issue isn’t big enough to carry a book. In this novel, there were also some external things that kept them apart, but it was another person—several other persons—over the course of the story. I’d call this another version of hitting the same note. And for some reason, the author ignored the most obvious and fruitful external reason to keep the characters apart. (Maybe that's where she thought she was being different?) 

Also, except for lust, I wasn’t given reasons why they should fall in love. Some romances are extremely sensual, as this one promises to be, but in the end, lust can’t be the only thing that attracts them. Even in a steamy romance.

Of the remaining four, one was so dreadful that I could hardly stomach reading it. The final three suffered from a variety of ailments, the most glaring being character reactions, thus plots, that were improbable, making no sense at all.

It’s sad, because the authors were all fairly adroit on the sentence level, in terms of grammar and description—but they pushed their cardboard characters around on the page. They were also guilty of weak dialogue, and of half-page insertions (of exposition or expository dialogue) that appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with the theme or plot. In other words, the stories lacked focus; they were not honed and shaped to the point that every word held its weight.

These were things I noticed while judging 550 pages' worth of contest entries. But the biggest eye-opener for me came in the reading of the synopses.

Being that I read a maximum of about 50 pages of each manuscript, with a five-page synopsis (in most cases), I was able to discern the huge burden a synopsis carries as the vehicle for telling the rest of the story to a contest judge, prospective agent, or editor.

Nobody looks for fabulous storytelling in a synopsis, but the synopsis does need to convey some extremely important things. In the romance genre, these important things answer the question of what is keeping the lovers apart. It should also give hints as to what brings them together.

In almost all cases, these were the weakest elements in the synopses. Most clearly spelled out the plot, but sorely neglected these more important issues (when it comes to the romance genre). One would assume that if the information is lacking in the synopsis, it’s also lacking in the story.

Seeing this with my own eyes was truly educational for me. I’m in a critique group, and I dearly love my writing friends, but I’m the only one who writes romance, and we’re not all at the same stage in the writing journey. Few of us have completed several manuscripts, and are at the stage of writing proposals and seeking an agent or editor.

Thus, I haven’t had much experience with writing or reading short synopses, but I now understand at a new level what makes them work, as well as what makes them—and the stories they summarize—fail. 

I can clearly see how agents are able to judge an entire book after having read merely a 5-10 page writing sample, and a short synopsis. What an opportunity. 

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