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Last Thursday, I attended Kristan Higgins book signing at Durham Public Library, which is a cozy library where one expects to encounter Lorelei and Rory from the Gilmore Girls. The activity room was filled to capacity with fans of Ms. Higgins work.
If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, GO! Ms. Higgins is a lively, eloquent, and entertaining speaker, who kept her audience enthralled the entire time.
Ms. Higgins has published seven books. Her current book, My One and Only, is on the USA Today and New York Times bestseller list. The story centers around a divorced couple. The heroine learns she’s maid-of-honor at the same wedding where her ex-husband is the best man. Because it’s a destination wedding In (Glacier National Park) Montana, they must ride together to the next airport.
This book is a departure from Higgins’ plucky classic romantic comedy heroines who believe in love. As usual, she decided to make things hard on her characters and contemplated the worst hero for her heroine– her ex.
At the time, she thought it was very original and didn’t realize there’s a class of books called reunion stories. For this type of story, a sunny heroine would not work. So Higgins created Harper, a woman who saw flimsy commitments her whole life. She did have a brief moment where she believed in love, but within a year she was divorced.
To avoid making her a cliché, Higgins wanted her to believe in marriage in a control freak sort of way. Then she set her off on the road, a place she’d never been before. She needed her characters far from the things they were comfortable with. And she needed the plot twists to be believable that they would end up stuck together.
Making it the best option for them to drive to the next airport required heavy usage of Google maps.
Higgins finds that the more she, writes the more she loves back story. In order to understand how things got so screwed up between them, she had to write about their history because the answers to their problems lay in past events.
Higgins loves to write about first love because it’s so seductive and the characters believe that as long as they love each other everything will be okay.
Her characters had to deal with the very real issues of communication in security. This may be her most emotionally mature work.
The heroine’s mother, Beverly, was originally envisioned as “Trailer Park Barbie.” however, the character fought back and refuse to obey Higgins. Instead of the very insensitive character she tried to write, the mother became kind and nice.
Every detail of the book was carefully selected, including Harper’s dog, Coco, who is half Jack Russell, half chihuahua. That made the dog part bold/brave and part fearful, reflecting on the duality of Harper.
To research Harper, Higgins picks the brain of a divorce lawyer friend.
Setting is very important to her. She went to Martha’s Vineyard to get a feel for the place. She’d never been to Glacier National Park, but someone in her writer’s group gave her hundreds of pictures. In order to capture the look and smell ,Higgins also went to the Park Services National Park website, where you can listen to the sounds you’d hear at each park.
In order to make the road trip from Glacier National Park to the airport realistic, Higgins employed Google maps, using the camera to see what the road looked like. The road trip went across Montana and North Dakota.
Higgins is a diehard Yankee fan. But her books are usually set in Red Sox territory. However it’s important to note the Red Sox hardly ever win a game.
When she started out as a writer all she wanted was to hold her book. Her agent told her that goal will change and she’d want to hit the lists.
Her kids are priority. But after hitting the lists and winning awards, she has traveled more. She’s spoken all over the country, but usually only sees the airport and the hotel. She attends conferences and writers groups’ events. Her busiest season is the spring and summer.
The more she writes, the faster she’s gotten at writing a book. As for self-doubt and worry, they remain a part of the process.
She enjoys her research, but it is scary to step outside what you’re used to. The road trip, the non-perky main character, the divorced couple–these were all risks.
To celebrate her placing on the New York Times list, Higgins called her friends and family and then helped her son with his math homework.
She is excited to have her publisher hire a publicist for her. She’s done interviews, blog radio talk show, and live chats with Q&A.
She just completed a book in March and turned it into her publisher. Her next book will be the last book of her contract.
The next book she’s writing will include the hero and heroine’s point of view in the third person. She’s very excited about it.
There are times, she and her publisher will disagree. For example, her publishers did not like how Harper was a departure from the typical romantic heroine. Higgins considered their feedback with an open mind, but felt strongly that Harper had to be this way. It looks like Higgins was right.
She has thought about doing a series, but hasn’t yet found a story for it.
In terms of her writing process, she starts with the character first, thinking what if you were x. She’s like a cat with a mouse, seeing if she likes it long enough to write a book. She has a file of 50 ideas, 49 of which did not become books. She’s also a big outliner, creating chapter by chapter outlines including setting. She’s very detailed and knows what will happen next.
Of course, things change in the first draft and many things have to be reworked. But that’s just part of the process of knowing your characters and spending time with them. She’s very hard on her characters and very realistic about her books, creating very high standards.
She read an excerpt from the book and it was absolutely brilliant. In this scene, Harper proposed to her boyfriend. Total Trainwreck.
Higgins loves kids and has them in her books. She has written three novels with fathers. Her 10th book will feature a heroine who is also a mom. Personally, she found the father is easier to write because she didn’t want to dive into motherhood in her romance novel. She also names novel kids after kids she knows in real life.
She tries to write everyday or do writing related activities. In the morning she gets her kids off to school, does housework, and goes to her office to write. Her office is located above her mother’s garage and does not have WiFi. A few hours of writing makes up a lot of pages.
She said the best and worst aspect of being a writer is that you are never away from your characters. There is no vacation from them.
She mentioned that her son wrote a novel at 11 and is now typing it with his cousin. Sounds like another Higgins author on the way.
Here are my notes from the CTRWA April meeting…
Next month is the CT Fictionfest one day conference. There will be 13 editors/agents in attendance and 128 attendees. And there is still availability if you’d like to attend.
- There will be:
- Cold reads of the 1st page of blind submissions during lunch and agents/editors will critique them.
- Agent/editor pitching sessions.
- Amazing workshops.
- A silent auction. Donations are currently being accepted.
Laura Moore was the guest speaker at our meeting. She talked about writing her romance trilogy.
- Her advice on the saggy middle? Resort to sex.
- She has had readers complain about not continuing characters in previous books. But she switched publishers and it is hard to get the later editors interested in her old characters
- It’s important to remember that readers get very invested in emotional lives of the characters you write.
- In a trilogy, it’s important to have an arc. Each book must be a complete story, but you have to unite all the books with a golden thread.
- This thread can be fine and weave seamlessly though.
- Her trilogy is a story of coming home/finding home. She wanted to explore the idea of sisters since she didn’t have them growing up.
- So she decided to write a story about three sisters coming together to save their family horse farm and find love.
- The sisters love lives waxed and waned throughout the books.
- Also, be honest with yourself about your personal life commitments and make sure you take them into consideration in setting deadlines.
- Moving, buying new house, college applications for kids–these all impact your writing life.
- She confessed to not having a feel for sentences and doesn’t think in terms of their beauty or rhythm. Instead, she strives to not make them flat or boring.
- She warned against making a heroine too perfect. In her first book, her heroine was gorgeous, a model and rich. Hard to make her sympathetic to readers. She had to have a weakness.
- As a writer, she finds herself more interested in backstory than what is happening in the novel. So she works to dole it out sparingly. Keeping in mind that backstory slows the pace.
- Her heros tend to be outsiders that come in.
- She loves prologues.
As a bonus session, Peter, Kristan Higgins and Jessica Andersen offered to be an “American Idol” panel to critique people’s pitches as preparation for CT Fictionfest. They were awesome. Gave honest, tactful and insightful feedback. And super thoughtful to do it before the conference so people have time to really hone their pitches.
Jessica started off with a quick overview of pitching:
- As a member of CTRWA, you can download from the members only section her pitching handout.
- She is doing the pitching workshop at CT Fictionfest next month.
- What are the key points of a pitch? Introduction, Mini-synopsis, and writing credits (if any).
- Introduce self and then state the title, wordcount, genre and hook.
- Introduce the main character and their challenge.
- Talk about who assists them.
- Tell what the twist is in the story–what works against the character?
- What are the stakes? Why should the reader care?
- The key is to make the pitch sounds like the back cover of a book.
- You are not trying to sell the entire story.
- You are trying to interest the editor/agent enough to get them to read 30 pages of the manuscript. You want to get a request so you skip the slush pile.
- Be coherent enough so that the agent/editor can see where you work fits in the universe.
- Kristan added that when an agent asks a follow-up question, take a breath and think, then only answer that question.
- Agents want to find a good book.
- Keep in mind great pitching doesn’t equal a great writer. But if you cannot talk about your story concisely, there may be a plot hole. Also try to keep the tone and presentation in line with your genre. Bring the voice in your story into your pitch.
Onto the actual pitches. Here are some points that were brought up by our fabulous “Idol” panel.
- Make sure your logline is specific. What sets your story apart from every other story?
- Keep it short. 1-3 minutes max. This allows time for questions and doesn’t allow agents’ eyes to glaze over.
- Make sure to tell the listener what is likable about your hero/heroine.
- Focus on the conflict of the story. What most the main character overcome.
- Be careful of x meets y comparisons.
- Avoid reciting your synopsis. They don’t want a blow-by-blow plot description.
- Talk about the most interesting stuff in your book. Dazzle them.
- Don’t get lost in the details or your own world building terminology. You’ll lose the listener.
- Voice in pitch is a definite plus.
- Don’t focus on setting up story and only talking through first 2 chapters. The best stuff may happen later. Give them a glimpse of the whole book. Intrigue them.
- Include inciting incident for story.
- Don’t talk about how to market the book for too long. A line or two is fine, but give them the meat and potatoes of the story.
- Practice reading pitch aloud because written sentences don’t always translate well into spoken word sentences.
- Shorter sentences work better in a pitch.
- Don’t talk about more than 3 names in the pitch. It confuses the listener. Don’t list all your characters
- Don’t ever say it’s a 10 book series. Way too big a gamble on an unknown commodity (unpublished writer). Say standalone with series potential.
During the worst of my jet lag, I couldn’t sleep from 2-6 a.m. for several nights in Italy. What to do? Well, I took my Ipad in the bathroom (so as not to disturb my travel companion’s sleep) and read on the Kindle app. What did I read? The best contemporary romance by Kristan Higgins, Too Good To Be True. In fact, it was so good, it might have kept me up longer, dying to finish it.
First off, the characters are painted in portraits that leap off the page, from the mother whose glass sculptures resemble female genitalia to the snide older sister who zaps everyone with her tazorlike tongue. My only complaint was that it was a single title romance. Because I fell in love with every character in this book and I didn’t want to say goodbye at the end.
The protagonist, Grace Emerson is a prep school teacher with unruly hair whose passion is civil war re-enactments. And her fiancé left her for her younger sister. Ouch. But oh, what a great protagonist. You stick by her side through the whole book. Where she must face her family’s pity until finally she reaches her breaking point. And invents a boyfriend.
The best part is only her older sister and gay best friend are in on it because she did it all the time when she was younger. Everyone else buys her story. But she gets caught up the web of lies and must choose between a real-life-faults-included boyfriend or her perfect doctor that exists only in her mind.
Everyone in this book is 3-D including the younger sister that you want to hate for stealing her fiancé. But Kristan writes in such a way that you can’t fall back on black and white. There’s so many shades of gray and even something I find unforgivable (being with your sister’s ex fiancé) she made believable and somewhat sympathetic.
The plot moves at a nice pace and the wry humor weaved throughout kept me turning page after page. And then there was the bittersweet moment where I realized I had 50 pages left. I couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out, but I so didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters. Not only had they stayed up with me through the worst bout of jet lag ever, but I’d really fallen in love with them.
There is a reason Kristan Higgins is a national bestseller and a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award. She is a triple threat–tantalizing voice, multi-dimensional characters, and great pacing.