Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Go where the energy is April 30, 2008

“Go where the energy is” was a bit of a buzz phrase last month on one of the writers’ discussion groups I visit, Stringing Words, a lovely, friendly and supportive group. The goal for March was to write or edit whatever called to us most strongly at the time. It’s in my mind right now, as I am dropping (for the time being) the current story idea that I have done all the pre-writing work on, to change to a new story.

I started off with two characters, and a situation where she is forced to pretend to be his girlfriend for one evening, then they ultimately ended up in a forced marriage. The problem was, the plot just didn’t fit those two characters at all. So I kept the charcters (I like them a lot!) but changed the plot to one that flowed more naturally out of those people and the choices they would make. It moved from a forced marriage story to being more a marriage of convenience. After the morning pages work, it all hung together well, no plot holes, the situation and the choices they made in response to it were logical and believable. But I had to drop some elements that I loved and really wanted to include. And I just don’t know if I am a good enough writer yet to handle the level of external conflict and secondary characters needed to make the plot work.

Harlequin Presents / Mills and Boon Modern Romance, the series I am currently targeting following on from the contest, prefers stories with mostly internal conflict, and few secondary characters. What this does is puts the focus strongly on the developing relationship and keeps the emotional intensity high. This story seemed to have just too much external conflict, and even though it all linked in deeply to the hero and heroine’s internal conflicts, I didn’t feel I was going to manage to keep the emotional intensity strong enough with so much else going on.

Also ideas kept popping into my head about a different but similar story idea, closer to my original discarded plot idea, which just didn’t work for the characters I had. I couldn’t help wondering-what sort of people would find themselves in that first situation and have to make those choices? When I found myself thinking about these other characters in the middle of an important work meeting yesterday I realised that this is the one I really have to write first, this is the story that has grabbed my imagination and my energy. It still has some external conflict, but it has the effect of forcing the hero and heroine together rather than trying to keep them apart as it did in the first story. There will be fewer scenes involving only one of the main characters with a secondary character, so the emotional intensity will be easier to maintain. I also get to include the elements I reluctantly had to cut from the original story idea, which included a business trip to a little known, volatile, religiously governed, highly conservative country; a kidnapping locking the hero and heroine in together; then a forced marriage to satisfy local moral and religious values.

I feel right about this decision. I’ve even been listening to the right sort of music all week, drawn without realising it to the type of music would be made in a country like the one where this happens- eastern european folk music with a middle eastern influence (it’s an internet radio station from Russia- Special Radio Button 6- none of the words are English, so its fab writing music without any distractions).

James and Cassie’s story will be written one day, but I need to be more skilled as a writer to handle that level of external conflict and still maintain the emotional intensity. Also, possibly it needs to be directed to a different series, and I don’t want to waste that precious Compliments Slip for a Presents editor!

The frustrating thing though is that I had hoped to start writing story today as I have the day off work, and now I’m back to prewriting again! But perhaps thats a good thing. Kate Walker’s 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance has arrived from Amazon at last. It’s a writing workshop, so I’m going to spend this afternoon doing as many as I can of the exercises in the book, using these new characters, as my prewriting. Although every writer probably evolves their own unique and individual style for prewriting, I’m sure I can learn a lot from a writer who has sold an astonishing fifty million books!

This feels very very right. But I’m not changing again- I need to get the balance between going where the energy is; and flitting from idea to idea without committing to or completing any of them. Any enticing new story ideas or siren calls back to a previous story will just have to wait, I am going to stay with this story now until it is finished!


In praise of Morning Pages April 27, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:22 pm
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“Morning Pages” are a practice suggested by artist and writer Julia Cameron in her wonderful book The Artist’s Way . Basically, the idea is to write three pages, longhand, first thing on waking up.  She describes them as a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self. They are a trail that we follow into our own interior, where we meet both our own creativity and our creator.

The idea is that by connecting with our first thoughts, the thoughts closest to our unconcious mind as we have just woken from sleep, we can make a connection with the things that are most important to us, and with our creativity. Those secret (even from ourselves) hopes, dreams or ideas that can be hidden by our preoccupations, our busyness, our beliefs ablout what we “should” be doing, or by our self-censorship. The idea isn’t to write anything usable on the story, they aren’t meant to be seen by anyone else. The idea is simply to write whatever in in our minds, pure stream-of-consciousness, with no blocking, no censoring, just writing, bypassing the Inner Editor. Some days this may be just a stream of whinges about family, work, or money worries, no brilliant insights. That’s okay, as getting those moans and complaints out the way can clear space for other thoughts. Other days I really connect with something, getting past blocks on a story, or bringing up new ideas.

I have to admit, I haven’t been doing my morning pages consistently, or even “properly”. I have been writing them on my PDA on the train on the way to work in the morning. Some mornings I skip, and purists would say I was putting blocks in the way by typing then not handwriting them, and by only doing them when I had already been up and doing for over an hour. My excuses- it just seemed too hard, given how tired I always am, to get up even earlier and write; and I am naturally a evening person, anyway, so surely evening writing is just as good for me.

But this week, I have been blocked on my story. Part of me was telling myself to just jump in and write with the information I already had from my pre-writing last weekend: another part kept saying No, you need to work out a way around that massive plot hole first, or you’ll only get stuck further in. Even my usual “aha-moment” generator, a long soak in the bath, wasn’t working this week. Maybe because it’s been a particularly busy week at work and I’m working on a challenging project that has been using a lot of my brain (how I wish I could find another job that was a no-brainer but paid the same!) Last night, before I went to sleep, I asked my unconcious mind to show me the best way to deal with this, either make it clear that I should just start writing the story, or show me how to work around the problem, or tell me what else I should be doing instead. Reading lots of yummy published romances, or working through a couple of the writing books on my shelf were other options.

I woke up this morning with one idea in my head, to find my big notebook that is always by my bed but hasn’t been touched for months, and do proper handwritten morning pages, before I spoke to my husband, before I even got out of bed to go to the bathroom. Being Sunday with nothing urgent I had to jump up and do, that was possible. On a weekday I set the alarm for the last possible minute I can leave it until and know I can still make it to my train on time. It means if one little thing goes wrong, from the cat throwing up to my husband being in the bathroom at the wrong time, I’m stressed before the day has barely started.

Well, the morning pages worked- thank you subconscious mind! Half an hour and six almost illegible scrawled pages later, I had what is hopefully the answer to my plot hole problem, which works even better than my original idea as it also strengthens another aspect of the story, makes the villian even more Machievellian, and makes the hero and heroine less antagonistic and brings them closer together as they work to solve the problem.

As I said in my last post, I am trying to source and read first published stories by now established writers.  This week I only had time for one, but it was a good one- Annie West’s first published romance A Mistress for the Taking (Modern Romance) .  Something that struck me about this story (as well as the strong Australian voice, and the sizzling attraction between hero and heroine from the moment they met!) was that the hero and heroine were not enemies, as is so often the case in Modern Romance / Presents stories, but were working together to defeat a common enemy. All that overcoming initial antagonism stuff can get a bit wearing after too many stories using it, and this was refreshingly different, an element I wanted to see if I could include in some of my stories too. Maybe that was in my mind, because what came out in the morning pages today was both a possible soloution to the plot problem with the current story, plus another twist to a similar situation which can make a completely new story in its own right.

A lot of benefit from just thirty minutes I could have chosen to spend sleeping in instead. I don’t expect I will get such great results every day, or even any other day, but I have set my alarm half an hour earlier for tomorrow. I hope I can make myself sit up and do morning pages and not keep hitting the snooze button. Maybe if I do this my wriitng time on the train can be used actually writing story, rather than complaints about being tired and about my job or my husband!


Fear of starting April 23, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 10:53 pm
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It’s an interesting balance between doing enough pre-writing to have a solid idea of the characters and what might happen to them, and using it as an excuse to avoid diving in and writing the story.
I’m not sure how much to do now. How much time to spend in prewritng, and when to just start writing? I probably do have enough plot and character development done that I can start a first draft, I know basically who my people are, and I have a bit of an idea of what they are going to do. I don’t want to jump in then get stuck because of things that don’t work and won’t work, but I don’t want the paralysis of overplanning, of procrastination, of never knowing when I have enough to start. It was worrying on one level but very reassurung on another to read the writer who said that she did eight drafts now, as an experienced writer, and that her first sold story took twenty one! Worrying because of the amount of time and work involved, but reassuring because in that many rewrites, pretty much any problem can be fixed, and if a multi-published writer needs that many, I’m not failing because I don’t get it right on the first or second draft. Permission to write a crappy first draft activated!

That writer who admits to twenty one glorious drafts is Melissa James, a fabulous Australian author who writes for Silhouette Intimate Moments. She has some great articles for writers on her website. This one on flow challenged me to think about my story’s theme, and where the key turning points are for my characters- the answers surprised me. The articles on Emotional Depth are also brilliant- I will definitely print them out and have them by my side when I get to the editing stage!

I wonder if I am delaying getting seriously into writing the new story until my copy of the second edition of Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance . So many recently published romance writers credit this book with helping them get there, and I want to read it first before I make too many mistakes!

I’m filling in the time well, reading romances! I’m currently loving Annie West’s “A Mistress for the Taking”. I think this was her first published story, and one of the pieces of advice Melissa James gave was to read recently published first books (this wasn’t all that recent- 2006), as they give unpublished writers more of an idea of what editors are looking for in new writers. So I can tell my husband- I’m not just reading, it’s crucial research , far more important than anything else. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!


A new story- synopses and starting lines April 21, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:01 pm
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I wasn’t planning on writing about synopses again today, but I happened across another great article on it with links to even more resources, so here it is, on Anne Gracie’s website ! This article and the sample synopsis she gives made me laugh out loud, but even more it makes me eager to read the book, which at heart is what the synopsis should be all about.

Actually it does tie into what I am doing at the moment. I was vaguely thinking about synopses, as I’ve started on the new story (poor Bruno and Rebecca are unceremoniously ditched for now!). I haven’t written much yet, just a few snippets, but spent all day yesterday doing character development and plotting, using some of the workshops on Holly Lisle’s site (I have an affiliate link, so if you buy anything on her site I will be paid a small fee, but I would recommend the site anyway, as the free stuff is excellent). I started with this article on pre-writing a new story, which gave me a lot of information to work with. I did already have a basic idea, but doing this helped me build it up a lot more. I was wondering whether writing an outline before I get too far into the writing would show me any major problems with my plotting. 

I think I may be more of a plotter than a seat-of-the-pantser. I seem to write better when I have a good idea in advance of just what is going to happen in the scene, though I also believe its good to leave room for a few surprises or for new ideas that could make the story better. I hope I have learned from what I wrote on the last one so I don’t make the same mistakes all over again. I have a feeling with this one I will find a different set of mistakes to make! I can already see that one issue will be ensuring that the external conflict doesn’t overshadow their internal conflict. I’m hoping it will work because each of the external conflicts link into and trigger another layer of internal conflict for one of both of the hero and heroine. Provided I can write it right, that is!

I probably need to dig a lot deeper into my characters too. Although the workshop I used makes the plot really come out of the characters, I still have my usual problem of a strong and fully characterised heroine, but a much vaguer idea of my hero. I need to work on getting him a lot more focused. Then I will try doing an outline and see how it looks, before I go too much further, but I feel more character work need to come first.

I do have my opening scene, which I hope jumps straight into the story, and gets the hero and heroine on the page straight away. This story is one that has been bewing on a back burner for a while during my struggle with the last story, so the opening just appeared for me without much conscious thought. It neds a bit of fine uning, but I think it might work.

I did find a fab article on story beginnings  today. Part way down the page here is a fab article on starting the story right, with some great examples of reader-grabbing opening lines. This used to be a major block for me- I spent so long trying to get the first paragraph perfect I never wrote anything more! The advice most published writers give of just writing the story, giving ourselves permission to write badly in first draft as long as we tell the story, needs to be carved into my brain! It is so right- we can fix bad first draft, but a great opening with no story is nothing. I waste so much of my writing time trying to get it right instead of just getting it written.


A letter! Now what? April 19, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:38 pm
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Well, I did get a letter from Harlequin Mills & Boon about my competition entry this morning, and now I’m not quite sure what to do next! I’d made my writing plans based on not getting anything more than a form email back from them, and I decided to finish and edit (rewrite really) my competition entry, which I know I can make far better than what I originally sent off, and submit it via the slush pile. Now this letter has left me unsure of what my best course of action might be (besides the obvious one of keep on writing and working to make my writing as good as I can get it!).

It looked to me pretty much like a form rejection letter, tweaked a little for the competition entries. But it did say that they felt my writing showed promise, and there were a couple of positive comments handwriiten on the hardcopy of my entry cover letter. I am thrilled to get a little encouragement with my first submission! But it also implies that they don’t want to see more of that story, as the letter enclosed a “With Compliments” slip with an editor’s name on it, to attach to the first three chapters and synopsis of my next manuscript. So now I don’t know what to do.

I do want to finish and re-submit my rewritten contest entry, but I don’t want to “waste” the slip on a story that has already been rejected. I have a finished first draft of another story that needs some serious rewriting, but I think it’s more Modern Heat that Presents, so that would be a different editor, anyway. I have two other sets of characters and situations in mind that could be good Presents stories – one an idea that has been hanging around for a couple of months and was going to be the next story I wrote, the other a minor character I only wrote last week in my contest entry, who is very strong and is demanding his own story. What I don’t want to do is spend ages fiddling around with the competition entry now, only to find that when I finally write the next story and send it in that the editor whose name I have has moved on to a different line. But I don’t want to drop the original story either- I feel I am learning so much from keeping on working on it, plus I feel that I know those characters so well now. So I have a dilemma!

What I am currently thinking is that I can probably finish the first draft of the competition entry in the next few days, then I will set it aside and start working on the next story. But it will take many months before I have the next story finished and good enough to submit. I don’t want to do what I did with the competition and send in something that really needed a lot more work. Or the other option is to go straight onto the rewrite of the competition entry as soon as I have finished the first draft, and send that in when it is properly edited. My concern there is that everything I’ve read about editing suggests setting the story aside for a while once the first draft is done, before going back to edit, I’ve even seen suggestions of as long as a couple of months.

I do wonder how long other writers leave first drafts for before going back and editing. I guess that is a question where the answer will be different for every writer, and also something that more experienced writers who have developed their writing and editing skills may handle differently to someone like me who is still early in my journey (sheesh, I’ve wanted to write since I was fifteen, why did I waste so much time?). Maybe asking these questions about editing is just a distraction from the decision I need to make right now, before I write any more. This letter has thrown my old plans out the window, and thrown me into confusion. I just don’t know what to do.


I decided several hours later, with the help of a few “What the hell are you asking for- get writing the new story!” type comments on the e-Harlequin forum, to just jump into writing another story. Once that is done I can come back and edit my contest story, and see how good I can get it.

I’m not sure which one to go with though. The cousin of my current hero, Antonio the celebrity chef, is an appealing character and he would be a delight to write, but he seems so straightforward  that I can’t see without digging very deep what his inner conflicts would be. He doesn’t really have a story forming around him yet, while the other idea is a little more developed, and scenes from it have been playing in my head for a couple of months now. I think Antonio can wait!

The difficult part is that I have become so immersed in the characters and situation for my contest entry that it’s a massive shock to suddenly pull out from that deep involvement with them and start again with new characters. Dumping Bruno and Rebecca so quickly in to move on to writing the next story feels like breaking off a relationship I’m not quite ready to let go of yet. But scenes with James and Sarah do keep popping into my head….

I’ll have to remind myself, I’m not being unfaithful to Bruno and Rebecca, we’re just “on a break”!

Woo hoo! The title and a possible first line for James and Sarah’s story just popped into my head. Time to start writing, who cares if I’m being unfaithful when a shiny new story is calling my name! But I must finish this one. I definitely don’t want to turn into a serial story dumper. It will be fun to try to apply all that I have learned in the process of writing the competition entry right from the start on a new story.


Setting goals April 18, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:31 pm
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Well, yesterday I set some goals for my writing, which would acknowledge my exhaustion just getting everything done on day I go to the “day job”, and hopefully motivate me to get my ass into gear on the days I am not working, so I do actually get some writing done and not just writing about writing, which doesn’t really count.

Four days off work now. Sunday is Full Moon Madness again, I hope to get five thousand words, hopefully all on the story! That will be a whole chapter. If I use my time well, its possible I could finish the first draft by the end of these four days off.

That will leave the first draft a bit short of fifty thousand words, but I have more I want to add to most sections, as nearly everything needs more physical beats and emotional response to events. There is an excellent post on physical beats and why they are so important to our stories here , on Michelle Styles’ blog.

The other thing I want to look at is the clunkily named Motivation Reaction Units. Lynn Raye Harris, the Harlequin competition winner mentioned them in one of her posts on I (Heart) Presents, which got me thinking about them again. The concept comes from a book I have seen recommended by several writers- Techniques of the Selling Writer . I haven’t bought this book yet, but it’s another one on my wish list! There is an article that talks about some of the concepts in the books, including Motivation Reaction Units, here . It’s an article I read when I was first thinking about writing again, but only now, as I’m wrestling with getting that sense of really experiencing the story rather than being an onlooker, do I feel I’m getting what he is talking about.

The essential part for reader involvement and emotional intensity is the bit in the middle, the “feeling” and “reflex” component of the Motivation Reaction Unit.  Something happens, the POV character has an emotion response to it (the feeling) and a physical response to it (the reflex). Then they speak, or act. It can’t just be action / reaction. The motivation is not the triggering action so much as it is the POV characters emotional and physical response to it. Then out of the character’s response, comes their reactive action. The bit I am missing at present is the true motivation- I’m just showing action / reaction, and that’s why my story feels like looking in a window at two people, rather than being there in the room, right inside the POV character’s head.

That, and the physical beats that anchor the dialogue in a physical reality, are the main things I need to work on in my edit. Oh, and sorting out subtly dropping in more backstory so the characters actions seem more believable, changing the whole situation with her father, and generally rewriting great chunks of story!

I’m getting ahead of myself here anyway- I haven’t finished the first draft yet! And at the rate I’m going (now 3.30pm and I haven’t written a word on the story today) it is not going to happen any time soon.


Tired…. April 17, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:50 pm
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Tiredness seems to be constant lately. Wake up tired, arrive at work tired, go home tired. Cook and eat some simple food, have a bath, go to sleep, wake up tired again. Go to work again, repeat entire cycle. Somewhere in there, find time to write.

I don’t feel its necessarily a realistic expectation that I will write any story words on a work day, as I work four long days and have three days off each week. I do want to do as much work as I can on character and plot development, and also be open to new ideas, like last night’s. Then when I sit down on my non-work days to write, hopefully I will be fired up and ready to go. I really need to aim to average at least two and a half thousand story words, or half a chapter, each day I am not working, to keep the story momentum going.

That will still give a very repectable first draft in seven weeks (range six to eight, depending how things go). Allowing two weeks for pre writing, and at least a month for editing, that gives possibly three completed books a year. That seems amazingly optimistic for someone working full time at a busy and stressful job, with a long commute, though I know other writers with more demands on their time manage it.

If I can keep to that schedule, more or less, my writing will improve dramatically.  Ursula le Guin said – “You sit down and you do it, and you do it, and you do it, until you have learned to do it. ” I just hope it doesn’t take too many practice novels to crack it….

Is this an impossible dream? I don’t know. But I do intend to find out!