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!

Backstory October 31, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:30 pm
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Something I have biiiiiiiiiig problems with.

Of course, as soon as I hit send on my submission, I started thinking of how I could have made it better. Not to mention reading a couple of excellent entries from writing pals. Nothing like reading truly sensational writing to give that “Eep, mine’s even worse than I thought it was,” feeling.

Subtly handling backstory without lapsing into infodump is one of the many things I really need to work on. I know my characters so well, I could spend the first three chapters just on backstory. I want to tell everyone everything I know about these people who are so fascinating to me! Not that anyone would read that far without either falling asleep in boredom or throwing the book against the wall in frustration at waiting so long for something to actually happen. I am the queen of infodump. I thought I’d solved that on the fifteenth edit of the first chapter, but maybe not!

This blog post from agent Rachelle Gardner talks about keeping the reader guessing instead of telling them even a few words more than they need to know at that stage of the story.

Rachelle says-

There are ways to bring the backstory into the book, and the key is to do it slowly. Think about giving just enough information to illuminate one tiny aspect of your character at a time. Place your characters in situations, let them react, and let your reader wonder how they got there and why they reacted that way. You want to be strategic, almost cunning, in the way that you let little bits of information from the past appear on the page. Use those pieces of backstory to slowly and carefully flesh out that character, never giving away too much, always leaving the reader guessing a little.

That’s one of the things that keeps readers going – when they’re asking themselves questions about your character. They want to know more and so they become engaged in the story. If you try to feed them all the information they could possibly need right up front, readers aren’t experiencing that desire for more. You could lose them.

Think of backstory as a precious commodity of which you are the guardian. You will release it on a need-to-know basis. Only give the reader what they need for that moment of the story, just little bits here and there. Be stingy with it. Keep the forward momentum of the story going.

Fabulous advice. I tend to want to explain my characters’ motivations too much too soon. The reader needs just enough information to stop her jumping so far to the wrong conclusions about the character’s motivation that she stops reading. Enough to keep her interested, wanting to find out more. But not telling her everything. Why should she keep reading? And on the other hand not misleading her. I hate those stories where the writer is keeping key information secret from the reader, to be revealed at the end in a deus ex machina type resolution.

It works well when the reader knows something about a character what the other character doesn’t yet. The reader keeps reading, waiting to see when it will be revealed and how the characters will react.  But it still needs to be dripped in, on a need to know basis, as an organic part of the unfolding story.

I just realised something. The reason backstory takes the reader out of the flow of the story is that it’s often cerebral, detached from the moment, even if it’s done in dialogue or internal monologue. The character is telling us the past or telling us about themselves. We’re getting told not shown.

Can I find ways to ground the information about the character’s past in present events, in physical sensation and emotions? And even then, only give the minimum necessary information? If the heroine gets tongue-tied, dry mouthed, and shaky around the hero when they first meet, does the reader need to know she’s always been like this around guys she finds attractive, even since Ryan Mitchell, the cutest guy in the class, who she’d had a crush on all year, came over and sat next to her at the school dance when she was fourteen, and she couldn’t even squeak out a “Hi” so he walked away, and by the end of the night had hooked up with another girl who he dated for the rest of the year, while at twenty-four the heroine’s still never really had a date? In a short category romance, I don’t have the word count to go into that, I need to stay focused in the moment. In a longer more humorous women’s fiction piece, I might stay in the moment for the meeting but have her recount to her girlfriends later that it was “Ryan Mitchell all over again,” if I want to choose that way to have the reader find out more about her spectacular lack of romatic success so far.  But the Ryan Mitchell thing is both too much information and drags the reader out of the physicality of the moment if I drop that in at the time.

It’s especially relevant to me now, as I move on to editing chapter two. The hero takes the heroine back to his island birthplace, back to the place and the people he left behind 12 years ago. There’s a lot I want to tell the reader about his past history there. I need to be very careful both in how I do it, and when I do it. There may be a lot I know that the reader never needs to know. There may be some things that need to be hinted at now so the reader doesn’t feel cheated if it turns out to be important later. There may be some things that impact enough on the present events that the reader needs to know right now.

This is getting complex. So many levels of “need to know”! There’s what I need to know as the writer to understand these characters and their goals and motivations fully. There’s what the readers need to know to keep them interested in the characters and the story, right through to a satisfying ending. There’s what the characters need to know about themselves and each other at each stage of the story. All of these will be different.

This is what one of the Mills and Boon editors put about backstory on a detailed rejection letter one of my fabulous and talented writing buddies received-

the reader becomes bogged down by unnecessary exposition. It is often best to reveal back story through action, when it has the most impact on the story and the characters.

I’m still not 100% sure how to do that. Looks like I better learn, PDQ!

Okay, edited again to add more links! Looks like it’s backstory learning day today because everywhere I go I’m seeing stuff about backstory, without even looking. Or is it just that because I’m thinking about backstory today I’m noticing it? Whatever.

Anyway, found this post and this one on Romance University that add more to this. The first one has jolted me out of a belief I had about backstory and motivation- that characters need backstory to explain motivation. Editor Theresa Stevens makes a strong point that goes against what I thought I knew-

beware the backstory used to shore up character motivations. It often points to a lack of real conflict or to other plot problems. Every time you’re tempted to reach backwards to explain why characters are behaving a certain way, stop. Ask yourself if you can fix it in the present story moment, because this will almost always be the stronger fix.

Oops. I do this all the time- try to explain present behaviour using the past. But how much better to use present events to explain the character’s motivations or beliefs! She uses a great example of the impact on story of a hero not trusting the heroine because of his past failed marriage, or because he actually sees the heroine doing something that appears untrustworthy. No need for backstory at all, it’s all happening in the now.  Woo-eee! This ones almost a paradigm shift for me. I need to think hard about how I can apply this to Luk and Emma. She also gives an example of using setting- how things are now in the character’s life- to illustrate backstory without spelling it out too much. Yippee! I did get that one right for Emma, as the first chapter was set in her home (once her grandmother’s) and I hope I managed to give a lot of information about her life and relationship with her grandmother in just a couple of sentences about the sitting room.

The other post focuses more on a specific issue, illustrating motivation that does stem from past events without the info dump. I like the way Theresa says something very similar to the post I started with this morning-

In the process, some backstory will be more naturally revealed. How much? Exactly enough for the argument (or current situation- my addition) between them to proceed to its conclusion. And not a drop more. Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing.In other words, don’t give them enough information to explain everything that happens on the *current* page. Give them just enough – just barely enough – to get them to the *next* page. Otherwise, you’re in danger of undercutting your conflict by explaining it away.

Good stuff. Relevant stuff. Now I just gotta apply it to the rest of Luk and Emma’s story.



It’s done! October 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:55 pm
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I did it.

One final run through, yet again tweaking the first chapter of The Playboy’s Princess Bride, taking out the second paragraph, changing some words here and there, checking the spelling for the fifteenth time. Bet anything some typos still snuck though.

Attached it and the blessed synopsis (which did finally become two double spaced pages) to an email with a covering letter.

Hit send.

I feel sick.

Did my cover letter sound sucky? Could I have made the chapter better? Is my whole premise stupid, my characters cardboard, and emotion non-existent? Is my synopsis total rubbish (and will I get dinged for fudging the margin widths)?


Now I need to forget about the competition. Time to dive right into chapter two edits and keep on going. I would seriously hate to be lucky enough to get a full request and have to confess all I have is my rough as guts first draft. I haven’t even read it all the way through ‘cos I started cringing about chapter three.

Submission does mean surrending power to another. It’s up to the editors now. I think I’ve made my story as good as I can with the knowledge and skills I have right now. I hope they like it, but that’s outside my control. Now I have to get on with becoming the best writer I can be.

Good luck to everyone entering!



Ready to go? October 15, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:50 pm
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Well, I worked on my first chapter and synopis (hell trying to boil down 4 single spaced pages of story summary to 2 double spaced!) the rest of the weekend. Thought I had them pretty much ready to go.

Then I went to Trish Wylie’s blog. Saw her brilliant Common Romance Writing Mistakes course. Spent all day Monday reading it. Oh boy. Thanks Trish for so much fab info! It’s been around for a while, I started reading it way back in July when she first started it, then got sidetracked. I guess now was the perfect time to come back to it.

Some of the exercises got me thinking again about my competition entry. I’ve rewritten the synopsis (it actually is  two pages double spaced now, I don’t have to cheat with 1 1/2 spacing and hoping they don’t mind!). Her hint to start with a 150 word or less pitch type blurb really worked, it helped me to focus in on the essence of the story. I keep forgetting that a short synopsis is NOT a plot summary. It’s characters, conflicts, and resolutions.

And I’ll be spending this weekend rewriting chapter one. I’m going to try start the story with what is now page 8! So the challenge will be squeezing  in the background I’d already dripped into those pages, without resorting to infodump. But it’s a better, stronger, punchier start. I’ll report back on if I feel it’s worked!


Back- and procrastinating again (surprise surprise!) October 10, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 7:14 am
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I’m back from a fab but too short trip to Australia. Both wonderful and strangely disconcerting seeing family again (ten years older) and revisiting all the old places. Odd staying in my parents home, being a child again. My very English husband surprised me by decing he seriously wants to emigrate.

My body clock is taking a while to recover. I fell asleep exhausted at 9pm last night, only to wake at 1am, ping, wide awake. I lay in the dark trying to get back to sleep for hours, but no luck. My mind is racing with ideas, both writing and non-writing. Too many to be practical, as always. I have that paralysis of wanting to do five things at once, and as I can’t, I spin my wheels and do nothing while I plan. Great way to procrastinate while feeling like I am actually doing something!


Non- writing ideas-

  • the  lagenlook style travel wardrobe I designed and made myself worked so well I’m wondering if I can make a little business making and selling a small range of clothes for lusciously curvy women like me who can’t find anything suitable in the shops. That kept my brain busy for a few hours
  • to fund this- I’m considering selling all the collectable books in my Amazon shop (and all the ones that I haven’t got around to relisting) off on ebay
  • once my elderly mother-in-law doesn’t need us nearby anymore, dh and I may well move back to Australia. So hours of time-wasting fun there looking at property prices and job options and discovering how hard or easy it would be to get permanent residency for English dh.

Writing ideas (yes, there are some!)-

  • rewrite Luk and Emma’s story, using the new ideas I had just before I went away on overcoming the problems of the passivity of the heroine, and the almost too-stupid-to-live plot requirement I was forcing on them. I wrote some more notes on this on the flight over, and think it will work. Luk’s intrusion into her life introduces her to a new world, where she suddenly discovers her power as an attractive woman and is revelling in it. She’s still an innocent inexperienced girl, but sexy and sassy in a sweet naïve way that sends Luk crazy. Needs to be kept very light in tone- this is to be a Modern Heat not a Presents. Luk is 100% alpha, but a slightly softer alpha. Play up the fairytale craziness of it all. Play up that although he has the money and the worldly power, she has the power to arouse his passion and his emotions like no other woman ever has. I also firmed up the black moment and resolution, which was both fuzzy and a little corny before (though I still kinda like the corny resolution!). I’d love to write the first chapter and synopsis for the HMB comp. Which reminds me, must check the deadline for entries!
  • still playing with my other potential MH idea, also a possible for the comp, Mace and Nell’s story. No real new ideas there, but the old idea still seems a goer. I like these characters a lot.
  • tonight’s addition to the mix jumped into my mind from out of nowhere (well, maybe from the thought I’d like to write an Australian set story, and this story has sat simmering on a very back burner for ages). It’s a potential solution to the problems of a story about a nurse in a small rural town, that I plotted and started but never completed back in 2001. Eventually I gave up after rewriting the first chapter several times because I just couldn’t get it to work. (I didn’t know it then, but the problem was the usual beginner writer one- started waaaaaay too early, no wonder it was dull and lifeless!). Also, I created a ridiculously complex plotline, with far too much external conflict, and zero internal conflict. Well, I know how to fix it, I hope. I have simplified the plot, while keeping in the key external elements. And hurray, we have internal conflict! Another concern with it (besides all I just mentioned!) is that even if I wrote it right, it didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Certainly not for any of Mills and Boon’s lines, anyway. It’s got medical elements, but it’s really NOT a Medical; it could be a Sweet, but then I’d have to take out the skinny dipping and the sex; and it is definitely not a Presents or MH, the country setting and storyline don’t work there at all. I think I just realised- it could be a Little Black Dress. As long as they don’t think “We have our Australian writer in Janet Gover, don’t need another one” (the reason M&B rejected Nora Roberts- not that I’m any Nora). Oh, and that minor matter of actually writing the thing and getting it right this time! The longer word count will allow more of the external events I really want to have to stay in the story, not to mention the cast of secondary characters I’d have to kill off for a shorter romance. Very tempted to start this one. But then I won’t be entering the competition.

Now we come to the moment of truth. I didn’t submit to Feel the Heat last year, using the excuse of too much going on at work (true, but still an excuse). I’ve successfully avoided finishing anything I felt was ready to submit with the compliments slip from the Instant Seduction comp. I didn’t submit to the NWS this year, deciding Luk and Emma’s story was too fatally flawed to be worth sending in. Now this new-old story idea will distract me from this year’s HMB Presents/Modern Heat comp.

How long am I going to keep playing this game of not finishing properly and therefore not submitting anything? I know exactly what I’m doing, it’s a ploy to escape submitting anything anywhere, so I don’t have to deal with the pain of being told my writing isn’t good enough. So I can keep on being a wannabee and a couldabeen. Crap. I know I’m not ready for publication right now. My writing really isn’t good enough yet. I also know I am learning, and if I keep writing, one day, I will be there.

But how will I ever realise I’ve cracked it, if I can’t get over this fear of rejection along the way? How will I get feedback on my writing? How will I ever get published, if I won’t send anything off? Maybe if I just keep writing for my own enjoyment, one day I’ll feel I’m ready to do it, eventually I’ll hit that Send button. Maybe.

Or maybe I can make a commitment right now to growing myself as a person and a writer, and just doing it. Soon. Tidy up Luk and Emma’s first chapter. Redo the synopsis. Hit Send. Then play with the other ideas.