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!

What next? December 18, 2009

Okay, I got the rejection email aka “form feedback”. Now what?

I’ve been too busy all week with the day job getting everything done before going on my Christmas break to do any writing. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about writing.

But today I have the lovely gift of a snow day- the trains weren’t running properly, and as I got all my work completed yesterday, I gave myself permission to stay home. Permission to stay tucked up under the duvet all day, laptop on. I really should be finishing my Christmas shopping and writing a few more cards, but hey, that can wait. This day is a gift to myself, and I’m going to use as little of it as I can get away with on any of that sensible stuff. (Just found out my elderly mother-in-law is unwell today,  I can’t get to her because of the snow, so three calls to her and two to her doctor’s surgery later…)

It’s time to move forward with writing again. Abandon the Presents edit of Luk and Emma, I’m going to get back to them in 2010 and rewrite their story as the Sweet Romance it wanted to be all along. First, I want to let Kate and Adam, my new characters, who will probably end up being targeted at Superromance, come out to play.

I love doing character development! It’s such a fabulous part of the writing process. Getting to know new people, what they do, what they like, what they most want out of life, what they least want in a relationship. Do this stage right, and the internal conflict should fall into place.  I should end up with two interesting, well rounded people, who each push the other’s buttons like never before. Push them right into where they don’t want to be, either in their life or in their relationship. Every time they try to fix it, things get worse. But they can’t just walk away. This person, who is their worst nightmare, is also the the person they feel an amazing attraction and emotional connection with, the person they’ll regret walking away from for the rest of their life, because this is that special once in a lifetime love.

The conflict should flow organically from who the characters are, so I’m not forcing the characters to take on certain conflicts just to fit my plot. That way only creates cardboard characters with contrived and unrealistic motivation. This is exactly what I did with my last story. I had the plot jump into my mind first, then had to make up characters to work within it. Some writers can probably work well that way, but clearly not me. I know now I have to start with character. And the character conflict needs to lock into each other.

Ellen Hartman, who writes for Superromance, did a great Q&A on this over at eHarlequin. It’s hidden away in the archives and took me a while to find it again, but it’s soooooo worth a read. And you have the link to make it easy! This is an excellent discussion. I started off thinking I would just pull one or two points from it, but I’ve pulled so many I may as well put Ellen’s name at the top of the blog!

For starters, why does a good romance need conflict-

one thing that’s important to keep in mind from a conflict point of view is that the conflict between the characters needs to be serious and deep. The basic idea of a romance novel is that two people fall in love despite external and internal circumstances that should keep them apart. (Love conquers all.)

That’s why bickering and smaller, lower stakes conflicts don’t really work. If the two people spend a lot of time arguing with each other, who would believe they’d fall in love or even want them to?

But if the two people spend their scenes yearning toward each other while being held back by powerful, believable obstacles, the readers will be right there with them, rooting them on.

Her editor Victoria Curran says that it’s crucial that the conflicts be specific to the characters- what is it about this man and this woman that keeps them from being together? It’s another way of saying that the best conflict comes from the internal relationship blocks with the characters, not from external circumstances (though external circumstances can and should tied into and trigger internal conflict). 

Ellen makes some excellent points about the importance of hooking the character’s external goals to their internal fears, and to the other character.

I can think up two great characters, each with wonderful internal conflict, but if the conflicts don’t play off each other, don’t impact each other, don’t keep the lovers apart for infinity, then the book isn’t going to work.

Also, making sure that reaching their external goals will make things worse for them in the relationship. Someone has to grow and change, someone has to decide, someone has to choose to give something up.

Ellen describes a story where her hero… 

…got what he thought he wanted…but now it’s causing him more problems. This twist concept comes in really handy if you want to totally strip your characters to the bone. You give them their heart’s desire and then you make them wish they never wanted it in the first place.

Just when things look like it might be working out, make it tougher. But in a way that hooks deep into the character’s core needs, goals, or fears. That’s what makes it internal and not just external conflict.

Jeannie Watt says-

Sometimes the H/h don’t figure out they have the same goal until the end because one of them is not acknowledging their goal.  They may not even be aware of it.  Their goal is a shadow goal–something they want deep down.  Throught the course of the story they experience things that allow (or in some cases in a lot in my books.  Often the shadow goal is the opposite of their conscious goal.

That’s how the happy ever after can still be satisfying, even if a character has had to scarifice something they once thought was important to them. The whole process of the story and the conflcit has brought the person to the place where they see the truth about what they really want and need.

The crux of it all-

The black moment is usually the culmination of the external conflict but the impact of the black moment comes from the resolution of the internal conflict.In the black moment, characters usually have to make a heroic choice. Often a heroic emotional choice. As any human knows, making a new emotional choice, let alone a difficult or heroic one, is hard. We don’t like change, especially not emotional change because it’s scary.

For that heroic choice to be believable, we have to have shown our characters struggling with the conflict and gradually being pushed so far against the wall that they have no where to turn.

This is why it’s important to keep increasing the conflict and hitting it from different angles throughout the book. The characters should be in a raw enough place emotionally that it’s possible for them to make a scary choice in the name of accomplishing their goal.

So where do I start from? Who my characters are.

Ellen says-

One of the ways readers fall in love with our characters is through a connection with their vulnerabilities. If we let our characters do things and say things to increase the conflict, they are often revealing themselves in very vulnerable ways.

The idea of vulnerability is closely tied to conflict. If our characters constantly make the smart, safe, right, logical choice, if they cover themselves and refuse to break down or ask for things, we won’t have a lot of conflict and our readers won’t connect with the writing.

Some of the conflict avoidance that I experience as a writer comes from wanting my characters to be safe and smart. I have to remind myself they’re fictional and they need to take chances. They even have to look ridiculous at times. (This is very hard for me to write.)

But remember that when you let your characters be vulnerable, you’re letting your readers love them and connect with them.

This is so important for me to remember when I’m creating my characters. What are their weaknesses? What are their vulnerabilities? How will being with the other character bring those possibly well hidden things out into the open?

If the character is good at keeping their vulnerabilities hidden, even from us, she suggests some dig deep questions-

Questions to Uncover a Character’s Hidden Internal Conflict

  1. When was the last time you had a date? Why did you pick that person? When was your last long-term relationship? Who ended it and why? Focus on their romantic issues first because that’s the juicy conflict for romantic fiction.
  2. What’s your relationship like with your family? Close? How close? Does your mom call you to chat? To fix the sink? To complain about your brother? Only when she needs money? How old were you when you left home and what made you go? Ever considered moving back? Why or why not? Family is a great source of internal conflict. Let’s face it, families can screw up even the most well-adjusted among us.
  3. What about work–what’s your job and why did you pick it? How would you feel if you found out you were going to be fired? Angry? Panicked? Ready for revenge? Relieved? Work can sometimes be a source of angst and the choice of career is often revealing for a character.
  4. What do you do when you’re faced with a conflict? Fight? Smooth it over? Disengage? Take charge? The way a character deals with conflict is full of possibility for the writer. If your character has vulnerabilities, they’ll often reveal themselves in this area.

If those exploratory questions don’t turn up any internal conflict, you can also try these.

  • What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you and why?
  • What’s your number one fear?
  • What’s the one thing you’re deathly afraid of losing? (This might include pride, temper, control, those types of emotional things.)
  • What is the one thing you want more than anything and why don’t you have it right now?

I’m off to talk to Kate and Adam and see what they answer!

One thing that made me laugh- if you go to the Q&A thread on eHarl, you’ll see me coming late to the discussion and posting right at the end how excited I was about using this information with the story I was working on and how it was going so well. This was back in August last year. I couldn’t even remember which story that was, and if it was going so well, why did I give it up? I looked back through my unfinished story files and I think I see which one it was, though I didn’t use Ellen’s questions with the characters. Actually, looking closer, it could not possibly have been that story, there are too many clues in my notes for it that I wrote them well before Ellen’s thread was published.

I loved that story and have no idea why I stopped after two chapters. Now I’m confused. I’d completely forgotten that story and now I want to write that one, make Kate and Adam wait a little longer!

And I still don’t know what happened to the story I thought I was going well. I think I may have found it, because the dates the documents were created are around the right time. But there is nothing there! Now I’ve seen it, I can remember writing lots of stuff, about the heroine and her art classes for deprived inner city kids and the property developer hero who is going to evict her, and her assistant who was going to get her own sequel, but all I have in the folder is a couple of photos and character names. So where is what I wrote on this story, and why did I stop? Sheesh, I loooooooved that story! I can even remember the scene where her big ginger tomcat bites the hero when he goes to her studio and they are about to kiss. So where did all that go?

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10 Responses to “What next?”

  1. Maisey Yates Says:

    I’m gonna make sure I link people here from my site…very helpful stuff!!

  2. waitingforthecall Says:

    The original Ellen Hartman thread is fabulous!

    Now I am totally confused. I went looking for the thread to dive into developing the characters for the outback nurse/ TV reporter story. Now I also want to write the tycoon/PA forced marriage story, and the property developer/ art therapist story!

    Which one to choose?

  3. Jackie Says:

    Fantastic post, Jane!! You know my difficulties with my wretched characters… I’m giving my all to the character development this time round and, well, I should have done this right at the very beginning. But there’s some great info here – i’m going to go off and continue working on my character bios with it…

    Hope you find the rest of you story! Don’t you hate it when that happens? I had something similar a while back but when I found the actual story it was crap! 🙂

  4. waitingforthecall Says:

    Jackie, these characters will come good for you eventually. You have some great ideas for them.

    The Superromance writers really know their stuff on internal conflict! Presents writers have glamorous settings and extravagant premises, but with a small town setting and less dramatic characters, the feelings of falling in love and the complications of what stops them have to be written even stronger in some ways.

    I suspect what I wrote was crap too, which is probably why I abandoned it. Think I was still stuck in my “perfect first draft” phase (hadn’t I heard of editing?). I’m not going to waste time trying to fund what I wrote.. I have what I already wrote for the nurse story and the boss/PA story.

    Whichever one I go with I will just start from scratch again. At least doing JanNo will keep me writing through the crap!

  5. Terrific post – lots of brilliant advice. And thanks for the link.

    Nothing nicer than an unexpected duvet day when the weather ‘s too horrid to venture out.

    XX

  6. waitingforthecall Says:

    It’s been a real treat, Suzanne! Did you get snow in Scotland?

  7. What a fabulous, fabulous post! Printing it off and filing it for frequent reference. Thanks so much for being so generous with your research and notes!

  8. Actually I am going to argue with you here — Presents authors also have to know about internal conflict as Presents, despite the glam locations etc is all about internal conflict. Desire has more external, but Presents is mainly internal. Nothing much generally happens beyond the romance. Presents tends to be more intense than Super. Super has a bigger list of characters with more well rounded secondaries. With Presents and to a certain extent Romance, the main couple does have to really carry the whole story.
    All the authors of various lines have to know about conflict and it depends on how you describe conflict as there are many ways.
    With your abandoned stories, I found it best before I was published to finish the stories simply because I learnt a lot and I always thought my couples deserved their HEA. It is far too easy to allow your muse/deamon or what have you to whisper seductive ideas about another story.

  9. waitingforthecall Says:

    WE have to thank Ellen for that last post, not me, it’s just a cut and paste job!

  10. waitingforthecall Says:

    You are right as always Michelle! Presents is all about the internal conflict, despite the external trappings of wealth and glamour. I think what I was trying to say was that Superromance writers do need to focus on that stuff just as much.
    I do think I should finish the abandoned stories too, I like all these couples and want to see them with a whole story- it’s just which one?
    Can I ask, did you just finish the first draft and polish the partial, ready to polish the rest if you had a full request, or did you completely polish the whole story?
    This reply is turning into such a long one so I’m going to cut and paste to give it a post of it’s own!


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