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!

Warning- long confusing post on pitching! February 2, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:14 am
Tags: , ,

I owe a load of apologies to all the people who commented on my last entry and didn’t get replies! Sorry to be so rude. I just got back from a week away for a work conference, where I had hardly any time for essential emails, let alone blogging.

Actually, I’m lying when I say I just got back, I just woke up from the sleep I needed after travelling for over 24 hours.

Memo to self- booking a late departing flight on the basis you can sightsee all day and then sleep on the plane is NOT a good idea.  Reasons:

1. You never really sleep on planes, no matter how tired you are. And those over the counter sleeping tablets just make you fuzzy headed;

2. Even if you could sleep on planes, you had to change flights at Dubai in the middle of the night. Even though you are just going from one side of the terminal to another you discover that you and the other thousand people transferring flights there at  1am will have to queue and queue and queue some more to have your bags checked again to be allowed to do that;

3. You will become one of those people you always mutter at when you are on your commute,  traveling with a suitcase on the packed full rush hour Underground, as no matter how you think it will work out invariably the Airport Express train will deliver you to an insanely busy station at an insanely busy time. Where you have to struggle though crowds to even get onto the platform. Wait and let several trains go without even trying to get on they are so full. When finally one arrives with just enough space you can almost squeeze yourself and the bag into, you will need to get off at every stop along the way so other passengers can get off, then you will get your suitcase stuck in the closing doors when you try to get back on again.

Actually, Bangkok was excellent. Wonderful hotel that I could never afford to stay in if I was paying and not my company! Interesting conference learning loads and meeting with some of the other nurses who work  all over the world for our massive US employer. I still had sinusitis and a deep cough that made people turn and look at me on the flight and in the conference, despite loads of cough medicine and a second course of antibiotics. I almost lost my voice, and needed to crash into bed as soon as the conference programme finished on a couple of nights. Even so, we got to explore the city enough to feel I had a good experience of it. I’d love to go back.

In amongst of all this came the email that I was lucky enough to be chosen by Donna as one of the finalists in her pitch contest!

Shocked was not the word. “Whaaaaaaaaaat?” was the word. My crap with a capital C pitch? She liked it? She liked it enough to pick it? OMG OMG OMG, she liked it! Happy dancing around the room.  Tell my husband, who’s pleased for me but doesn’t quite get why I’m bouncing off the walls with glee.  Scrape myself together enough to start thinking about the reality of this. She needs the first chapter. In four days. Insert expletive of your choice here: Oh —-.

Major panic!  I knew even before Donna asked for the chapter it needed a rewrite because my ideas for the story had changed. I was hopelessly confused!

I’d already realised things were moving too fast for the events of chapter one to be their first meeting, they needed to have somehow met before.  That was what kept stopping me in my tracks as I was writing originally, the thing that felt “off”.  It wasn’t realistic for my heroine to be jumping into a fling quite that fast with a stranger. I know it happens, and I’ve read many fab stories with that as the starting point. But not my heroine, not with her history. I had thought that him being a stranger, only in her town for a few days, was enough to make it safe for her to let go and have her fling. (It could work that way for a different heroine, and that’s given me a whole different story idea!) But I didn’t feel comfortable as I was writing it, kept stretching it out and stretching it out to keep anything from happening between them. He had to NOT be a stranger, as well as only in town for a short time, for it to work for this heroine. So even if I keep the start where it is, which means most of what I already wrote is usable as a first draft, the backstory of that previous time together needed to be dripped in. I thought I had a plan. Let’s call it Plan A.

The process of writing the pitch clarified a lot more about the story and what the main conflicts are. I felt that the story  actually needed to begin later, start when the action really starts, when she has to go back to him some time later to ask his help to save the home that means more than anything to her. The first part, where they have their fling, is lovely but tension free. They meet again, they have a fling, they part. That’s nice, but it’s not enough. So everything I had already written was not story at all but back story. I’d written myself in, as a way of getting to know the characters and their situation, but needed a whole new chapter one. Well, that’s okay too, as part of my writing process, though I was going to have to write fast to have anything to send Donna (at that stage of course I didn’t know I was going to be a finalist, but the thought that I might be was a powerful motivation!). Getting that done a tight time frame when I was travelling and doing and intense conference and still ill would be difficult but maybe not quite impossible. I had a new plan, Plan B. This was the one to go with!

Then after rethinking it over the weekend, I couldn’t see that working. For story reasons not only time craziness reasons. I decided to start it where I presently do but compress the time frame between the fling and her needing him. I couldn’t see how leaving out the early development of their relationship would work (again, I can see stories where it could work very well, but maybe not for these characters in this situation). She’s spent her life avoiding intimacy, and has so much conflict over even allowing him into her life for three days. That could be another reason the story was stalling initially. Even if she knows him already from a previous meeting, I don’t think they can jump straight into sexual intimacy. That needs to build slower, she has to have more time to overcome her resisitance and feel safe and comfortable with him.  So maybe that part of the story needs to be included. It felt just too big for the heroine to be workable as backstory. A better and more experienced writer than me could probably manage it, but I’m not sure I could pull it off.  Plan B, to start latter, went in the “Ideas not used” file.  I was going back to Plan A Version 2, start with the fling, but deepen the conflict and intensity. Still almost impossible in the time, but maybe more possible. On the flight on Monday I did some planning for whether that would work as a whole story, roughly plotted it out. It looked good, so I started to rewrite Chapter One.  Then when we were changing flights I had time and internet access to go online. I checked my emails. There was one from Donna, asking for chapter one by Friday, and including her feedback on my pitch.

OMG and not in a good way. She strongly advised starting later in the story!

This stalled me. Total confusion. Do I go ahead with what I’m doing, despite it contradicting Donna’s advice, or do I rethink yet again and go with Plan B? By this stage it was the early hours of Tuesday morning. I was on the transfer between flights in Dubai with another seven hours travel ahead of me. I was exhausted, and I’d got sicker on the flight. I had a busy week of conference between arriving and the end of the week, attendance at all sessions compulsory.  I’d taken my husband with me and he knew no-one there, so I would have to spend some time with him in the evenings after leaving him by himself all day.  Me sitting in the corner with my laptop writing while he watched Thai TV was not going to cut it. Then, when we got to the plane I was put in a seat separate from my husband, a seat where I couldn’t plug my laptop in, and my battery was almost flat. No chance to write. And I needed to have a chapter by Friday. Preferably neither the one I had or the one I was working on. The chances of getting a chapter done were poor to start with, now they looked non-existent. I did what any sensible person would. The ostrich approach. Two glasses of wine with the airline meal and try to nap.

By the time we got to the hotel I had a fever and felt far more ill. I went to the nearest pharmacy, where she prescribed me another course of antibiotics. Back to the room to try to sleep. It was early next day before I properly woke up,  and considered my options. They didn’t look good.

What I had as my existing first chapter was passable. It was readable, competently written but dull, full of backstory in internal monologue (a big issue of mine!).  There’s no spark or real emotion. It’s just he said, she said; he did this, she did that. Of course, it’s only first draft. I’ve read several authors  say they need four or five or even more to layer everything in, and the first draft is just what I’m seeing and not liking in mine. But I didn’t want to send Donna first draft, especially first draft that I knew was missing important pieces of backstory and conflict I felt I now knew how to add. No point getting feedback on something I knew was broken, as chances were much of what she wrote to me would tell me what I already knew.

To to rewrite using Plan B, which would also be following Donna’s advice, was the most sensible approach, but it just wasn’t possible in the time frame.

All that was left was was the way I at least had started, Plan A Version 2. Which very probably wouldn’t work, and most likely wasn’t doable in time either. It was really the only choice if I wanted to submit something I could get meaningful feedback on.  But it went against what Donna advised. I felt deeply ambivalent about sending someone I hoped would mentor me a piece of writing that appeared to ignore what she was suggesting. That felt wrong. My feeling that this was the best way to solve the story problems and make it work was shaken too. I still really wanted to try this way anyway, even knowing it may not work and I’d end up having to do it the other way. The best way I learn is to experiment, try out different methods to see what works for me. It’s sometimes a good fast method, sometimes a slow and inefficent method, but once I learn something  this way I can really take that and apply it. Anyway, I’d made a decision. This was the version I wanted feedback for. I wrote when I could, bits here and there, but the time ran out.

The outcome was, it wasn’t even half-way done with the chapter by the Friday night deadline. I emailed Donna to let her know I couldn’t submit anything in the time frame and put myself out of the running. She agreed to still give me a critique when I am able to send it, so that is fabulous in itself, even though I missed the chance of longer term feedback. Soraya, who won, is a Romance writer at a stage where she’s very close to cracking it, just the right place to get best benefit from Donna’s mentorship. I think I’m at an earlier stage where I need to learn more craft and develop my voice more first. I need to feel free to make mistakes without feeling like I am wasting someone else’s time too, if that makes sense.  Part of what made me panic wasn’t just the not having a chapter ready, it was also the feeling of “I’m not ready for this!” Maybe next year, if Donna is generous enough to offer so much of her time to run this contest again, I might have a chance to enter again, and be able to make better use of an opportunity like this if I was chosen…

Anyway this has been a big learning experience. I feel a lot better now  (as I wrote that I woke my husband up with my coughing, but I am a lot better!), so I can get that chapter done and sent off to Donna. I’ve had some lovely positive feedback, which is always a good thing.  I had a go at something, and got surprising results. My big take home lesson from this is- do not enter pitch contests thinking “I’ll just get some feedback on my pitch.” You may just get a lovely complete surprise that will throw you into a total panic. This would have been a totally stress free experience if I’d had the chapter ready to sub if needed before I hit send on the pitch. I was wrong  thinking that she wouldn’t want my chapter anyway, so it was safe. Admittedly, the process of doing the pitch was what made me realise just how much more work my chapter needed. I’m not sorry I entered, I just wish I’d been better prepared. I will certainly think twice about entering the online pitch contest for Superromance on eHarlequin, unless some miracle happens giving me time to get it finished by the end of the month (that’s the whole story, not just chapter one, I think even I can manage one chapter in a month!).

I think my other lesson and the biggest one I’m only just realising through writing this is a deeper one. I wimped out when it came to the crunch. Maybe if I’d really pushed myself I could have got the chapter writen and submitted. Or maybe I am being too tough on myself. All the above reasons I couldn’t get the chapter done are also true. It’s useful as a writer to be honest about internal motivations though- I know what stopped me making that push to do it. It would have been bloody hard, but it wasn’t impossible. The truth is, the prize frightened me. It felt like pressure, expectations. With their positive flip sides- accountability, needing to show up in my writing and not run away from emotion. I’m not sure where to go with that now, but it could be that just being aware is enough to start to change it, enough to help me dig deep and find the real emotions I want to be there in my writing.

A few people on the contest thread at eHarl wanted to see the finallist’s pitches and Donna’s feedback, so I’ll post those separately. This post is plenty long enough already!

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3 Responses to “Warning- long confusing post on pitching!”

  1. Jackie Says:

    Jane, I think pulling out, given your health and being in Thailand etc, was a sensible, sane idea. And hey, you got in the top 5! Out of 80 people! That’s huge.
    Go easy on yourself eh?

  2. Jane, I think you made the best decision under difficult circumstances. And Donna’s going to give you some feedback when you get that newest version complete. So, all is well.

    Hope you’re feeling back to your healthy self, soon.

  3. Eileen Says:

    Congrats on being a finalist!!!!!!!!!! That’s awesome! I read your pitch post and I really loved that too. I think this is just what you needed. No it didn’t all add up this time but you know you’re on the right track. 🙂


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