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!

Characters- proactive or reactive? November 28, 2010

So, more thoughts on this editorial feedback that my characters need to be more proactive, less reactive, and that my plot relies too heavily on external forces.

I can see just what she means. The characters don’t appear to initiate any action, just react to what is happening. This makes them seem weak, and even worse, like puppets being pushed through the motions.

It’s interesting to me that I have this problem – and I surely do, I can see it not just in the rejected stories but in plenty of others! I thought this was something more of an issue for plot oriented writers, who start with a plot then make the characters fit it. But I always start with the characters, or at least one of them. I think the problem might be that I start with the characters all right, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of who they are initially until I have written a few chapters. By then I know them well enough to start over again with (hopefully!) a good grasp of their conflict and relationship issues. This all sounds good, and like it shouldn’t lead to cardboard cut out puppet characters.

In the meantime though, just to get started, I’ve come up with a clunky plot device to bring them together. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I ditched that when I ditched the first few chapters I wrote to get to know the characters, but I get attached to my set-ups and keep them in.

So for this story, I started with the image of Cady, my heroine, a single working mother having a very bad day that gets even worse when she is told her mother is seriously ill so she needs to go back to her small home town, where she’ll need to confront not just her estranged mother but Lock, the father of her son.  That was all I knew when I started writing. Ack, already writing that I can see how she is buffeted by the external issues. Yes, she decides how she will respond to them, but it’s all external, all  “stuff happening”. 

In a way though, thinking about it, that was part of my vision for Cady, that without her anchor of home and family she might be a business success and a good mum, but emotionally she’s adrift. That isn’t necessarily a problem, provided I establish her as a character and her motivations strongly enough that her mix of proactive in some arenas and reactive in others is understandable and sympathetic to the reader.

The main thing that makes a character proactive is a strong goal. I am clear what her goal is, to ensure the best life possible for her son, but obviously that’s not coming out enough. And it’s more of a passive type goal, in that she’s not really actively working towards that goal, though it is what motivates all her decisions.

I do think romances are moving towards stronger heroines generally, kicking back against the stereotype of the weak heroine in the thrall of the hero. Stories where the heroine’s action initiates the inciting incident are possibly more what the editors are looking for. My past stories have tended to the pattern of the hero erupting into the heroine’s life, not vice versa. Thinking of one of my CP Maisey Yates’ first two published stories, in both the heroine had a clearly defined goal and a plan to act on to reach her goal, that led her to seek out the hero. Seems like that (as well as her excellent writing and sizzling sexual tension!) may have helped her initial slushpile submission catch the editor’s eye.

Another problem is that the hero also is not proactive. By sticking with the plot device of her mother’s illness as the thing that brings them back together, neither of them has actively made a decision to make this happen. Lock has decided he’s ready to move on and is taking action towards that, but it’s periferal to what happens with the heroine. Then I add a coincidence on top of that- he finds out Cady has had his son because the boy has an accident and Cady is called about it, which conveniently happens just when he is in her office. So I have two characters will relatively passive goals which pretty much amount to just getting on with life, brought together again by external factors. Ick!

I decided yesterday to cut her mother’s illness, and cut the convenient coincidence of Josh’s accident. The initial plan was to retain both coincidences, but make Lock proactive. Lock sees Cady in a TV interview and decides to seek her out, as he’s ready to move on with his life. Still not good enough, coincidence 1 stays but coincidence 2 goes. Lock sees Cady in a TV interview about high flying career women who are single mothers, realises Josh is his son, and seeks her out, determined to get access to his child. Better. Probably even stronger if the coincidences could be dumped altogether and it starts with Lock seeking Cady out as he’s ready to move on, and in the process finding he has a son.

Now today I’m wondering if it’s even stronger if Cady is the instigator. Cady wants what’s best for her son, so she takes action and takes him home to Haven Bay. Or Cady wants to make amends, and seeks out Lock. It’s kind of less true to her character, as she’s protecting her shameful secret at all costs, and doing that seems a bit risky. She’d need a very powerful motivation to do that. Her son would need to be in trouble, or ill.

I just realised something. Interestingly, I added both those coincidences in the second draft. First draft had Cady finding out about her mother’s illness from someone else and deciding to go home with her son, then meeting Lock. I created the whole coincidence thing as a way to get them together, and still kept the original plot device of her mother’s illness. So now instead of the one I started with, I have three clunky plot devices.  Bang goes the theory about it being because of writing my way in. It was really because I was playing God with my characters!

*sigh* I’m getting the feeling I am doing it again. I’m trying to “make” then proactive.  Again, I’m manufacturing situations for them.

Will I ever get this right?

I need to start with my focus more on the emotional issues. What are their core conflicts? How would those issues drive the characters into action. That needs to be my starting point, not cooking up scenarios to bring them together.

Her goals are to create a good life for her son, and to keep her secret, two goals which are brought into opposition when she has to be around Lock again, for Josh’s sake. Lock’s goal is to move on with his life and forget Cady, which is complicated by him finding out he has a son he’s determined to be a good father to.

At least a third of my story, possibly more, is tied up in the elements I know now need to cut out. The bones of the story should remain the same, their core conflict, the black moment, and the resolution. I just have to find out who sets things in motion!

At least in my current story, the one I hope to sub for SoYou Think You Can Write, it’s the heroine who is actively making things happen, though her goal is a bit wishy-washy, she’s just doing her job, and that impacts on the hero.

I’ve made the same mistakes here, in terms of characters being passive responders to events rather than making things happen. 

Also, I don’t think I’ve nailed the conflict quite right yet- I’m concerned my heroine will seem TSTL for not wanting to stay with the hero, that she seems to have no real character arc until at the end the magic wand of lurve is waved and she changes completely. (And if any of my dirty-minded critique partners are reading this, no, not that magic wand, that one gets waved earlier!) OTOH, if I do it right I can show how she’s struggling with what she wants to do vs what she’s always done and feels she ought to do.

The other problem with this story is that the ending does rely on an external event that possibly puts the hero’s life in danger and makes the heroine rethink things. The answer to that is that the heroine has already changed her mind, decided to go back to him and tell him she will stay, then can’t do it because he is in this dangerous situation. She’s going to really suffer while she’s waiting to hear if he’s okay- because what if he dies thinking she didn’t love him enough to stay? But the external event can’t be what triggers her change, that’s got to be internally driven.

I’m a bit stumped what I should be writing now- do I work on fixing the rejected story, while I’m all fired up to do it, even though the plan I thought I had yesterday is shot to pieces; do I try to fix the story I want to sub to SYTYCW, which is riddled with problems; or do I start that new take on an old story idea that’s kinda Blaze-ish or Modern Heat-ish? The one where I figured out for myself last week that the problem with the original idea was that the heroine was being pushed around by circumstancesand just a victim, instead of her getting out there and being proactive.

Hoo boy. Now I need to be proactive and decide what to write!

Edited to add- or I can use this as an excuse for some internet surfing looking for more info on proactive characters. Here are a couple of links I found interesting- Camy Tang, and Janice Hardy. Also yet another book which I’ve ben thinking about buying and haven’t yet (in the past two weeks I already bought Save the Cat and Story, but they’re gonna be my Christmas present from the MiL, now I have to work out who’s going to buy me this one!)- Fiction Writing for Dummies.

 

Rejection November 27, 2010

Well, I got a rejection for the Superromance submission in the post today.

A not too bad, personalised R, which I really appreciate, but still an R.  I was kinda expecting that, even though obviously I hoped for something different. No real positives to take away from it, I’m afraid, not even the invitation to sub another story, which is more upsetting than the R.

Except yet again I have the chance to learn, and this time from some real live editorial feedback, so it’s not all bad. I would have been gutted to get a form R, but this I can work with.

She thought “the plot relies too heavily on external forces and secondary characters to bring Cady and Lock together. Everything that happens comes about because of actions taken by other people, not from any decision made by the hero and heroine. For this story to be successful, we’d need to see the characters be more proactive in their lives and their relationship instead of simply reacting to the other people around them.”

My initial response- Well, that’s not really how I saw it, though the set up is very based on external events- but aren’t all stories? It’s how the characters run with that that makes the story.

I had about 30 seconds of being weepy and sorry for myself and “But all stories are like that”, then I started thinking about it.

Second thought- light bulb moment- I think I see at least one thing I could change about Cady and Lock that would make the characters more proactive – or one of them, at least. I need to make a similar change in the story I’m writing now, it has exactly the same issue.

It still may not be enough to fix it though. The real problem is that my characters tend not to start with obvious goals that are in opposition. One may have a goal, they impact on the other’s life, but for one character their goal is usually just to keep their life the same. That’s always going to make them seem to be not proactive,  just reactive.  Actually, stories don’t start with an external factor, it only looks like they do. Stories start with one character’s goal impacting on another, and that’s the inciting event. So it can be totally internally driven, on that level. The problem with my story was neither character was working towards their own goals.

Arrgghhhh! All my stories are the same!

Anyway, I think I can see now several things that could make Cady and Lock’s story better. Drop her mother’s illness as the reason Lock seeks her out after so many years. Probably take out the whole subplot about her mother being ill- it’s just a fairly clunky plot device to give him the reason to contact her. It’s not needed, another complication to clutter things up. What that thread is really about is Cady repairing her broken relationship with her mother, which parallels her repairing her broken relationship with Lock.

Lock needs to instigate their meeting for his own reasons, not anyone else’s. I’m thinking seeing Cady on the television reignites his smouldering old feelings for her. Not the love, but the anger at how she ended things. He realises he’s put his life on hold waiting for her to come back to him, and it’s time to move on. (Their son needs to be a few years younger in that case, I don’t think he would have waited that long!) He seeks her out to demand answers to all those unanswered questions, then discovers she had his son and never told him.

Nah, still not there. Maybe that’s too coincidental too, I have two coincidences- he sees her on the TV, and then at the exact same time he is with her their son is injured so he finds out he has a son by accident. Not good enough. Those plot devices are clunking so loud, no one can hear the story. LOL, now I think about this, no wonder they rejected it!

The trigger needs to be him finding out he has a son after all these years. That’s the motivation strong enough to set the whole thing in motion, and at the most only needs one coincidence! I need to scrap everything in my partial and some significant chunks of my first draft, but the story will be better for it. I obviously tend to rely too much on plot devices and not enough on the character’s real goals and motivation.

The other thing I need to do is strip down to the real core of what the story is about and go deeper with that, rather than adding in other complications. The complications are often due to the plot devices I started off with anyway.  It’s a product of writing my way in- I don’t always know enough about the characters to start, so I use a plot device (like the sick mother in Cady and Lock) to get me started. Where I go wrong is leaving that in the future drafts!

So the heart of this story is Lock discovering he has a son with Cady, the woman he once intended to marry, growing up without a father. He experienced this himself when his own father abandoned him and his mother. No way is he going to be a deadbeat dad. He’s going to be part of his son’s life, whether Cady wants it or not. Cady doesn’t want to deny her son Josh the chance to know his father, but deciding to allow that threaten all she’s built her life on. She made the most painful decision of her life nine years before, when she chose to end her relationship with Lock rather than reveal a shameful secret. It’s time to set things right. Going home to Haven Bay for the summer means being around Lock, the man she betrayed, thinking it was best for him not to tell him the truth. It means seeing her estranged mother again. It means learning what it really means to be part of a family. It means taking the biggest risk of all- trusting in love.

Or something like that! The essence of the story is identical, all the other junk I hung off it is removed. The interesting thing will be seeing how much of my first draft is salvageable, and how much was clutter that needs to be pruned back to make more space to go deeper with the real story. Megan was so right in her comments on the partial- the characters aren’t focused enough, there’s a lot of clutter. Much of what is in the partial can be dropped without touching the core story at all. In fact, the three chapters, when it’s stripped back but taken deeper, become one. The end line of the revised chapter one will be the end line of chapter three in what I subbed!

Phew. It’s going to be an interesting rewrite. I’m looking forward to tackling it.

And now, I need to do the same with my WiP, the story for SYTYCW. Take off all the dangly jangly rings and bells and bangles, and find out what the naked essence is of the story I want to tell. All those extras and messy plot devices detract from the story, get in the way of emotional intensity.

Fun! I’m excited about this!

 

Gratitude ABC November 25, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:38 pm
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I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving today, Australians don’t, but Happy Thanksgiving to those who are!

I love the concept of taking time to give thanks. I don’t stop often enough to really appreciate all the good that is in my life (and for starters I’m grateful I work for an American company so I get the day off today, without having to cook that big dinner!).

 I challenged myself to come up with an ABC of all the things I want to give thanks for.

Here it is, my gratitude ABC-
A is for Abbi, Sassy Sister and our guiding light, a wonderful and diverse writer gifted with a particularly wicked way with snark and a voice that is just meant for Single Title. Also for Aideen, Sassy Sister extraordinaire, possibly the most courageous woman I know, who’s dealt with things I’d crumble before, yet also manages to be one of the funniest women I know. A role model for feisty heroines everywhere. And for Arthur, my dh who puts up with a lot from me and is slowly but surely learning that when I say “I’m writing, so don’t interrupt me unless it’s important, or I’ll be angry,” I truly mean it, especially when the important interruption is to ask me whether we have any hummus in the fridge.
B is for Books, those things we all love and want to see our name on, my escape and refuge as a child, and still a new world ready for me to explore every time I open one.
C is for Critique partners, I’m so blessed to be in a group with some amazing writers, friends as well as writing buddies. It’s part of Community, something romance writing has a lot of. The support and encouragement in places like eHarlequin’s SubCare, the Mills and Boon equivalent, and other writing groups like NaNo and JanNo is awesome. Also for Chocolate, that writing necessity; and for Computers, wonderful things Some of you won’t be old enough to remember what trying to write and sub was like BC, but I sure do! And especially for Chelsea, Blazing a trail as the secretly sexy and sweet Sassie, wonderfully supportive and with an excellent editorial eye.
D is for Diet, made necessary by too many hours sitting at the computer eating chocolate- I give thanks that it worked- I lost fifty pounds this year and feel great! I’m so grateful I discovered The Menopause Makeover by Staness Jonekos just at the right time.
E is for ebooks, letting me fit a whole bookcase worth of books on a 7″ device to take with me on vacation. And epublishers, bringing us interesting books that may not have found a home in print.
F is for Fabulous Fifty, what I turned this year, also Friends and Family. And for Fairy Tales, stories I love, archetypes that speak to me, and a quality I want to catch in some of my stories. Also for Finished First Drafts– I’ve managed one this year and plan to make it two before the end of the year.
G is for God, making it all possible.
H is for Harlequin, the publisher we’d love to write for, and the books they publish. Also for Husbands, I wouldn’t be without mine, even if sometimes I want to kill him.
I is for Ideas, they may drive me crazy but I would hate it if they dried up. Now if only they’d be more workable… And for the Instant Seduction contest back in 2008, that got me started back wanting to write series romance again.
J is for Jackie a late addition to the Sisters but it feels like she’s always been with us, funny, far too self-deprecating, a fabulous writer; also for Super-Sassie Jilly, her wicked wit, warm wisdom, and always slightly warped way of looking at things is an inspiration. Love her to bits!
K is for Kisses, the more the better, and I’m always thankful for my husband’s.
L is for Love, it may not really be all we need but it’s a fair chunk of it.
M is for Mills and Boon the romances I grew up with. And for Maisey, the youngest and most published Sassy, an awesomely prolific writer with an instinctive understanding of workable conflict, and the three cutest kids on the planet. Also for Mistakes, I’ve learned so much from mine!
N is for Nancy (sheandeen on eHarl), her support and inspiration made all the difference when I was losing weight this year. I also give thanks for NaNo giving me the extra push to write more this month. I’m not going to win, but what I’ve written is worth it.
O is for One Chapter Opportunities– the fun chances to get our writing in front of the editors without needing a whole partial worked up, like the Medical FastTrack, New Voices, and next up So You Think You Can Write. I know I write better if I do the whole first draft first, I write my way in and my stories change so much, but I love the speed of the feedback and the ease of email submissions!
P is for Partial, in so glad I finally subbed one properly this year, ratger than just going for the contests. Also for Peace, which goes with …
Q is for Quiet, I’m so thankful when I get some and have a chance to write, I really would love more of it, and even more would love to not waste it when I get it!
R has got to be for Reading.  I wish I had more time for it!
S is for Superromance, my favourite romance series. I’m grateful that I actually Submitted a Story this year.
T is for Time, it feels as if there’s never enough, but I’m so grateful for what I do have.
U is for Uncovering layers in our characters. I love writing my way in and finding out so much more about these story people I thought I knew.

V is for Virgins– we were all one once, and I just realise as I write this that if the heroine of my WiP is improbably still one (it fits with her backstory) a big chunk of her conflict suddenly makes sense. Which still leaves me with the other chunk that doesn’t make sense, but it’s a start!
W is for Writing, love it, hate it, we can’t stop doing it.
X is for eXercise, the only way besides not writing to avoid writer’s bum. I still have it, but not as bad as if was, thank God. Okay, that was a stretch! I just thought of another one- my X-rated fantasies that come in handy when writing love scenes.
Y is for (this one really is a stretch!) whY? The most useful question in the world and one I have to keep asking myself as I write. Unfortunately right now it’s being used in the sentence “Why the hell did I ever think that conflict would work? It makes my heroine seem TSTL.”
Z is for zzzzzs the sleep I’m usually running short on. I’m grateful for the day off today and the sleep in I got. Of course, that ate three hours of my writing time, but I needed it!

I’ve probably left out lots more I should be giving thanks for.

What are you grateful for today?

 

Just for Lacey- the Fairy Dust Angel November 22, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:26 am
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I couldn’t find the Inspiration Fairy, so I kidnapped borrowed the Fairy Dust Angel from Chelsea instead.

Shhh, don’t let her know, she might want him back, but I hear she has quite enough inspiration already today. That woman is a Blaze ideas machine, so hot she’s smokin’!

I’m sure she won’t mind lending him to you for just a little while…

 

So You Think You Can Write? November 21, 2010

I knew I’d neglected this blog for a while, but I’m shocked to see it’s been three months.

Warning- long ramble about my writing process and easy distractability ahead! This post could be subtitled- Ideas are NOT the problem.

It’s been a busy time- I had two weeks back home in Australia, visiting my family and taking my very English husband touring some of rural New South Wales in a tiny campervan. The campervan really was ridiculously small, and late September mornings were chilly, especially west of the Great Dividing range, but we had a marvellous road trip.

I wanted to get something in for the Mills & Boon New Voices contest, but work had  been too manic in the run up top the trip for that to be an option (12 and 13 hour work days). So on the flight over, I wrote a chapter, from scratch,  and managed to get an internet connection to post it the day before the contest closed (in a mad panic- I actually thought I scraped it in 5 minutes before the contest closed, then found out I’d messed up the time zone difference!)

Well, that was another useful exercise in what not to do! It was fun to write – I had a particular mental image that was the starting point and I then had to come up with a story line that could explain it- but Presents is sooooo not the line for me. I may still finish that story, but it’s not top on my list of priorities!

I started revising it, using it as the raw material for an online workshop I did in October with the ever fabulous Shirley Jump, but then distraction set in. A new idea, triggered by a poster I saw on my walk to the train station after work. I decided this would be my NaNo story and began to plot it and do some character development. A lot of notes and a week into NaNo, I realised I was writing the wrong story. This was part of a trilogy and I had to write her two friends’ stories first, as this story started with them both getting married in Vegas and her being left on her own, which is where the bad boy hero comes in. Of course, I could have stuck to it and kept going with the story I had, but I really really really wanted to write the stories in the “right” order. So I picked the friend whose story seemed to come first, and started it.

Well, 6,000 words in I realised I had it all wrong. It wasn’t hanging together right, the conflict was off, the hero’s distrust of the heroine was all out of proportion with the reasons for it. Then it clicked. I’d given the heroine the wrong job. She should be playing the role I’d given a minor character. With that little change, the things that weren’t working, worked. It only meant that I needed to rewrite everything I’d done so far! No great loss as it was all first draft dreck anyway and would have needed rewriting anyway. On with the story! This part of things is good- I know I write my way into the story to get to know the characters, and need to ditch most of my first 10,000 words or so. I was also reassured that a number of published writers (and prolific ones) work like that too- stop after a few chapters or however it takes to appraise what the story really is, and start over if needed.

Except then there was another distraction. My hero has two older brothers, who are both already married (well, I thought they were, turns out one is engaged). I wanted to know a little about their situation and backstory as fairly significant secondary characters, and in a Superromance these other characters and subplot are important. Before I knew it, these guys were telling me their whole stories and wanting to know why they weren’t getting theirs written before their little brother. Arrgghh! I am not stopping writing again to start over with a new story. I did take a few pages of notes and opened files for each of the brothers, and that settled them down enough to co-operate in this story. I got a bit more written. Then for some reason, I got thinking about pseudonyms for if I wanted to write hotter stories I may not want to have published under my own name (I know, a bit premature- first write the story, then find a publisher, then worry about this stuff!). So I spent hours not just deciding on a couple of names, but setting up blog sites and email accounts for the new personas too.  A bit ridiculous setting up new blogs when I haven’t posted on the one I already have for three months, but there you go, it seemed important at the time. Turns out one of them is actually very very sweet and wouldn’t write erotic romance anyway. Her blog is all pink flowers.

Then today, yet another distraction. I’d been going well, got 1600 story words. But the sexual tension between hero and heroine was just too… sexual. The sex part comes before the emotion part. Was this story perhaps a Blaze rather than a Superromance?  I thought I’d look at this month’s Blaze releases to see what sort of stories they were doing and if this had any chance of being a fit there. One phrase in one of the blurbs reminded me of a Modern Heat idea I’d had around the time of the Feel the Heat contest that had fizzled out before I even finished the first chapter, because I knew it wasn’t going to work. Suddenly, I saw exactly how it would work as a Blaze. Two page synopsis and another couple of pages of notes later, and now I have another story nagging at me to be written.

I’m not going to. I have to commit to sticking to this one I’ve already got going through to the end. Then I can give into all the lovely distracting ideas dancing through my head. I always laugh when I hear anyone say “I’d love to write but I don’t have any ideas”. Sheesh! How can that be possible? I have too many ideas! A few years ago my husband, knowing I wanted to get back into writing again, bought me a writing book for Christmas. It was, you guessed it, about generating ideas when you don’t have anything to write about. He got so upset when I kindly but firmly told him it was the last thing I needed. If however, there were any books on sticking with one idea and following through…

Anyway, the main reason to stick with one story is that I want to have something new finished, at least in first draft, to sub to the Harlequin So You Think You Can Write competition. These one chapter and synopsis contests, with a guaranteed response time, are too good an opportunity to miss. Especially as this one is at the Canadian Harlequin office. They normally only accept snail mail submissions, and I still don’t know for sure that the partial for marrying Miss Wright I sent off three months ago made it there. So I have to get “Visiting Redemption” first drafted, decide if it’s Super or Blaze, polish up the first chapter, tidy up the rough synopsis I already have, and send it off by December 15.

Then and only then, are any new ideas getting given more than an hour to write some notes.

What’s everyone else doing? (That is, if anyone ‘s visiting here after I haven’t posted for three months!) NaNo-ing? Entering SYTYCW? Too many ideas? Not enough ideas?