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!

Shiny New 2011! December 31, 2010

It’s that time of year again!

Time to look back and see what I achieved and what I learned in 2010, and set some goals for 2011.

I do feel like I achieved a lot with my writing in 2010. Not The Call, sure, but other valid achievements. I subbed three first chapters, one each to Harlequin Medical Fast Track, Mills and Boon New Voices, and Harlequin So You Think You Can Write. I did the Write-a-Thon I set for myself over Easter, managing over 5,000 words a day to complete a first draft aimed at Superromance, then edited up and subbed the partial. I learned a lot from the rejections, even the form one! So fours subs in a year, considering the most I managed before was one chapter for contests in each of the preceding years, is pretty good going! I have a bulging ideas file, a story in progress, and plans to edit up the rejected Superromance. Daily word counts may not be awesome, but there’s been steady progress. I’ve certainly written on more days than I didn’t!

I’ve done some excellent online workshops this past year – the Margie Lawson and Shirley Jump ones are the stand-outs, and I’m hopin.g to take more workshops with both of them again in 2011. Margie’s insights into how people express emotion through body language and using a character’s body language (she has a broad definition, including everything except the character’s actual spoken words and internalisations) to show not tell, are something I need to revisit (must reread those super-comprehensive lecture notes!.)   Shirley Jump is just plain fun to work with, a fab teacher, and a brilliant writer. I did two online workshops with her, and will be signing up for the next one in February!

I’ve learned plenty through personal reading and workshopping too. Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel and the Workbook that goes with it helped make some shifts in my writing – not enough to breakout, obviously, but enough for me to see a difference. Do get both if you’re going to do it – yes, there’s some repetition, but the workbook is where things really shifted. I’m glad I broke my bad habit of reading books but not doing the exercises this year!  Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back are fab – I love his style and the Beat Sheet is a brilliant way of looking at story structure. Robert McKee’s Story, which I’m reading now, is a thoughtful and deeper exploration of what it takes to make a well-written story – definitely one to read with either a notebook or a Word file open for all the insights into your current story you’ll get! I bought a few other writing books this year, but haven’t done much with them yet so can’t comment.

So, onto to 2011 and my goals!

I already wrote down some writing goals a couple of days ago over at the Sub Care forum on eHarl. Then, within 24 hours, my goals changed! So I seems to me important to bear in mind when writing goals to  keep them flexible. Some people say very specific, concrete goals work best, measurable goals where it’s easy to say “Yes, I did that”, or “No, I didn’t.” That’s great if you have a totally clear focus. What I found happened was I made the goals, then something changed, became much bigger than I expected if would be, so what I originally planned is going to be impossible to achieve if I do it properly. Maybe one of my goals should be to have  a clearer focus!

What I need is to set small, flexible goals, goals I can actually achieve that don’t pre-set me to fail. I already think I suck enough as a writer, without adding failing to achieve unrealistic goals into the mix too! I liked this post from Kitty Bucholtz. It seems wise to me to set goals that are written on water rather than carved in stone.

Sticking with my goal to write story words every day is totally needed, insisting on trying to stick with my goal to complete and sub two new  full stories in 2011 is not. That could be counter-productive, given that my WIP (currently two chapters and a plan) just morphed from a 55,000 word category romance to a 90,000 word single title romance – and another sub-plot that’s so perfect I have to include it jumped into my mind literally as I am writing this post. It’s as if having given my story permission to be bigger, it’s doing just that.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I have the skills needed to write something of the complexity I’m envisioning. That’s okay. I’m not entirely sure I have the skills to write it as a short category either. What I am going to do is write free of what I think is needed for the Harlequin series I was targeting, and see what I end up with. Trying to write to meet what I perceived to be category requirements just tied me in knots and what I wrote was cliche ridden crap, with cardboard characters just going through the motions in a same old-same old style plot that everyone has seen a million times. I brought nothing new to the table.

It could be that by writing free, I’ll end up with something that actually has some life and originality in it, that could even work for Superromance, the longer (and getting longer again in 2011 – yippee!) category line I love. If not, it will find its home somewhere.

My writing goal for 2011 is to write every day, write without worrying about publishability, and to see what I end up with before I make any decisions what it is or what to do with it. To keep learning and growing as a writer. Oh, and to finish 2011 with a clearer focus.

May we all have a joyous, productive and Call-filled 2011! And may none of us make ourselves miserable by setting unachievable goals. Let’s set goals that stretch us just enough, so we can look back this time next year and celebrate!

Edited to add- I just found this post with some thoughtful and challenging questions about where we are with our writing- may take the time to answer these properly.


Fab Superromance review- and I have an epiphany (again…) December 29, 2010

A wonderful review over at Dear Author for Karina Bliss’s latest Harlequin Superromance. I love her stories, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one, though I do have to say stories that start with the hero or heroine trying to pick up someone else tend to squick me out a bit. It does seem to turn up a lot in these “best friends into lovers” stories. That’s possibly just me showing my personal preferences, or it could be my age. I read Blaze now, so I can handle the heat, but I was brought up on Sweet, no-sex romances. I definitely want one man-one woman stories, even a start showing the heroine with someone else just sets the tone all wrong for me. I’m old-fashioned.

I’m realising that a lot of what is wrong with my stories is exactly what the reviewer commented on- they read like they were written by someone’s Mum in 1983. Co-incidentally, about when I first tried writing a romance!

I had a small epiphany yesterday, when I realised the problem with my WiP and the real reason why the situation and the heroine’s backstory just weren’t gelling was her age. I started writing with her 28, a good age and one I usually like for heroines in stories I read.  But the way she was living and the things she was doing seemed too immature for someone of that age to still be doing- I felt impatient with her, wondered why she hadn’t grown up. I tried changing her age to 24.  Better, but still not right. Suddenly I realised- she’s forty!

Everything fell into place, beautifully. All the pieces of backstory that didn’t fit, the conflict with the hero that felt contrived, the motivation for her doing what she was doing. It works. Or at least, hopefully it will work. I still have to write the story, of course. It’s a good lesson in the importance of making sure I know my characters, really know my characters, before I start. The essence of the story, as I mapped it out using the Beat Sheet from Save the Cat, is identical. It just works so much better now!

Where I went wrong was not even thinking about it. The story was aimed for Harlequin, so the heroine had to be in her twenties.  Realising, no, she doesn’t, is a wonderful change, and is absolutely right for this heroine, even though I know it stops this story being a fit for any of the Harlequin lines.

That wasn’t the epiphany though. The epiphany was that this is the sort of story I want to keep on writing- sensual stories, set against a small town or community background, with grown up heroines.

There doesn’t seem to be much available for women of a certain age, who want to read about women their own age finding true love and happy endings, but who still want stories with good sex too. There’s women’s fiction, usually with an unhappy ending but a  life lesson learned; for a short time there was “hen lit”, which seems to have fizzled; there are a few sweeter romances with older heroines, with the bedroom door tight closed; or there are hot stories about women half my age, or over ten years younger at best. The only exception seems to be abominations like Sex and the City 2, which I totally detested for the shallow pathetic characters, caricatures rather than heroines anyone could identify with. At least what SATC shows though is women in their forties and fifties, still wanting love and sex. Where are the romances, for and about women in their forties, fifties, and beyond, with heroines who are falling in love and having the hottest sex of their lives? Few and far between, it seems, certainly from the major romance publishers. Which is understandable given the huge costs of paper book production and distribution.

So if I write the stories I want to write, I will never ever have any chance of being published by Harlequin, no matter how well I learn to write. Maybe there is no market, and the best I can hope for is to get my stories published by an obscure e-publisher and sell six copies, all to my friends, who make polite noises but never actually read the things. Or maybe there are actually a lot of women out there who know that love and sex don’t stop at thirty, and would love to read stories with older heroines, who are just not finding the books out there they would like to read.

I discovered yesterday that at least one of the romance e-pubs, Wild Rose Press, has a line featuring older heroines, called Last Rose of Summer. I intend to read a few, see if I like them. The wonderful thing about e-publishing is it lets publishers take risks on books that might sell poorly. When fabulous big publishers like Harlequin have tried series with older heroines, sales weren’t good enough, so the lines soon folded. E-pubs can afford to get away with lower sales, so can publish a more diverse range. I’ll still keep reading the Harlequins I love, but it’s time to be more adventurous and venture further afield too.

Much though I would love to see my name there on the supermarket and newsagent shelves on the cover of a Harlequin/ Mills & Boon, it’s not going to happen. I love those books, and there are so many brilliant writers of all ages writing wonderful stories, for HMB, but I won’t be one of them. My chance of getting published is going to come with one of the e-publishers. I honestly think it’s time for me to stop writing the weak, cliched stories I’ve been labouring with, stories that were never going to fly because I didn’t believe in them, and because they read like the stories I tried to write when I was the same age as the heroine I was writing about. My writing can only get better if I try writing honest stories from my heart.

Any suggestions for great romances with older heroines for me to read? What do you think- would you read a story with an older heroine?

Oh, completely unrelated- if anyone saw the post I did earlier about the free Harlequin comics on Amazon, I took it down when I found they weren’t offering complete stories as the freebies, just samples. Still worth a peek at them though, just for the sheer awesomeness of a story written in English that’s been translated into Japanese to be turned into a manga, then translated back into English again.


A Christmas gift December 27, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 9:35 pm
Tags: ,

I found a new blog today, and a post that is so exquisite, so perfect, it’s like a Christmas gift.

This is how I want to write when I grow up.

Thanks Laura!


Merry Christmas! December 24, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:07 pm

Happy Christmas to everyone! Here’s hoping you have a peaceful and joyous day, and that Santa is good to you no matter if you’ve been naughty or nice.

Oh, and big heartfelt hopes that 2011 is the Year of the Call, for everyone still waiting…


Keeping focused December 20, 2010

Or- I discover “Save the Cat”.

I posted today over at Seven Sassy Sisters, our group blog, about my latest discovery that I hope will keep me on track with my writing instead of pantsing in  a fog.

Please pop over and tell me what you think- am I overcomplicating things again, or could I be on to something?


The Manslator December 19, 2010

Filed under: General strangeness of life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:43 pm
Tags: ,

Just had to post this- it’s sooooo funny! (Thanks Maisey!)


“So You Think You Can Write”- Yes, No, or Maybe? December 18, 2010

I subbed on Wednesday to the latest Harlequin writing contest, “So You Think You Can Write”, along with probably a thousand other aspiring romance writers.

Do I think I can write? Yes, obviously, or I wouldn’t have entered, but probably not well enough for it to count for anything.

I’m starting to wonder if I will ever get my writing to the point where it’s good enough for publication, if I shouldn’t just give up now and save myself the pain of bashing my head repeatedly against a brick wall, hoping I hit the magic brick that opens the secret passageway to publication. (Not my image, BTW, it’s one of my writing buddies Chelsea’s, but it’s so apt I borrowed it!) After all, for my three subs this year, I’ve had three more rejections to add to my list. Isn’t it time to stop trying?

Thinking that didn’t stop me deciding late on Monday night just as I was falling asleep that I would enter something in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write, closing date 11pm Wednesday my time. Especially when I saw that they didn’t expect that the story had to be completed to enter after all, only that if you were asked to sub more you would do it pdq. Problems- I had nothing remotely ready to sub, and I had a Christmas party after work on Wednesday that meant I wouldn’t get home until after 11. So whatever I entered had to be subbed before I slept on Tuesday night. One day to do a subbable chapter and synopsis.

I did it. My first chapter and synopsis went in at 3.30am on Wednesday morning, aimed at Blaze.

I’m proud I met the deadline, but am not convinced it was a wise thing to do.

This is Mason and Steph’s story,  the one I was working on when I got the rejection letter on my last Superromance submission, then stopped when I realised it had the exact same problems commented on in the letter, and then some new ones! Reactive, goal-less characters, drifting into the story and then buffeted around by events. And even worse, something I figured out for myself, a resolution at least partially triggered by something  external happening, not internal change in the characters!

Also, it started life as a Super, but then as I wrote it my reaction to the first chapter was “Whoa, this is waaaaay too steamy for Supers!”  I know Supers can be super sexy, but that’s sex in the context of a relationship, not just sex. Sex is clearly the way into the relationship for this couple, love comes later. The conflict and character arcs are far more Blaze too, if I’m understanding what Blaze needs right (a focus on the heroine’s emotional journey to being able to commit to this relationship). I’m kinda worried it will fall between the two lines. Not sexy enough for Blaze, because even though there’s lots of lusting and sexual tension, they don’t go all the way until half-way through the story; but not right for Supers either.

Oh well, I rewrote the first chapter, and came up with a new synopsis that I hope fixed the worst problems of reactive characters and a weak resolution. Can’t see what can be done about the lust,all those pebbling nipples and bulging crotches, will just have to hope it’s a fit for Blaze and not too cliched! 

But even if I got those obvious problems right, no doubt there’s a hundred other things wrong with the chapter and synopsis. There’s no way something thrown together in less than a day is going to be any good. I hit that send button anyway, just to have something else out there.

The thing is, I’ve known about this subbing opportunity for nearly six weeks. Yet once again I left it to the last minute to start working on my submission? This is becoming a pattern now. I did it for the Medical Fast-Track, I did it for New Voices, and now I’ve done it again for SYTYCW. Why did I do it to myself again, a rush job entry, when I swore not to after the last time? I gotta face it, no matter how well I may or may not write, something thrown together on the last day before entries close is not going to be my best work. Aren’t I self-sabotaging myself here, setting up for failure?

I think I am. There are positives to doing it this way, which is no doubt why I do it. When I get a rejection, being able to console myself with “Well of course I got an R, it wasn’t my best work, it was thrown together in a day,” helps take some of the sting out. It also gets me over the fear and anxiety about subbing at all. I don’t have time to think and worry about it when I give myself twelve hours writing time to pull together a chapter and long synopsis. It got me out of the stuckness and uncertainty of what to do next that I felt after the rejection.

I had good reasons for doing it in such a rush. When I looked at the R and what I could learn from it, I straight away saw what the letter was getting at, and how I could fix it. But then I couldn’t decide whether to start straight into rewriting the rejected story, whether to rework the story I was writing at the time, or whether to start over completely with the new story idea.  The new story seemed the best option, so I started working it up, looking at the characters and their conflicts.  I’d read somewhere that SYTYCW required that the entrants had the full story completed, so no way was that possible. I just played around with the new story, without any deadline pressure. My starting point was an image I had of a man and a woman stuck in a lift together and neither know who the other is, then later they find out they are business rivals. I set up their goals, motivations, and conflicts. It looked like it should work, but somehow I didn’t feel right about it, it just didn’t seem to be coming together. Also, the characters and the plot felt very Modern Heat, and I’m not sure I can manage the right level of sass and banter for that line, especially now it’s changing to Riva in the UK.

I had a startling realisation- I wasn’t writing character driven stories like I thought I was! I started off with a few set piece scenes that I could visualise clearly, built a plot around that, then thought up the characters who could slot into the story. Arrgghh! I recognised I’d done this with most of my stories so far. No wonder it wasn’t working, especially with this story. Basically, I was trying to shove together two separate stories that didn’t fit at all! I had managed to create good strong characters, but they didn’t work with the pretty scenes I wanted. Either the pretty scenes had to go, or the characters did, attached though I was to them. In this case, the scenes could work well in a Blaze, with different characters, but I had no idea who they might be. I started writing the Modern Heat/ Presents Lite type story, but only got a few pages in when I saw on a SYTYCW reminder post that they didn’t require that the story entered be complete after all.

Yippee, I could sub after all, why not have a go?

No way I’d get a first chapter and synopsis for this new story done in time, and it wasn’t what I wanted to sub anyway. This was a good chance to email submit to the North American office instead of messing with posting hard copy, so no point sending something targeted at a London based line where I could do an email sub anytime. The changes needed for the rejected Super were too big to do in the time I had, and I wanted to sub something different, not just keep subbing and resubbing the same story. The only option left was to rework the previous WiP, the Super that wanted to be a Blaze. A lot of the first chapter could stand as it was, with a bit of tweaking. The thing that was starting from scratch was the synopsis. I had a bullet point list of possible events, but that would make a very bad synopsis.

I had some new insights that seemed good about the characters, and made some more changes in the set-up that to me seemed to help the heroine in particular to act and decide in ways that were more consistent and authentic to her personality. I made sure they had goals, and made sure their relationship blocks were clearly stated in the first chapter. (Maybe too clearly? Did I reveal too much too soon, and then bash the reader over the head with it just to make sure she got it?) In the synopsis, I tried to keep the focus on emotional change and growth and not just a series of events, and hopefully got across that the resolution was not solely due to the big external event that happens at the three-quarter mark. Or as well as I could with only twelve hours writing time to do it in!

Without really even reading it back properly, I hit send. So at least I’m subbing, and doing it so fast gives me a built in defence mechanism for the inevitable rejection.

But the inevitable rejection is why it’s self-sabotage. Yes, I have some built in self-protection against the pain, but I’m also setting up in advance that the pain will happen by sending off sub-standard work. I have loads of good excuses for doing it this way (didn’t it just take me over a thousand words to tell you them all!), but it’s still a dumb way to do things.

Maybe it would have been a far wiser choice to wait until I had a good partial, well thought out, polished, and truly ready to go, subbed via the usual route. Wiser, but far more scary. Because then if I get a rejection, like on my Superromance partial, I don’t have my emotional safety net to stop me plummeting to earth with a messy splat. I can’t say “I could have written it better but I did it in a hurry to meet the deadline.” I’d have to drop those “woulda if I coulda” justifications for subbing bad writing, weak characters, insipid and unbelievable conflict, a story that didn’t fit the line. I’d have to stop kidding myself, and deal with the pain of my writing just plain not being good enough. I’m maybe cheating myself out of making it a better quality learning experience, too.

The truth is, there is no magic brick in that wall we’re bashing our heads against. It’s not a secret passageway from unpubbed to pubbed that I need. It’s the insight to see how I can improve my writing with each story I start, and the persistence to keep working at it. But to really keep working at it, not merely pretend I am, with these half-baked contest entries and my crappy excuses.