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 now? December 4, 2010

No writing this week. Not wasted time- I’ve read two Blazes which I loved, as I wanted to get a feel for the line and I hadn’t read one for a while (they were Sam Hunter’s Taking Care of Business and Kathy Lyon’s Make Your Move). I’ve also done a lot more reading and thinking about a whole lot of stuff that goes into making stories with strong proactive characters who drive the plot. Main things seem to be good conflicting goals for the hero and heroine, something that drives them to act and therefore drives the plot. In my stories at least one character always seems to have the goal of keeping their life how it is when the other character erupts into it. I’m not sure that’s good enough, as it’s almost always going to make that character reactive and not proactive. Unless they can then come up with an active plan to stop their life being disrupted, which is something I only just thought of…

Anyway, all that thinking and I can’t decide what to do next!

Option 1– Do I use what I learned so far to have a go at rewriting the rejected Superromance story? Reasons for- I love these characters and have a completed first draft. It may not take too big a change to fix the issue of reactive rather than proactive characters and too much external stuff. It’s hard to explain that one- it is a big change, but I know how to do it so it won’t be hard,  just a lot of new words, if that makes sense. Reasons not to- I suspect this story has other problems besides the key one Megan mentioned. Mainly that a lot of the heroine’s internal conflict hinges on her big sekrit, which she keeps from both the reader and the hero until the big reveal at the 3/4 mark, which triggers the Black Moment. That needs rethinking too. She can’t reveal it to anyone else, that’s not at all in character, but maybe the reader needs to know, needs to understand her conflcit, why she’s so torn, why she can’t accept what the hero is offering her. The other issue is that while she has a big character arc, a lot of growth and change, as it is the hero does not.

Option 2– Do I keep going with the WiP, which I know has the same problem of at least one essentially reactive character,  the additional issue of not being clearly targetted to any line ( it’s feeling too sexy to be a Super, as the sex is the way into the relationship; yet not sexy enough to be a Blaze), and also conflict that just doesn’t feel strong enough to carry the story? I know the basic internal conflict can’t be right yet as I needed to add something new in- the heroine can’t have kids and the hero wants them- what I am doing is an old problem of combining lots of conflicts rather than one core conflict. I did think of one thing that would tie it all together for the heroine and make her key issue one of seeing herself as a defective woman so rejecting her femininity and any sort of traditionally female role. Lots of backstory in her family of origin that created this, topped off by her discovering a health issue aged sixteen that meant she would never menstruate and could not have a child. Needs to be worked out more. Her issue will be self-acceptance then. The hero needs more work too- his issue is more around being willing to roll with change, and the heroine is a change agent. It’s all a bit messy. Odd that when I started writing I thought I had a good clear-cut conflict- it just gets messier and messier- which tells me I don’t have it at all! I did have a good aha moment when I realised in my plan as it was I had the heroine’s resolution of her conflict looking like it came from an external event. I know now that it can’t- she has to decide to change. I want to keep the external event, but she needs to have already decided to change. All the external event does is delays her being able to tell the hero, and gives her more emotional grief and some deep regret- she’s ready to be with him, all her excuses have fallen away, and now not only can she not tell him, their chance of a future together might be gone. It feels kinda powerful that way. Almost will give a double black moment- it looks resolved, then this external event gets in the way. She needs to have made the decision to go to him, be feeling happy and relieved and as if it’s all going to work out before she hears about the external event that puts the hero in danger. Not sure if it will work like that (though now I think about it I do remember reading a Sarah Mayberry- Home for the Holidays- that had something similar) but it feels like it would.

Option 3 -Do I start over and try to get it right from the start with the new story idea?  Build in strong organic conflict and goals that will drive the characters into action. Have both characters needing to change, and their impact on each other forcing that change. This new idea seems to offer that, good opposing goals, the hero and heroine both have much the same internal issue and need to change (both of them have their whole personal identity and self-esteem wrapped up in their work, and they both want the same external thing- to run her father’s hotel chain), but I can’t see what the resolution will be! Also, is that enough of a relationship block? Neither allow close relationships, neither want to fall in love or be in a committed relationship. I need to know more about why.

She has been burned too many times by men who only wanted the heiress and not her, which is why she doesn’t tell the hero who she is when they first meet, and also doesn’t feel she is lovable (both because of the jerks and more fundamentally because she’s spent her whole life not measuring up to her father’s and her own memories of her perfect, beautiful, dead mother). He doesn’t want to let another person into his heart because his sensitive older brother committed suicide in his teens due to the pressure to succeed in their family. Mace succeeds easily, feels he owes it to his brother to be even more of a success as he took on the role in the family company that was meant to be his brother’s. Giving that up will feel like betraying his brother again. Allowing himself to love means risking the same hurt again he felt when Adam died. Hmm, there’s some potential there.

I want to go back and read the fabulous blog series the even more fabulous Julie Cohen wrote on character arc.  She shows how she plans character arc and then the key plot events flow for that. I want to see how that works with my characters for all these stories.

I’m inclining towards starting a new story. Of course, that shoots down any chance of entering SYTYCW, with a closing date of the 15th. I could possibly have a first chapter (though not really polished) and a synopsis- but not anything resembling a completed story! So maybe I should try option 2. Now I’m thinking that would be better- want to see it the double BM works.  Or why not option 1?

And now I’m back to being confused again!


Making the story stronger- the heroine April 26, 2010

Feedback  one of my crit buddies got from her editor today made me have a great big lightbulb moment about my WiP.

You know that nagging certainty something is seriously off with the story but you can’t quite get what it is? (LOL, maybe you guys don’t have those moments. Lucky you if you don’t know what I mean!).

I figured it out.

My heroine is a wimp. She’s a victim. She just reacts to things, she doesn’t make decisions and take action. The funny thing is, I thought she did! But she doesn’t. She isn’t instigating things. She has it all together and she’s achieved a lot, looks like a big success, but the whole story is her being pushed around by external events. It’s almost like she goes back to her home town and steps back into a child role too, of letting other people or circumstances make her decisions for her.

This will NOT work! Heroines have to be strong, gutsy women a reader can admire, identify with. She’s their way into the story, and without a sympathetic heroine there’s no way the reader can get emotionally involved. It makes sense that to strengthen the story, I need to strengthen my heroine. Not that she has to be perfect. She’s got to have flaws and insecurities and baggage from the past that gets in the way of her being in a relationship with the hero, she’s got to have an emotional journey to make in the story. But she’s also got to be someone the heroine can imagine being, or wanting to be, or being best friends with. She can’t be weak, wishy-washy, or waste time too much time feeling sorry for for herself.

I’ve put my heroine in a difficult situation, where she has a past that’s truly terrible in more than one way. She also doesn’t have a clear external goal, all she seems to want is to get through the experience intact and get back to things being how they were (nicely under control, with the past neatly suppressed). And everything she does to try to fix things, to make things better, has to just complicate things even more. Yet she also needs to come across as not a victim, shoved first one way then the other by fate. Her life pretty much has to unravel before she can put it back together again (as does the hero’s), yet she has to stay strong, resourceful, focused on her goal and on making it work.

The answer is, I think, she needs a better goal.

Something Shirley Jump said in the workshop I’m doing:

Romance is NEVER the goal.

The romance COMPLICATES the external plot (which then creates more conflict). The hero and heroine meet at the worst possible time, essentially.

So your scenes still need external goals, and then having the h/h relationship becomes a complication to that goal.


Okay, now I need to find out what that goal is. Time for a List of Twenty, I think!


Breakthrough? September 25, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 9:11 pm
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breakthroughStunning image from photographer Mark Tweedie’s site.


















I’m feeling a sense of freedom and release today- I’m on vacation at last. I love the new day job (not so new now, I’ve been there four months!) but it’s brain numbingly busy. I haven’t done any writing at all for a while.

Today,  I gave advice to one of the writer’s in my writing group. Emailed a post to the group while on my train commute to work this morning, telling her what I thought she should do. Laughable, as I’m the least prolific and the “girl least likely to succeed” in our group! No-one with any sense would take my advice.

But I took my own advice. I’m a big believer that what we most want to advise or teach others is what we most need to learn ourselves. Proved it true this morning.

What I wrote was- Sit down with your characters. Read what you have already writing. If you feel stuck, get them to talk to you, tell you how they feel and what they intend to do about it. Then have them do the thing that’s going to get them in most trouble.

Within a minute of writing that, Luk, the hero of my abandoned Presents story, told me the answer to a key scene in the story, the one that really sets up all the big problems for the characters and precipitates their marriage of convenience. The scene I’d gotten stuck on in my edits because my plot device required him to behave so stupidly out of character he just wouldn’t do it.

He told me why he did it.

I didn’t even ask, hadn’t been thinking about the story. I had asked my subconscious, back when I decided to take a break from writing,  to please work on a solution to the problem.

Hopefully, I’ve found it!

The heroine needs to be quite different in the lead up to the scene, but that’s good too. She was nice enough, but maybe a touch insipid. This change gives her a lovely touch of fire that she needed. She’s suddenly come to life as a character too, very differently to how I first saw her. Her strengths were a little too “do-gooder”ish before. This gives her a real and very believable weakness, that gets them both into big trouble.

I realised I’d been playing it too safe, being too kind to my characters, wanting them to be too perfect. They needed to be allowed to make dangerous choices, but given damn good reason for doing it.

I think Luk and Emma (or Gabi, I’m still not sure which heroine it will be- but the new insight fits Emma’s character better) will be coming on holiday with me!


The joys of writer’s block! June 17, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:48 pm
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writers_block Image source











I wanted an image to fit the theme for my post, so I did a Google image search for writer’s block. It’s surprising (or maybe not, given the propensities of so many writers!) just how many wines there are named Writer’s Block.

I’m not planning on standing out the front and announcing “My name’s Jane, and I’m an alcoholic.”  I’m pretty sure I don’t have a drinking problem, though my teetotal husband may tell you otherwise! I was thinking about the usefulness of writer’s block,what I can learn from being stuck and not being able to move forward.  

When I whinged  posted about this somewhere (I thought it was the Mills and Boon forum, but I couldn’t find the post!) a kind published writer (again because I can’t find the post I can’t find the advice, but I’m fairly certain it was either Michelle Styles, Michelle Willingham, or Donna Alward) said that when they got stuck, it was because there was something wrong in the plot that needed fixing. I didn’t see how that applied to me at the time. Mini-lightbulb moment- I now feel maybe I do.

I have been so confused. Right from when I started planning the story, part of me wanted to write the story as a Presents, with loads of emotional drama; the other half wanted to write it as a lightly ironic romantic comedy, though still with its quota of emotional growth and change.

It seemed to make more sense to aim at Presents/ Modern. I love those stories, they are shorter (not that I am stupid enough to think that means easier, far from it!) and I have that Mills and Boon Compliments Slip that I don’t want to waste. But…but… as I was writing I seemed to lean more towards romantic comedy, and I had to keep pulling myself back.

As it is now, it’s neither one thing or the other. It’s a weird bastardised hybrid which will need huge amounts hacked out in the edits no matter which way I decide to take it.

The resistance to writing any more hit when I realised that to make this a series romance, whether Presents, Modern Heat, or a Sweet Romance, I would have to cut out all the bits I liked best and had most fun writing. Of course, those are very probably the bits that I will see I most need to be cut when I re-read the first draft! But I have this massive reluctance to let go of that fun, light, more chick lit voice. I didn’t really see how to make it work as a single title though. Now I think I have figured it out and I know what I am going to try and do. It’s the same story, but with a very different slant to it. The romantic comedy side is winning!

It won’t require just a little change to the story, but a massive change. Voice, tone, POV, whose emotional journey I focus on, all that will need to change. I don’t know if my idea will work or if it is totally crazy. It may be the sort of thing that could work fine for a short story or novella but get tiresome over a whole novel. Or it could work fine and be a fab romantic comedy.

I’m back in the saddle. I just don’t know yet it I’m galloping full tilt towards home, or the edge of a cliff.


“Progress” update May 24, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 12:08 am
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That word progress in the heading is in quote marks because it feels more like lack of progress this week!

The word count is moving  upwards, even if at a crawl pace at least it’s moving, and I’ve written something every single day. That’s the good news. The bad news is, I feel like I’m floundering. The story seems to have lost direction. I think this is the mid book slump, aka saggy middle, it’s just taken me 47,000 words to get there. That many words, yet I’m only about halfway through the story arc. This is going to need one hell of an edit!

I feel like the conflict is too weak, my hero’s motivation and heroic qualities aren’t coming across clearly enough (no, Luk, being gorgeous and rich is NOT enough!), and I’m in confused whose point of view I should be in when the scene will have equal emotional impact on both characters. The tone is patchy and variable, and the dialog and character behaviour is inconsistent, depending on what mood I’m in that day.

None of these are problems that can’t be worked out in the edits. The biggest problem is my self-doubt and that overactive internal editor of mine switching on at the wrong time.

I’m in the middle of writing the big first sex scene. and I’ve stopped and pulled back, leaving them dangling! This is a scene that will be earth shattering for both of them. Emma loses her physical virginity, but Luk loses his emotional virginity.  The emotional impact on both of them will be equal. But instead of writing it, I’m fretting about whose POV I should be in. Sheesh, what planet am I on? I keep telling myself I need to just write the scene, already, and worry about POV when I edit… and edit… and edit some more…

Problem is, that’s not working.

Maybe the truth is, I’m sabotaging myself. I do want this story to be publishable. But I’m not comfortable with the thought of revealing this sexual writing. I’m so identified with these characters, it feels like opening the bedroom door and inviting the neighbourhood in to watch me make love. It’s safer and more comfortable to step back and go into critic mode and focus on something technical like point of view that get into the reality of opening up to allowing intimacy and deep emotion with these characters.

Hmm, interesting. This is Luk’s character flaw, his main growth challenge. His driving force is staying emotionally safe by keeping people outside a wall he’s built around himself to avoid pain. I knew I was putting a lot of me into Emma, I didn’t realise I was doing the same with Luk too. My difficulty with this scene is the same as his. That’s a useful thing to know. It could help me get through this discomfort and write the scene, and also be something I can draw on to make Luk more real.

Tomorrow I’ll find some nice dark comfortable cupboard to lock the internal editor in, maybe throw in a few cushions and some magazines to keep her occupied, so I can just write and write and write this scene. It won’t be perfect. It won’t have the texture and depth and emotion I want it to have. And I need to find a way to be okay with that, to allow my first draft to be first draft. To trust that if I can get the story down, those things can be layered in during the edits.

Trust, relinquish control, let down the emotional barriers. Luk’s journey as a character needs to be my journey as a writer too.


Getting the form April 10, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 6:41 pm
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Image from Hoarded Ordinaries


I haven’t done any actual writing this week at all. Not one story word.

What I have done is a lot of thinking about the essential elements of a romance story, and a lot of working out what needs to happen in the Work in Progress.

I don’t want to plot it to death, but I’ve been feeling lost without a road map, and I’ve gone down too may tracks that turned out to be dead ends with this story.

My writing group think I’m being a perfectionist, trying to come up with the “perfect” story.  They could be right. But I think what I am trying to do is really get to the heart of what a romance story is, what needs to be there to make it a strong and effective story. What are the core elements? How do they fit togther? How do I handle POV, and the balance between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey?


Some writers seem to have it already internalised- perhaps quite unconsciously, absorbed from reading lots of stories.  I just don’t feel that I’ve got it yet. Maybe it’s magical thinking but I feel that once I get a deep understanding, the writing will just flow. I have the ideas, but I don’t know how to build the framework to hold them. This is an exercise in frame building, not just for this story but for all my stories.
I don’t feel stuck or frustrated with this process at the moment.   It’s all good stuff.  What has been frustrating is all this writing myself into a dead end stuff. I’m thinking I might do Book in a Week with this story. I get to spend three weeks planning, then a week writing first draft as fast as I can without thinking too much about it at all! If the plan isn’t working, don’t stop, just keep writing. But I don’t want to waste too much of that time writing stuff that is going nowhere.
I was like this at school. I could not write an essay to save my life, because I didn’t understand the form and what it was all about. One day it just clicked, and after that I could write an essay on just about any topic that would be sure to get good enough marks. I need the same inner conceptual shift to happen for romance writing. It’s that “aha” moment, when it all just falls into place, and once it happens, you’ve always got that skill or knowledge. I haven’t had that yet. I had it for essays at school, I had it for short stories at uni. Now I need to have it for romance writing.
The thing with romance writing is that though it’s not formulaic, there is a form. Once I have that clear in my mind, I can give shape to my ideas by using that to guide them. I’m too wild and all over the place at the moment. My imagination is undisciplined, it needs something to contain it, to guide it into shape.  There’s this essential balance between ideas, creativity, and individual voice on one side, which needs to be a bit wild and undisciplined; and the form of a story that the reader can relate to and understand on the other. Either one without the other is not a complete story.
My JanNo was a mess, all over the place, three different stories in one. My IS entry was more writing to what I thought were the conventions of the Presents form without real ideas to back it up. And sadly, I haven’t written anything that’s gone past three chapters in the year since getting my IS feedback.
Part of that is fear- if I finish and submit something I risk another rejection. Part of that is just that 2008 was a really crappy year when it was a challenge to get much writing done. And part of that is that I still don’t fully understand what makes a working romance story tick.
Overcoming the fear will just be a matter of doing it. Hopefully with my next job move I will overcome some of the work demands using up my brain. And right now I am focusing on the third problem, just not have a clear enough idea of what I am trying to do.
I have that lovely feeling of teetering on the brink of a breakthrough, I’ve almost got it, I’m almost there. And once it happens- WHAM! My ideas will be shaped by clarity and understanding. I will be able to let my writing just flow, with a form to contain and guide it.
Of course if I am still stuck in this process of working things out in a month’s time, our writing group’s disciplinarian had better start polishing those whips. ‘Cos then it’s clear it’s just another strategy to avoid actually writing. I really don’t believe it is.

Why? February 21, 2009

lightbulb momentSome interesting posts around today about internal conflict in our stories- what it is, why we need it, and how to get it! And the importance of never stopping asking “Why?”

It’s a lightbulb moment to suddenly realise this is the factor that has been missing from so many of my stories.  I am the queen of external conflict.  My characters get so much  thrown at them, from kidnaps to bushfires to car accidents.  It certainly makes for a busy plot, but all that stuff from “out there” is NOT internal conflict. 

Internal conflict is what keeps the characters apart, what is blocking them from moving on forward with a full relationship. It’s the stuff that’s there inside the characters, their beliefs about themselves and relationships, their goals, their deepest fears and anxieties. The things that may come from their family background, upbringing, past experiences. Often it’s the things that they don’t want anyone to know, might not even talk about with their best friend, are certainly not going to reveal to this scarily attractive stranger. It’s all the reasons that would get in the way of this man and this woman getting together even if they were in a room by themselves and nothing outside could affect them.  External events in the story may trigger internal conflict, but it doesn’t cause it. A good analogy is that the external conflict is what pushes two very different people together, whether it’s the snowstorm that strands them both in a remote cottage, the business takeover they are on opposing sides of, the fake engagement to swing a deal, the forced marriage because a one-night stand resulted in a pregnancy.  The internal conflict is then what pushes them apart, her fear that a relationship will destroy her, his decision at an early age never to allow himself to love, her belief that she is unlovable, his belief that he is unworthy of love.  This should be what drives the black moment, what seems to make it impossible for this couple to ever stay together.  That’s my understanding, anyway, for what it’s worth as an unpubbed writer!

And I’ve just discovered that though I thought I already understood this, it’s been the big missing component of my stories. Ther’s been a lot happening, but it’s not coming from deep enough within the characters. The black moments have been driven by external events, by other people’s actions, rather than something deep inside the hero or heroine. Or if it was, I haven’t made that clear enough at the critical moments when they’ve made decisions about the relationship. One of my stories, I can see, had NO internal conflict at all. It was purely external circumstances that kept them apart. And I can see how to tweak the story when I rewrite it. There is actually a huge possibility of built in internal conflict in who the characters are.  Anyway, that’s another story.

I’m now at the stage in my current story where even though what’s happening is all the external stuff throwing them together, I need to be making sure the seeds for the internal conflicts are there, the hints are being dropped, the issues foreshadowed.  That comes from the characters themselves, who they are, why they are as they are, why they have made the choices they have made.

Jackie Ashenden and Lucy King , the runner -up and winner of Mills and Boon’s Feel the Heat competition for new Modern Heat writers, emphasise never taking characters at face value but digging deeper by always asking them “Why?” Lucy’s post talks about how this can create the plot- start with two very different characters, and keep asking them “Why?”. Find out what their deepest fears are, then create a situation where they will be forced to face them.

At first thoughts, I didn’t think I’d done that with my current story. But actually, maybe I have. She’s a shy country girl with limited social experience, suddenly forced into the spotlight; he’s a workaholic loner forced back to his birth country where he has to deal with the events that  turned him into the emotionless moneymaking machine he is today. Except he does have one emotion- the desire for revenge on the man who destroyed his first relationship. Pursuing that is what pushes him back to the home he left twelve years before. Would a man like him still seek revenge, or would his desire to avoid his past mean he would bury it? I need to give him some damn good motivation to be willing to risk facing his past.

Better get asking- “Why?” and dig a bit deeper, before I write any more story. There’s clearly another layer here to peel off yet before I get to the truth. So glad I realised that now and not in Chapter Ten!