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!

“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.

 

Progress report March 14, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 9:21 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve been a baaaaaaad blogger. No posts for three weeks.

Work has been busy (so what’s new!) but the good news is my colleague who was ill so long is back working normal hours, and we’ve worked out a new work schedule that should help everyone manage the workload better. We’ll start the four day work week we hoped to start in January too, so I’ll have a weekday off to write. No excuses then!

I’ve finally finished the rewritten chapter one of the story I pitched in Donna Alward’s pitch contest. Donna has generously offered to still critique it for me. I hope she likes it. I know she will have suggestions for how I can improve it, which I hope I can write well enough to incorporate! Actually, I more or less finished it a while ago, but kept tweaking tweaking tweaking. Eventually I just had to say “No more” and hit send, or I was never going to send it!  Even though what I sent Donna must have been my fifth draft of the chapter,  as soon as I sent it I realised more changes I need to make- ways to deepen the emotion and conflict. Somehow it felt scarier sending my writing to someone I feel I know and like than to sub to an editor. I don’t want someone I feel knows me to see I really can’t write!

Now on with the rest of the story. I was up to chapter 3 or 4 in the first draft before I stopped, knowing big changes needed to be made, and that the fact I’d taken a wrong turn right at the very start was what kept holding me back from writing. I can’t edit what I already have to fit, I may be able to use somes paragraphs, but really, the only way to make it work will be a rewrite. I want to just race through a quick and dirty first draft now. No point polishing as I go, I know too much will change. It may well be that once I finish first draft I realise I’ve still started at a place that’s less effective, and need to start all over again for the third time. If I do, I don’t mind- it’s all learning how to plot and get it right sooner next time, plus I will know my characters’ conflicts inside out by then!

I’m taking Easter week off, giving me eleven days to write in. If I write something  on the story every day now, maybe with a big push then I can get the first draft roughed out. Fingers crossed! Though I need to be so careful with the goals I set myself. I realised how I was setting myself up to fail with writing and feel worse about myself by making unrealistically high goals. I’d decide I was going to write so many words a day and make up charts to fill in my daily word counts and track how I was going against my goal. Lousy idea! If I’m not writing, I feel bad about myself, get depressed, start beating myself up about my writing being no good anyway so why bother, and end up writing even less. Setting high targets was just exacerbating this. Paradoxically, pushing myself to write harder ended up making me less productive, not more.  I set a new writing target this week, hopefully one I can stick to no matter what else is going on in my life. My goal is to write one sentence on the work in progress, every day. Just one. Anything else is a bonus. I’ll report back how that works!

I’m feeling excited today that I have plans for a whole series of stories set in the same small town as Meg and Nick’s story. I know that seems ambitious for an unpublished writer, but there are secondary characters who deserve their own story, then I saw how other ideas for stories I wanted to write would fit in too. Those characters would be right at home in Haven Bay. I need to know this now because it will alter how I create the story world. If I want to include a future story that hinges on the town being hard to get to and easily cut off from the outside world, no point putting it a mile off the highway now!

I also realised what I need to do with a story I wrote for JanNo 2008, that’s been sitting there in first draft waiting all this time to be edited. It won’t be part of the same series, probably won’t even be targeted at Superromance. I have the feeling it might just be a Blaze. The whole time I was writing it I was holding the heroine back sexually, thinking “She can’t do that!”,  and “No, she can’t possibly do that!” Maybe she can, and it ties in perfectly with her core relationship block. So that might be fun to play with once I’ve finished this one and subbed it.

Seems like the only stories I don’t have plans for are the two first drafts for the Presents contests…