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.

 

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!

 

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?

 

Conflict March 21, 2010

Conflict.

One of my biggest problems, I think. Getting enough of it, getting the right sort of it, making it all hang together right to build an emotionally satisfying story.

The main reason I feel I need to leave Third Time for the time being is that I don’t have a solid enough grip on the internal conflict. It’s there, but it’s tricky, because rather than being in direct opposition, their goals and motivations are kind of tangential to each other. And most of Nick’s internal conflict comes from the situation with her, which could make him too passive, as resolving his conflict as things are relies on HER changing, not on HIM changing.

It could be said I am overthinking, just get in and write the thing, but this has been the problem with every story I’ve written. I would quite literally be wasting my time writing their story now. I’d just end up in another tangle of excessive external conflict thrown in to cover up the weak ineffective internal conflict.The key thing could be to be sure that the external issues all tie in together, as do the internal issues. Where I seem to go wrong is to keep throwing in new things instead of digging deeper into what’s already there in the characters and their situation.

I know that for me the solution is to mine for another level of emotion in the characters, rather than create more issues. Michelle Styles wrote it in a comment last time I was stuck-

Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices.

Now this is a big long ramble, I’m trying to work out what all this means!

 The problem with external conflict is that it makes the characters passive puppets. They don’t make decisions proactively, something happens, and then they react. It’s got to be all about the characters making decisions, rather than being pushed and pulled around by external stuff. Otherwise, it’s not emotionally real or satisfying. The story has got to be driven solidly by the character’s deepest needs, which they express by having an external goal. Everything they do in the story will be directed towards either reaching their goal or fulfuling their need.

The goals are always something external,that the character wants, something solid and tangible like a house, or a job, or a business. The motivation is internal, the real reason why they need the goal, always something emotional, like acceptance, belonging, self-worth, control. So though the character makes the decisions they do based on striving for their goal, the driver is their motivation. And the decisions always need to be expressed in action, that moves the story forward.

The conflict comes because the hero and heroine’s issues need to be in direct opposition. Whatver actions she takles to meet her goal triggers his internal issues, and vice versa. So there’s escalating conflict until change occurs, internal emotional change in both characters, that make the lasting relationship possible. While both of them keep doing what they do to reach their goal and fulfil their internal need, holding on to their old way of beliveing and behaving, this couple have no chance of a lasting relationship.

It’s the internal need that is key. Often there’s a shift part way through anyway- they get the goal, but it makes things even worse. Whatever decisions the character makes has to be true to their internal need, the deepest thing in them that they are usually not even aware of. Two people may have an identical goal, but because the reasons they really want and need that thing are different, the actions they take may be different too. Two people may have an identical internal need, but look for very different ways of achieving it.

For example the hero and hero may both have massive self-worth issues because of  lousy childhoods. One seeks to meet that unspoken need by becoming CEO of a multi-million dollar business. The other seeks to meet that need by becoming a doctor working for next to no pay in a clinic in the poorest part of town. They both want the same thing in their hearts, but there’s going to be instant conflict if these two collide, because they’ve chosen such different ways to get there. Every decision these characters make and every action they take will be determined by that internal driving need and the way they’ve chosen to fulfil it. So when the CEO decides he wants the land the clinic is on to build a new development, the doctor is going to fight back tooth and nail. It’s not just the external goal that’s at stake, it’s the very core of who she is, the rock her entire sense of self-worth is based on. And the same for him, he cannot lose the land, because that makes him the pathetic loser his step-dad always told him he was. He might decide to let her keep her clinic, but to be able to do so, he needs to have something else to make him feel he’s in control, he’s won. So if this was Presents, he might agree she can keep the clinic on condition she becomes his mistress for a month. That’s when the internal issues should take over. The action has to be driven by the heroine and hero making decisions, acting on them, and reacting to each other.

Now if I was writing this story I would feel obliged to throw in an earthquake or kidnapping or something to keep the plot moving after that. But this is where the digging deep comes in. If the story seems to be slow, losing momentum, sagging in the middle, it could be that the characters have stopped acting, and are waiting for something to happen, instead of making things happen. In the battle over the land in this example, one will win and one will lose. But they are BOTH losers, either way. He’s lost the chance of a good relationship with the heroine because he’s still stuck in getting his self-worth from being a ruthless money making machine, always in control, always holding the power. He believes emotions and especially love make him weak and pathetic. She’s lost the chance of a good relationship because her sense of self-worth is totally tied up with a life of dedication and giving out to others, not believing she is worth receiving anything back in return, especially love.

They will keep making decisions based on meeting that need, which should make things worse and worse because everything they do triggers the other character’s internal issues even more. Like in this story, she could deal with the issue of having lost control through agreeing to his deal by putting in longer and longer hours at the clinic, which would really hook into the hero’s own control issues. He would respond by becoming even more controlling, and there’s an escalating spiral that culminates in the black moment. The black moment is inevitable, because even though one or both of them may have changed their external goal, what neither has changed is the way they go about getting their internal need met.To find the truest way to meet their deepest need, they both need to change. They both need to realise that the way they have been trying to meet their needs isn’t working, is actually getting in the way of them getting what they really  want. This is the ONLY way these two can ever be happy, and can ever make a future together.

Now I just made that fairly rubbish example up, that’s not the story I’m planning to write!

Already, with a new story that’s only a few pages old, I’m falling into the same old pattern. I want to throw in every possible conflict, but I HAVE to learn to keep it simple. I’m wanting to give my hero some dark painful thing in his past that gives him trust issues, but actually, he does not need it at all. Neither does she, besides what I’ve already given her. No-one has a perfect childhood, we all have some emotional issues. I don’t need to give these characters an OMG awful upbringinging for the story to work.

This was the beartrap I fell into with Meg- not only is she disabled, she has guilt that her parent’s marriage broke up over her health problems as a child, her mother turned to alcohol and abusive relationships, then one of her mother’s boyfriends came on sexually to her when she was sixteen so she ran away from home. That poor girl! I cried when I realised the bit about the sexual abuse- I saw the whole scene and she was sooooo brave and resourceful in how she coped with it! You can see why I am shying away from writing her story just yet, it’s just too much. It could work perfectly, but I don’t have the hero’s conflict solid yet, I can’t see how the two mesh together. It’s possible Nick needs to change, that I haven’t given her the best hero to bring out all her issues. And I can’t get Meg quite right in the present either, she needs to be kind of coltish, skittish, wanting to explore the possibilities of an adult romantic relationship yet terrified too.

Which is why, for now, when the new story jumped into my head I decided to go with it!

But again, I want to overcomplicate. I need to keep the external stuff very simple. Golden girl of Haven Bay, Cady needs to be perfect. She’s almost achieved it.  She has the perfect job, with the twentieth floor office overlooking Sydney Harbour. She has the perfect flat, again with harbour views. She has the perfect housekeeper, so she can work out and keep herself a perfect ten. She has no time for a relationship. That’s okay, she doesn’t want one messing up her perfect life.. She’s the girl who made good. But her seven year old son is acting out, getting in trouble at school, and now her mother is ill and needs looking after. She has to go back to Haven Bay. She has to face Mitch, her childhood sweetheart. The man who believes she two-timed him then dumped him cruelly back when they were uni students together, destroying their dreams of a life together.  She made him think that rather than tell him the truth about the date rape she blames herself for and feels so desperately ashamed of.  No hope of avoiding him. As Mitch is the head and teacher at the small school in the community, he and Cady are going to be thrown together a lot, as he gets involved with her son.

Do I really need to give him any other reason to have trust issues and be wary of trusting her now when she comes home after seven years, isn’t her betraying him so badly in the past enough? And do I need to give her any other reason to feel shame and no self-worth when she blames herself for her rape, and feels a failure over her relationship with her son, the product of the rape? There’s enough emotion there to mine for a thousand page story, let alone a two hundred page one. Maybe they do need underlying reasons that what happened seven years ago affected them so strongly, drove them deeper into dysfunctional choices? But it really was a life destroying event. Maybe Mitch had abandonment issues already, because his Dad had affairs and left his Mum when he was in his early teens; maybe Cady had issues of needing to be perfect because her parents had very high expectations that she would excel, and withdrew their approval if she didn’t measure up. I guess that would make sense. But it doesn’t have to be something really big and really dark in their childhood, like I did with Meg. They just have to have good enough reasons to drive the decisions they made and are still making, to explain the way they behaved in the past and the way they are still choosing to behave now. Cady choosing to keep up her facade of perfection no matter what the cost to herself and others, Mitch choosing not to trust, not to let anyone get inside his shell again.

Now, this may not be quite there yet. They don’t have goals that are in opposition. Her surface goal is to do her duty to her Mum and get back to her life in Sydney ASAP, avoiding contact with Mitch. But her deep goal is to solve her relationship issues with her son Josh, and even deeper under that to resolve her issues with Mitch. Mitch’s surface goal is to help Josh with his behaviour problems. Not only is Josh disrupting his classroom, he feels an instant bond with the kid. It’s just possible Josh could be his son, despite the fact Cady told him she’d slept with another man. He sees the best way to help Josh is by giving him a strong male role model- spending as much time as he can with Josh. His deep goal is to resolve his issue with Cady- he is still angry with her over the way she betrayed him.

I may still not have it right of course, and getting it into my writing is a whole other thing…

 

New Year, new story. January 1, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:57 pm
Tags: , ,

January 1. Time to start my JanNo story at last!

I’m going to be pushing myself- rather than the usual 50,000 for NaNo or JanNo, I’m going to aim for 60,000.

I love Nick and Meg, my new characters. And it’s a huge relief to write a gamma rather than an alpha male. Alpha simply does not come naturally to me!

Trying to start writing today proved the importance of writing everyday- after just three days back at work, when I hadn’t looked at them, I’d lost touch with who my characters were and needed to spend a bit of time getting to know them again. But just thinking about the characters to make a couple of tweaks on the little bio sheets I’d done on them and on the collage got me back into the story again.

I did finally start writing and now have over 3,000 words.  All the ultimate in first draft crappiness, but at least things are moving. I want to see 5,000 words before I go to sleep tonight.

The rules- No going back. No correcting or spellchecking. No erasing. Just write!

Write or Die has helped with the “Just write” bit. I’ve already cheated a bit on all the other rules.

 

Shiny new story December 28, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:27 pm
Tags: ,

The flipping a coin thing to decide what to write next yesterday didn’t work too well. There was another option I didn’t consider- that I would get intrigued by a different story.

Michelle Styles’ question yesterday, to get me thinking about what it was in the Cinderella story I really wanted to write, worked brilliantly. My answer was- I don’t need princesses or billionaires at all. My sort of Cinderella has a run-down boarding house in a seaside town, inhabited by eccentrics, as her palace by the sea.

During the afternoon, in between thinking about Kate and Adam’s story, I kept thinking about this character, what would she be like, what would she want in a partner, who would her worst nightmare as a partner be? A vibrant and fascinating woman, full of contradictions, was coming alive.

I also realised that I have a lot of history with Kate and Adam. There are so many episodes I’ve visualised for this couple, but the old story for them was very much based on external conflict. I want to write their story, and soon, but wouldn’t it be more fun for my JanNo story to start with a new couple, a new story?

I had a lovely time last night getting to know Meg! Though I’m realising this morning that I’ve already fallen into an old trap- overcomplicating things. I’ve given her several sources of conflict, when one good one is enough. With everything else, does she really need to have an abusive ex? Probably not, especially as once I introduce him, like Chekhov’s gun, I’d feel obliged to use him.

Oh my goodness! Thinking about that- I discovered something amazing by digging deeper into the other big relationship block. She defininitely doesn’t need an abusive ex. So out of character. She wouldn’t have even let the guy near her! I’m gobsmacked by what I just found out. This is such a lesson for me. I take facile superficial conflicts, feel they aren’t enough, so I add another contrived superficial conflict. This does NOT work! Not that an abusive ex is a bad conflict, a different character would have had good reason to escape her bad childhood by jumping into the first relationship that came along. It’s just that Meg wouldn’t. And I only threw him in because I was scratching around for more reasons she wouldn’t be open to a relationship with Nick. Digging deeper into what was already there produced something far better.

In the Superromance editors podcast , they talk about avoiding cliches, not just grabbing onto the first idea that comes along but keeping on looking  for other ideas- the fourth or fifth will be the best! Ellen Hartman mentions this too, I can’t remember where now though it may have been in this Q&A on heroes (will come in useful as this afternoon’s job will be getting to know my hero Nick better!). I need to read this again too- Kate Walker’s “Keep it simple, dig deep“.

 

What next? December 18, 2009

Okay, I got the rejection email aka “form feedback”. Now what?

I’ve been too busy all week with the day job getting everything done before going on my Christmas break to do any writing. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about writing.

But today I have the lovely gift of a snow day- the trains weren’t running properly, and as I got all my work completed yesterday, I gave myself permission to stay home. Permission to stay tucked up under the duvet all day, laptop on. I really should be finishing my Christmas shopping and writing a few more cards, but hey, that can wait. This day is a gift to myself, and I’m going to use as little of it as I can get away with on any of that sensible stuff. (Just found out my elderly mother-in-law is unwell today,  I can’t get to her because of the snow, so three calls to her and two to her doctor’s surgery later…)

It’s time to move forward with writing again. Abandon the Presents edit of Luk and Emma, I’m going to get back to them in 2010 and rewrite their story as the Sweet Romance it wanted to be all along. First, I want to let Kate and Adam, my new characters, who will probably end up being targeted at Superromance, come out to play.

I love doing character development! It’s such a fabulous part of the writing process. Getting to know new people, what they do, what they like, what they most want out of life, what they least want in a relationship. Do this stage right, and the internal conflict should fall into place.  I should end up with two interesting, well rounded people, who each push the other’s buttons like never before. Push them right into where they don’t want to be, either in their life or in their relationship. Every time they try to fix it, things get worse. But they can’t just walk away. This person, who is their worst nightmare, is also the the person they feel an amazing attraction and emotional connection with, the person they’ll regret walking away from for the rest of their life, because this is that special once in a lifetime love.

The conflict should flow organically from who the characters are, so I’m not forcing the characters to take on certain conflicts just to fit my plot. That way only creates cardboard characters with contrived and unrealistic motivation. This is exactly what I did with my last story. I had the plot jump into my mind first, then had to make up characters to work within it. Some writers can probably work well that way, but clearly not me. I know now I have to start with character. And the character conflict needs to lock into each other.

Ellen Hartman, who writes for Superromance, did a great Q&A on this over at eHarlequin. It’s hidden away in the archives and took me a while to find it again, but it’s soooooo worth a read. And you have the link to make it easy! This is an excellent discussion. I started off thinking I would just pull one or two points from it, but I’ve pulled so many I may as well put Ellen’s name at the top of the blog!

For starters, why does a good romance need conflict-

one thing that’s important to keep in mind from a conflict point of view is that the conflict between the characters needs to be serious and deep. The basic idea of a romance novel is that two people fall in love despite external and internal circumstances that should keep them apart. (Love conquers all.)

That’s why bickering and smaller, lower stakes conflicts don’t really work. If the two people spend a lot of time arguing with each other, who would believe they’d fall in love or even want them to?

But if the two people spend their scenes yearning toward each other while being held back by powerful, believable obstacles, the readers will be right there with them, rooting them on.

Her editor Victoria Curran says that it’s crucial that the conflicts be specific to the characters- what is it about this man and this woman that keeps them from being together? It’s another way of saying that the best conflict comes from the internal relationship blocks with the characters, not from external circumstances (though external circumstances can and should tied into and trigger internal conflict). 

Ellen makes some excellent points about the importance of hooking the character’s external goals to their internal fears, and to the other character.

I can think up two great characters, each with wonderful internal conflict, but if the conflicts don’t play off each other, don’t impact each other, don’t keep the lovers apart for infinity, then the book isn’t going to work.

Also, making sure that reaching their external goals will make things worse for them in the relationship. Someone has to grow and change, someone has to decide, someone has to choose to give something up.

Ellen describes a story where her hero… 

…got what he thought he wanted…but now it’s causing him more problems. This twist concept comes in really handy if you want to totally strip your characters to the bone. You give them their heart’s desire and then you make them wish they never wanted it in the first place.

Just when things look like it might be working out, make it tougher. But in a way that hooks deep into the character’s core needs, goals, or fears. That’s what makes it internal and not just external conflict.

Jeannie Watt says-

Sometimes the H/h don’t figure out they have the same goal until the end because one of them is not acknowledging their goal.  They may not even be aware of it.  Their goal is a shadow goal–something they want deep down.  Throught the course of the story they experience things that allow (or in some cases in a lot in my books.  Often the shadow goal is the opposite of their conscious goal.

That’s how the happy ever after can still be satisfying, even if a character has had to scarifice something they once thought was important to them. The whole process of the story and the conflcit has brought the person to the place where they see the truth about what they really want and need.

The crux of it all-

The black moment is usually the culmination of the external conflict but the impact of the black moment comes from the resolution of the internal conflict.In the black moment, characters usually have to make a heroic choice. Often a heroic emotional choice. As any human knows, making a new emotional choice, let alone a difficult or heroic one, is hard. We don’t like change, especially not emotional change because it’s scary.

For that heroic choice to be believable, we have to have shown our characters struggling with the conflict and gradually being pushed so far against the wall that they have no where to turn.

This is why it’s important to keep increasing the conflict and hitting it from different angles throughout the book. The characters should be in a raw enough place emotionally that it’s possible for them to make a scary choice in the name of accomplishing their goal.

So where do I start from? Who my characters are.

Ellen says-

One of the ways readers fall in love with our characters is through a connection with their vulnerabilities. If we let our characters do things and say things to increase the conflict, they are often revealing themselves in very vulnerable ways.

The idea of vulnerability is closely tied to conflict. If our characters constantly make the smart, safe, right, logical choice, if they cover themselves and refuse to break down or ask for things, we won’t have a lot of conflict and our readers won’t connect with the writing.

Some of the conflict avoidance that I experience as a writer comes from wanting my characters to be safe and smart. I have to remind myself they’re fictional and they need to take chances. They even have to look ridiculous at times. (This is very hard for me to write.)

But remember that when you let your characters be vulnerable, you’re letting your readers love them and connect with them.

This is so important for me to remember when I’m creating my characters. What are their weaknesses? What are their vulnerabilities? How will being with the other character bring those possibly well hidden things out into the open?

If the character is good at keeping their vulnerabilities hidden, even from us, she suggests some dig deep questions-

Questions to Uncover a Character’s Hidden Internal Conflict

  1. When was the last time you had a date? Why did you pick that person? When was your last long-term relationship? Who ended it and why? Focus on their romantic issues first because that’s the juicy conflict for romantic fiction.
  2. What’s your relationship like with your family? Close? How close? Does your mom call you to chat? To fix the sink? To complain about your brother? Only when she needs money? How old were you when you left home and what made you go? Ever considered moving back? Why or why not? Family is a great source of internal conflict. Let’s face it, families can screw up even the most well-adjusted among us.
  3. What about work–what’s your job and why did you pick it? How would you feel if you found out you were going to be fired? Angry? Panicked? Ready for revenge? Relieved? Work can sometimes be a source of angst and the choice of career is often revealing for a character.
  4. What do you do when you’re faced with a conflict? Fight? Smooth it over? Disengage? Take charge? The way a character deals with conflict is full of possibility for the writer. If your character has vulnerabilities, they’ll often reveal themselves in this area.

If those exploratory questions don’t turn up any internal conflict, you can also try these.

  • What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you and why?
  • What’s your number one fear?
  • What’s the one thing you’re deathly afraid of losing? (This might include pride, temper, control, those types of emotional things.)
  • What is the one thing you want more than anything and why don’t you have it right now?

I’m off to talk to Kate and Adam and see what they answer!

One thing that made me laugh- if you go to the Q&A thread on eHarl, you’ll see me coming late to the discussion and posting right at the end how excited I was about using this information with the story I was working on and how it was going so well. This was back in August last year. I couldn’t even remember which story that was, and if it was going so well, why did I give it up? I looked back through my unfinished story files and I think I see which one it was, though I didn’t use Ellen’s questions with the characters. Actually, looking closer, it could not possibly have been that story, there are too many clues in my notes for it that I wrote them well before Ellen’s thread was published.

I loved that story and have no idea why I stopped after two chapters. Now I’m confused. I’d completely forgotten that story and now I want to write that one, make Kate and Adam wait a little longer!

And I still don’t know what happened to the story I thought I was going well. I think I may have found it, because the dates the documents were created are around the right time. But there is nothing there! Now I’ve seen it, I can remember writing lots of stuff, about the heroine and her art classes for deprived inner city kids and the property developer hero who is going to evict her, and her assistant who was going to get her own sequel, but all I have in the folder is a couple of photos and character names. So where is what I wrote on this story, and why did I stop? Sheesh, I loooooooved that story! I can even remember the scene where her big ginger tomcat bites the hero when he goes to her studio and they are about to kiss. So where did all that go?