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!

Rejection November 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrgghhhh! All my stories are the same!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun! I’m excited about this!


Jumping in with both feet July 4, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:55 pm
Tags: , ,


Arrgghh! I had a beautifully crafted post all ready to publish, went to add a link, the screen locked up, and I lost the whole flipping thing! Much swearing ensued! I was tempted to just forget it, and get on with the editing I am supposed to be doing, but I’m so frustrated that I’m determined to make this bloody blog say what I want.

Also, the whole point of the blog post that got eaten by some malevolent WordPress demon was how I’ve been putting off editing Luk and Emma’s story. So what better way to procrastinate than blogging about procrastinating! And even better, when the post was almost done and I had no excuses, I lost the post! Just have to take the time to do it again, don’t it? Almost makes me think I’m meant to be procrastinating…

Um, that would be a no!


I haven’t been near the story since last weekend, when I had fun playing around with chapter one, making some tweaks. All very nice and necessary, but this is meant to be the structural pass through. The slash and burn, cut out everything that doesn’t move the story further pass. Not the “let’s change this one word here and see if it sounds prettier” pass. Not even the “add a physical beat there and Luk needs to show his frustration more there” pass. This first edit is the “It it doesn’t work, eliminate it” pass. The one where I need to approach my writing with the attutude of a Dalek on steroids.

Somehow, I’m getting the idea that I’m resisting “killing my darlings”, as the ever fabulous Julie Cohen put it in her Ten Commandments. I ought to be chopping out all the lines and scenes and characters I adore but that just aren’t doing enough for the story to justify keeping them, but I don’t want to. Right now, my first draft looks like some sort of rest home for redundant characters and intrusive plot devices!

I wasted a lot of time and a lot of false starts when I tried writing this story with just the idea of who the characters were and what the inciting event was, and a couple of ideas of things I wanted to have happen because I thought they’d be fun to write.  I think I wrote at least three beginnings, totalling about 25,000 words, before I gave up knowing it wasn’t going to work that way. I took two weeks out to go back to basics, plan the story from the beginning, start with the characters, so that hopefully my plot would flow out of knowing my characters well, having good motivations, relationship blocks, and conflict. Good theory, not quite so good in reality.

Good because at least I did get the first draft finished, and sometimes I got it right, I think. Not so good because sometimes I got it spectacularly wrong. There were places I thought I needed a particular something to move the plot in a specific direction, but it could be done in a much simpler way. Or there was some plot element that I really, really, really, wanted to have in the story, so I twisted the story to make it fit.

For Luk and Emma it was a kidnap. All along I wanted bad guys to kidnap the heroine, and for the hero to rescue her in some dramatic way, galloping in on horseback or sweeping in by helicopter. In fact I started off with this image in my mind then tried to make a story around it. That chapter was the most fun to write! My writing group loved the bits of it I gave them to read. It’s a great scene.

Unfortunately, it is a scene that is totally wrong for this story.  No matter how much fun it is, it kept the hero and heroine apart for two chapters and slowed things down. Also, though I thought the plot needed it as I had to find a way to get Luk and Emma alone together, I realised I’d already written a far more plausible and straightforward reason in an earlier scene. I can’t remember where I read this (maybe Bird by Bird- thanks for reminding me to buy it, Eileen!), but it was saying something like-  if you can cut the scene without it affecting the reader’s understanding of the story, it has to go.

So the kidnap and rescue has to go. A lot of the big set piece scenes like the ball, the coronation, and the wedding need heavy pruning. Most if not all of Luk’s family need to go. I gave him a big happy family with lots of sisters, but a man like Luk does not come from a big happy family. If he did, he couldn’t possibly be who he is. They all have to go. I especially liked his bossy older sister, but is she necessary to the story? Probably not. And I’m not quite sure Alpha males have bossy elder sisters. Weak and dependent or wayward and wilful younger ones, yes. Managing and mothering older ones- hmm?

Looking back at what I’ve learned from the first draft, I thinking the biggest lesson is to stay true to the characters. Don’t make them do things because I think the plot requires it, or because there’s a particular scene I particularly want to write. In a very real way, it’s their story, not mine. I might think I’m God and can pull the strings in their little world, but actually, it doesn’t work like that. There are immutable laws at work. Things like internal consistency, believable motivation, having the characters drive the story.

So all those yummy things that are in there only because I wanted them, not because my characters needed them, have to go. And I’m frightened of starting the process, worried that my 60,000 word first draft will end up as a 20,000 word skeleton when I’ve cut all the stuff that doesn’t need to be there.

But it’s starting to make sense that maybe that is just what I need. The good solid bones I can then put flesh on. Less of Luk’s sisters, equals more of the delectable Luk. Cutting out the kidnap makes room for layering in more sensuality and sexual tension in the scenes before and after it.

The chopped scenes won’t go to waste, either. I’m not sure they can be recycled into another story, but Julie gave me some advice on her blog that I really should print out and stick to my screen while I edit-

the sad truth is, that if you suspect it has to go, it probably does. Don’t lose it, though—keep a cutting file for everything you’ve chopped. If nothing else, you can have a “deleted scenes” section on your website for fans, once the book is published!

I’ll be grinning so much at that idea, I won’t even feel the pain of amputating those scenes and characters! Plus, I know I will need that freed up word count that I’ll gain from cutting all the dead wood away.

I guess there are two strands to editing, aren’t there? One is knowing what to cut out, the other is knowing what needs adding in. I already know this story needs more physicality and sensuality written in. More zing. The conflict between Luk and Emma needs deepening. It’s better than it was in my original idea, but still not enough. They aren’t each other’s worst nightmare  yet, the very last person on the planet they would fall in love with. Luk’s motivation for leaving Emma is better than it was, but it still isn’t strong enough. I need to show all the reasons these two would NOT want to be together, and the things that irresistably draw them back together, much more strongly. Deepen the emotion, ‘cos that’s what it’s all about.

Okay. Bring on the hack and burn. I feel much better about jumping in with both feet and going for it now. Maybe that post crashed for a good reason. I hadn’t come to this point then- I was still stuck in procrastination. Now I have no excuses!


Conflict May 5, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 5:38 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This started off being a response to this comment from Melissa on a different post, but it got so big I decided to give it a post of it’s own!

Melissa said – I now know my external conflict was driving the story. NOt good. Now I’m focusing on making the internal conflicts huge. Feeling better about it.

This is such a major issue for me, and for so many of us.  I’m not sure if it’s just a romance thing, or if all fiction writers have it. I guess they must, because when I think about the books I have enjoyed the most, whatever the genre, they are only really satisfying to me as a reader when the characters have taken an internal journey that parallels their external one.

It’s getting that balance between internal conflict  and external conflict right that’s the tricky thing for me to deal with. It just seems so much easier to come up with plots driven by external conflict. But my story won’t have the same emotional intensity or level of reader involvement as one fuelled by believable internal conflict.

 There are some articles about this here , and here .

I’m still concerned the balance of conflict may be an issue in my WIP, Nick and Kate’s story, as though the heroine is at a crisis point as the story starts (hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with her boss for years so decides to leave her job to give herself a chance to get over him), it’s an external conflict that really acts as the catalyst to get them together (they get kidnapped in a dangerous and volatile country, while on their last business trip together). So far so good, but from there on the conflict is all on her side- he sees a different, desirable side of her while they are locked up together as she lets down the Miss Efficiency ice maiden mask she had hidden herself behind, and he wants to get to know her better outside of work when they get back to England; she is so used to having all her defences up around him and keeping her feelings hidden she doesn’t know how to deal with this. She’s gotten so used to seeing him as a hopelessly remote dream man who would never fall for a woman like her that she has no idea how to respond to him actually being interested, and she can’t believe that he is really and truly wanting her, ordinary Kate Gallagher, when she knows he’s been dating supermodels in the past.  She’s had years of practice in keeping her feelings under lock and key. Meanwhile, he is so used to women falling at his feet he has never had to work to woo someone before, so he doesn’t know how to respond to the prickly, defensive but oh so desirable woman he finds behind the mask. The other complicating factor is that they were forced to get married – the strict religious laws of the country they were in mean that even though they were kidnapped and forced to be alone overnight together, they must marry, or she will be punished and he will forfeit any chance to do business in this country again. I have such a clear image of this strange wedding ceremony, almost dream-like for Kate, I think I am remembering the Greek Orthodox wedding in a very different story, Jane Aiken Hodge’s Greek Wedding . I just splashed out and bought a 1p copy on Amazon to read it again- I haven’t read this book for about 15 years!

 I think my plot is okay as far as it goes, not sensational, but okay. I am stuck wondering what her “black moment” can be, that moment when just as we thought it was all coming right, it looks like its going to completely and irretrievably fall apart? I feel strongly it should be something coming from the internal conflict, that somehow her self-doubt is going to sabotage everything when it looks like they are finally getting together at last. I have no idea how to do that in this story, and done badly it can be all too prone to the sappy “I’ve seen him with another woman- he doesn’t really love me so I’ll run away- no it’s all okay she was my cousin/ cousin’s wife/ sister/ new PA/ suitable female of your choice, of course I love you” syndrome. All I have come up with is something stemming from the external conflict- he has been getting death threat letters which he hasn’t told her about, and he actually has an assassination attempt made on him in London, which she sees on the television. This shocks her into rushing back to him. Maybe this happens just after she has told him she doesn’t want to see him again. This is her self-doubt crisis, I guess- she’s not telling him to go because she doesn’t love him, only because she can’t believe he loves her- but why? Ooh, just had a bit of an aha moment there while typing that sentence. What if she thinks he is only wooing her because if they divorce, he won’t be able to keep doing business with the other country, which he not only has invested a huge amount of money in, but is his ancestral home, his grandparents having emigrated from there to escape the Soviet invasion back in ther 1950’s? So she has good reason to believe he doesn’t really love her, besides her own insecurity. I quite like that, because I was wondering about her being so insecure she keeps him at bay for the whole book (maybe succumbing once or twice!), seeming  a bit pathetic or downright stupid. Of course, she does have good reason for her insecurity and defensiveness, she has had some cruel comments and bad experiences when she was younger, including sexual harrassment in her last job; plus she has put him on a pedestal for so long its a big mental shift to make. But she needed more reason, and that could just be it.

Yee haa, another fun idea to play with! I may write a rough synospis with what I have so far and see if it looks like it might work. I don’t know. Comments welcomed!

Thanks Melissa for getting me thinking in that direction!


Go where the energy is April 30, 2008

“Go where the energy is” was a bit of a buzz phrase last month on one of the writers’ discussion groups I visit, Stringing Words, a lovely, friendly and supportive group. The goal for March was to write or edit whatever called to us most strongly at the time. It’s in my mind right now, as I am dropping (for the time being) the current story idea that I have done all the pre-writing work on, to change to a new story.

I started off with two characters, and a situation where she is forced to pretend to be his girlfriend for one evening, then they ultimately ended up in a forced marriage. The problem was, the plot just didn’t fit those two characters at all. So I kept the charcters (I like them a lot!) but changed the plot to one that flowed more naturally out of those people and the choices they would make. It moved from a forced marriage story to being more a marriage of convenience. After the morning pages work, it all hung together well, no plot holes, the situation and the choices they made in response to it were logical and believable. But I had to drop some elements that I loved and really wanted to include. And I just don’t know if I am a good enough writer yet to handle the level of external conflict and secondary characters needed to make the plot work.

Harlequin Presents / Mills and Boon Modern Romance, the series I am currently targeting following on from the contest, prefers stories with mostly internal conflict, and few secondary characters. What this does is puts the focus strongly on the developing relationship and keeps the emotional intensity high. This story seemed to have just too much external conflict, and even though it all linked in deeply to the hero and heroine’s internal conflicts, I didn’t feel I was going to manage to keep the emotional intensity strong enough with so much else going on.

Also ideas kept popping into my head about a different but similar story idea, closer to my original discarded plot idea, which just didn’t work for the characters I had. I couldn’t help wondering-what sort of people would find themselves in that first situation and have to make those choices? When I found myself thinking about these other characters in the middle of an important work meeting yesterday I realised that this is the one I really have to write first, this is the story that has grabbed my imagination and my energy. It still has some external conflict, but it has the effect of forcing the hero and heroine together rather than trying to keep them apart as it did in the first story. There will be fewer scenes involving only one of the main characters with a secondary character, so the emotional intensity will be easier to maintain. I also get to include the elements I reluctantly had to cut from the original story idea, which included a business trip to a little known, volatile, religiously governed, highly conservative country; a kidnapping locking the hero and heroine in together; then a forced marriage to satisfy local moral and religious values.

I feel right about this decision. I’ve even been listening to the right sort of music all week, drawn without realising it to the type of music would be made in a country like the one where this happens- eastern european folk music with a middle eastern influence (it’s an internet radio station from Russia- Special Radio Button 6- none of the words are English, so its fab writing music without any distractions).

James and Cassie’s story will be written one day, but I need to be more skilled as a writer to handle that level of external conflict and still maintain the emotional intensity. Also, possibly it needs to be directed to a different series, and I don’t want to waste that precious Compliments Slip for a Presents editor!

The frustrating thing though is that I had hoped to start writing story today as I have the day off work, and now I’m back to prewriting again! But perhaps thats a good thing. Kate Walker’s 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance has arrived from Amazon at last. It’s a writing workshop, so I’m going to spend this afternoon doing as many as I can of the exercises in the book, using these new characters, as my prewriting. Although every writer probably evolves their own unique and individual style for prewriting, I’m sure I can learn a lot from a writer who has sold an astonishing fifty million books!

This feels very very right. But I’m not changing again- I need to get the balance between going where the energy is; and flitting from idea to idea without committing to or completing any of them. Any enticing new story ideas or siren calls back to a previous story will just have to wait, I am going to stay with this story now until it is finished!