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!

Making the story stronger- the heroine April 26, 2010

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

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

I figured it out.

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

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

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

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

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

Romance is NEVER the goal.

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

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


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


Torturing our characters December 19, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:04 pm
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I woke up this morning still not clear which of the three sets of characters I am thinking of I will write about first.

I am good at creating characters I love, who feel real to me, who I want to see having a wonderful happy ever after.

Maybe that’s why I am not so good at creating conflict for them!

Deciding to try targeting Supers isn’t  an escape to a nice safe fluffy world where we can be kind to our characters and nothing bad ever happens on a sweetly flower strewn path to their lovely HEA. LOL, if there was a line like that I’d be a natural for it.

Problem is, no one would want to read it! What makes a satisfying story is the way the characters overcome difficulties on the way.

External conflicts feel easier to write. They somehow don’t seem so agonising for the characters. Throw some roadblocks their way, and strong characters will rise to that challenge, no matter how insurmountable it may seem. But have them struggling with deep and maybe previously hidden internal issues, have them yearning towards the other character, feeling it’s just not possible for them to be together? That hurts, it’s a painful process for the characters, and for me as a writer.

So it’s easy for me to create the most fantastically complex external conflicts. I have one unfinished story about a waitress/illustrator coerced into a marriage of convenience with a businessman who needs to be married to gain complete control of his buisness empire. This story has not one but two villains (one opposing each character) they have to work together to overcome, and complex backstories, especially for the heroine.

Reading the notes I did for the characters and plot, there’s a lot of internal conflict here too. The external conflict hooks into the characters internal conflict. It should be a good balance. But there’s way too much of it for 50,000 words!  I just gave up on this one because it got too complicated and tortured.

Somewhere, there’s got to be the balance between no conflict and way too much over the top conflict!

Reading my notes for that abdandoned story made me think of something that’s also important- not just the setting up but the resolution of the internal conflict. Should this be something that comes from within the character themselves, rather than being triggered by external events?

Example of just one layer of conflict from this complicated story- an adopted heroine has been told lies about who her natural mother is, which have damaged her self image and make her avoid relationships. That’s one of her internal relationship blocks. Does it work better for a reader if she meets her birth mother and finds the truth about herself and that  external event helps free up that internal conflict; or if she does it all internally and decides it doesn’t matter who her birth mother was, she is worth loving anyway?

The hero has a similar belief that he is intrinsically unlovable, though in his case it’s because his rich mother passed him from distant nanny to distant nanny, ensuring he never had the chance to experience being loved and really cared for. He feels women only want to be with him for his wealth and fame. For him, it’s discovering that the heroine (who is being blackmailed) is willing to give it all up to protect him that shakes that belief. Again, the external circumstance affects the internal relationship block. Does that work, or is it more emotionally satisfying for him to change that belief himself, without needing the external validation?

Looking at the plot ideas and internal issues I noted for the story I mentioned, it does not sound like I don’t want to torture my characters! I certainly planned to put these two through hell. But then again, I never wrote it. I moved on to an idea that seemed simpler, that didn’t have enough conflict!

I know I’m probably overthinking things again.  I probably need to just pick a story and start writing. But I feel that there’s something essential about satisfying conflict that I am just not getting!

I need to reread some published stories and make notes on the conflict and how it works out. I’m not very good on “reading like a writer” and crtically analysing this stuff. I get carried away on the story! But looking at how it works is probably the best way to see this, rather than trying to think it out.

At least I have decided which story I am going to work on. Some of this questioning about conflict might just be procrastination as well as a need to learn! The characters who’ve been waiting longest for their HEA- Kate and Adam- are going to get their story.


Why? February 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conflict May 5, 2008

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