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!

Last chance at free Harlequin ebooks! January 2, 2011

Filed under: What I'm reading — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:35 am
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If you didn’t visit the Try Harlequin site yet to download the sixteen free ebooks they have available- do it now! Then do it again next week.

The current books will be changing to a new selection very soon, and last year’s books won’t be available free anymore.

It’s a fab way to try books from a line you wouldn’t normally buy, and also to get the taste of the different lines if you are writing and aren’t sure which line your story fits. The other thing that’s super useful- it’s possible to gte the books as pdfs so they can be read on anything that reads pdfs. I hate this formatting and drm stuff, especially as Harlequin have stopped supporting mobipocket, the format I used to buy all my ebooks in ‘cos at the time it was the only ebook reader that worked on my pda. I’m now going to have to have three different sets of e-book software on my computer to be able to read books I bought and paid for, which kinda sucks.

But that’s an aside, the real thing I like about having some Harlequins in pdf is it makes it possible to do that thing so many writing workshops suggest- to take a book from the series you are aiming for, get out the coloured highlighters, and mark up different colours for dialogue, physical action, description, introspection, whatever; do the same with one’s own story; compare. I wouldn’t do that with a physical copy of a book, I’m too indocrinated into treating books with respect. But cutting and pasting a big chunk of a pdf into a Word doc, and using the Word highlight works great.

Thanks to Donna Alward for the message in her newsletter that the books will be changing-  Donna’s wonderful Hired by the Cowboy will be the free sweet Romance read. And thanks to Harlequin for making the books available- and for the bonus of new free books yearly- it’s a darned good idea and I hope it results in lots more readers taking a chance on something they wouldn’t normally read- and loving it!

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“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.

 

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?

 

Weekend at last! November 21, 2009

Filed under: What I'm reading,Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:42 pm
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So it’s back into the editing! I finally got chapter two closer to where I wanted it by Monday night, so this weekend Cinderella gets to go to the ball- it’s on to chapter three.

I did some big structural cuts during the week- cut out great slabs that I liked but didn’t do enough to move the story forward. The word count is right where it should be, but the chapter sure isn’t!

I need to write probably another thousand words to deepen the sensuality and the emotional tension between Luk and Emma, and drip in a little of what happened in the two weeks between chapter two and chapter three, while they were apart. Which means I have to find places I can cut a thousand words elsewhere in the chapter. So that will be hours combing through it, eliminating redundancies and repetitions, tightening up sentence structure, and finding places I can use fewer but stronger words.

Editing is far harder work than letting fly in first draft. But it’s sooooooo satisfying. This is where the story takes it’s real shape, the writing pulls together, it starts to become its deepest truest self.

Trite metaphor, but I just realised how much this editing process is a makeover. My first draft is Cinders, the beauty can’t be seen for the dirt and the rags. Hopefully, by my final version, I will have Ella, transformed into the fullness of all she can be, ready to go to the ball (or be sent off to the editors in Richmond or wherever!)

 

In one of those odd mind jumps, I also had a flash this morning for a way I can improve on my unedited draft for last year’s instant seduction entry. I saw a whole sequence that is so much stronger and better than what’s currently there. I think once I have Luk and Emma’s story done, I might just go back and play with Bruno and Rebecca some more. Though as a rejected story I’m not sure I can resubmit it to Richmond, even extensively rewritten. Carina Press?

 

Thinking of HMB and rejections, I was sad during the week over Harlequin’s decision to start a “self-publishing” section, Harlequin Horizons, and target it at writers with rejected submissions. Maybe a good money-making move but bad bad bad from the point of view of developing writers. Rejections hurt worse than a broken leg, but they make us better writers, send us back to our stories to learn how to make them better. Selling people a shortcut to the dream is selling everyone short for a fast buck. All the working-on-it writers I know in the romance community approach writing in a professional way and wouldn’t consider paying to be published (true self-publishing is a different thing, and is the best choice for many writers who are highly professional, but that’s not what was being offered here). Vanity press have their place, if they are marketed transparently and honestly. But something about the way Hh was being done felt icky and wrong.  It had the sense of something that maybe Harlequin was being foreced into by their parent company, and it seriously underestimated the romance community. Thank goodness, they’ve responded to the huge reaction against this in a positive way. Taken down the ad “Become an author- Harlequin Horizons” that went up on every page of the online writing guidelines at eHarl. Hopefully also rethought the idea to market it on rejection letters (what insensitive b thought that was a good idea?). Thank you Harlequin for being so responsive!

 

Completely unrelated- I discovered a new blog this morning- Kristin Cashore, via her NaNo Pep Talk.  She writes YA fantasy, not romance. I’ve linked to a post about her experience of submitting and getting published. She writes so beautifully and so honestly in her blog, I want to find her books.

Isn’t this so true-

One thing I want to add, though: I’m not saying you have to let your manuscript go NOW, or even SOON. I waited until I felt like I was ready; until I was ready to take the risk. I can’t say what “ready” feels like — I expect it feels different for different people — and it DEFINITELY doesn’t feel like success is assured. “Ready” always contains a little bit of “OMG I AM SO NOT READY.” But it also contains enough “I am ready” for you to be ready.

Oh, good lord. That paragraph was meant to be helpful, I swear. Here, read this poem by Anaïs Nin:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

For anyone who has work they know they should send out but haven’t yet- isn’t it time? You know who you are.