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!

Stuck, again! February 15, 2010

I’m wanting to write Meg and Nick’s story, the one I pitched to Donna Alward for her pitch contest. I need to get the first chapter done and polished to send off as she’s generously offered to still give me a critique (though I know she’s on a tight deadline this month, so maybe she won’t mind not getting it till next month!). But I’m stuck. Again.

What is it with this story? I love the characters. I love the setting. I love the whole set up. I know how to fix the first chapter. I know I need to rewrite rather than keep tweaking the existing chapter. And I’m just not doing it.

Maybe all my willpower is being used up doing Menopause Makeover  (I lost 2 pounds and even better an inch and a half from my waist in the first week, so that’s going okay). Maybe I’m just being lazy. Maybe I’m having another crisis of confidence. Maybe I know, like my Presents contest entry, I’m yet again making the story too complex and convoluted, creating something I just don’t have the skill to carry off yet.

As Donna said reunion stories are hard to write- so much backstory! Also, I feel maybe I’ve overthought it, planned all the life out of it. I’ve completely lost enthusiasm for it. On some level, it feels like the story has already been told. I feel that I need to let all the thinking I’ve done on this story sit and simmer for a while, before I write it, let all those ideas and plans sink down to a deeper level and hopefully my subconscious can play with it and turn it back into something alive again. When my colleague who’s been off sick all last month is finally back working normal hours, I’m going to take a week  of vacation, and do a personal Book in a Week. Just write this story with no time to stop and think.

 What I would love to do right now is dive in with something different, and just write like crazy. First draft without stopping to think too much and work things out. Let the characters surprise me.

I have two options, the bush nurse story, Fool’s Gold, with Kate and Adam, which would be a Super; or Nellie and Mace’s story, which was originally going to be an Modern Heat. I can see how it could be even better as a Super, because both the hero and heroine’s emotional issues are family based, and the hero just wasn’t working out for MH, which is why I shelved the idea before. I can even see how it can link in to Meg and Nick’s story, as the start is Nellie trying to get out of the city to go to a wedding out in the country, but everything goes wrong. It was going to start in London with the wedding out in the wilds of the Cambridgeshire fens, but no reason it can’t start in Sydney with the wedding in Haven Bay. Though ideas for Kate and Adam are popping up all the time too!

I hope I’m not doing a “Bright Shiny New Story” to run away from just buckling down and writing Meg and Nick! I do genuinely feel I’ll write that story better with a bit of space from all the thinking I’ve done on it.  I just hope that now I will stick with whatever story I decide to write and at least see it through first draft and not let myself be seduced again by either a new story, or one of the ones I left on the shelf for now. My characters do hate being sidelined, waiting their turn, they all want to be the star!

I can’t help feeling I am lacking in Michelle Style’s Four Ds.


How not to do it December 27, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:19 pm
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Yesterday’s post is a classic example to aspiring romance writers everywhere of how not to do it!

To help further, here is the Janey Jones guaranteed Ten Step Plan for writing a story with a boomerang rejection built-in:

  1. Refuse to let go of a story that isn’t working.
  2. Make the characters as unsympathetic and unbelievable as possible-  for example, a pathetic heroine and a selfish, emotionally immature hero. If you do by chance create some interesting characters, don’t whatever you do let them live and breathe and act for themselves on the page. Ruthlessly edit out every hint of personality.
  3. If you think it’s not working, make it more complicated, add more and more and more external conflict into the mix  (masquerading as internal conflict in your own mind but not in anyone else’s), thinking that’s the answer at last.
  4. Change direction so many times you give yourself whiplash and achieve a state of conplete confusion about what you were trying to write in the first place.
  5. Never, ever, admit that you just don’t have the craft skills yet to pull it off.
  6. Don’t even think about going back to basics like characters, a developing relationship between them, and what internal factors keep them from being together.
  7. Have a strong preconcieved idea of what your target line needs and write rigidly to that. This usually stifles any chance of individuality or voice showing in your writing, and enables you to recognise any that does sneak in, and destroy it.
  8. Overthink and overanalyse everything. Stamp out any random sparks of joy in the process of writing by making it all terribly terribly serious. It has to be done right. No room for playing around or having fun here.
  9. Do not under any circumstances allow any emotion to come through in your writing. This is the place to maintain rigid control.
  10. Spend more time thinking about writing and talking about writing than actually writing.

Follow these easy steps and you too can be a totally crap unpublishable writer, and make yourself miserable about writing while kidding yourself that you are learning and growing!

So what am I going to do about it?

I got myself so muddled there was only one way to decide what to do next- toss a coin!

It’s not quite as random as it sounds, and it works everytime when I tie myself in knots of indecision, because I do nearly always know on some level what I really want to do. I take the two strongest options, and toss a coin to see which one comes up. If my immediate reaction is “Okay!” I know that was the option I wanted anyway. If my immediate reaction is “Let’s try best of three,” I don’t need to go any further, I know I want the other option.

I knew that I already had chosen, but did the coin flip anyway. I’m a belt and braces girl, I like confirmation!

Luk and Emma / Gabi are taking a break. They can whinge and moan about it, but they need to have a long relaxing holiday somewhere warm and a long way away.  That little isalnd off the Melusi coast Luk wants to develop as a resort will be perfect!

 I realised where the wanting to hang on to Luk and Emma thing came from- Christmas reactivated an old grief, and made it harder to let go of my “babies”, even if they were never going to have a chance of survival. All the comments in response to my witterings about them have been copied and pasted and tucked away in their file, as there is some massively helpful stuff there. Thanks for your help everyone who commented!

I’m going back to the story I was originally planning to write for my JanNo, before I tied myself in knots and got myself confused again. Kate and Adam. Straightforward and likeable characters,  with good simple but deep internal conflict, a setting I love. Enough external “stuff”  going on to make it interesting, but not taking the focus off the relationship, rather intensifying the focus on them. I’m just going to write. Basic character sketches, an idea of the premise, and then stop overthinking it all! Let the characters do their thing and see where they take me. When it looks like the conflict isn’t working, instaed of adding something new, I will dig deeper into what they already have.  And I’m giving myself permission to have fun. Permission to enjoy the ride.


Would you still respect him if… December 21, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 12:14 am
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Okay, I’m supposed to be doing character developement for Adam and Kate, and I am, honest! Though poor Kate is getting just a little neglected.

I’ve spent waaaaaay too long looking at hero photos.

Can’t quite decide if Adam is the boy next door gorgeousness of Steve Leonard-

or the smouldering sexiness of Dylan McDermott-

Tough decision, hey?

At least I know what sort of car he drives and which leg was shattered by the bomb blast. so some progress has been made.

I think Steve Leonard suits Adam best, though Dylan is definitely getting a starring role in one of my stories soon!

But while I was in the bath I got thinking about Luk and Emma, my rejected Presents contest entry (I find it hard to let go of old characters).

I eventually want to rewrite their story as a Sweet Romance. But I wonder if part of the problem (besides the crap writing, crap dialog, and the fact that nothing happens in the whole chapter apart from Luk and Emma talking) is that essentially, Luk’s motivation appears unheroic.

His primary motivation is to avoid  a responsibility- becoming prince of his small island birth country. Heros are meant to shoulder responsibilities, not avoid them!

Does that make him not really hero material?

His reasons, in order of the likelihood of him admitting it to himself or anyone else are-

  1. he has a billion dollar multinational business, that he couldn’t run if he was prince
  2. he doesn’t want to go back to the small town life of the island, especially being with his overwhelming large family again
  3. going back means confronting memories from his painful past- especially his guilt over not being able to prevent the death of his first wife

He’s not completely bunking off from responisbility. When the tragic and unexpected deaths of the other heirs to the throne put him next, he searches for another heir, knowing that the prince who disappeared after the Second World War may have descendants somewhere. And if it was choosing to give up his life and become prince or see his country taken over by a neighbouring kingdom, he’d make that sacrifice. But if making a marriage of convenience with the female missing heir and then leaving her to run the country while he gets on with his own life solves everyone’s problems, he’ll do it.

So, the question is, can he behave like that and still be a hero, or is that just not what a hero would do?


Diving into character development December 20, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:32 pm
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After getting myself totally confused yesterday about which of the characters clamouring for my attention to write about first, I did manage to get more focused.

I’m going to write Kate and Adam, a story that will probably end up being submitted to Superromance. She’s a community nurse, the sole health care provider in an isolated Australian township, he’s a journalist assigned to write a story about her work. A quiet country village is the last place on earth he wants to be, and the last thing she wants is a TV crew following her around when she sees her patients. Especially when the TV crew is led by devastatingly gorgeous Adam Kelly, who may just tempt her to drop all her carefully built defences…

This is a story I started ten years ago. This couple really have been waiting a long time for their happy ever after! What stopped me the first time were my usual problems- slow start and overcomplicated external conflict.

My original story was a doozy, I threw in everything, including the kitchen sink (a washing-up scene that ended up with them kissing- might keep that in, actually!). The black moment came because the hero was helicoptered to Sydney after a car accident, had amnesia and couldn’t remember the heroine even though he’d been just about to propose to her, and the wicked other woman jumped in and claimed to be his fiancee. Sooooooooooo wrong! It’s going to be fun starting again from scratch with the same characters but hopefully getting it right this time!

Reading up on hero/heroine archetypes. Though I think they can be a bit one dimensional, it’s a good place to start. My original concept had very little internal conflict, but I’m already getting some good insights into the characters and seeing how to change the external events so they hook right into their internal conflict. Just little tweaks in some cases but making crucial differences.

I realised my hero is a warrior, who because of his wounds needs to find different battles to fight, so he’s feeling lost at the start of the story. Part of his journey will be finding those new battles and a new definition of himself. Just realised that means a key scene (there’s a car accident in the community) should play totally differently to intensify his inner conflict. He was going to be the injured person in the truck who she had to overcome her terror of heights to abseil down to, but it works so much better if someone else is injured and he is forced to stand by feeling useless and frustrated because he can’t do it in her place. This may even be the pivotal event which forces the Black Moment (it was in the original version, but for completely the wrong reasons!).

The heroine is a dedicated nurturer, but has denied a big part of herself in the process, which of course the hero is going to challenge her to find again.

Oh, I love this story! I love the way it’s coming together!

Now I just have to decide if him accidentally trespassing and catching her skinny dipping  in her own private stretch of river is too racy a start to a Superromance…


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?