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!

Keeping focused December 20, 2010

Or- I discover “Save the Cat”.

I posted today over at Seven Sassy Sisters, our group blog, about my latest discovery that I hope will keep me on track with my writing instead of pantsing in  a fog.

Please pop over and tell me what you think- am I overcomplicating things again, or could I be on to something?


Digging into emotion May 4, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 4:07 pm
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I still haven’t started any actual rewriting on Cady and Lock. I did have a brief temptation to start another story in the series, but I resisted, just wrote notes and filed them away instead!

I am trying to work out what needs fixing with this story, how it can be made stronger and better and especially more emotionally satisfying, before I dive into edits. I know I need to dig right down deep to the fundamentals of character and conflict and get that right before I do anything. I want everything in the story to be driven by who the characters are and what they need.

I’ve spent today getting to know my characters better, working on some questions about them and what they want and how the other person affects that. I realise my first draft feels a bit directionless, because no-one seems to have clear goals, they just go from one thing happening to another thing happening to another- it’s all reaction. I need to focus on that in the rewrite- making sure the character’s initial goals are clear and that in each scene the POV character has a goal, something they are trying to make happen. That will make the characters stronger and the story feel more purposeful. It will also feed into the conflict more. There is no conflict if no-one wants anything!

Doing a list of 20 Goals for each character was fun and told me some things I didn’t know. By the time I got to the end I was right down deep in the hidden emotional needs that Cady and Lock wouldn’t admit to themselves, let alone anyone else. That made me realise that a weakness in the story is that the characters are too self-aware. I have Cady doing something and Lock thinking, “This makes me feel rejected, just like when my father left when I was a kid.”


Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but close!

Real people (maybe especially men?) aren’t so aware of their issues and relationship blocks, otherwise they’d do something about them. Knowledge of what they are really feeling and why the other person is triggering them so badly needs to come gradually, in a dawning self-awareness, initial resistance to changing their beliefs, maybe small superficial changes that don’t affect their deepest held self-beliefs, up until the dramatic moment of “change or lose everything” of the Black Moment.

Next step will be storyboarding the scenes as I have them in first draft, and figuring out what should and shouldn’t be there. Some scenes can be kept but tweaked to make them better. Some scenes will need to be rewritten. Some scenes that are pretty but aren’t earning their keep may need to go entirely and be replaced with better ones. The story will be essentially the same, but I have plenty of ideas to make it stronger, more focused, more emotional, more dramatic. Hopefully, more Page Turning Quality to make it interesting for the reader!


Conflict March 21, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Progress report March 14, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 9:21 pm
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I’ve been a baaaaaaad blogger. No posts for three weeks.

Work has been busy (so what’s new!) but the good news is my colleague who was ill so long is back working normal hours, and we’ve worked out a new work schedule that should help everyone manage the workload better. We’ll start the four day work week we hoped to start in January too, so I’ll have a weekday off to write. No excuses then!

I’ve finally finished the rewritten chapter one of the story I pitched in Donna Alward’s pitch contest. Donna has generously offered to still critique it for me. I hope she likes it. I know she will have suggestions for how I can improve it, which I hope I can write well enough to incorporate! Actually, I more or less finished it a while ago, but kept tweaking tweaking tweaking. Eventually I just had to say “No more” and hit send, or I was never going to send it!  Even though what I sent Donna must have been my fifth draft of the chapter,  as soon as I sent it I realised more changes I need to make- ways to deepen the emotion and conflict. Somehow it felt scarier sending my writing to someone I feel I know and like than to sub to an editor. I don’t want someone I feel knows me to see I really can’t write!

Now on with the rest of the story. I was up to chapter 3 or 4 in the first draft before I stopped, knowing big changes needed to be made, and that the fact I’d taken a wrong turn right at the very start was what kept holding me back from writing. I can’t edit what I already have to fit, I may be able to use somes paragraphs, but really, the only way to make it work will be a rewrite. I want to just race through a quick and dirty first draft now. No point polishing as I go, I know too much will change. It may well be that once I finish first draft I realise I’ve still started at a place that’s less effective, and need to start all over again for the third time. If I do, I don’t mind- it’s all learning how to plot and get it right sooner next time, plus I will know my characters’ conflicts inside out by then!

I’m taking Easter week off, giving me eleven days to write in. If I write something  on the story every day now, maybe with a big push then I can get the first draft roughed out. Fingers crossed! Though I need to be so careful with the goals I set myself. I realised how I was setting myself up to fail with writing and feel worse about myself by making unrealistically high goals. I’d decide I was going to write so many words a day and make up charts to fill in my daily word counts and track how I was going against my goal. Lousy idea! If I’m not writing, I feel bad about myself, get depressed, start beating myself up about my writing being no good anyway so why bother, and end up writing even less. Setting high targets was just exacerbating this. Paradoxically, pushing myself to write harder ended up making me less productive, not more.  I set a new writing target this week, hopefully one I can stick to no matter what else is going on in my life. My goal is to write one sentence on the work in progress, every day. Just one. Anything else is a bonus. I’ll report back how that works!

I’m feeling excited today that I have plans for a whole series of stories set in the same small town as Meg and Nick’s story. I know that seems ambitious for an unpublished writer, but there are secondary characters who deserve their own story, then I saw how other ideas for stories I wanted to write would fit in too. Those characters would be right at home in Haven Bay. I need to know this now because it will alter how I create the story world. If I want to include a future story that hinges on the town being hard to get to and easily cut off from the outside world, no point putting it a mile off the highway now!

I also realised what I need to do with a story I wrote for JanNo 2008, that’s been sitting there in first draft waiting all this time to be edited. It won’t be part of the same series, probably won’t even be targeted at Superromance. I have the feeling it might just be a Blaze. The whole time I was writing it I was holding the heroine back sexually, thinking “She can’t do that!”,  and “No, she can’t possibly do that!” Maybe she can, and it ties in perfectly with her core relationship block. So that might be fun to play with once I’ve finished this one and subbed it.

Seems like the only stories I don’t have plans for are the two first drafts for the Presents contests…


New revision weapons to avoid November 29, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 12:51 pm
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The Intern has suggested some new weapons of manuscript mass destruction- the Triumph Bomb and the Character Transformation Bazooka. Either of these weapons are baaaaaaaad writing, with the power to kill a story instantly and turn a potentially good romance into a throw-the-book against the wall one.

The Triumph Bomb is the happy resolution, out of the blue and occuring with no effort from the characters. The great moment of revelation where it all suddenly falls into place, the hero apologises for being a badass bastard, the misunderstandings are easily explained away. “That person you thought I was kissing was my cousin, silly, of course I love you,”  or “I thought you were a whore, I never realised you were a sweet innocent virgin, only willing to sell your body to me to save the life of your beloved brother,” so they can have a passionate clinch and all live happily ever after.

Usually preceded by the Character Transformation Bazooka, where without any indication of struggle or signs of emotional growth, the hero suddenly changes completely toward the heroine. This is explained as the healing power of love causing a Road to Damascus type conversion. “The only reason I was a badass bastard was that I was struggling against my overwhelming love for you, my dearest. I just gave up the struggle, and promise I will never ever be a cold hypercritical witholding controlling misogynist ever again. Your sweet love will be all I need.”  Or in the plot driven by external conflict (baaaaaaaad romance writing anyway!), the evil Other Woman says to the heroine, “I lied about him having sex with me on your engagement night. I wanted him for myself. But I see your true pure love for him and I feel ashamed. I know he loves only you. Please, let me be your best friend and a bridesmaid at your wedding.” And they all hold hands and skip off together into the sunset singing la-la la-la-la.

The reason the T-Bomb and CTB destroy the credibility of a story is they can feel so random, so unexpected. The pat resolution that easily solves all the problems that kept them apart the whole book, the unearned happy ending? They just don’t work unless we’ve shown the characters struggling, in the process of changing and growing, trying and failing. Characters need to work for their happy endings. They need to put in the emotional work to make a real loving relationship and commitment believable and achievable. One character may only see the end result of the process, making it seem like a sudden change to them; but the reader needs to be in on it, needs to know there a process of change going on somwhere, or at least the potential for change. Otherwise they just aren’t going to buy it. We have to see proof of the emotional change, not just be told there’s a change.

So, when I’m revising Luk and Emma’s story,  I better watch out for the weapons of manuscript mass destruction. Am I showing them both struggling with their emotional conflicts and relationship blocks, so the ultimate surrender to love  and idea these two can have a future together is believeable? Do they both grow and change enough to earn their happy ever after? And do they show proof of how they’ve changed, not just say they have?

I realise I’m half guilty of using one of these. The resolution just isn’t strong enough. We see Luk’s struggle and understand what motivates him to go back to Melusia, back to Emma, so the reader can believe it. But the bit I’ve left out is- why should she believe it? That’s what I need to work on.


No progress to report November 8, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 12:25 pm
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Well, not on the page or in my word count anyway.

I’m committed to editing Luk and Emma’s story, my Presents competition entry, after all that procrastination.

This will mean facing front on the fact that my first draft is total crap, not just ordinary everyday first draft crap,  but full on crappier than crappy crap, the worst writing dreck imaginable. I’m really not looking forward to that.  So I still haven’t read over my first draft!

That may not be such a bad thing, as I don’t know how much of it is salvageable anyway. I wrote most of it in a mad headlong rush doing Book in a Week. There are are huge diversions in there, not just chapters but several chapters going into things that won’t occur at all in my final edit. The kidnapping sequence has to go, for example. Now, I love the whole thing. If I was aiming for single title, I think I’d keep it, though it would still need heavily editing. But it has no place at all in a Presents/ Modern. This is really killing my darlings! I know I don’t need to read over that section. But I do have to at least read most of the draft. There may actually be stuff in there that is good or can be made good, brief flashes where  have really got inside the character and they are authentically there on the page. So I can’t just bin the lot and start from scratch. Getting rid of the kidnap bit is actually one of the easier decisions.

There are smaller but more significant choices. What I have done so far is managed to plot out the story in a sort of outline. This is what I want to happen in this chapter, and that’s what needs to happen in the next chapter type thing. Hopefully that will help keep me on track, help me cut out everything that doesn’t impact on the core relationship. But before I can rewrite, there are questions I need to answer, that my outline isn’t helping with.

 My heroine has to be an orphan with no brothers or sisters, that’s essential to the premise. Not so the hero. In the first draft, he has a large happy family of origin who he has chosen to leave behind after his first wife dies.

Now I am wondering whether to kill them all off too and have him a lone wolf by necessity as well as choice.

Mainly because now he’s going home again, and if I leave in the big family, I can’t help but have a cast of millions of secondary characters cluttering things up! My first draft has a whole chapter of not much more happening but the heroine meeting his family- that’s gotta go. I have three long chapters in my draft I need to roll into one for this to work. So cutting his family would help with that.

But that’s not such a simple decision. It says something different about Luk as a person if he chooses to cut himself off from his support systems when tragedy hits him, rather than being simply forced to go it alone. I have to think about which fits his character best and which option works best to hook into his relationship block. Maybe I’m even going to have to try it both ways to see what works best. Hopefully I can decide without having to do that!

I do see him as more the lone wolf by choice.

So how is that personality trait going to be affected, when changed circumstances and the choices he makes for how to deal with those circumstances force him back home, back into contact with his family? How is that going to impact on the choices he makes about his relationship with Emma? How is that going to deepen his internal conflict and lead inevitably to the Black Moment, when he once again chooses to go it alone? And what will it take to make him change?


On not writing August 16, 2009

Filed under: General strangeness of life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:26 pm
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I’ve been feeling low. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, maybe it’s because I’m post-viral, maybe it’s because I’m staring down the barrel of 50, and I haven’t achieved a single one of my life goals. Yeah, that’s it,because just writing it makes me want to well up in pathetic self-pitying tears.
I also think I have gone very wrong with my writing. I’m trying to write what I think I “should” write, not allowing myself to discover what comes naturally for me.
I know I need to just drop Luk and Emma’s story and start on the next one. Luk and Emma’s story has served it’s purpose. It was a learner story, not one that was ever meant to be submitted. I only started it because I hate those royalty stories second only to sheik stories (though I’ve read some good stories of both, I think it’s such a crazily unreal premise), and wanted to see if I could do one. Then I made that promise to my writing group that I would finish it, so I’ve kept going with it long after I wanted to dump it. Quite simply, the story sucks, because it hinges on the hero doing something too stupid- losing control and kissing the heroine where they could be seen, in the town square the night she is announced as the next princess. He just wouldn’t do that, no matter how tempted he was, because what he stood to lose was too important to him. To avoid that I created a whole convoluted kidnap thing, as a device to force them to spend the night together. But for that to work, the heroine has to do the stupid thing and run away and get herself lost. Only way to avoid that is to have a real villain kidnap her, but then that got even more complicated, with the villain a more interesting character than the hero. So I went back to the first idea, but I keep getting stuck on the fact that my hero would simply never make that mistake.

This story was never going to work, because I started with a premise and then tried to create the characters to fit it. I like Emma, but Luk has never felt real to me. It might conceivably work redone in first person, purely Emma’s POV, in a more chick-lit style. That idea excites me. If Luk doesn’t have to explain why he does something so out of character as kiss Emma in public, because the reader is in her head only, reeling with her shock and surprise, it could possibly work. I like the way what goes on inside the hero’s heart and head is a mystery in first person heroine POV, it’s more the feel of old romances before hero’s POV came in. Less emotional intensity, but more like real life.
Our lives are already too full of miserable things that have to be done, whether we like then or not. Writing was starting to feel like yet another one. I am going to forget about the NWS. There’s no point putting in a crappy story that bores me silly- what’s the point of wasting the reader’s time giving a critique unless I intend to follow through?

The idea of rewriting Luk and Emma in first person is interesting, and I’m tempted to do it, though maybe that’s just an avoidance strategy so I don’t start on Nell and Mace’s story.

On the plus side, taking the weekend off from writing has let me do the big clear-up at home I’ve known for ages was desperately needed, but had been putting off so I could write. I’ve thrown out loads of old paperwork I’d been saving for some unknown reason (every bank statement since I arrived in the UK thirteen years ago, for example- why?), and rearranged my bookshelves. I had dusty books packed solid two deep on the shelves in my bedroom, but the new shelves in the hall and the sitting room I put up months ago were inexplicably empty.

I’m hoping this represents something symbolic, some sort of getting my house in order on an inner level too.