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!

Rewrites and backstory February 5, 2011

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:45 pm
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I’m just about ready to start on my rewrites of Cady and Lock’s story. This is the story aimed that SuperRomance that I had a rejection for in December. Megan wrote-

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

So I looked at ways to make the characters more goal driven, more proactive, and give them far higher stakes. I’ve spent the past week planning the story, trying to get good strong conflicts and character arcs.

The good news is, I think I have a handle on it. I feel like I really know the characters now. I hope I’ve made their conflict strong and believable. Apart from the inciting incident not externally driven at all. Cady and Lock are the ones making things happen. The structure seems solid. I have a plan that it virtually a synopsis, focused on their emotional growth and change and how this affects the relationship, not just a list of what happens.

The bad news is, there’s very little in the original first draft I can use. It was all discovery draft.

 *sigh* This is going to be a long process.

It feels as if I’m really starting from scratch again, except I’m not. I know the characters well, I know their backstories, I know why and how they hook into each other’s deepest internal issues. I know the things that get in the way of them having a relationship. I just hope I can write it!

Thinking of backstory, I read this excellent article today, especially relevent for me as my first draft is just loaded with backstory in internal monologue. One of the hazards of knowing my characters well, and them having a history together, which I know has to get the chop. I hope I’ll be brave enough to use his method to eradicate any remaining infodump when I edit up the next draft!

Presuppositions

One of the biggest problems I see in fiction manuscripts is a big glop of backstory in the first two or three chapters of the novel.

Every novelist who has ever committed this sin justifies himself by claiming that the backstory is necessary because otherwise the reader won’t know what’s going on.

This isn’t true. Readers don’t read your novel for your marvelous backstory. They read it to get immersed in your main story. Once you get them hooked on the story, they’ll begin to get interested in the backstory and u can start feeding it to them in small doses.

You may be thinking, “That’s great advice for everybody else, but I’m different. My story is different. My readers HAVE to know my backstory.”

The answer is yes, but.

Yes, you’re different. Yes, your story is different.

But your reader really doesn’t care that 35 years ago your main character Luke got beat up every day in kindergarten.

Your reader cares that RIGHT NOW Luke is peering through the sights of a sniper rifle. Which happens to be trained on the head of the state governor. Who happens to be 40 years old. Who happens to be a bully. Who happens to have gone to kindergarten with Luke.

NOW your reader cares just a wee bit about what happened way back when. But your reader still cares a whole lot more about Luke’s trigger finger than about his horrible childhood.

It’s true that your reader is going to need to know a little about your backstory. How do you provide that without losing momentum in your frontstory?

One way to do that is by inserting “presuppositions” into your sentences.

And just what exactly is a “presupposition?”

Loosely speaking, a presupposition is a statement that is implied by a sentence. If the cop asks, “Have you quit beating your wife?” there’s a presupposition that in the past you beat your wife.

A classic example of how presuppositions work in language is the following sentence, which Bertrand Russell analyzed many years ago:

“The present King of France is bald.”

Is the above sentence true or false?

Since France is a republic, there is no present King of France, so the sentence can hardly be true.

But is it false? If it were false, would it be true that the present King of France has a full head of hair?

Obviously not. Russell pointed out that this sentence carries along with it some unspoken presuppositions:
* France has at least one king
* France has no more than one king

When you say that the King of France is bald, you are also implicitly asserting these presuppositions, and the combination of the three statements is false because they aren’t all true.

Some people would say that it’s simply meaningless to say “The present King of France is bald.”

But if you were watching a movie set in 1753 France, and if one of the actors said, “The King of France is bald,” everybody would know exactly what he meant.

Context matters. Presuppositions imply context. And another word for “context” is “backstory.”

Now here’s the point for fiction writers. Many of the sentences you write in your novel carry along with them certain presuppositions. When your reader reads your work, she unconsciously analyzes those presuppositions and makes conclusions about your Storyworld and the backstories of your characters.

When Han Solo brags about his ship in the original STAR WARS movie, for example, he says, “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

Here are some presuppositions which are implicit in this line:
* The Millennium Falcon is famous
* The Kessel Run is long or treacherous or both
* A parsec is a unit of time
* Twelve parsecs is an excellent time for the Kessel Run

Notice that these presuppositions may be false (parsecs are units of distance) but they still tell us something about Han Solo and the world he lives in. Solo is not only egotistical, but he’s also sloppy in his use of language.

Writers constantly try to explain too much. This is true for the greenest novices and the most advanced experts, and it provides unending employment for editors, who earn their keep by scrawling “Resist the Urge to Explain” in the margins.

How do you fix things when you’re explaining too much?

The first step is to cut out the backstory. (Don’t throw it away. Save it to another document so you’ll have a record of it. Then delete it from your main story. Yes, all of it.)

The second step is to look for those places in your story that are now confusing to your reader because she lacks some essential context — some piece of backstory. Insert ONLY the fragment of backstory that your reader needs in order to make sense of the story.

One way to do that is to imply a chunk of backstory by rewriting a frontstory sentence so that it now contains a few well-chosen presuppositions.

Your reader is smart. When she reads a sentence that carries presuppositions, she immediately assumes these presuppositions are true and are part of your backstory. If she knows or learns that these presuppositions aren’t actually true, then she concludes that your character is unreliable.

We’ve already seen how George Lucas used a few presuppositions to characterize Han Solo. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how other writers have done it.

Here’s the beginning paragraph of a scene in ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card, in which we meet Ender Wiggin:

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of that horrid monitor. Well I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”
This only makes sense if the following presuppositions are true:
* Ender is a fairly young boy
* He’s had a monitor installed for quite a long time
* The monitor is unpleasant to wear
* Ender has had some painful medical procedures before
* Monitors are managed by a bureaucracy

We can also deduce from all of these that the story is set in the future.

Card could have told us all those things and a whole lot more about the history of monitors and why they’re necessary and thereby slowed down the story. Instead, he let us figure out only what we need to know right now. With presuppositions.
Here’s an example from the opening two paragraphs of THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.
The first paragraph carries with it this presupposition:
* More than one camel has died already

The second paragraph has these presuppositions:
* The owner of the camel is a lone man
* He is no longer in Gialo
* He is familiar with camels

We can also deduce that the owner of the camel is making a long and dangerous journey across the desert. This isn’t a presupposition, but it follows pretty readily from the presuppositions and from the first sentence.

Presuppositions are useful because they let you say more with fewer words. That is a worthy goal for any novelist.
 
If you’d like to see some more examples of how presuppositions work, check out the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositions

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 24,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Another blog I’ve been reading  a lot this week is one Janet commented about- Plot to Punctuation. I liked this series on Revising Character in particular, and his stuff on character arc is very good.

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Shiny New 2011! December 31, 2010

It’s that time of year again!

Time to look back and see what I achieved and what I learned in 2010, and set some goals for 2011.

I do feel like I achieved a lot with my writing in 2010. Not The Call, sure, but other valid achievements. I subbed three first chapters, one each to Harlequin Medical Fast Track, Mills and Boon New Voices, and Harlequin So You Think You Can Write. I did the Write-a-Thon I set for myself over Easter, managing over 5,000 words a day to complete a first draft aimed at Superromance, then edited up and subbed the partial. I learned a lot from the rejections, even the form one! So fours subs in a year, considering the most I managed before was one chapter for contests in each of the preceding years, is pretty good going! I have a bulging ideas file, a story in progress, and plans to edit up the rejected Superromance. Daily word counts may not be awesome, but there’s been steady progress. I’ve certainly written on more days than I didn’t!

I’ve done some excellent online workshops this past year – the Margie Lawson and Shirley Jump ones are the stand-outs, and I’m hopin.g to take more workshops with both of them again in 2011. Margie’s insights into how people express emotion through body language and using a character’s body language (she has a broad definition, including everything except the character’s actual spoken words and internalisations) to show not tell, are something I need to revisit (must reread those super-comprehensive lecture notes!.)   Shirley Jump is just plain fun to work with, a fab teacher, and a brilliant writer. I did two online workshops with her, and will be signing up for the next one in February!

I’ve learned plenty through personal reading and workshopping too. Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel and the Workbook that goes with it helped make some shifts in my writing – not enough to breakout, obviously, but enough for me to see a difference. Do get both if you’re going to do it – yes, there’s some repetition, but the workbook is where things really shifted. I’m glad I broke my bad habit of reading books but not doing the exercises this year!  Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back are fab – I love his style and the Beat Sheet is a brilliant way of looking at story structure. Robert McKee’s Story, which I’m reading now, is a thoughtful and deeper exploration of what it takes to make a well-written story – definitely one to read with either a notebook or a Word file open for all the insights into your current story you’ll get! I bought a few other writing books this year, but haven’t done much with them yet so can’t comment.

So, onto to 2011 and my goals!

I already wrote down some writing goals a couple of days ago over at the Sub Care forum on eHarl. Then, within 24 hours, my goals changed! So I seems to me important to bear in mind when writing goals to  keep them flexible. Some people say very specific, concrete goals work best, measurable goals where it’s easy to say “Yes, I did that”, or “No, I didn’t.” That’s great if you have a totally clear focus. What I found happened was I made the goals, then something changed, became much bigger than I expected if would be, so what I originally planned is going to be impossible to achieve if I do it properly. Maybe one of my goals should be to have  a clearer focus!

What I need is to set small, flexible goals, goals I can actually achieve that don’t pre-set me to fail. I already think I suck enough as a writer, without adding failing to achieve unrealistic goals into the mix too! I liked this post from Kitty Bucholtz. It seems wise to me to set goals that are written on water rather than carved in stone.

Sticking with my goal to write story words every day is totally needed, insisting on trying to stick with my goal to complete and sub two new  full stories in 2011 is not. That could be counter-productive, given that my WIP (currently two chapters and a plan) just morphed from a 55,000 word category romance to a 90,000 word single title romance – and another sub-plot that’s so perfect I have to include it jumped into my mind literally as I am writing this post. It’s as if having given my story permission to be bigger, it’s doing just that.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I have the skills needed to write something of the complexity I’m envisioning. That’s okay. I’m not entirely sure I have the skills to write it as a short category either. What I am going to do is write free of what I think is needed for the Harlequin series I was targeting, and see what I end up with. Trying to write to meet what I perceived to be category requirements just tied me in knots and what I wrote was cliche ridden crap, with cardboard characters just going through the motions in a same old-same old style plot that everyone has seen a million times. I brought nothing new to the table.

It could be that by writing free, I’ll end up with something that actually has some life and originality in it, that could even work for Superromance, the longer (and getting longer again in 2011 – yippee!) category line I love. If not, it will find its home somewhere.

My writing goal for 2011 is to write every day, write without worrying about publishability, and to see what I end up with before I make any decisions what it is or what to do with it. To keep learning and growing as a writer. Oh, and to finish 2011 with a clearer focus.

May we all have a joyous, productive and Call-filled 2011! And may none of us make ourselves miserable by setting unachievable goals. Let’s set goals that stretch us just enough, so we can look back this time next year and celebrate!

Edited to add- I just found this post with some thoughtful and challenging questions about where we are with our writing- may take the time to answer these properly.

 

“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.

 

Rejection November 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrgghhhh! All my stories are the same!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun! I’m excited about this!

 

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…

 

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?