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!

Change of plan? December 26, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:06 am
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So I’m awake at 1.30am Boxing Day morning. Don’t want to be. My husband and one of the cats are snoring with varying degrees of quietness by my side, but I’m struggling with a sinus headache that the painkillers don’t seem to touch. Plus a couple of characters who won’t sit to one side quietly and let me get going with another story. 

Luk and Emma are demanding that I have another try at giving then their happy ever after. It feels like they are going to keep nagging at me until I do it.

I don’t want to be one of those never-to-be-published writers who keep rewriting the same sorry story for years, refusing to move on to something new. I do want to keep trying to get this story right though. This is supposed to be my “learning story” , and I really want to crack it. One more try is all it gets.

The clues should have been there. Like that post a few days ago that was supposed to be about Adam, my new hero, but morphed into a discussion about Luk. Like Luk staying put, smiling that killer smile of his, telling me he can change if I want him to, he’ll be whoever I want him to be.

I’m just not ready to let go of these characters yet. The plan was to have a break, first draft a different story during January, then come back to them fresh in February. That would be sensible. But I’m thinking about Luk and Emma far more than Adam and Kate. I want to go straight onto working out what doesn’t work and another rewrite.

My biggest problem is that form rejection. I have no idea what is wrong with the story.

Is it that my voice just isn’t right for Presents and I need to target another line, but the premise isn’t bad? Is it that my hero just isn’t heroic enough, his motivation is all wrong? Is it that my heroine is too weak, too pathetic and sorry for herself? Is my plot too convoluted, and my characters forced to shape themselves to fit it, rather than the other way around? Is there too much sexual arousal (even though the only touching in that first chapter is a brush of hands) and not enough genuine emotion? Do those things I thought were clever, actually work against the story because they are a form of authorial intrusion pretending to be the heroine’s thoughts, that drag the reader out of the flow? (Okay, I already know the answer to that one!)

Or all of the above?

I know for sure that not enough happens in the first chapter, they sit and talk for most of the time, and there’s a lot of introspection, with not enough physical beats. Even though what they are discussing is crucially important to them both, it goes on too long. Something I see in Susanna’s winning Presents chapter that’s not in mine, and would have grabbed the editors- there’s a lot of story being told and shown, and a lot of physical and emotional action.

I know that Luk’s behaviour and motivation needs a lot of work. Even if his initial motivation remains to avoid taking on the additional responsibility, he needs to grow up a helluva lot faster than my original premise called for. I feel that Emma isn’t a truly sympathetic character yet either. She’s telling the reader things in her internal monologue that could come across as “Poor little me”, or too self-conciously aware to be believable. Maybe she needs to be more the character she was in the very first draft, who even had a different name.

So- Luk’s motivation needs to be different- more noble, less self-serving. At the very least, he needs to have better and more obvious reasons for his reluctance to go back to the island. Though maybe as Eileen suggested in a comment on the last discussion of this, it doesn’t matter if his motivation is less heroic, so long as his actions are. Emma needs changes too, needs to be feistier, more of a fighter than a victim. I’m not convinced by the way she was in the first chapter that she could make a good princess.

I’m seeing how the opening chapters and a few key scenes can change to work better. Island politics are going to be more complicated than they looked on first appearances (I need to be careful not to turn this into a poor copy of Marion Lennox’s Royal Marriage of Convenience, which I read when I was looking to see how other writer’s managed similar themes).

The conflict, especially good strong relationship blocks, need a lot more development. Luk not wanting to stay on the island longer than he has to to keep the country safe, and his belief he can’t be a good husband, just doesn’t feel deep enough. And Emma doesn’t have a good relationship block right now. Her low self-esteem makes her see herself as unlovable, but it wouldn’t take much to get over that. Her success in her new role as princess works a lot to build her self-belief. So somehow Luk’s behaviour needs to feed powerfully into that particular self-doubt in some way. It needs to come from within the relationship. I have loads of ideas for external stuff, from scheming PR people to paparazzi photos, but that’s not going to cut it!

The rewritten story will be a Romance, not Presents. Another issue with my competition entry was that the tone wasn’t Presents. but it wasn’t Modern Heat either. I think the Romance voice may be more natural to me. Still a massive challenge, to bring out the sweet magic of falling in love, the emotion and yearning for each other, the heartbreak of feeling it can’t possibly work out, without relying on dramatic sex and sensuality.

Would you do me a favour please? Here’s my competition synopsis. I know it’s weak and corny in places. The story was rejected, so I’m not going to be precious about it! Shred it for me. Tell me what you think doesn’t work, what needs to be stronger, what doesn’t ring true for you.

The last thing billionaire Luk di Aquilegia wants or expects is to find himself in line for the throne of the Principality of Melusia. He left the Mediterranean island years before, and has no intention of returning. But when a series of tragic deaths wipe out the Royal family, he may have to choose between loyalty to his country, and his jet-setting lifestyle. Then he discovers there is another heir, unsophisticated Emma Constantin, living in a quiet English village. All he has to do is persuade Emma to become princess. That should be simple enough.

Except Emma’s not so sure she’s princess material. So what if the only excitement in her life is in the romances she reads to Alice, the elderly lady she cares for? She can’t just drop everything and go off with a stranger, no matter how gorgeous, can she? But Luk is not taking “No” for an answer. Emma is swept off her feet and onto his private jet.

Luk takes her to Melusia and returns to London, his problem solved. The island and its people entrance Emma, she finds projects to work on, and a makeover gives her confidence. When Luk returns to Melusia for the Ball to welcome the new princess, Emma has changed. She’s sweetly sexy in a naïve way that arouses and frustrates him. Getting involved with the virgin princess is definitely a bad idea. One impulsive kiss gets them into even bigger trouble.

The kiss was seen, and Emma is now ineligible to be Princess under the strict laws about female Royals. Luk is back where he started, faced with being Prince. He sees one way out- if he marries Emma, she will be the ruler. He can go on with his business and living his own life. A marriage of convenience, on his terms, is his best option. Now he just has to convince Emma of that… before parliament meet and declare she cannot be crowned.

Emma knows this can’t be a marriage in name only- there must be an heir to secure the succession. Can she deal with sex without love? Reluctantly, she agrees. A wedding and a coronation – one ceremony changes Emma’s life forever as she becomes both princess and wife. That night, things change even more as Luk fully awakens her to sensual pleasure.

Luk is startled by how good sex with her is. Emma arouses his passion and emotions like no woman ever has. That bothers him. Love wasn’t part of his plan. At twenty, he was unable to save the life of Bianca, his first wife. Love to him means pain and guilt. He never wants to feel that way again. He has a built in safety net. After the month together they agreed on, he will go back to London, to return for only a few days each month, until she’s pregnant.

Emma is breaking the rules of their marriage. She’s in love with her husband. Her harsh upbringing has made her believe she is unlovable, and she’s convinced Luk will never love her. As the date of his departure nears, she is hiding a secret. She hasn’t told him she has already become pregnant, fearing he will leave sooner. The night before he is due to go, Emma makes the biggest gamble of her life. She tells Luk she loves him, testing him, hoping he will stay. But he leaves her alone in her room, and departs the next day as planned. Luk finds he misses Emma more than he thought possible. Now he has his freedom, he realises it’s not the most important thing. His life is nothing without her, family and relationship are what he really wants. Then Emma emails and tells him she is pregnant, that he needn’t bother coming back, as he’s kept his part of their marriage deal. Knowing Emma is expecting his child deepens Luk’s feelings for her. But can he allow himself to love again? Can he be a good husband and father, after the way he failed Bianca?

Emma is determined to carry on without Luk. At least she will have his child to love. That won’t make up for the lifetime of lonely nights ahead, but it will help. And she has work to keep her busy. Like her air ambulance scheme. When the helicopter lands in front of the crowds at the opening ceremony, Luk gets out, and reveals he’s the mystery donor who’s made it happen. But why is he there? Is it just a feeling of responsibility towards her now she’s pregnant? Or even worse, a publicity stunt? She can get along without him, if he’s there for the wrong reasons. She wants all or nothing from Luk. If he doesn’t love her, he can go.

At last they are alone together. Luk tells Emma how much he missed her, how he hasn’t been able to stop thinking of her while they’ve been apart, and why he resisted falling in love with her. He kneels before her, the princess of his heart, and asks her again to be his wife. A true wife, in a real marriage for the best possible reason- a love that will last forever.


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?