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!

“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.


More like a crawl than baby steps! June 14, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 9:28 pm
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The editing is progressing, but oh so slowly! Far more like a snail crawl than baby steps. Definitely not a baby crawl, kids scoot around on their hands and knees or bums much faster than I can keep up with.

Chapter two is finished, though no doubt will need some tweaking. I’ve already gone back and tweaked a few things since I posted a version on my crit group not that long ago for comment. The Sisters usually come back with some good suggestions, and as I do those I see other things that can be improved, and so it goes.

I do need to get moving though. I set myself a subbing date of June 20. Scarily, that’s less than a week away. So I need to write and polish chapter three, which like chapters one and two is all new, do a synopsis, write a cover letter, and get it in the post by next Monday. Easy peasy, right?


The cover letter should be okay, I know what I want to say and I already have a halfway decent pitch. Writing the chapter shouldn’t be too bad, it will just take time and focus, I know what needs to happen and where the characters need to be by the end of the chapter. The synopsis will be bloody awful, no doubt.

The first synopsis I did, for the Instant Seduction comp, dashed off in a couple of hours, came back with the comment “Good synopsis” written on it. I thought I’d done even better with my synopsis for last years Harlequin comp, I worked hard on it, was proud of it, but turned out it stank worse than a footballer’s kit bag after the big game.  So that might need special attention.

Gotta remember- focus on the emotional turning points, and not “what happens”! Also, play up the elements that make this story a fit for Superromance.

I can do it!


Ready to go? October 15, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:50 pm
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Well, I worked on my first chapter and synopis (hell trying to boil down 4 single spaced pages of story summary to 2 double spaced!) the rest of the weekend. Thought I had them pretty much ready to go.

Then I went to Trish Wylie’s blog. Saw her brilliant Common Romance Writing Mistakes course. Spent all day Monday reading it. Oh boy. Thanks Trish for so much fab info! It’s been around for a while, I started reading it way back in July when she first started it, then got sidetracked. I guess now was the perfect time to come back to it.

Some of the exercises got me thinking again about my competition entry. I’ve rewritten the synopsis (it actually is  two pages double spaced now, I don’t have to cheat with 1 1/2 spacing and hoping they don’t mind!). Her hint to start with a 150 word or less pitch type blurb really worked, it helped me to focus in on the essence of the story. I keep forgetting that a short synopsis is NOT a plot summary. It’s characters, conflicts, and resolutions.

And I’ll be spending this weekend rewriting chapter one. I’m going to try start the story with what is now page 8! So the challenge will be squeezing  in the background I’d already dripped into those pages, without resorting to infodump. But it’s a better, stronger, punchier start. I’ll report back on if I feel it’s worked!


Heidi Rice on synopsis writing for Presents/ Modern Heat July 7, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:03 pm

The best thing about new Presents contests is that there’s always loads of fab useful info posted by the published writers!

First off is Heidi Rice (I have the ebook of her latest, must read it ASAP!) with the actual synopsis she submitted to the editors with the submission that became her first published book- find it here . Even better, tomorrow she’s going to post what the editors wanted her to change!


Another fab link on synopsis writing February 10, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:52 pm

Synopsis writing seems to be flavour of the month! Just found an excellent blog post telling it from the agent/ editor’s point of view.


Synopses, pitches- and the dreaded red pen moment yet again February 6, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 2:58 pm
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bic-cristal-orange-ball-pen-0-2mm-line-width-red The issue of synopsis writing has come up again, on a couple of writing groups and forums. It seems that everyone hates writing a synopsis! But we gotta have them, if we want to sell.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion on how important they are, and a lot of multi-published writers readily admit that they still suck at synopsis writing. For writers targeting editors like the Mills and Boon Richmond office, where the submission guidelines call for three chapters and a synopsis, probably it’s not that critical. Our writing in the chapters will speak for itself, and the synopsis is just telling the editor whether we have enough plot and conflict to carry off the rest of the story. 

But if we’re trying a publisher or an agent who only want to see a query letter and a synopsis, suddenly it becomes crucial, the only tool we have to show not just the characters and the plot but also our all important “voice”.  Tricky to do in as little as two pages!

Luckily there are some fabulous resources out there on synopsis writing. Kathy Carmichael’s is frequently recommended, and was the one I found most helpful when I was writing my first ever synopsis for the Instant Seduction competition (my God, was that a whole year ago? What happened to all the writing I was supposed to do in the rest of the year?) . Diana Peterfreund gives some laugh- out- loud funny practical advice on synopses  here. I can’t believe I only just discovered her blog, I can see it is going to become another of my excuses for not writing! (“But I’m reading about wriitng, doesn’t that count?” Well, maybe, but not in word count.)  The thing here that particularly grabbed my attention was that she writes the synopsis first, uses it as a road map while writing the book.  A completely different way of thinking about synopses.  It’s what I’ve tried to do on my current story, the most fully plotted one I’ve written. Too soon to say if it’s working or not. I’ve still had masses of off the track writing that will never see light of day in the final version.  But maybe that’s because that mass of unusable writing was what triggered me to want to plan the story more!

I also saw Laurie Campbell’s synopsis workshop highly recommended by Sally on Trish Wylie’s forum. Ack! This was either fatal or lifesaving, depending on how things work out. She isn’t doing a synopsis workshop for a while, but she did have an interesting article on putting together a Pitch , that I read today. I had a go at writing a pitch for the work in progress last weekend, a last-minute thing to enter a contest I’d known about all month (how unusual, I procrastinated again). I didn’t win, of course, ‘cos my pitch was rubbish, but it was useful trying to get the essence of the story in a few paragraphs. I wish I’d read this article first. Beacuse though it’s about writing a pitch, it’s really about writing a damn good romance novel. It focuses on the key elements- characters, goals, motivations, conflict, and resolution.

This is where the red pen moment comes in. I’ve had this niggling doubt about the conflict in my story. I knew it was off. What I have could work, but it just doesn’t feel strong enough. The reason is that the same thing will give both the hero and the heroine their original goal. That throws them together, which is great. But then there’s no convincing reason for them not to be together, without bringing in complicated plot devices and external sources of conflict. If the relationship isn’t at risk, there’s no emotional tension, and no black moment. Reading Laurie’s article has got me wondering if I need to completely rethink the conflict, put their goals more in opposition initially.  Get rid of the villian, who was responsible for a lot of the conflict, and almost make the hero the villian instead. Hmm. It will be tricky. But if I can pull it off, the story will be that much stronger and emotionally satisfying.


A new story- synopses and starting lines April 21, 2008

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 3:01 pm
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I wasn’t planning on writing about synopses again today, but I happened across another great article on it with links to even more resources, so here it is, on Anne Gracie’s website ! This article and the sample synopsis she gives made me laugh out loud, but even more it makes me eager to read the book, which at heart is what the synopsis should be all about.

Actually it does tie into what I am doing at the moment. I was vaguely thinking about synopses, as I’ve started on the new story (poor Bruno and Rebecca are unceremoniously ditched for now!). I haven’t written much yet, just a few snippets, but spent all day yesterday doing character development and plotting, using some of the workshops on Holly Lisle’s site (I have an affiliate link, so if you buy anything on her site I will be paid a small fee, but I would recommend the site anyway, as the free stuff is excellent). I started with this article on pre-writing a new story, which gave me a lot of information to work with. I did already have a basic idea, but doing this helped me build it up a lot more. I was wondering whether writing an outline before I get too far into the writing would show me any major problems with my plotting. 

I think I may be more of a plotter than a seat-of-the-pantser. I seem to write better when I have a good idea in advance of just what is going to happen in the scene, though I also believe its good to leave room for a few surprises or for new ideas that could make the story better. I hope I have learned from what I wrote on the last one so I don’t make the same mistakes all over again. I have a feeling with this one I will find a different set of mistakes to make! I can already see that one issue will be ensuring that the external conflict doesn’t overshadow their internal conflict. I’m hoping it will work because each of the external conflicts link into and trigger another layer of internal conflict for one of both of the hero and heroine. Provided I can write it right, that is!

I probably need to dig a lot deeper into my characters too. Although the workshop I used makes the plot really come out of the characters, I still have my usual problem of a strong and fully characterised heroine, but a much vaguer idea of my hero. I need to work on getting him a lot more focused. Then I will try doing an outline and see how it looks, before I go too much further, but I feel more character work need to come first.

I do have my opening scene, which I hope jumps straight into the story, and gets the hero and heroine on the page straight away. This story is one that has been bewing on a back burner for a while during my struggle with the last story, so the opening just appeared for me without much conscious thought. It neds a bit of fine uning, but I think it might work.

I did find a fab article on story beginnings  today. Part way down the page here is a fab article on starting the story right, with some great examples of reader-grabbing opening lines. This used to be a major block for me- I spent so long trying to get the first paragraph perfect I never wrote anything more! The advice most published writers give of just writing the story, giving ourselves permission to write badly in first draft as long as we tell the story, needs to be carved into my brain! It is so right- we can fix bad first draft, but a great opening with no story is nothing. I waste so much of my writing time trying to get it right instead of just getting it written.