My Goal is to Have Motivated Characters

My current nemesis: GMC. (Not the car company.) The unfortunate side effect of all the research I’ve been doing on how to write is that I have found out, well, how to write. Sometimes the worst thing you can get is what you asked for, right? So I have entered the forest of GMC; Goal, Motivation, Conflict. It is a thicket with deceptively large entry signs that turn into wandering little footpaths of hope, angst, self-doubt, and double-guessing. There is no yellow brick road.

Goal: My main character has a crystal clear goal, right? I mean, she is the main character. By the laws of such things, that means she has a goal. After looking it over several times. . . no, she doesn’t. The way I’ve written it, she’s just drifting along and happened into marrying the man who loves her. Why? Who knows? My readers sure don’t. In my head she’s decisive and practical, family oriented and loving. The more I read and edit, the more the sneaky idea that she’s not in fact the main character bobs out from behind bushes, waving and grinning. Her new husband, the man who has always loved her, is edging into my main character spot. It’s easier for me to get in his head and his goals are clear. And I now need a new opening chapter to my finished* manuscript, from the point of view of my real main character.

Motivation: I feel like I’m stomping around like the most spoiled actress in Hollywood, the kind who demands silk toilet covers and golden bowls full of petit fours and ice balls. What is going on with my characters? Why are they making these choices? What is my motivation? *wails* This one is harder than the goal, and sounds suspiciously similar. Isn’t motivation the thing that makes you go after a goal? So is it the steps to that goal, or the root of that goal? Or is it more Freudian; the deeply buried schema, the fears, the primal urges that motivate you toward that particular goal? I’m over-thinking my thinking, about thinking. I give up. My characters, one of which is the newly elected MC, have external and internal goals. They are trying to meet those goals while the obstacles pile up. End O’Story.

Conflict: By now I’m reeling around this GMC forest banging off the trees and barking my shins on the knobbly roots, blind in the dark. This sucks. In the plot in my head, my characters face definite conflict. My main character has always loved her and is over the moon that she said yes to him but there are subtle indications that things aren’t quite as perfect as he imagined. He pushes it away, buries himself in work, but of course it forces its way out and he realizes his beautiful bride wasn’t actually in love with him when she said yes. She might have been in love with (dun dun dun) Another Man. Making him the Second Choice. She, meanwhile, has fallen in love with him and is starting to face that fact just a bit too late which creates more conflict between the two. The more I try to summarize it though, the more I second-guess myself. The way it’s written and the way I see it, there is plenty of conflict, unrequited love that turns into requited love. It’s a slow burn, and the romance world seems to have no place for slow burns.

Oh GMC, I love you as I curse you. It’s important to have a clear plot and at least a vague sense of where this is all going in the back of my mind, even if I end up deviating into new footpaths. This is a tool to get me there. It’s the kind of tool that ends up making you bash yourself in the knuckles a lot though. The self-doubt can be vicious. I love my story, and I believe in my characters. I’m confident that it’s the kind of story that will give my readers a happy feeling. In the end, to stay sane, I have to toss a strict GMC table out the window and leave this forest.

*Finished, for a given value of finished.

 

 

 

 

Featured image via stocksnap.io & Josh Byers

 

The Magic of Manuscript Rejections; Part the Second

Lets review the scoreboard so far!

  1. Established Medium Size Agency: #pass, with a very polite form letter. Much appreciated.
  2. Established Medium Size Agency: No reply, which means #pass
  3. New Small Agency: Zero reply and it’s past their stated 4 week response time. #pass
  4. Established Medium Size: Still no reply. Their stated reply window is 12 weeks and it’s been about 10, so I figure #pass.
  5. Small Independent Romance Only Agency: #pass with the kindest personal letter full of pointers for me, which was amazing.
  6. Established Medium Size: #pass, with a slightly more personalized form letter. I’m actually very excited about that.
  7. New Romance Only Agency: #pass with an encouraging form letter.
  8. Big 5 Imprint: No reply, and the bloom of hope has withered. Their website says no reply equals a no and it’s been over 4 weeks, so regretfully I’ll file this one under #pass.
  9. Medium Size Established Agency: #pass with a nice form letter.
  10. Small Botique Agency: #pass with an encouraging, although non-specific letter.

I’m still waiting on replies from five more agencies, which comprise my next round of queries.

In spite of racking up pass after pass, I’m feeling very encouraged. The “no replies” are disheartening, true, but the form replies are universally very nice and the two more specific replies I’ve gotten are enough to keep my hope burning strong. Two personal replies out of ten is actually pretty good, from what I understand.

Fifteen queries is a tiny drop in the bucket, as well. I’ve found figures from other authors that range from 50 to 80 to the low hundreds before they got a manuscript request. There’s still a long way to go, and a lot of #pass to push through. Meanwhile I’m learning, polishing, getting better and better. Oh, and what with Christmas and gift card season I’ve got a copy of On Writing by Stephen King headed my way.

 

7 Romance Tropes I Love to Hate

bahaha
picture credit: Jezebel.com He is naked, in a field of wheat, with meticulously detailed hair on his thighs and I can’t, you guys I can’t stop laughing.

This genre is full of traps. Adjective abusing, bear-sized traps. If used correctly with a light touch and believable characters these stereotypes can lead to a romance that gives the reader that squirmy, this-is-so-sweet, starry-eyed feeling. Speaking as a reader, it is THE BEST when a book gives you that feeling.

If used incorrectly (I’m looking at you, “musky” scented manliness) it leads to some straight up ridiculous. Awkward, kinda gross, never-read-this-author-again ridiculous. It’s a thin line to tread, especially when your main characters are involved with the Big One (which is spelled S E X).

Not enough pulsing, and your characters might as well be playing bunco in a senior center on a Monday night. Too much throbbing, and your characters are just grossing people out. Speaking as an author it’s a hard balance to get right. Here are some of the tropes I have learned to adore and detest, usually at the same time.

  1. The “We Had a Relationship Before (It Didn’t End Well)” meet-cute. Either some trope-1stupid misunderstanding or a real, serious issue separated our lovers in the past. Neither is a formula for happily ever after. If the misunderstanding could have been cleared up with one heartfelt conversation, why wasn’t it? If it was a real issue, why is it all of a sudden not going to be an issue? There are a lot of ways to do this stereotype and it can end well, with believable obstacles and resolution. It takes a lot of care.

2. The “Damaged With a Heart of Gold” main character. Most people who have gone through enough to be damaged have emerged with unhealthy coping mechanisms and a fear of commitment. This is not sexy, or romantic. But I love my brooding, dangerous hero who can only be saved by the power of the Right One.

Even though I know that in reality this makes for a co-dependent, toxic relationship. Beauty and the Beast has been around for hundreds of years, and this is why. Everyone wants to read these types and imagine themselves as that special Right One. Just go with it. Write those bad boys.

3. The Descriptions. Velvet fire, flames, arrows, explosions, heat, gasping, moans, and other indications that our characters are having a darn good time. These are descriptions done well, but you can overdo it easily. So easily.

4. The descriptions that were pulled out of a Dictionary of Synonyms for Engorged (or a middle-school boy’s imagination) and need to STAY THERE. I kid you not, I read a Regency novella where the heroine and hero had separated after a drama filled marriage proposal and refusal due to a stupid misunderstanding (See #1 above) and meet up at a ball years later.

Pushing through all of the merrily waving red flags I kept reading, only to hit the part where they’re dancing together and he’s fighting back a huge erection. Like, this time the poor man’s member may actually explode as they seem to threaten to do any second in badly written erection scenes. Not once, but multiple times, he thinks about how he has to keep it together and immediately loses the battle because of her gorgeous hair, or her scent. OK and I’m done. This is comic relief, edging into Creepy McStalker. There is a difference between being attracted to your dancing partner and being at risk for premature ejaculation in front of hundreds of the haute ton.

5. Reaching Completion at the Same Breathless Instant. This is in every romance that includes sexy time. Why? Because it is. It sounds amazing, reads amazing, and sells those books. If the author is good I’m so in love with the characters that I believe it. In the cold reality in which we live, does this actually ever happen? Sometimes, if you’re super lucky and you and your partner are on the same page and feeling it, yes, but unless you are a goddess of some sort it happens enough times in your whole life to count on the fingers of one hand and have lots of fingers left over. Most real life sex ends, hopefully, with two happy people but not at the Same Time.

6. Amazing Outdoor Sex. In the average temperate climate there are not many times of year you would even wanthttp-mashable-com-wp-content-uploads-2013-03-davidcry to attempt this. This is without the added considerations of bug bites, snakes, furry woodland creatures getting an eyeful, sharp poky things in your soft bits, dirt in places that is going to give you a UTI later and sudden policemen.     Just . . . at least have your characters bring a blanket. And be super sure that they’re alone, unless that’s the kink you’re writing.

7. Don’t Be Silly, Protect Your Willie.
Is it too much to ask for a quick line about unwrapping a condom? Without overdoing it see; Shades of Grey. Or the main character reflecting on how glad she is she has her trusty nuva-ring? Yes, it kills the mood to stop the love and put on the glove. It kills the mood even more to have a grouchy pregnant lady with a guy who didn’t actually want any kids yet much, much more. Reality happens. Just make your characters use protection.

In historical romance you’re on your own with Google (fun fact, women used to use actual sponges soaked in lemon juice) or relying on sheer luck, but Nora Roberts has incorporated this into her newer books because someone obviously complained at her and does it well, even keeping it from killing the mood.

featured image via stocksnap.io & Jessica Ruscello

Review Time

*curtain pulls back* *swell of dramatic music*

Without further ado, my first official review:

“It is beautiful, truly a love story. I finished with tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this with me.”-G.D. Cramer

 

Grain of salt; this is my unpublished, still-querying, no actual agents have looked at it or offered to rep manuscript. G.D. Cramer is a fellow RWA member who is doing me the enormous favor of critique reading. He is also an author himself, you can check him out at  http://gdcramer.com. And his actual issues with plot, story arc and dialogue are still coming in, it’s not all sunshine and bluebirds over here. I am still calling this an official review, because it meets all the criteria of a review except the one about being on Amazon for an actual physical book.

Someone (who is not me or close family and did not get paid to say this) had their eyeballs on my complete work, imbibed my story, and liked it. I will treasure it accordingly. It may have brought actual tears to my own eyes (OK it did. I teared up at the end of the story too. I love my characters and get really into their happily ever afters.)

Am I overreacting to this? You bet. Will I calm down and stop making this a huge deal? Haha no. Will every good review I ever get be featured with a full blog post and lots of metaphorical glitter?…..probably.

 

featured image via stocksnap.io & Bonnie Kittle

If I Knew Then

Research, resources, and more reading. Wow am I finding a lot on the internet. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but already I’m finding some themes. First, other authors are almost universally ready to share their hard-earned knowledge. Why are they so nice? They don’t have to tell poor newbies like me desperately googling everything about writing all of their secrets. But they do it anyway.

From hilarious (Delilah S. Dawson, seriously, you can find some great advice from her at Terribleminds and be warned, it’s got lots of NSFW language) to the serious resource (The ultimate bible for aspiring authors that I hear about over and over, On Writing by Stephen King, available at Amazon.com for 13.77$ right now and on my wishlist for when I get some disposable income for more books). And yes, I know that I have a serious case of Stephen King fangirling going on. All hail the King.

I’m probably stereotyping while gazing through my rose-colored shades here, but I say from my research online that authors are a generous, sharing group who want to see other authors succeed. I’m sure there are exceptions. Don’t throw the exceptions at me to piss on my parade. Basking in a supportive, helpful group is all I need at the moment.

In particular, I’m enjoying reading the Query Shark blog. Janet Reid is a rockstar. A really mean, ego-deflating, crabby kind of rockstar, and I love it. Reading the big bites she takes out of queries, I am learning a lot. Like that I wrote my own query with some big mistakes. It seemed right from what I was finding at the time, but looking over many different examples I’m finding ways to improve my query and also keep it true to my story. Which is really the point.

Problem A: I open my query with “based on your agent profile and blah blah I think this would be a good fit for your list.” I wanted to personalize it and make it clear I did my research. After reading lots and lots of examples on the blog it’s clear Janet is right about this. Open with the story and the stakes, leave the flattery for the end.

Problem B: My stakes don’t grab the reader with enough urgency. The conflict is there and clear, but it doesn’t sound enticing enough to make an agent really want to care what happens to my characters. That needs to get spruced up.

Back to the editing! Once my query letter is shining like a mysterious jewel I will go ahead and try to submit it to the Query Shark. It’s a bit like washing your hands with chum and then sticking them over the side of your boat, in that I anticipate a similar level of pain and the urge to yank my fingers back very quickly. At the end of it, though, I will hopefully have a query letter that makes agents really want to read my manuscript. Now that I know what I didn’t know before.

 

 

featured image via stocksnap.io & Rachel Walker

A Day’s Writing

When I had my third child my husband and I decided, for various reasons, that I would stay home. It’s a wonderful, amazing thing to be lucky enough to live on one salary and to have this time with my children and I’m grateful for it every day. It also seemed like a great time to finish the stories I’ve been working on for years and start submitting manuscripts, so I suppose that if I wanted to I could describe myself as a full time writer?

In the first flush of enthusiasm I thought up a sensible plan where I would devote half of the hours my oldest is in school to chores/children/errands/laundry/dishes/house and half of those hours to writing. Ahahaha. Hahaha. Several months later, here is a small slice of how my full time writing job is working out*.

Breakfast is done, 10 year old is at school, dishes are waiting for me in the sink but let them wait, a load of laundry is washing and the 3 year old is set up with her show. It’s Go Time!

It was Nan, of course, who caught her walking back towards the house. Her cautious tiptoe through the narrow dirt alleyway in between her own clapboard home and Seaton’s Grocery next door had become more of a victorious march, before her voice shot out from amidst the clean washing snapping against pegs in zigzag lines over the alley.

“PUT your brother DOWN! Right now! He is not a toy.” The baby is back on the floor, my heart is beating normally again, and it’s Go Time once more.

“Anne Butler! What am I going to do with you? Wandering back here, casual as you please! Just look at your hair!” 

My 3 year old: “Mom? I want a drink of water.” I get up to get the water and hand her a cup. She hands it back. “I want it in a cup with a lid. The Purple one.” The water is transferred to the right cup. Happiness reigns and I can keep going.

The sharp tones cut straight through the screen of laundry to her, drawing out a wince. “Down around your shoulders like some wild woman….” trailing off into irritated mumbles, the voice came closer. “Only two hours left to get you ready for the wedding. Go! Go on and brush your hair out. For mercy’s sake get out of that old dress and pack it up. Go on now!”

I realize that I’m singing along under my breath to Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and that needs to stop right now.

A quick, apologetic hug made the stiff lines of Nan’s shoulders relax, just a touch, but her pointing finger was firmly directed at the back door and her stern face reinforced the command.

“Heave Ho here we go together as a team…..” Damn it.

Anne smiled wryly and started down the narrow hallway to her room to do as instructed. Really, she thought as she grabbed her old wooden brush, she had been gone too long on her walk, but she had wanted one last chance to cherish her letters from the man she had hoped to marry.

And the baby is crying. He’s changed and fed, so he probably wants attention and then a nap. 40 minutes later, he’s down for the nap but the 3 year old wants a snack. I’m done for the next hour while I deal with that and get some more laundry done. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few hundred words done before it’s time to pick the oldest up from school. And I’m laughing at myself for thinking I could use this time at home to be a full time writer.

*There are authors out there who work a full time job, take care of a family, have hobbies and a life, and still somehow manage to write. I bow down to them in abject adoration, because they have it so much harder than I do. And if any of them is reading the blog and has a few tips, I’m all ears over here.

 

featured image via stocksnap.io & Thong Vo

A Perfect Query

Even as my manuscript goes through stages of polish, the query letter (a better, more brutally honest title for it would be “begging letter”) goes through stages of its own. Even more than writing perfectly balanced evocative prose as a novel, as my previous post rants about, writing a one page letter describing how amazingly awesome your manuscript is and why this agent should give it a chance is a daunting task.

Yes I said daunting, and I’d go so far as to add difficult, depressing, and dastardly.

In this process the Internet, and the kindness of strangers on the Internet, have been invaluable. In particular, I turn to Writer’s Digest.com. Their site has an ongoing series of actual query letters that worked alongside comments from the editor or agent about why they responded to that particular query. A good basic post to start with from their site is “How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” from 3/21/2016. You can find it here.

Another resource that I’m increasingly grateful for is Jane Friedman. Her website is basically a goldmine for unpublished authors (it’s possible that published authors could use some of her articles too) and she is so generous about sharing her expertise. If I ever get a chance to meet her in person  I owe her a big box of whatever treat she likes best. A good post from her on this subject would be “The Complete Guide to Query Letters” from 9/7/2016. You can find this one here.

If my own query letter ends up working *fingers crossed* I will be sure to post it on the blog. If it even gets more than one reply, I will go ahead and post it because hey, something about it gets replies and it might help another author write their query. I’ll be sending out another round of begging letters this week, which means adding to the scoreboard sometime before Christmas. So I’ve got that to look forward to.

Header image credit: stocksnap.io & Sergei Soloviev

The Show, Must Go Wrong

In obedience to the timely tip from the agent who replied to my query letter, the manuscript has been looked over, read, read again, tweaked, perused once more, and fixed. After refreshing my memory on the difference between showing the reader emotion and just telling them what your character is feeling, changes were made. It’s still a work in progress, it seems like every time I read-through there’s one more tiny thing to tweak, but the manuscript is officially finished and this polishing is making it stronger. I’ll post the first paragraph below, before and after.

The insistent, all-pervading advice that the FIRST SENTENCE HAS TO BE AMAZING! GRAB THE READER AND DON’T LET THEM GO! NO ONE WILL EVER BUY YOUR BOOK UNLESS YOU OPEN WITH EXPLOSIONS, A SPY CHASE AND ALIEN LIFE FORMS ATTACKING! was like a cloud hovering over every word I wrote and it smothers. So I ignored it, and just wrote what opens the story. Spaceships are not going to make an appearance, just by the way. It’s a historical romance set in Nevada, after the gold rush. (If I wanted to work Aliens into it I would have set the book in Las Vegas, in the 60s. Goes without saying.) Without spies or things going bang my conflict depends on my characters and their choices, so they have to be good, strong personalities. And can I just say what everyone already knows? Balancing necessary exposition with moving the plot along, while creating a breathtaking setting, and showing your characters feelings using amazing, evocative language of course…..is freaking difficult.

BEFORE:

The last part of the climb up the hill was steep enough to leave Anne breathless. She paused for a moment at the top as her lungs worked hard to take in the thin mountain air. From here she could see the whole valley, mounds of rocky hills rising on each side. The whole bottom of the valley was brown earth patched with dried yellow grass and the flat ribbon of the river cut its way just under her chosen viewpoint. The rising sun made the muddy river gleam with wide swaths of gold. To the west of the river stretched out in front of her was Dayton, the town she had just left. The mills at Rock Hill pounded away on the ore extracted from Virginia City, Silver City and Goldhill, filling the valley with artificial thunder.

AFTER:

             The last part of the climb up the hill was steep enough to take Anne’s breath. She paused for a moment at the top as her lungs worked hard to take in the thin mountain air. The whole valley spread before her, umber mounds of rocky hills rising to define each edge. A patchwork of dark earth dotted with dried yellow grass covered the floor of the valley while the flat ribbon of the river cut its way just under her chosen viewpoint. Wide swaths of gold that the rising sun painted lavishly on the river were so beautiful she had to smile. Spread out in front of her on the west side of the river was Dayton, the town she had just left. The mills at Rock Hill pounded away on the ore extracted from Virginia City, Silver City and Goldhill, filling the valley with an artificial thunder that drummed into her ears.

She’s Just Not That Into You(r) Query

Diving headfirst into the literary waters of sending out Query letters contained a number of surprises. Leaving aside the fact that I jumped the gun on querying, these surprises add an additional humble factor. I’m assuming it’s to keep me from actually exploding with the pride of finishing one manuscript.

cast-fail

Like surprise #1 you don’t send a Query Letter and leave it at that. It’s more like a query letter and short synopsis. Or a query letter and first chapter. Or First 3 chapters. Or Synopsis, plus chapters, plus author bio, but synopsis and bio must be in the body of the email and chapters must be attached. Or Query plus full manuscript, all attached and not in the body of your email. Can’t you read the guidelines! We only accept queries sent on a warm Tuesday in February for this genre!

You would not believe how many different requirements each agency has.

Surprise # 2, you will not get any replies. As in, zero messages in your inbox from the person you queried. Not even a rejection. My mature, big-girl-panties-are-on side reminds me that agents are only human, they have slush piles that probably reach the terabyte level of inbox fullness, they say 4-12 week response time for a reason, and there just isn’t enough time to reply personally to every #pass.

My insecure author side is petty enough to think; couldn’t they spare even the nanosecond to push “send” on the form rejection email letter? Like, isn’t there a way to make your default signature something like “Sorry, this didn’t work for our agency. Too much (telling, blah writing, grammar mistakes, doesn’t grab me, isn’t unique, seriously did you even read the submission guidelines we don’t DO written in crayon, scanned and attached 200,000 word memoirs?)

OK, I feel better now.

In the midst of this fun, I actually got a reply. A reply! It’s like finding a gold nugget just sitting  in the middle of the sidewalk! It’s that awesome. And it doesn’t take away from that golden feeling that it was a “Sorry, doesn’t work for me” reply. Because this agent took the time to read what I sent and sent me constructive criticism. Which I really, truly, very much need. As much as possible. I can’t use her name or actual reply because I haven’t gotten permission from her, but in general her reply was something like “I liked your idea, but the writing dragged with too much telling instead of showing. I think with a little polishing this could be a solid story. It just didn’t grab me until the third page (insert sentence she means, proof she actually did read it!) and the third page is too far along. Best wishes, agent.”

So, to add to the scoreboard.

Soul Mate Publishing: #pass

But in spite of that pass, I can wholeheartedly recommend Soul Mate Publishing to romance authors who are querying. They are good enough to hit that “reply” button, and that’s good enough for me. And can I just take a moment to be incredibly happy that she liked my idea? I like it too! It means I’m on the right track. The road might be rough on the ego and covered in incredibly individual submission guideline road-bumps, but I’m on the right one. Thank you, Soul Mate Publishing, for injecting some hope back into the process for me. You are priceless.

 

 

 

featured image via stocksnap.io & Alissa Anton