Liz Fielding is one of those authors whose immense body work personifies the Harlequin Romance line, so it’s really exciting to announce that Liz has released her own “how-to” ebook on writing romantic fiction!
Her Little Book of Writing Romance is a real gem, full of information for both novice writers and veterans alike. No lofty or intimidating terms, it’s got all the basic ingredients for a Happy Ever After.
I’m Susan Meier. I’ve written over forty books for Harlequin and Silhouette but most of you know me as a workshop speaker…especially an online speaker. CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED is my most popular workshop.
I think there are two reasons for that. First, the material for this class came from my own blood, sweat and tears as I learned how to write AFTER I got published. I’m not exactly proud of that (LOL!!!) but because I did learn all this stuff by working with editors YOU get the benefit of editorial noodle whipping without having to submit bad manuscripts and taking the lashing!
Second, I think all of us have a manuscript somewhere that’s “broken” and we don’t know how to fix it!
So here is the very, very, very condensed version of CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED.
There are seven common reasons books get rejected:
1. Doesn’t fit our line/Isn’t right for the publisher to which it was submitted
2. Not enough emotion (too much emotion/romance if it’s going mainstream or single title)
3. Pacing off/bad
4. Tone wrong
5. Bad characters (FOR A MULTIPLICITY OF REASONS)
6. No conflict/weak conflict
7. Weak story
Unfortunately, those are only symptoms of what’s wrong with your book. Think of going to the doctor. You go in. You say, I have a fever, body aches and I’m throwing up. He doesn’t say, “Oh! You have fever, body-aches and puke disease.” He says, “You have a virus.”
That’s one of the most important things about figuring out what’s wrong with your book. Most of us deal in symptoms and forget the disease. So what does a book “disease” look like?
Well, we write on 3 levels…Story, Scene and Word. You tell a story using scenes and you create scenes with words. Those are the main entry points to fixing (or writing) a book. So if something is wrong with your book, it’s either a story problem, a scene problem or a word problem.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Your story is your premise, (forgiveness is hard, opposites attract, boss falls in love with his secretary, older man falls in love with younger woman, hero and heroine must catch a killer) coupled with your characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts. (i.e.: The hero and heroine must find a killer, but she’s already been charged with the murder and he’s the DA prosecuting her.)
If you’re getting rejections saying, “I wasn’t wowed by this story.” Or “It was okay.” Or…shudder… “It didn’t make sense.” “I didn’t believe the hero would behave that way.” “Hero (or heroine’s) motivation was off.” “The main characters goals weren’t compelling.” You have a story problem.
To fix a story problem, you don’t jump into the manuscript and start changing things willy nilly! You first create a story summary which includes your story’s premise coupled with your characters’ goals motivations and conflicts. You change this SUMMARY first. Then when you jump into the book you have a plan for what the NEW VERSION should look like. This summary will keep you on track but also show you what can stay the same. And sometimes, knowing what NOT TO CHANGE is every bit as important as knowing what to change!
How about scenes? Well, the purpose of a scene is to illustrate a journey step. Journey steps are the steps it takes to take hero and heroine from chapter one – the introduction of terrible trouble, the day/moment everything changed, the inciting incident – to the satisfying conclusion.
Poorly written scenes, scenes in the wrong order and scenes without purpose can cause poor pacing.
Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain give us a magic formula for plotting – which is combining story with scenes. That formula is action/reaction/decision. For every action there is a reaction (consequence) which usually results in somebody making a decision…which results in that person taking action (or getting someone else to take action) which results in a consequence…which results in a decision…and on and on.
To check to see if you’re following an action, reaction, decision formula, you can create a story board to “see” your scenes. Write your chapter numbers across the top of poster board (or spreadsheet in Excel). Print the journey step and number of pages used for the scene on a Post-it and paste it to the poster board under the appropriate chapter. When you’ve done this for an entire book, scenes without a journey step (or scenes with weak journey steps) will become obvious!
Scenes without journey steps aren’t necessary! If you’ve got a lot of them, that might be why your book is “slow”. But there’s another trick to writing scenes that lots of us don’t know. Come closer…it’s kind of a secret…Not every scene has to be the same length! Scenes with “lesser” journey steps can sometimes be a page, or a paragraph or even a sentence. And some “lesser-journey-step” scenes can be combined!
On the flip side…you don’t want to shortchange the scenes that should be your most powerful. Those scenes might be the scenes where you want to “spend” the most pages!
I believe the skill of discerning if a journey step should be illustrated as a sentence or a fifteen-page scene is the master skill of the greats among us!
Now there are other reasons scenes “go bad”. You could have picked a poor way to illustrate your journey steps. You could have simply written the scene poorly. In those cases, you don’t need to “rewrite” an entire book…simply fix those scenes!
Studying your storyboard will show you everything you need to know about your scenes!
Think this through. Words are your primary tool for creating scenes, characters and tone. If an editor tells you that your character isn’t likeable…it might be because his or her actions make him unlikeable. But…could it be the words you’ve chosen to describe him make him unlikeable? More to the point…could it be the words you’ve chosen to use as his “reactions” to the events around him that make him unlikeable? Have your words turned your character into something/someone you didn’t intend?
Follow me on this one! It takes some thought.
“Reaction” phrases are an important part of the “word” problem of characterization. Not only can character reactions create a “tone” for your book that you might not want, but also characters are “known” by what they do…how they react. Your characters are only as good as the words you put in their mouths and minds and the words you use to describe them!
So if you sit down tomorrow and read your problem manuscript and discover that you’ve inadvertently created a character you didn’t intend by the words you chose, how can you fix this?
First, create a List of 20 for more creative character reactions, movements and traits.
What do I mean by that? Well, if your character is always reacting in a dark and somber way and your rejection said the book was too depressing. Put a question at the top of a piece of notebook paper that says…WHAT ARE TWENTY DIFFERENT WAYS THIS GUY CAN REACT THAT WILL MAKE HIM BEHAVE AS A STRONG AND DETERMINED PERSON RATHER THAN A DEPRESSING WEIRDO? (Have fun with your question! It has to inspire you!)
Then work to figure out twenty reaction phrases. If he sighs every time he learns bad news, you might replace those sighs with more action-oriented, expressive reactions. For instance, his eyes could glint with anger or glaze over with rage. Or he could make a fist, grit his teeth, snap his toothpick in two.
Once you have twenty good reaction phrases, you can begin to plug those in everywhere he sighs or has any other type of reaction that makes the book (and him) depressing! You’ll not only strengthen his character, you’ll improve the book’s tone.
So if you’ve gotten a rejection that said the tone of your book wasn’t good…go back and take a look at how your characters are reacting!
So what have we said here?
Create a story summary BEFORE you try to fix a book wherein the editor has criticized goals, motivations and conflicts! Then use that summary to guide you on fixing your book.
Create a story board to evaluate scenes, if an editor has said your book is slow, pacing is off, or (God forbid) boring!
And that’s the quick and dirty version of CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED!
I’ll be happy to answer any questions!
MAID IN MONTANA, 6/09 Harlequin Romance
A recent phone call from my editor got me thinking. Being asked for “unorthodox families” in my next book, it made me think: what makes a family? In my brother’s family, for example, there are stepchildren, natural children and an adopted child, all of whom love him and call him Dad. In romance stories, so many different stories have been written, from tried and true, adaptations on fairy tales and Greek mythology, oddball comedy and action adventure. So what makes a family – or a story – unorthodox? I began thinking this as I folded washing tonight, and turned on the TV…and the movie “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down A Mountain” was on.
I remember the very first time I discovered character questionnaires. Actually I was given one by a writer’s group I once belonged to. Yes! I was so excited. This was the tool that would finally turn me into a real writer. I clutched it in my hot little hand and raced home. I grabbed pen and paper, started to answer the questions… and promptly fell asleep.
Oh Good Lord! Who cares what colour eyes, hair and skin my heroine has? Weight? What do you mean, weight? I’m not going to divulge my heroine’s exact dimensions. I mean… how unromantic. On and on it went – height, distinguishing facial features, birthmarks and scars, characteristic gestures and mannerisms, way of walking…
I dropped my head to my hands convinced I was wasting my time. Did it really matter who my heroine’s best friend in fourth grade was? Or how many pets my hero had between the ages of 4 and 16? So what if my heroine prefers strappy heels to gym shoes? Does any of this really matter?
At first my answer to that was a resounding, No.
But then my mind started ticking over. What if the heroine’s best friend since fourth grade has gone missing and that’s the reason the heroine ends up in the hero’s tiny town in the Outback? What if the hero is a vet and between the ages of 4 and 16 the only pet he had was a dog…and what if that dog died and he couldn’t save it and from that moment on he was determined to become a vet, even though it meant defying his father? What if, in the opening scene, it’s raining, the heroine’s car is bogged, and she doesn’t own a pair of gym shoes let alone Wellington boots?
Hmm… okay then, some questions do matter, but how was I going to decide which ones to ask? It took me a long time to work it out, but I discovered the answer depended entirely on the context in which I approached the questions.
Let’s tackle questions about physical description first. Other than the fact that we don’t want our heroine’s eye colour changing from blue to brown halfway through the story, who cares what colour her eyes, hair, and skin are? There’s one person who cares and he cares a whole lot – the hero. He’s fascinated by the colour of her eyes, mesmerised by the way her hair shines in the sun… and he can’t get the exact shade of her skin out of his mind – is it the colour of peaches and cream, or more English rose? If she’d stop ranting at him and moved into the light a little more then perhaps he could work it out. Only if she moves into the light that glossy hair of hers is going to distract him all over again.
See what I’ve done? I’ve asked the hero to describe the heroine for me. I like to ask him to:
a) describe the heroine the very first moment he sees her
b) describe her looking her worst,
c) describe her looking her best.
Then I get the heroine to answer the same questions for the hero. What’s more, I get her to tell me how she thinks the hero sees her at each of those moments above.
These descriptions now contain a power my boring checklist lacked. They work because they not only tell me something about the heroine, they tell me something about the hero too. I’m not only discovering what my heroine looks like, but my hero’s physical and/or emotional responses to her too. The descriptions now start to sizzle with emotional punch. And if I want to look at this in a purely practical light, these descriptions add to my word count – I can use them in my books.
How else can character questionnaires be useful? Sometimes I just like to play with them. They can, on occasion, help me generate plot ideas – as in the instance above with the heroine stuck in the outback looking for her best friend since fourth grade, getting soaked in the pouring rain in her high heels. For some reason I’m finding this an intriguing opening, but at the moment that’s all it is – an opening. I need to flesh it out. So I start asking questions. And do I have favourite questions I like to ask my characters? You bet – these ones especially:
What do you want?
Why do you want it?
What’s stopping you from getting it?
What my characters want throughout the course of the story can change so these are questions I ask my characters at the beginning of chapter one, end of chapter three, and usually again at the end of chapter seven (for some reason these are the points in the story where I need to double check that I’m on the same page as my characters). My characters usually want more than one thing too – so I list them all. My heroine wants to find her missing best friend, but she also wants to become managing director for her software firm in Sydney. She’s not going to find that an easy goal to accomplish while she’s stuck in the outback. Hence, Plan A is to find her best friend and hightail it back to the city as soon as she can.
I also like to ask my characters:
What do you want relationship-wise?
Why do you want that?
What prevents you from achieving this?
If my heroine is hell bent on never getting married, then I want to know why. I’m writing a romance so she’s going to have to overcome her reservations about marriage at some stage. Which leads to a very important question:
What will you learn, how will you change?
Sometimes I don’t discover the answer to this question until after I’ve finished the book. Sometimes it’s not having the answers that matter, just knowing the right questions to ask that keep me writing.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon a set of questions in a book called Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen (Writers Digest Books, 1999). I love these questions – and I hate them – because I find them SO hard to answer. But I find, once I’ve answered them to my satisfaction, everything falls into place.
Placing the Obstacle, from Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen (pg 30)
“What would make the attainment of my character’s goal the most difficult?” Once this has been identified, the central obstacle in the story will become much clearer.
In Casablanca seeing Ilsa safe means that Rick must let her go.
Hamlet’s course of action is clear – expose his uncle. His weakness is his indecisiveness.
In Vertigo, Scottie’s greatest fear is high places, yet he must go into the bell tower to expose the murderer.
In The Fountainhead, Howard Roarke is able to succeed only through the tremendous force and conviction of his principles.
Kernen claims that, Answering these four questions should point you at the right obstacle that will give your story the greatest drama and create the utmost tension.
And that’s what we’re in the business of – giving our readers a darn good story. Drama and tension are vital in a darn good story.
I’ve listed the ways character questionnaires (or simply asking my characters questions) have helped me with characterisation, plotting and building drama and tension in my stories. If I searched there would probably be other benefits I could add to the list. I’m of the opinion that anything that helps me to write is a damn fine thing – whether that’s filling out character questionnaires, creating a collage, or making a soundtrack for my novel… whatever. My challenge to you is if at first a seemingly useful tool doesn’t work… can you think up a new approach that brings it to life and makes it relevant for the way you work? If and when you do, don’t forget to share it with the rest of us!