Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes

Not At Nationals? Well here's the first of my Blogs to help you have your own version of a conference talk at home. I'd been reading a book about writing (as so many of us often do) called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and it occurred to me as I read that it could be tweaked slightly for Romance writing. I think this is a common problem with books on fiction/Screen-writing, etc. as opposed to books specifically aimed at Romance writing (like Kate Walker's wonderful 12 Point Guide To Writing Romance). Fact is, we all read writing books outside of our genre at some point or another and there are definitely things all forms of fiction have in common, but sometimes you’ve got to know what it means in Romance writing terms before it can be of any real use. Kind of like translating something into a language you understand. Thing is, because I know what I’m doing (theoretically), I automatically ‘translate’. When I read, my brain can figure it out and go – oh yeah, that means this in Romance writing terms. So I thought I could take some tips from the book and translate them to see if they help anyone. If you want to read the book for a little extra insight into how I’ve ‘translated it’ (which I can highly recommend as it really is a very useful little book and gave me plenty of light-bulb moments) it’s called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And how to avoid them) by Jack M Bickham. To help with the workshop parts of the Blogs all you will need is a romance novel from the line/category you're aiming for, but hopefully what this will do is give you an idea of how some of the basics of fiction writing remain the same in Romance Writing, while some slightly differ. This particular book breaks down into - funnily enough - 38 Chapters. So each of the tips I'm handing you are based on those chapters with little quotes from the book to whet your appetite for everything else it had to offer...

  • Making Excuses:

We all do this, whether published or unpublished and it doesn’t matter what genre or medium you write in, so we romance writer’s aren’t the only ones guilty of this sin. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham (which I'll be referring to throughout and really is worth the read) makes mentions of all the many, many cartoons that have appeared on the subject and it also provides a list of examples, so let’s see if any of these examples sound familiar or if we can add to them – which I’m betting we can…

“If you are serious about the craft of fiction, you must never make excuses for yourself”
The book says and it adds, “You simply cannot allow yourself to:

• Say you’re too tired
• Postpone work until ‘later’
• Fail to work because you’re too busy right now.
• Wait For inspiration.
• Plan to get right to it ‘tomorrow’.
• Give up because (insert: editors/agents/readers/critics) are unfair.
• Tell yourself you’re too old (or too young) to start.
• Blame others in your family for your lack of free time.
• Say your job is too demanding to allow any other activity.
• Tell yourself that your story isn’t good enough.
• Or any of a host of other excuses you may dream up for yourself”

Sound familiar? Yeah, thought so. The book is absolutely right and this is true for every writer everywhere on the planet. We’ve all heard the adage ‘Writer’s write’. And you know what? It’s true. So if you dream of being published one day then you have to treat it like a job the same way you would if you were launching any new career. Because as the book says; “Writing is hard work”. It’s a fun job – for the most part – but there will be days, even if you have x-number of books under your belt, when the thought of turning on the computer will give you a migraine and re-arranging your sock drawer will seem much more urgent. So as harsh as it may sound, you need to decide here and now, whether or not this is what you REALLY want to do, or if it’s a hobby that you want to continue doing for fun. If your dream is to be published then STOP MAKING EXCUSES. Give yourself targets the same way you would with a diet – set yourself achievable, realistic goals so you won’t cheat and you’ll keep your morale up (schedule in bribes for yourself too so that when you make those goals you get a treat) – make time for writing even if it’s only a few hours a week (just like you would schedule time to go the gym or to take up a new hobby) and PROTECT YOUR WRITING TIME as if it was a baby totally reliant on your care (which it is!) NO-ONE can do this for you. Or for me. So trust me when I say I have to take some of my own advice here. Yes, life will get in the way. We’ll have times when it feels like the world is against us. But that’s the beauty of the Romance writing community online and in real life, isn’t it? YOU’RE NOT ALONE.

Task One: Make yourself a list of goals and give yourself a realistic time frame. Get a calender, mark up the dates, put the calendar near your computer so you can see it and let’s see what you can achieve! It's good practice for future deadlines after all. If you want, you can tell us what your goals are to put them 'out there' and we’ll all cheer each other on…

  • Too Smart For Romance:

I think this is doubly important when it comes to writing romance. Because let’s face facts here, the genre isn’t exactly considered Booker Prize winning stuff. In Mills & Boon’s Centenary year, many a published author discovered just how difficult it is to get published in series romance. Ask Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones Diary – she was turned down by Mills & Boon (as were several other successful mainstream writer’s).

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says: “It’s possible to sabotage your fiction by being too smart for your own good – by being a smart aleck.” And it goes on to say; “Ask yourself:

• Do you consider yourself more intelligent than most of the stories and novels you read?
• Do you believe contemporary fiction is sort of beneath you in terms of intellectual attainment?
• Do you figure your readers – when you get them – will be dumb compared to you?
• Do you revel in Proust, adore TS Eliot, think there has never been a really great American novelist, and sneer at everything in the popular magazines and the best-sellers list?”

Now let’s put that into Romance writing terms:

• Do you consider yourself more intelligent than the women who read ‘trashy’ romance novels?
• Do you believe romance novels are beneath everyone with half a brain in terms of intellect?
• Do you figure romance readers – sad little women that they must be – will not only be dumb compared to you, but are lacking in something in their lives and unrealistic in their expectations of love because of these silly little books?
• Do you revel in Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, think there has never been a modern day love story that could possibly hold a candle to the greats, and sneer at everything in women’s magazines and on the majority of best-sellers lists (unless it’s a book that might win a literary prize somewhere and therefore makes good conversation and shows how intelligent you are to have read it)?

Suddenly the list seems ALL TOO FAMILIAR to me. I’ve MET these people. I’ve been interviewed by people like this. I’ve given talks to people who thought this way (though hopefully didn’t as much by the time I was done). The only difference I see is that a great many of these people would never ‘lower themselves’ to write a series romance book. The truth is, with this attitude, THEY COULDN’T and NEITHER CAN YOU if you approach it with the attitude that you’re doing it for the money or merely using it as a stepping stone to ‘better things’ or because it’s ‘easy’. If you are then you already consider yourself too smart. You’re approaching it like something everyone and anyone could do at the drop of a hat. I ask those of you who are published or working towards being published - IS IT?!

So here’s how it is gang. As we would say where I grew up – wind your neck in. As the book says (and I’ve bolded what I consider to be the two most important parts);“If you consider the public a great unwashed that’s somehow beneath you, then I beg you to work on changing your attitudes. You can’t write down to your readers. They will catch your insincerity in an instant and hate you for it.

To put all this another way, consider this;

If you’re extremely smart, you’re lucky. But if you are that intelligent, one of your hardest jobs may be to keep a snobbish attitude out of your work. And you don’t have to be that smart to write wonderful fiction… if you’re sensitive and caring enough.

In Trish terms – if you already look down your nose at the Romance genre then why bother? You’ve got to CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU WRITE. Not just because it’s going to become what you do every day as a job – (who wants to spend their life doing something they hate?) but because if you don’t, it shows in your writing. Romance readers are not sad, dim-witted little women with something missing in their lives. They’re you and me. I don’t consider myself as sad and dim-witted with something missing from my life – do you? Okay – that’s a lie, a billionaire Christian Bale look-a-like is missing from my life, but you get where I’m going…

Basically, as far as I’m concerned, and as a mainstream writer (a man I might add!) I met at a Literary Festival said – Romance novels are no different from any other book ever written, because they’re still about THE HUMAN CONDITION, as is all writing. In this case, the condition just happens to be love and we just happen to tell a more optimistic tale than the majority of books accepted as masterful by the literary community. In the world we live in is it so hard to believe people are still reading those optimistic little stories by the billions every year, especially during difficult times? Increased sales figures during a global recession says it all really...

  • Showing Off:

Let's say you’re a doctor or a nurse or you’ve spent a lot of time in or around the medical profession and you’re writing for the Medical line; you may be tempted to show off your amazing technical knowledge of medicine. I'm here to say: DON’T. The person that picked up your book came to it for THE ROMANCE. Look at an episode of ER… are we interested in how many cc’s of whatever is being stuck into someone’s arm or are we more likely to want to know if George Clooney ends up with that dark haired nurse who had his twins? The medical jargon is a sprinkling of icing on top of the massive, delicious chocolate cake of a love story. So no showing off!

Same goes for the words you use when you’re telling the story. This quote from The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes made me chuckle: “In an obscurant deluge of extraneous verbiage as an outgrowth of an apparent excessive effort to manifest extraordinary intellectual attainment, the aforesaid man impacted adversely on the totality of his audience in a veritable paradigm of irrelevance.”

Go on, read if again. You know you need to. And if you did, guess what it’s just done in the middle of a book? It’s DRAGGED YOU OUT OF THE STORY. And what did the reader pick up the book for in the first place…? Uh-huh. So don’t try and blind us with science or demonstrate how incredibly clever you are or how amazing your use of the English language. Editor’s will frequently talk about ‘READER EXPECTATION’ and to me that, in it’s simplest form, is they came to the book for the journey – the story – the ROMANCE. It’s why in the initial draft of any manuscript TELLING THE STORY COMES FIRST. Remember that phrase folks, because you'll be reading it a lot here in the next few days.

  • Expecting Miracles:

This basically deals with expectation of publication and the people who believe they’ll be the next best thing overnight. I think it’s safe to say the majority of people in the Romance writing community know it just doesn’t happen that way, and as The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says: “If the task were easy, everybody in the world would be a writer, and your achievement would mean little. Setting out on a difficult course is exciting, and the conclusion can be the triumph of a lifetime.”

DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU THIS JOB IS EASY! They try it? You send them to ME. (Especially after the year I've just had!) Having said that, I feel a bit guilty typing out this advice, because as many of you may know, I sold on a first submission. *ducks flying fruit and veg* But here’s the simple truth – when I sent in that partial and synopsis I had absolutely no expectation of selling the manuscript. I knew it could be three, four, ten, or thirty manuscripts before I sold. Whether or not I would have had the perseverance required to keep going we’ll never know, but I knew the odds. And I still maintain that a big part of the reason I sold was LUCK. I hit the right desk of the right editor at the right time. None of us can plan ahead for that. So when we start this journey, we have to do it with hope for the best and mental preparation for the worst.

The thing about the Romance writing community, and something that’s rare in pretty much every other genre of writing, is that we have an incredible support network. We’re more active online, have more workshops, published authors happily prepared to hand out advice (deadlines willing) and romance writing groups than screenwriters, mystery writers and mainstream fiction writers put together. (that’s a guess but I bet I’m right) Because of this you will never be short of people to cheer you on, offer hugs and words of encouragement when you falter and to party with you when you succeed. REMEMBER THAT.

While you're at it, remember something else: A doctor doesn’t become a doctor without training, studying and practice – a pilot doesn’t become a pilot without training, studying and practice – a… how many of these do you need? ‘Cos I have dozens. Basically if you want to become a romance writer then expect to put some effort into it. We never stop learning, and I don’t think we should, because the last thing anyone wants is to be rhyming out the same thing time and time again ad nausea. But at the same time there’s such a thing as too much education and literally ‘blinding yourself with science’. Story first. Story. First. S-T-O-R-Y-

Task Two: Write it on a post it note. Stick it to your computer screen. THE STORY COMES FIRST.

  • Warming Your Engine:

Want to hazard a guess what this is about? Took me a line or two when I read the chapter, but in Romance Writing terms this is all about the sin of the BACKSTORY DUMP. For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s when you assume your story needs a big set up so your reader ‘understands’ what’s going on when the story starts. What you need to remember in any story, )and reading this chapter confirmed it for me) is that your story is set in the NOW. It is NOT in the past. That’s not to say the past hasn’t had a huge part in shaping who your characters are when the story begins, but in a Romance novel you’ve got to keep reminding yourself that the focus is on the romance as it happens. It’s the equivalent of a ‘live at the scene’ news report with the reader as the viewer. And that’s why pretty much every single series romance you pick up - from any line - starts in the middle of the action. The hero or heroine (or better still, both) are there from the get go and we stay with them every step of the way.

As The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says (and again I’ve bolded the most important part.): “If a setting needs to be described, it can be described later, after you have gotten the story started. If background must be given to the reader, it can be given later, after you have intrigued him with the present action of the story.

This is what we in the Romance writing business call the HOOK. It’s what draws your reader in and makes them continue turning the page. There’s no room in here for a back-story dump or a big set up and yet it’s one of the commonest mistakes new Romance writers make. What the author of this book for fiction writers does is liken it to warming up your car on a winter’s day – you know, when you run the engine for a while as the car sits still? And the more I think about this adage the cleverer it is, especially for Romance writers. Let’s look at it this way; the car is going to take a journey (your love story) ~ the reader is a passenger in that car (coming along for the ride) ~ there will be times the road will be bumpy, times when there will be twists and turns and maybe even a sharp change of direction (the EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER we all talk about) ~ but the last thing we want this car to do as we take this journey is STALL or STOP. Does a live news report stop for a half hour of adverts? No, it doesn’t.

The book goes on to say, “Start the story from the very first sentence! How do you do that? By recognizing these facts:

1. Any time you stop to describe something, you have stopped. Asking a reader to jump eagerly into a story that starts without motion is like asking a cyclist to ride a bike with no wheels – he pedals and pedals but doesn’t get anywhere. Description is vital in fiction, but at the outset of the story it’s deadly.

2. Fiction looks forwards, not backward. When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction, and put her off. If she had wanted old news she would have read yesterday’s newspaper.

3. Good fiction starts with – and deals with – someone’s response to a threat”

Let’s look at number three in romance terms shall we? What is the threat? The book rightly says a threat is something we instinctively run from, and in a romance novel that’s gonna be the hero or heroine ‘running’ from love or the hurt that might be involved in falling in love. There’s fear involved. It’s part of what we call INTERNAL CONFLICT, and your story is how they overcome that conflict as the romance progresses…

Think about it. Remember back to the times you were dating or falling for someone. Undoubtedly you had that rush, the ridiculous grinning for no apparent reason and the feeling that you were walking on air, but wasn’t there fear too? Especially if you’ve been hurt before. What if he doesn’t feel the same way I do? What if I’m making a fool of myself? What if I’ve got this completely wrong? Fear. Giving your heart to someone is huge. It makes you vulnerable to emotional pain – the kind of wounds not always visible on the surface - and it makes you reliant on the presence of that other person in your life – living without them bringing on an emotion similar to grief. So when you meet someone who could potentially break your heart or leave you deeply emotionally scarred then a part of you may want to run or put up barriers to protect yourself. Therefore that person, on a basic instinctual level, is a threat. When faced with that threat, another basic instinct kicks in; Fight or Flight.

Falling in love is wonderful. But it’s also stressful. We also carry the scars from previous relationships. As a whole, human beings tend to avoid stress. We like to feel comfortable in our environment, confident in our abilities - we like to feel ‘safe’. At the start of a romance novel, and during the story, our hero and heroine are dealing with someone who will more than likely make them feel none of those things, but they'll be uncontrollably attracted to them at the same time. That’s INTERNAL CONFLICT, and every single time they feel comfortable or safe we mess with that; they have doubts, fears, over-compensate, over-think, or something happens to make them take a step backwards. It’s only at the end, with the resolution of the internal conflict that we get the Happily Ever After (HEA). So when your story starts it doesn’t start with a long explanation of how these people came to be the way they are and therefore why the person they meet is a ‘threat’ to their ‘comfort zone’. It starts with them meeting that person and as the story progresses we peel away the layers of their personality like an onion, until we get to the core of their fear. It starts with them in their ‘safe zone’ but something has happened to threaten that ‘safety’. So the very first page of your story is when there has been a change of some kind. A change that brings someone into their life they will fall in love with.

As the book says (and again I’ve bolded the most important parts); Begin your story now. Move it forward now. All the background is an author concern. Readers don’t care. They don’t want it. The reader’s concern is with change… threat… how a character will respond now.”

And it adds; Remember what the reader wants. Don’t try and inflict your author concerns on her. You must give her what she wants at the start, or she’ll never read any further.

And what she wants – what will hook her into reading on – is threat.

The most common of these is change.”

I think in series romance writing, we do this better than a great many genres of fiction, because our focus is on that ‘threat’; the thing that has changed. It has to be, because our format is restricted to 50,000 words. We have even less space than the average fiction author for stalling. So that means no superfluous information, no long passages of description, no back-story dump. They’re all icing, and therefore are sprinkled rather than ladled on to your story. No warming up your engines.

Task Three: Have a look at the first chapter of a romance novel in the line/category you’re aiming for, look at more than one if you have them handy. How much of that first chapter is background or description? How much is in the ‘past’? Now look at how much is in the now. How fast do the hero and heroine appear on the page? How long is it before they inter-act? Now look at your own manuscript if you have one and ask the same questions…

Then ask yourself the same question of both the published book and your own first chapter; What is the threat? Look at it from both characters POV. Is there enough for you to want to read beyond the first chapter to find out what happens next?

  • CHECK BACK LATER TODAY for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to today's posts! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Two of this Mini-Workshop here.)


Jill said...

I actually AM going to Nationals, but I already live in the D.C. area, so no big deal for me, plus I have a 5 month old so no partying into the wee hours ;-) Hopefully that means I'll have time to pop in and read these each night.
I just want to say I love Jack Bickham's writing books. He explains genre fiction in a way that makes sense to me.

Trish Wylie said...

Hi Jill!

I visited DC the summer before last, so from the POV of sight-seeing, I've done a lot of the tour, but I must admit I'm feeling the loss of Nationals this year :( Do let us know any gossip or anything you found interesting, won't you?

I loved this book too and am keen to read his one on Scene and Structure. I think half the battle with books on writing is finding something that makes sense to you and can supply a few light-bulb moments. The danger - as far as I'm concerned - is you can literally blind yourself with science (and muffle your muse) by focussing on all the things the books tell you, you SHOULD be doing, that you suddenly feel you AREN'T. Which then translates to an 'I suck' mentality. Usually accompanied by a stalled word-count and copious amounts of chocolate. Or maybe that's just me...

Susan Rix said...

Trish, I've just spent a good while reading this post and making notes on my mind manager.

Reading this explanation has finally given me a D'OH! moment. Even my editor appt didn't leave me feeling as clear as your post has just done. THANK TOU! xx

Trish Wylie said...

I'm SO GLAD it helped Sue!!! It makes doing these worthwhile :)

Gail Fuller said...

Trish, thanks so much for this wonderful post!!! :)

All the best,
Gail, who now has the necessary post-it note on her desktop

Trish Wylie said...

You're very welcome Gail!

And don't put away those post-it's just yet ;)

Rox Delaney said...

Okay, I'm behind on reading this, although I've had it bookmarked for some time. But it doesn't matter when it's being read. It's timeless, and the information is priceless, no matter where a person is in her/his writing.

I'm definitely going to share this with my writing group. :)

Thank you, Trish, for sharing this!