Missed Part Ten of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here
- Worrying What Mother Might Think:
This chapter in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes follows on from being overly self-critical and takes us into the territory of worrying in advance about something that hasn’t happened yet. On the one hand, it’s great that you’re worrying that far ahead of your story being published and landing in the hands of people who know you, because it shows confidence in your abilities to get published. On the other hand, to me it’s like never leaving the house for fear you might be run over by a bus. If you worry about what people will think of your story, will it help with your paranoia about your writing? As evidenced by the above quotes from New York Times Best-Selling author Eloisa James, learning to deal with how others perceive romance writing (and the derision that comes with it) isn't something that goes away when you're published AND successful. So you should consider dealing with it sooner rather than later, because - TRUST ME - it's isn't going to go away...
Our mothers tend to be a favourite topic, particularly if you write for a line that has sex scenes. There’s a belief that by reading a book with explicit sex scenes the author is somehow revealing something about their personal life (I WISH!!!) When what you have to remember is that a romance novel is about FANTASY and ESCAPISM. Someone asked me in a recent interview if my books were based on some of my own fantasies, and I had to answer yes. Because if they aren’t, then where do the ideas come from? Does that mean I have or will act out on those fantasies in real life? Well I’m not saying as a single gal I’d turn away an Alex or a Gabe or an Adam from one of my Modern Heat books or a Kane or a Ronan or a Quinn from one of my Romance books. But I’ve dated in the real world, I’ve been in serious relationships in the real world, heck – I’ve even been engaged. Am I still single because none of the guys in my life measured up to the fantasies I create on paper? Like hell. Because the women who read and write romance novels aren’t the idiots some people like to believe we are. We can separate fantasy from reality. We understand what escapism is and the value it has in our chaotic, sometimes depressing lives. People fantasize about everything from their dream house, to the holiday of a lifetime, to winning the lottery, to losing the extra ten pounds needed to fit into that dress they saw in the window of a shop. My attitude towards anyone who knows me, reads one of my books and is shocked by some of the content, is to look them directly in the eye and challenge them with a deadpan expression and a ‘What?’ Are they going to tell me they’ve never read a romance novel before, or watched a romantic movie, or fantasized about a movie star or sports personality or famous singer at some point in their life? As if! We all do it. It's our ability to fantasize, dream and think outside the box that has led to some of the greatest inventions of our time. Man dreamt about flying. Where would we be if someone hadn't fantasized about that one, hmmm? ('You see things; and you say, "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?"' George Bernard Shaw).Women fantasize about men, sex and romance. They also know the difference between real life and fantasy. Don't believe me? Take a look at this Blog from Small Town Scribbler (and the entire post is worth a read on this subject) in answer to an article in The Guardian last year;
"The thing about these books is that they are fantasy. People, even women, are allowed to fantasise, and the thing about fantasies is that they are not necessarily something that you would want to happen in real life. They are an exaggeration of a desire. And desires, unfortunately for the like of Ms. Bindel, do not necessarily adhere to the guidelines of 21st century pseudo-intellectual thinking."
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes rightly says; “Such worries are normal, but you must not let them hamstring your creative efforts. If you can’t entirely banish such worry from your mind, then consider adopting a pen-name. For you have plenty of other things to worry about, and frightened self-censorship simply has to be jettisoned at once.”
I know a large number of writers who publish under a pseudonym. It can be very confusing at author gatherings! Especially if you’re a newbie and their author name is in small print while their real name is the first thing you can read on a tag pinned to their breast. And people will refer to them by their real name, making it even more confusing until you settle in. I now have an agreement with many of my author friends in that they know I will refer to their author name at any of the talks, dinners, lunches, receptions, conferences, guest appearances etc we’re at, and if I slip up from time to time over the phone or when we’re alone they forgive me. Mind you, it also amuses me greatly that I have a number of tags from events where it reads; Trish Wylie writing as Trish Wylie. But then I’m easily amused. What a pseudonym means is that, should you want to, you can keep your writing life separate from your real life. No-one needs to know what you do unless you decide to tell them. Sometimes you’re not given a choice – your real name may already be an author name in the published romance writer community – or you may have a real name the publisher doesn’t consider ‘author-ly’ enough. Some people even purposefully choose a last name the same as a best-selling author so that their books will end up on the shelf beside that author; the hope being there will be a knock on effect in sales as people browse the books beside their favourite author. The recent article in the Washington Post about the RWA Conference says; "Other writers have to go invent pseudonyms, a laborious process that can involve flipping through phone books, looking for something melodious toward the middle of the alphabet. (It's better to steer clear of A's or Z's; that way, when your books hit the stores, readers don't have to stand on tiptoe or crouch down to see them.)" Whatever the reason for any pseudonym you choose or don't choose, what you decide to share with your friends and family is entirely your decision. As a good little Irish girl, up until recently I had an arrangement with my mother when it came to my Modern Heat books; I wouldn’t give them to her and she wouldn’t tell me if she got a copy and read it. That out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach worked until she started coming to tell me how much she enjoyed the damn things. Now I just hand them over as they hit my door and I remember whose Mills & Boon books I used to steal when I was a teenager. We reap what we sow…
The book goes on to say; “Of course you want to be bound by the dictates of good sense and good taste. But these are a far cry from the groundless worries about a stern and unforgiving moral arbiter. One of the great joys of writing fiction is that you are free. You must believe this and act like it. You must never, ever allow yourself to get hung up on fears of what some family member or friend might think on a personal level.”
I would add that if your friends and family know how hard you have worked to achieve your goal of being published and they can’t praise you and celebrate with you when you get there – then stuff them and stuff what they think. No-one is forcing them to read your book, are they?! People may sneer at the romance genre all they want, but the fact is it's worth billions every year, is bucking the recession trends in publishing, takes up a HUGE chunk of the book market and earns authors a good living compared to many other genres.
Romance writer’s often talk about ‘BLEEDING ON THE PAGE’ or how they were emotionally drained after finishing a story or how they took the fact they cried while writing a scene as a good sign. What this means is the characters became so real to them they were emotionally invested in the story; what the characters were feeling they felt. This IS a good sign, because if we become emotionally attached to the story then not only is there a good chance the reader will become emotionally attached to it, it also means we’re more likely as a writer to accurately portray how the characters are feeling.
The author of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “I have met several enormously talented students who never sold their stories because their copy was devoid of real emotion; these writers feared strong feelings in real life and simply couldn’t face such feelings in their writing.
If you want to succeed as a writer of fiction, you must never hide from your own feelings because they provide for you your most essential contact with your story characters - and potential readers.”
Remember way back near the start when I talked about COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS and how they helped connect the reader with the characters? This is where the writer taps into those common universal traits and uses their own emotions and personal experiences to add depth and meaning to the characters emotions and experiences. Let’s look at what we said about COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS just to refresh our memories: The emotions and thought processes of our characters will make sense because they’re common universal traits. If they feel grief it’s understood, because everyone experiences grief or loss at some point. If they feel nervous it’s understood, because who hasn’t experienced that at some point? The same goes for happiness and unease and embarrassment and fear. They’re all human emotions. And we’re all human. So long as why the characters are feeling these things makes sense, then the reader can empathize and draw on their own personal experience to add to the text on the page. When you think about it, the reader does a lot of the work.
So keeping in mind those examples are all human emotions and we’re all human, remember that writers are humans with human emotions. To understand what the characters are feeling we have to understand their emotions. To understand their emotions we have to look back on our own lives and remember the times we felt similar emotions. This can be tough, particularly if you’re one of those people who has learned to control or hide their emotions over the years for one reason or another. Just as we might not be willing to discuss our personal experiences with a stranger, we may feel that writing the same emotions on the page for our characters is in some way revealing our own experiences to the reader – a ‘stranger’ – or maybe worse to some people from the point of view of the last subject; a reader we know who isn’t aware of our emotions about a particular experience. I had this happen with a good friend. She’s known me for years, we’ve been through a lot of good times and very bad times together and have talked about everything and anything under the sun the way girlfriends do. But after reading one of my books she recognized something she knew was personal to me, and it made her think about what else she might have missed in my other books. She felt guilty and came to talk to me about it; apologizing in case I felt she should have known and that somehow she wasn’t as good a friend as she should have been. It really surprised me. Because it wasn’t that I was using my stories as some kind of cathartic release of pent up emotions about experiences I’d had and had never talked about. What it was, was me using my personal experiences to add depth to my fictional characters. I was digging deep and thinking about how I felt and reacted and I was pouring it onto the page as if I was that character living and experiencing that moment and everything that went with it. It had never occurred to me not to do that. But then I never thought about what it would be like for someone who knew me to read the book either. I was just telling a story. And drawing on the kind of personal experiences that I’d always assumed people the world over had… A bottle of wine and several hours later my friend understood that. But I do think she read my books with a much closer eye after that. Bless her.
Before you all go worrying that I had some hugely traumatic experience at some point that scarred me for life, I can tell you the scene she spotted was in O’Reilly’s Bride. It was when my heroine had severe period pains and just wanted the hero to go away. But he didn’t, instead he stayed and got her painkillers and a hot water bottle and lay down with her to rub her tummy and talk to her until she cried herself to sleep. The extent of real life experience I brought to that scene? I have bad periods. The difference between me and my heroine? Her bad periods were a reminder of the fact she’s highly unlikely to ever have children. She’s in love with the hero, who wants a family. She’s trying to hide her secret and how she feels about him and when she’s feeling low and vulnerable and she’s in physical pain; he’s tender and thoughtful and kind – and it crushes her. I’m not that woman. But I know exactly how she’s feeling physically and I can place myself in her shoes in that moment and imagine how she feels trying to hide from the man she loves. I’ll be honest – I cried like a baby writing that scene - but not because I’ve been where she was. I had my personal experiences for part of it, and then I had friends who had a hard time conceiving and I’d been there on the outside looking in while they went through IVF treatments. Personal experience plus observation plus common universal emotions all added together to create the scene.
Think about experiences and emotions you could draw from as a romance writer. Ever had your heart broken? Ever longed for something or someone you didn’t think you could have? Ever experience a lack of self confidence? Embarrassment? Fear? Exhilaration? Sexual attraction? Curiosity? Bemusement? Bewilderment? Anger? Frustration? The list could go on and on. Now think about how many of those things the characters in your book are likely to have felt or will feel during the course of their journey.
The book says; “We still live in an age that looks askance at direct confrontation with many feelings, especially elemental ones such as rage and fright. But you as a writer of fiction must never hide from such feelings because they are absolutely essential to good stories.”
This is doubly essential for good romance stories. Because a romance story is an EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. And particularly when we’re writing INNER POV about the characters feelings and thoughts, we have to be able to paint a convincing picture in the mind and heart of the reader. So we dig deep. We draw on our own experiences. We imagine how we would feel if we were in their shoes at that point of the story. We stay ‘in character’ the same way an actor or actress would if they were playing a part. But in order to do that – and forgive me for using what might be considered a touchy/feely phrase – we need to be ‘in touch with our own emotions’. Again, maybe this is part of the reason so many romance writers are women. We try to get in touch with our feelings and understand our emotions from fairly early on, because in our traditional role as nurturers we have to help others to understand their feelings and emotions. That’s not to say there aren’t a great many men out there who aren’t as in touch with their feelings, but when it comes to writing women’s fiction it makes sense that in order to truly understand a woman’s fantasies, the need for escapism and the emotions they experience, a woman is more likely to understand them than a man. Again, I stress, not impossible for a man. Just more likely for a woman…And the statistics would back that up so far... Nicholas Sparks would be a notable modern day exception. But if you look back at romance writing through the last century and beyond, what percentage of the authors were women? Then think of the way a male writer approaches a story. How many of Sparks novels end in a HEA? Even if they do, he’s unlikely to leave it there, he’s more likely (in my experience having read his books) to come back with a sequel where he puts his characters through the emotional wringer again. Does that mean he didn’t understand the characters feelings and emotions? Read one of his books and I challenge you to say he didn’t. But then I would challenge you to read his Bio and look at the things he has experienced in his life to understand why he writes the kind of love stories he does. His stories might not have the neatly tied up HEA we have in category/series romance but the vast majority of them are about love overcoming adversity and tragedy and enriching people’s lives.
You don’t have to have married a billionaire or a prince or had your heart captured by a Sheikh to write a romance novel with one of them in it, but you do have to understand the emotions the characters are feeling. The fantasy elements of the story may stem from you imagination, but the feelings your characters experience come from your heart. That’s why so many authors say they are emotionally drained at the end of writing a manuscript…
So don’t be afraid to delve deep into your own emotions and to bleed some on the page as you allow the reader to delve deep into your characters emotions. It might seem overly dramatic or clichéd when you’re at the creative stage, but if it still feels too much to you at the EDITING STAGE then you can do something about it. When in doubt about going too far, my editor always tells me to go for it. If I go too far then she can rein me back in. But she can’t put something on the page for me if she feels something is missing, nor can she know what I was aiming for if it wasn’t there.
Task Thirty-Two: Make a list of some of the emotions you've experienced with examples of high and low points in your life where you felt those emotions at their most extreme. Then think about the actions you made to change things. What were your goals? What did you learn from the experiences? How did they effect the decisions you made later in life? Are they the kind of experiences you could draw from for your characters? Are they the kind of experiences and emotions women all over the world could understand? Then take a look at the editing stage of your manuscript to see where you could draw on those experiences and emotions to add depth to your characters in a way the reader will understand.
- CHECK BACK LATER 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 the sidebar! Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Twelve of this Mini-Workshop here.)