Thursday, February 18, 2010

To CP Or Not To CP, That Is The Question...

Carrying on from my last post, I said I'd answer any questions that came my way in the comments. I'm gonna take them one at a time and if you've got any questions, fire them into the comments or email me through the website and I'll do my absolute bestest to answer them on here in case anyone else finds what I have to say useful (no guarantees the 'useful' part will happen, you understand).

So, the person to blame for my latest War & Peace length Blog (go get coffee before you start reading!), is
Jill who asked: Trish, Do you have a critique partner or a critique group? If you don't have one, how do you re-read your work and critique your own work? Sorry if this is something you've covered before! I know a lot of my writing needs work and I have a good friend who is an excellent writer and she wants to critique my work. The problem is she doesn't read category romance or much romance at all! She keeps telling me she can critique my work b/c "a story is a story" but I'm not so sure it's that simple. Part of me wants to go it alone, but another part of me is worried I'm being stubborn and just don't want to listen to a friend that's trying to be helpful.

Another GREAT QUESTION! The short answer is, no I don't. Didn't when I started out, either. Though in fairness, when I started out I wouldn't have had the faintest idea what a CP was. I had a real life (read as not a writer) friend who read what I wrote and told me what she thought. She wasn't 'critiquing' per-se, but she had read romance novels and she told me whether or not she liked it, if it made sense, and when she had questions about the story they made me think about what I could put in to answer those questions. It was a comment on wanting to know more about their past relationship that made me put in the flashbacks in The Bridal Bet, for example. Without that comment they wouldn't have been there.

When it comes to a critique partner I've swapped work with, I've only really done it with the one person and it wasn't something we did for long. Maybe a couple of books? It's been a while now so I can't remember - sorry! I knew her in passing from EHarlequin, read a competition excerpt she had written and saw something in her work I really liked, so I emailed her to ask if she wanted someone to read through it and we swapped WIP's so we could see things from both sides of the fence. It was an interesting experience and taught me several things about the way I work and the personality traits I need to warn people about but while I ended up with a really good friend out of the experience, would I try it again? No... but I hasten to add that wasn't her fault!

Now for the long explanation of why...And I'm going to play devil's advocate here and try to see things from ALL sides, so bear with me...

  • The friendship clause:

Any time you ask anyone for advice on anything, you risk hearing something you might not want to hear. When you disagree with that advice, you risk hurting the other person's feelings. And no matter how we try to avoid it, the fact is, writing a book is personal. You have to care about what you're writing or it shows in your work. So when someone 'critiques' your work, it's the equivalent of being told your child is far from perfect, and while we may be fully aware of that fact, it's not always easy to hear. We can become defensive, may find ourselves molding the story to suit someone else's vision if we're 'people pleasers'; it's all very dependent on your personality and your relationship with the person doing the 'critiquing'. But the main thing to remember is the word critique.

critique (def.) ~
the act or art of criticizing.

You have to remember you are asking your friend to find fault. They're going to go looking for it, so you shouldn't be surprised - or hurt - when they do. How they report it to you will then come down to their personality type. Will they sugar coat it? Be blunt to the point where they may leave you in tears wondering why you ever thought you could do this in the first place? Will they be able to separate their personal preferences and reading expectations from the impartial eye they will need in order to allow your voice to remain yours? Will they be too nice to tell you what you need to hear and will you later resent that and blame them for not being honest with you when someone else points out the faults you realize should have been caught, if not by you then by your friend? Bottom line: Your friendship may not survive in the same form it had before you began. It's up to you whether or not you're both prepared to take that risk.

On the plus side: Dealing with criticism and filtering the advice of others to improve your work for the better, is good preparation for some of the things you will have to deal with as a professional writer. The second you send your work to an editor, they will critique it. If you get revisions you will have to take their suggestions on board and put your own twist on them to maintain your voice while doing what you've been asked to do to get the story as close to publishable as possible. The second you're published, the book will come under the scrutiny of reviewers who will critique it again and more than likely have comments you will take to heart. A bad review can be devastating - TRUST ME! And as if that wasn't enough there's the even more scary thought of thousands upon thousands of readers world-wide reading your work and a percentage of them not liking it (some may even hate it and worse still, feel the need to email and tell you they did). Writers need to develop a pretty damn thick skin. So working with a critique partner can help prepare you for some of the harsh comments that will inevitably come your way and crush your muse into a sobbing basket-case in the corner... in my case, with cake... lots and lots of cake.

  • The 'Voice' clause.

When you're taking on board the advice of anyone, you need to remain true to who you are. The story is your vision, told in your voice, and while many stories are versions of stories that have been told time and time again in the past (and will be told time and time again in the future), the one thing that will make your version of the story different from the rest is your voice. NO-ONE has the exact same voice as you. Editors will frequently talk about how a fresh voice is what attracts them to a manuscript. Problems with the story itself - plot, setting, characters and structure - can be solved with revisions and the guiding hand of an editor, but voice is something that can't be taught, replaced or forced. So even if your CP is a fellow writer, their voice (and the way they would do things) isn't necessarily the same as yours. Problem is: They'll see things through their eyes and from their POV as an individual. That's human nature. What BOTH OF YOU have to learn is, when you're crossing the line into the territory of someone else's voice, you can't drown out their voice with yours. And this is a tricky one, particularly if you're unsure of your voice or it's still 'in development'.

The one alarm bell for me from Jill's comment would be the fact her friend isn't a romance reader. Writing, as we all know, has genres, and readers of a particular genre will have certain expectations of their reading material. If they're not a professional writer or at the very least aware of the reader expectations of the genre the story they are critiquing is aimed at, then they may be actively looking for - and be disappointed by the lack of - development in an element of the story that there simply isn't room for in a romance. This, for example, may be where the reader would be disappointed by the lack of a complex external plot versus the internal journey we have to focus on (as per the subject of the last blog). Add a 'people pleaser' author to a CP who isn't aware of the kind of things we discussed in the external versus internal dilemma and the author may take on board the advice their CP is giving them and add more plot than they need to get the job done. See what I mean? Yes, a story is a story and a good story, well told, will stand on its own merits, but there are different types of stories aimed at different types of readers and different authors with different voices.

This is where I think you have to have a long talk with a potential CP before you start sending them your work. You have to be up front about your expectations of the partnership and what you hope to achieve. For me, a CP should be looking for certain things when they read your story. Continuity would be a big one. If your hero was left handed in chapter three he shouldn't suddenly be right handed by chapter eight. If your heroine's mother was dead in chapter one she shouldn't be phoning her daughter for a chat in chapter five. Okay, so those are extreme examples, but you'd be surprised how many little details can escape you as you worry about the 547699834 other things you're sure should be in your story. It's a 'can't see the wood for the trees' scenario. Having someone there to look for those little details and point them out can be a HUGE help. It's one less thing to worry about, right? And that to me is the crux of a CP relationship. It's supposed to help, not bring additional angst your way. TRUST ME when I tell you angst is a given for ANY WRITER. We don't need ANY help in that department! So with that in mind...

On the plus side: Having someone to look for the little details when you can no longer see the proverbial wood for the trees can be incredibly helpful and prevent many of those moments when you mentally kick yourself for the stupid things you should have spotted. You'd be amazed how easy it is to use the wrong words - words that a run with a spell checker won't spot - there instead of they're or their. Then there are things like an unclear POV or who is speaking a particular line of dialogue; things that simply might not make sense to the reader. There are research details that might need checked, foreign language phrases that might mean something completely different to what you'd intended them to mean, grammar mistakes that might make you crazy if you're usually an active officer for the Grammar Police. None of those things have anything to do with your voice so there isn't any danger of a CP unwittingly trying to force their voice and personal preferences into your manuscript. In this case your CP becomes the equivalent of someone in a publisher's editing department; they are proof reading/line editing rather than making adjustments to your vision of the story.

  • The Creative-Interruptus clause:

Again this goes back to having a clear idea of your expectations from a CP relationship prior to sending them your work. As is the case with different editors, different writers and CP's will have their own way of doing things. I've had five editors so far and while a lot of their working methods seem to follow a pattern, they are all individuals and as such some have been happy to work with a synopsis and then wait for the full MS, some prefer a phone conversation to hash out any potential problems they foresee from the synopsis before I start writing, some like to see a short pitch and then a partial; or a combination of some/all of those things. What they also do, because they're good at their job, is take into consideration what works for the author. Like every other relationship that involves two people, it takes two to make it work. It will also take consideration and understanding and a healthy dose of compromise so you can meet in the middle when necessary. It should be exactly the same for a writers relationship with a CP.

Take me for example. I suck at trying to tell the story I'm aiming for unless I write it. I suck at synopses, can be incredibly vague in a pitch (most of mine end with the line: Or something along those lines...) and if asked to explain it in a conversation I can go off at a tangent about things that might not make it onto the page. It's probably why I've never been able to adjust to using any kind of dictation program when I'm writing a story. My mind just doesn't work that way. The story goes directly from my brain to my fingertips and onto the page. The problem with this (apart from confusing the poor editor who needs to have an idea of what the heck she might get from me) is that even when adding a partial to the equation, the story I'm trying to tell might not be clear to the person reading it when they only have PART of the story. I recently likened it to seeing a scene in a movie out of context or without any knowledge of what comes next. The example I used was Notting Hill. In that film there's a scene where Julia Robert's character invites Hugh Grant's character to come see her at her hotel. When he gets there, he walks right into the middle of a press junket and as a result the heroine is 'off' with him and he's left floundering and wondering what the hell is going on. Cut the story there and look at it as a 'partial' and the reader might be left thinking 'what a cow! She's totally messing him about; keen one minute and giving him the cold shoulder the next'. Once we get the scene where she calls him back and apologizes for what happened, we understand what's going on. But if all your editor or CP has is a partial that ends with the press junket scene...

Here's the thing: I know the start of the story will change the further along I go and the better I understand my characters. If later on I change my mind about something or realize I need a better 'set up' for something that happens or can see how the reader might need a little more insight, I can go back and change it with more confidence than I had before. It's all part of the creative process to me. In the Most Common Romance Writing Mistakes series, I talked about the difference between left brain and right brain; how - simply put - the right brain controls creativity and the left brain is in charge of logic. When I'm writing a story it's RIGHT BRAIN activity. What a CP or an Editor does for me is LEFT BRAIN stuff. I shouldn't be thinking about left brain stuff until the creative part is done. Sending a partial or individual chapters for critique invites intrusion from the left brain. And that, my friends, can lead to a screeching halt in the creative process. At least it often does for me.

Again, it comes down to personality. I find it difficult to be interrupted with a critique or concerns at the partial stage of a manuscript (though obviously I've learned to compromise for my editor when she wants to do things that way). If something I know about the story isn't clear to my editor from the pitch and the partial I've sent, me bring me, it's something else to add to my angst. I also know were I to send the MS chapter by chapter for individual critique as I completed them, I would end up having to stop and explain myself. Every. Single. Time. I know what I'm trying to do. No-one else can see inside my head. But since I suck at explaining things, I run into problems. The obvious solution to this is to tell the story and THEN send it for critique. But that doesn't always work either, because sometimes my editor can catch something in a partial that would mean huge revisions and re-writes if I continued the thread throughout the story (been there, done that with that one too). And since we all have to deal with deadlines when we're writing for a living, if it saves time in the long run...

Since I'm a proponent of not making more problems for yourself than you already have to deal with, my advice when working with a CP would again be to discuss with them what works best for both of you, and agree to be prepared to discover that what you thought would work for you, might not, and you'll need to change things so it does. Forewarned is forearmed. That way no-one is upset when you change the 'rules'. Honesty and openness is the key. So...

On the plus side
: Working with a CP chapter-by-chapter or a handful of chapters at a time can save a lot of re-writing further down the line if something is going wrong and you haven't spotted it because you're too close to the story. Since you may well end up with an editor who prefers to see a partial, once again this can be viewed as preparation for your professional working life. If you feel working chapter-by-chapter or a handful of chapters at a time is going to interrupt your creative process, you can agree with your CP that you'd prefer to send them the finished manuscript before switching from the creative process to the revision/editing process (but keep in mind an editor may not want to do it that way). Either way, you're learning how to take suggestions on board and how to filter through suggestions to put your own spin on them, which again prepares you for working with an editor.

  • The Too-Many-Cooks Clause:

This one is more to do with a Critique Group than an individual CP. It really depends how the group operates, but if a manuscript/chapters are passed back and forth between the author and more than one CP, the things we've already talked about are applicable each and every time with each and every individual. Again, how well this works will come down to personality. The biggest problem here is if you're one of those people who seeks the advice of many different people but end up ignoring the majority, moving on to the next person and the next and so on, until eventually someone tells you what you want to hear. Or, on the flip side of that - if you're a 'people pleaser' - you may try to take on board all of the advice you're given, even if some of it is conflicting.

Remember not everyone has the same expectations from a story. And just as we talked about readers of different genres having different expectations from their reading material, the same holds true with readers of different lines and categories within the romance genre. If your CP's are authors too, you need to know what line/category of romance they're targeting and, if it's different from yours, you may want to know if they have a working knowledge of the line/category you're aiming for. Yes, the same rule of thumb applies: A good story, well told, is still a good story. But what if one of your CP's is aiming for Paranormals while another is aiming for Romance and you're aiming for Medicals or Presents or Modern Heat or... well, you see where I'm going here. The chances are if someone reads and is aiming for a Paranormal category they will be used to complex world building and mythology, with some of the most Alpha of Alpha heroes and heroines who can literally kick ass. Unless that person has a broad reading spectrum, they may not appreciate reading something from, let's say the Romance line. They may read your manuscript and feel the hero is too 'weak', the heroine too 'wishy-washy', that the world your characters are living in isn't drawn richly enough or there isn't enough detail and back-story and plot. That doesn't mean a Romance is 'less' or any easier to write, it simply means it's a different beast (and I'm not making judgments when it comes to a Romance versus a Paranormal either!). I'm not saying it's an impossible working relationship - I know of many critique partnerships from different categories/lines that work beautifully and very successfully; for both partners! What I'm saying is, it might not work for you. Only you can decide.

Another thing to consider, if you're all starting out as a group of unpublished authors, is how it will feel if one-by-one the members of your group begin to sell their manuscripts while you remain unsold. While you'll celebrate their success - of course you will, as you know they would for you! - it's only human that seeing everyone else succeed while you're still receiving rejection letters (particularly if they're people you've critiqued for and therefore helped along the road to success) may prove demoralizing. Remember: Angst is a staple diet in any writers life. In many ways I think the writing game could be likened to being back in High School and the associated paranoia we all experienced there. Is their cover prettier than mine? How come their heroes are sexy bad boys while I get stuck with the 'nice' heroes? If I don't have any awards weren't my books as good as everyone else's? A reviewer told everyone she hates me, does EVERYONE hate me now? And in this case, everyone in the class is smarter than me and getting better grades than me when we all study and work just as hard, what am I doing wrong?!

Now do we understand why I resort to cake so often?

On the plus side: With a group rather than an individual there is more than one POV. If seeking constructive criticism, but still doubting the advice you're being given, having more than one opinion can lead to the answer being in the commonalities; the things the majority of them see and feel needs work. With the inevitable differing personalities you'll find in a group of people, you may be more likely to find someone whose working methods and POV is better suited to yours. And what one CP may overlook, another may see. As members of the group achieve success, you may find rather than being demoralized, their success gives you hope and while they take steps into the world of publication you may learn a lot of valuable lessons from their experiences. You may even find a group that has published authors in it and then you get to pick their brains!

Some of the things I've said may give the impression I'm anti-CP. I just want to say here and now - for the record - that is NOT the case. Like I've said several times it all comes down to personality and what works for YOU.

Writing is a lonely game so having someone or a group of like minded someone's standing side-by-side with us sharing our successes and failures, understanding what it feels like and the work involved to achieve our dream, helps combat that sense of isolation. All of us end up alone at the keyboard with only our imaginary characters to keep us company. While isolated, it's all too easy to succumb to paranoia (and cake) while we obsess over every word we've written (while eating cake) and become more and more demoralized by any lack of success (and the fact we can no longer fit into last summers clothes thanks to the cake).The romance writing community is one of the friendliest communities out there and ALL OF US had to start somewhere so we've ALL had the same hopes, fears and 901 questions you do. Anyone who says they didn't is telling porkies! Take it from Trish.

As to the question of how I re-read and critique my work without the help of a CP. Well, the first thing I'll say is what I said to a good friend recently; I consider my Editor to be my CP. As far as I'm concerned, the buck stops with her - only SHE can judge whether or not the story I've written is suitable for publication. Having had several discussions with her over time, the agreement is I'll tell the best story I can and then leave her to do her job (which theoretically makes me the right brain and her the left in this partnership...). If I go too far 'out there', she'll rein me back in during revisions.

Any day now I might heed that advice and stop worrying so damn much...

The way I look at it - and remember this is what works for me, it might not work for you - by working with a CP there's a possibility I may end up making changes my Editor will ultimately ask me to change back to something closer to the original. I'd have made twice the work for myself. Maybe that's a pessimistic POV, but having taken something out in one set of Editor revisions and then been asked to put it back in during the next round, I'm prepared to err on the side of caution.

Keep in mind from this point on, that what I've said and what I DO, aren't always the same thing... (you'll see what I mean by that as I explain my self-editing process)...

First thing I always look when self-editing is DOES IT MAKE SENSE? The way I can see the story in my head doesn't always translate onto the page so one of the first things I'll always do when I sit down at the keyboard to write is read the last chapter to ensure it makes sense and to see where I left off. That puts me 'back in the zone' and allows me to pick the story back up in a way that still makes sense. I won't fully EDIT A SCENE until I've finished WRITING IT. Right brain/left brain. While I think it's virtually impossible to turn off your left brain 100% of the time, there are times you have to ignore it and just get the damn words on the damn page. If I find I'm editing a scene over and over and over again, 9 times out of 10 I know I'm procrastinating. You can't edit a blank page, right? So if I find myself stuck and editing every word to within an inch of it's little life, I have to ask myself WHY?

The majority of the time - and with some experience under my belt - I know the answer to that question is there's something wrong. Maybe I left off at a place that's a dead end. If that's the case I need to go back and leave some unanswered questions so I have something to work with. Maybe I've had my characters do or say something that deep down I know they wouldn't have done or said. To be honest, the majority of the time I find it's a character problem. It means taking a step back in order to move forwards; sometimes that's a scene or chapter back, sometimes its a literal step away from the keyboard while I clear my mind and have a think about it. Sometimes - and pardon my bluntness here - I just have to write crap until I pick up speed again. Then, when I'm done telling the story, I go back and either fix or delete the crap.

But, I can hear you ask, those are all 'while writing' scenarios, aren't they? Isn't that going against the whole right brain/left brain thing? Well, yeah, it is. See the 'what I say compared to what I do' caveat. Over time, I've discovered self-editing a little as I go along (and before I start writing a new scene) can save some time in the long run. It can be reasurring, particularly when your confidence is low, to know that what you already have isn't crap followed by more crap with a lone scene that is only slightly less crap than the rest of the crap. It's the 'can't edit a blank page' rule meets 'press the delete key and hold it down until you get a blank page' fear. The trick is not to over-edit at this point. Because TRUST ME again - that one can lead to zero productivity in the word count while you spend hours moving one word up and down the page trying to decide where it 'fits' best (been there, done that too)

How do I edit/revise/critique my own work when it's done? Hmm. Let's see... been a while since I had a completed manuscript to edit... thanks for the reminder...

  • Does it make sense? Yes, I'm there again. For me it's the first, most important rule.

  • Does it need to be there? If it's something I've said somewhere else, do I need to say it twice, or worse still three, four or five times for my reader to 'get it'? If it's back-story is it absolutely, vitally necessary to what's happening in the here and now?

  • Is everything clear? I know this will come as a shock to those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, but sometimes I can be too subtle. Something important may need a heavier hint earlier in the story to sew the seed in the readers mind. Then there are things like POV, who is speaking a particular line of dialogue, what hand is where and whose hand it is; making sure the reader doesn't have to mentally count on their fingers because one of the characters would appear to have three hands. It's an extension of the 'does it make sense?' question, but it's more to do with logistics than storyline. I'm notorious in my house for having a scene where a character has both arms around the other character and yet somehow manages to touch their face (see - three hands!). When I find those mistakes I slap myself severely. But sometimes I need to close my eyes, visualize what I'm aiming for and then look at the details with fresh eyes to make sure it's clear.

  • Is it too dense on the page? I'm a dialogue girl given the choice so sometimes I have to look at this the other way round, but basically I'm looking for a balance between paragraphs of inner POV, description and physical movement broken up by dialogue. Too much of one, I may need more of the other. If I can't decide what should go, I'll go back to 'Does it need to be there?' and ask myself 'Is there another way of doing it?' or 'Is there somewhere else that could go?' There should be a flow to the story, which brings me to...

  • Does it slow the pace down? If a scene has left a question to be answered and I answer that question in the next scene, I need to make sure I haven't walked the reader into a wall where they're left thinking there's nothing more to sort out before the characters could have their HEA. An answered question should be followed by another question until I'm ready to wrap things up. On the flip side I also have to ask myself if something has happened too fast. Sex scenes would be a particular source of angst for me when it comes to that question. Basically everything that happens has to happen organically, and at a believable pace that doesn't slow to the speed of an octogenarian snail or speed things up to the point where everything happens in the equivalent of five seconds of foreplay so the reader is left blinking and wondering 'what just happened, did I miss something?'.

  • Would he/she really do/say that? In other words is everything they do and say in character? Usually these stick out like a sore thumb when the story is finished and I know them better. During the creative process getting it wrong can stop me dead in my tracks and I won't always know why.

  • Are all of the threads in place from beginning to end? This is both a continuity issue and an issue of 'symbolism'. I don't always start the story with some kind of symbolism or specific 'theme' but they tend to pop up out of nowhere as I go along and then, in the end, I have to go back in and make sure it looks like they were there from the beginning. That way I look smart!

  • Did I do something my editor told me not to do last time? In fairness, this one is something I seem to forget lots during the creative process. With some experience under my belt I know I need to focus primarily on my first chapters, my deep seated need to justify my hero's Alpha male tendencies and heroines who come across as 'argumentative'. If in doubt, I dig out old revision emails and read what my editor had to say to remind me what to look for. Having said all that, I still get the same kind of comments in revisions. We all have our weaknesses, right? The trick is to be aware of them. Without the aid of an editors voice ringing in your ears, my advice would be to think of the things that bug you most when you're reading a romance and make sure none of them are in your manuscript. Your story should be one you'd like to read.
  • Were all the conflicts resolved? This has to do with all the questions I've asked throughout the story. Sometimes questions will be asked and answered from one scene to the next, sometimes it's a 'bigger question' that remains unanswered throughout the story, causing conflict and holding the hero and heroine apart until the end when they have their answer. Either way, I can't leave any loose ends. So I'll go looking for them and I'll either tie them up in a neat little bow or I'll yank them out, tidy up around them and pretend they were never there...*whistles innocently*
  • Spelling and Grammar decisions tend to be the last thing I do. Running spell checker will catch the obvious ones you may have missed the wriggly red line under as you read, but it's worth keeping an eye out while you're reading for the there/their/they're problem the wriggly red line won't find. The wriggly green line that indicates a grammar problem in Word, I tend to be more selective with. I can hear gasps from the crowd. It's not that I disregard grammar, it's just there are times I choose not to change it to the way the computer would like me to. This is particularly true when it comes to dialogue. Simple fact is: People don't tend to check their grammar while they're speaking. The order they say their words in and the words they use are dependent on the character speaking them. So while I try not to over-use abbreviations and slang, I do use them. It's a small problem in the greater scheme of things because - at the end of the day - the copy editing department will make changes where they want them. The rebel in me will often change them back during line edits, then, when the book arrives at my door, I'll go looking to see how many I 'won'. I'm not advising you to do this, I hasten to add, it's just something I do. Let's call it a Trish-ism. I also know I'm watched closely for the number of 'damns' I use in a story; the majority of them magically becoming 'darn' when the manuscript gets to me for line editing. Wanna guess what I do with those? Sometimes darn just doesn't do it for me. Some I win, some I lose, c'est la vie. But because I know I have a tendency to over-use certain words, I'll go looking for them when I'm self-editing. Starting sentences with 'And' is a regular sin, over-use of ellipses, the word 'just', the word 'apparently' in this manuscript, apparently... Some words are quite simply, superfluous, so they gotta go.

And when I've done all that and am sick of the sight of the manuscript, I send it to my lovely editor and she points out all the things I missed...

Like I said, it all comes down to what works for you and your personality. So when Jill says: "
Part of me wants to go it alone, but another part of me is worried I'm being stubborn and just don't want to listen to a friend that's trying to be helpful."

A big part of the final decision will come down to confidence. Personally, I think if you've never finished a manuscript the first hurdle is to sit down and write one from beginning to end to make sure you can do it. Once you know you can, if you'd like an opinion from someone with a fresh pair of eyes who isn't as close to the story as you'll be by the end, then make sure it isn't someone who will tell you exactly what you want to hear or smile and say 'it's great'. Hint: They'll tend to be family members and close/non-writer friends. If you decide to try a CP, make sure you have a long talk before you enter into it so you both understand what your individual expectations are and are both prepared to be flexible when it comes to disagreeing, seeing things from a different perspective, compromising and possibly deciding the working relationship doesn't work for one, the other, or even both of you. With or without a CP the romance writing community will remain supportive and answer many, if not all, of the questions you have; I think that's the most reassuring thing. It won't make a difference to an Editor if you do or don't have a CP either, their only concern is to get the best possible story. At the end of the day, a CP won't write the book for you. You'll always be alone when you're at the keyboard.

But a CP can end up as a lifelong friend as well as a work colleague. If you're both writers you'll have someone who 'gets it' in a way your family and friends just never will (unless they're w-a-y more understanding than my friends and family; e.g.: 'Is that book still not finished yet? You're on a deadline, that means I can come in for coffee and tell you all my problems for the next four hours, right?'). A good CP will be there on the roller-coaster ride you'll experience on the road to publication, they'll commiserate with you when it doesn't go well and cheer for your successes. Having said that, it simply doesn't work for some people. I'm one of them. But you might not be.

So, do you have a Critique Partner? Do you prefer to go it alone? Did you have a CP and it didn't go well? Have a great working relationship with your CP but then decide to stand on your own two feet? Are you part of a Critique Group? Like everything on this Blog, what I've said here is my take on things, you might see it differently or have an experience you'd like to share with Jill to help her make up her mind...

In the meantime, while I fight my way through yet another (hopefully temporary) block with my WIP, let me know if you have any questions or topics you'd like to see answered or discussed.

As to the little contest I had in the last Blog, the winner is... drum-roll please.... Becca! Guess that security word was a good sign, huh Becca? Let me know what you'd like from my current book list and email me your postal address through the website and I'll pop a signed copy in the post box for you.

Back to the grindstone I go...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

External Versus Internal.

Every now and again I'll get a comment here at the Blog that requires the kind of discussion that both reminds me what I should be doing and is worth dragging out of the comments section into the light. So hopefully Janet won't mind if I take her questions from the comments of the last Blog as my subject for this one...

For those of you who don't read the comments or may have missed it, Janet said:

My recent rejection letter said: "
concentrate on building up the motivation and conflict so that it is just about the hero and heroine, and external characters or impetuses are left out."

So in planning my new story I've been concentrating on the H and h's emotional goals, motivation and conflict, but I have hardly any external plot.

Trish, are external plots as necessary as they used to be? (In many of the published books in the Romance line, the characters often begin the story with external goals then these goals quickly fall by the wayside and the emotional stuff quickly takes over becomes the main story.)

I'm worried that if I don't have much external plot my story will be boring, but the editor's comment suggests I maybe rely on it too much so I'm not sure if I've gone to the other extreme with this one.

Should I aim for an equal balance between external and internal? Or am I on the right track in concentrating almost exclusively on the internal stuff?

Now you'll note I've bolded some parts. What I'm going to do is tackle them one by one starting with:

"concentrate on building up the motivation and conflict so that it is just about the hero and heroine, and external characters or impetuses are left out."

Okay, so what does that mean? It's something I've been guilty of in the past and still get caught out on (as was the case with the partial of the story I'm working on right now), so I can translate this with some personal experience under my belt. Writers will often talk about Internal and External conflicts/plots, think of it as Internal = Character Driven and External = Plot Driven (or anything that doesn't come directly from the characters themselves) and we have the basics of it. I talked a little about Internal versus External conflict in post three of my Common Romance Writing Mistakes series where I said:

Say in a romance novel the characters get stranded in a cabin together during (a) snowstorm. That’s not conflict. That’s circumstance. But say those two characters are on the verge of getting a divorce, or are two work-mates fighting a physical attraction, and then we have fodder for the INTERNAL CONFLICT we need. They have to face up to their feelings, react to them and take action, which moves our story forwards. The trap in romance writing is when we use a circumstance to up the conflict. It then becomes an EXTERNAL CONFLICT.

So let’s say your heroine is about to lose her home. She has to fight and do something to save it. That’s conflict isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s a circumstance first. Something external has led to the danger of her losing her home. It’s adversity. Something that may lead to our heroine being homeless. So where does the internal conflict we need in a romance novel come from? We make it that the only way she can save her home is to deal with the hero - possibly a man she had an affair with in the past, or one who broke her heart, or is the last man on the planet she could ever see herself ending up with - moving our story forwards and putting them both in the position where they have to begin an emotional journey. What fate or bad luck can add to a story in general fiction, it can also add to a romance novel; the difference is it absolutely MUST lead the characters into an INTERNAL CONFLICT of some kind or it’s pointless. It becomes EXTERNAL CONFLICT. It doesn’t add to the EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So it shouldn’t be there. There isn’t room for it. Conflict adds to the story, conflict moves the story forwards. EXTERNAL CONFLICT should have an effect on the INTERNAL CONFLICT and we should see that and understand it when we read it on the page.

So when Janet asks: Trish, are external plots as necessary as they used to be?

My answer would be to look at what Janet is referring to as 'external plot' as a chain of events that throw our hero and heroine together: it's the VEHICLE for the love story. In a category romance novel, with its limited word-count, the external plot is secondary to the internal journey the characters are taking. The books are strongly character driven, so while an external plot is necessary to get the hero and heroine together on the page, once they ARE together it becomes less important than how the central characters' relationship changes as they act and react to each other while the external plot carries them along.

Let's look at an example:.

  • Hero opens a large chainstore next to heroine's smaller independent bookstore. Her livelihood is at stake, as are the jobs of the secondary characters who work for her. Heroine mounts a campaign to try and keep her business running but ultimately is unsuccessful and has to shut up shop and look for a new career.
This is an external plot. It leads to a chain of events. So what makes the difference and switches the focus to the internal/character driven plot we need to turn it into a love story? The obvious answer is that the hero and heroine are attracted to each other. But if the hero forcing the heroine's business to close is the only conflict, then can it still be considered character driven? Well, yes and no. No if it's the only thing standing in the way of them being together, yes if it leads to internal conflicts. So let's look at the story a little closer.

  • Hero, who comes from a dysfunctional family, has been communicating online with an anonymous woman who he feels a connection to, and through the anonymity of the Internet is able to open up and talk to her in a way he doesn't normally do. Through these conversations, and a meeting with the heroine whose bookstore he knows he will ultimately put out of business, he is forced to look at his life and re-evaluate what it is he wants from it. What he had told himself he wanted isn't what he needs. While having several confrontations with the bookstore woman, he starts thinking about what it would be like to meet the woman he has been talking to online. Then he discovers she IS the woman he is putting out of business.
Even without the additional external plot of the online communication with an anonymous woman, the chain of events involved with the hero and heroine being 'business rivals' throws them together. It's when they're thrown together that the focus of the story changes and becomes internal. The hero is attracted to the heroine; there's just something about her - that's step one. Then, keeping in mind the hero has been fooling himself when it comes to what he's told himself he wants compared to what he actually needs, we have to ask what can be added from the heroines POV to make him re-evaluate his life and take a chance on reaching out for what he needs.

  • Heroine's small bookstore was owned and run by her mother, who has died. She has fond memories of her time there as a child, who she is and what she believes in is a result of her time with her mother and she has formed a surrogate family with the people who work there. Losing the store will mean her world is shattered and she will have to step into the unknown. She doesn't know who she would be without the store; feels like she is letting everyone down and is being forced to let go of her mother all over again, re-living the grief of her loss. Without realizing the hero is the man whose large chainstore poses the threat to her business when she first meets him, she shares some of her memories with him and talks about how much she loves what she does. She talks about the chainstore owner in a far from complimentary manner and considers what he does to be soul-less and empty.
Here is where external plot leads to internal conflict. It's plain as day from the outside looking in that these two people need each other. We know the story is going to end with them together. What the external plot does is allow a chain of events that lead to scenes where the characters are forced to deal with their feelings. The events lead to action which in turn leads to reaction while conflict is created from within as there are misunderstandings, doubts and fears that stand in the way of a happily ever after.

So is an external plot as necessary as it used to be? ABSOLUTELY it is. We need something to bring our hero and heroine together on the page. But the statement that "In many of the published books in the Romance line, the characters often begin the story with external goals then these goals quickly fall by the wayside and the emotional stuff quickly takes over becomes the main story" is true too. Why? Because while the external plot is necessary, it is NOT the FOCUS of the story in the way it may have been in years gone by (not that a skilled author - certainly one more skilled than me - can't manage both the emotional journey and a complex external plot!). But it's all about getting the balance right. Which is why a complicated external plot like the one I originally had for the story I'm working on had to be simplified. Originally I had a 'Damages' like plot-line that had the heroine unwittingly working for a law firm which was manipulating her to get to the hero. But just as the example I've given here could have worked without the additional plot of the anonymous online relationship between the hero and heroine, my plot works without the additional complication of a 'great conspiracy'. The chain of events set in motion by the death of my hero's father and the unwanted legacy that both causes him to confront his past while at the same time placing the heroine directly in his line of sight is more than enough to work with (my heroines journey now totally being a result of her seeing her world through his eyes).

In some cases, the external plot that brings the hero and heroine together may not even - *gasp* - be resolved by the end of the story. How do I know this? Well, because I've done it. In Bride Of The Emerald Isle, the external plot that brought my hero and heroine together was my heroine's search for the father she had never known after the death of her mother. She finds old love letters in her mother's belongings and follows the trail to Valentia Island where she thinks she will meet her father. Instead she meets the hero and falls in love; the question being will she repeat the mistakes her mother made, or will she take a chance on happily ever after? Obviously, the answer is she takes a chance, but fairly early on in the story *SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T READ IT* she knows the man she was looking for wasn't her father. And she STILL doesn't know who her father is by the end of the book. *END OF SPOILER* From that POV, the external plot was never resolved. But it did what it needed to do: It brought the hero and heroine together on the page and then their internal journey began...

Having said that, when Janet says: I'm worried that if I don't have much external plot my story will be boring, but the editor's comment suggests I maybe rely on it too much so I'm not sure if I've gone to the other extreme with this one.

I know EXACTLY what she's talking about. I think it's a dilemma all writers have at one time or another. And one they'll wrestle with on more than one occasion! For me, with Bride Of The Emerald Isle, I had to do exactly what I've done now; pare back the external plot. It was oh-so-tempting to follow through on the love letters in that story. At one point I can even remember thinking about having quotes from them scattered throughout the story. What I had to ask myself then (and apparently forgot to ask myself this time) was IS IT NECESSARY and/or CAN I DO WHAT I NEED TO DO WITHOUT IT? Bottom line is, the key word to remember is SECONDARY. In the same way there isn't room in a category romance to eat up chunks of the word-count on secondary characters, there isn't room for an external plot that is secondary to the characters emotional journey.

So in answer to: Should I aim for an equal balance between external and internal? Or am I on the right track in concentrating almost exclusively on the internal stuff?

My answer would be to use the external plot to bring your hero and heroine together from the get-go (and to force them together when the emotional stakes get higher), but as the story progresses, allow the characters actions and reactions to take the lead. The reader comes to a romance for the romance. I know that sounds simplistic, but it's true. What attracts them to the book is the relationship between the hero and heroine and how they get past the emotional barriers they have in place to take that leap of faith towards a happily ever after. Think of the external plot as the vehicle that carries them on their emotional journey with the final destination being happily ever after and it's not the CAR that interests us; it's what the two people inside the car say to each other, learn about each other and themselves and do before they get to the end of the journey that's most interesting. Inanimate object versus living, breathing people with the same hopes, fears, doubts and needs we all have. It's no contest when you think about it that way. Even in a longer, more heavily plot driven romance, it's the characters who interest us most. For a short while we 'live' the story through them.

GREAT QUESTION Janet, and THANK YOU for reminding me to keep the focus on my characters! My gut told me the whole farmer's market thing might be running away with me in this scene I've been working on between being bitten in the face by a pony, dealing with the life that still gets in the way of my writing time and the 'quirks' of a new computer which have had me close to tearing my hair out these last few days...

Hope it helps! And if anyone has any similar questions or worries they want to ask about PLEASE DO! Been a while since I've had a Dear Trish day actually. That was fun last time, I should do it again! As for my word-count... well... it's still climbing in the right direction, but since Donna Alward is giving me a run for my money in that department, I'm gonna try and get ahead of her again before I post it ;)

(And I'll toss a signed book of your choice from my back catalogue list in the post - so long as I have it ;) - to a random anyone who can name the movie my example came from, k? You've got till I post again...)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Internal Movies, Chaos Theories, Seasonal Vegetables, Twitter talk and Vanessa Carlton...

...aka: The ingredients of an ordinary writing day...

And hopefully you'll get why all those things are related to my story as we go along...

Let's start at the beginning of the list, shall we? I always know when a story is starting to come together. How do I know? Because it starts to play like a movie in my head. I can see the characters. I can hear their voices, see their facial expressions, where they are, what their surroundings look like. It becomes very real to me. And folks, the good news is, that's where I am right now!

Irresistible (WT) is the movie now showing in my head. WOO-HOO!

So how did that happen? Well, to me, as with most writers I suspect, a story is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. We start collecting the pieces; characters, setting, themes, plot, etc.,etc. and once we have an idea of the 'grand picture', we mix the pieces up again and then pull from the jumbled pile as and when we need to. Theoretically we should end up with something pretty darn close to the original picture we may have sold to an editor or agent when/if we pitched the story idea, but unlike a standard jigsaw puzzle, the pieces can be inter-changeable. Fight that quality at the storytelling stage and we can not only miss out on some pretty special moments of clarity, we can also screech to a painful halt. I think that's been a lot of my problem in the last few months; I've been fighting changes the story wanted me to make, paths it wanted me to follow...

I've used the butterflies forming a heart picture to demonstrate what I mean by that because apart from the fact I like the image of pieces of the puzzle fluttering in when you might not have expected them to, I also think it's pretty apt from the POV of the analogy of a butterfly beating its wings in one place having a ripple effect somewhere else in the universe. You know what I'm talking about, right? It's the butterfly effect. A chaos theory which says:

"...small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system."

Translated into Trish terms, one of the butterflies in that picture is a piece of the puzzle that makes up my story. When another - unexpected - butterfly of an idea flutters in, it can often have an effect on all the other butterflies. They all flap their wings, they move about, and sometimes they settle into a picture I wasn't expecting. Thing is, it might seem chaotic to some, but it's kind of a writers job to stay open to new ideas. It's also their job to make sense of somewhat chaotic, seemingly unconnected ideas. And with a little luck, the picture we end up with is better than the one we had in mind at the start...

Take the scene I'm currently working on. It has my hero and heroine meeting up in Union Square, Manhattan and proceeding to the farmers market. I therefore Googled images of the farmer's market to give me some visuals to work from. First thing that struck me, apart from the contrast between the city in the background and the country produce laid out in the stalls? The colors. Bright, vibrant colors that contrast with the traditional colors associated with the city. Those colors played on my mind, quite possibly because I've been re-decorating my bathroom of late. Work with me here, I'm not as crazy as I might sound. Well, mostly...

My bathroom is being decorated in black and white. White walls, white bathroom suite, black tiles on the floor, black and white towels. You get the picture. Meanwhile, while being confronted by those monochrome colors the usual number of times nature and a writers intake of coffee and Diet Coke demands during the day, the colors of that market continued to haunt me. Then, when I was thinking about the contrasts between my hero and heroine, it occurred to me that she was the monochrome personality whereas he was those bright, vibrant colors. Out of nowhere, a line of dialogue appeared in my head. It was my heroine talking about how everything in her life had been viewed in black and white before she met my hero, but since she met him, she's seeing life in Technicolor - and now she doesn't want to go back to the way her life was before him...


So I started thinking about the effect my hero would have on my heroine's life. The physical attraction was there from the start. Let's face it, thats always important in a love story. Naturally, we have them fight the inevitable some. While we do, we get to build the sexual tension. Since changing my hero, I've made him a carpenter who restores old buildings and makes one-off pieces of furniture. Apart from the fact that makes an immediate connection between my hero and a man who is 'good with his hands', it also allowed me to play with one of the five senses outside of the bedroom; in this case touch. With all the vibrant colors at the farmer's market allowing me to play with sight (especially since my heroine lives nearby but has never been there), I started to think about other ways my hero could add color to her life and play with the senses to add to the sexual tension. Scent from the produce, flowers and anything that might be cooking there. Sounds from the vendors and any street musicians who might be busking for the crowd. Taste...

Ooooh... now THAT I could have fun with! If I had the faintest idea what kind of seasonal produce might be there and what it might taste like. Which I didn't... so I Tweeted about it... and got feedback from my Twitter friends within SECONDS. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE Twitter?!

I now have a TONNE of information on seasonal vegetables, what a great many of the ones I haven't tried taste like and the sights and sounds of a farmers market, Stateside. Let's face it, food can be a sensual experience. Add a giant dollop of sexual tension as my hero introduces my heroine to tastes and textures she's never experienced before and... well... this scene could be every bit as sexy as the dance scene was. *fingers crossed*

During that Twitter conversation, I mentioned that season-wise I'd needed it to be cool enough temperature-wise for my heroine to wear a coat. Something else that hadn't fluttered into my brain with little beating wings until I saw this picture of Olivia. It's a very un-Olivia-like coat was my first thought. Then I had to ask myself why, and why she was wearing if it wasn't really her. Having done that, I had my hero do the same thing. Blake being Blake he recognized it as a man's coat. When he did, he commented on it and wasn't happy he'd 'gone fishing'. So what was the deal with the coat? Well, like I said on Twitter, that's kind of a long story. I also commented that it's use wasn't dissimilar to the miniature compass I had in One Night With The Rebel Billionaire. The same could be said about the friendship bracelet and ring Adam wore in that story. And I have a theory on this. I think everything a person chooses to wear not only tells us something about them, it also has a story behind it. Where did it come from? Does it have sentimental value? Why? If it's something that was bought then there might not be much of an answer to 'why did they buy it?' beyond 'they needed it', but there's where did they buy it, what frame of mind were they in, how much did they spend, who was with them, what else happened that day? The answers to those questions can again tell us something about them we might not have known. In Olivia's case, little does my hero know it, that coat is the key to why she lives her life in such a rigidly controlled, black and white manner.

Mid-Twitter conversation, my lovely separated-at-birth, cyber twin Donna Alward (who I don't pay to say these things) thanked me for reminding her about the "little arcs" that make a character's development so memorable. She thinks I'm a great one for symbolism that echoes through arcs. While blushing that she thinks I'm that smart, I had to confess I'm not. That stuff just kinda flutters in when I let my mind wander, it's not planned, BELIEVE ME. I think if I tried planning it, I'd once again be trying to stick rigidly to the original image I had of the story instead of allowing it to grow and spread its wings along the way. But Donna being the Donna I love who can hit the nail on the head pretty much every damn time (is that a Canadian thing???) - and who obviously knows me too well - answered my not-that-smart confession with; "Yes but you see it and then make sure it's threaded through so it's consistent."

And she's right. I do. *must remember to check my house for secret cameras* Everything happens for a reason, right? Add that to everything that's there must be there for a reason and there comes a point when you can take a thread of something and weave it through the story, picking up on the theme brought to you from seemingly random pieces of information that may seem chaotic to some. In the Orson Scott Card book 'Characters and Viewpoint', (yes, I'm still reading it), he talks about how writers must cast a net into the world for ideas. The larger the net, the more ideas may be caught. I think we HAVE to be that open. The pantster in me could never go looking for ideas with a fly fishing rod seeking to hit one specific target. My aim isn't always true. But give me a big net and nine times out of ten, I can sift through the catch to find something I can use. Toss out the tiddlers, the ones that don't fit the criteria I'm looking for and anything that might stretch the realms of reality too far and I can usually find something worthwhile in whatever is left. When I do, I RUN with it - back through the scenes I've already written and all the way to the finish line.

How do I know it's the right thread, theme or symbolism for the story? I just do. Wish I had a more technical explanation than that, but I don't. I just know. Maybe simply because when I find it, it makes sense of my chaotic thoughts, the proverbial light-bulb pings and suddenly there's a movie playing in my head. Add the right 'theme tune' to the mix, with words that perfectly convey the story I'm trying to tell and... well... TA-DA!

So there you have it, that's how everything is slotting together. ROLL CALL TIME! How's everyone doing? Writing coming along nicely? Stuck on something? Any random thoughts slotting together for you? Let me know!

And if you're not already on Twitter... see what you've been missing? ;)