Monday, October 18, 2010

Let me tell you a story

Tomorrow is a big day for aspiring romance writers. It's the day when the next stage of the New Voices contest is announced. When the ten writers whose work was selected to go into the second stage and write another chapter of their story learn which four of them will now be asked for the final entry - to write the pivotal moment between their characters.

Four entries out of 825 - it's a very small proportion of the oringinal entries who will now be seens as winners of this stage. But does that make the other 821 entrants 'losers' - not in my book. 825 people put their words and their dreams on- line and on the line. And while they all did it with varying degrees of success in editorial assessment terms - they also all succeeded in doing what writers do - they wrote.

There has been a variety of responses to the announcement of the results - but one that has saddened me by prevailing is the wash of disapointment - natural disapointment - that has tended in some cases to slide over the line into negativity. If this chapter didn't succeed as it is, then it's no good. And if it's no good then I'm no good as a writer seems to be the assumption. Or - I can't see what was wrong with my chapter - everyone on the web site loved it - they must be 'moving the goalposts' or 'changing the rules'. Neither of which is true. But it can feel that way. I know - I've been there.

As you know I'm celebrating 25 years of being published. The Chalk Line was published in December 1984 . . . but my next book wasn't out until 1986. The reason for the gap? You can call it second book blues, but the truth is that I didn't get another book right until then. I can excuse myself by saying that my mother was dying or that I was ill myself but the fact remains that the two books I wrote after The Chalk Line just did not work. Particularly not the one between The Chalk Line and Game of Hazard, which was the book I managed to revise to publication standard.

The one in the middle was called Chase The Dawn. And as I write this I have in front of me the revsion letters that my then editor sent me about this book - five different letters ! After each one I tried top do the revisions - and just couldn't get them right. The letters are also spread over four years because I ended up doing the sensible thing - and looking back - the best thing - and put the book away for about 18 months so that then I could look at it much ore clearly when I brought it out.
What was so wrong with the book? With the benefit of hindsight, I can now honestly say not that much. Or rather, not that many things but the fact that I hadn't done one basic thing that I now hear myself advising would-be authors to do all the time.
Keep it simple. Dig deep.

Or to quote one of the revision letters - probably the first - I didn't 'delve deeply enough into your central characters' motives and personalities to integrate their actions into the devlopment of the relationship.' But honestly, remembering back, I really thought I had done that. I remember staring at the revisions letters wondering just what it all meant. How could they say this? I was a failure - a one book wonder who would never be published again.
Today, looking at those letters, I see where so much of my teaching and commenting, the sort of things I put in the 12 Point Guide come from. And the important thing is that although those letters were written back in the 1980, by an editor who hasn't worked for M&B for - what - 20 years? - they show that the things editors have been looking for have always been the same.

Delve deeply into your characters' motives and personalities

Go all out for emotional identification with your heroine. If you live inside her head then your reader will too. (These days it would be identification with both hero and heroine - there wasn't scope for dual point of view then)

Make the reader understand that what she(they) thought and did were her (their) only possible reactions at the time

Get inside your characters' skin so that the developing relationship is no longer swamped by the convolutions of the plot.

It all seems so obvious to me now - but then I was too close to my book to see what they meant.
And the end of this story?
If you look on my backlist page, you'll see it there -

It took me four years but I got there.

And what has always intrigued me is that while I ended up feeling quite sick at the sight of that manuscript, and eventually that book, Chase the Dawn is one of the books I have written that I have had most personal mail about, that so many people have said is one of their favourites. Readers say 'Chase the Dawn - oh, I loved that book.' It might be 20 years old but people remember it.

And no one has ever said anything about being able to see all the blood sweat and tears (lots of them!) that went into that book.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that I and every author I know has been through the rejection of 'this doesn't work'. I know how it feels to think I'll never be a writer - I just can't get this. And I know how it feels to have your precious work sent back to you and to feel you have to start all over again.

I used to have a routine when I got rejections/rewrites/revisions. I used to go into the garage and scream, stamp my feet - and fling the rejected manuscript at the wall. Then when I'd calmed down, I'd pick it all up, put it back in order - and I'd reread the rejection letter to see what I could do about it. It was that 'what can I do about it' that got me into being a writer.

I learned so much from those rejections. And from reading and studying the books that did make it. There weren't contests then but I wish there had been - not from the winning point of view but from the value of the lessons in writing romance that the chosen chapters and the editors' comments on them can reveal if you just take note.

What is it they say - that success is picking yourself up one more time than you are knocked down. If you think you're a 'loser' then you will probably stay down - but if you look at what you can learn from all this and work with it, I'll be willing to bet that there will be way more than the ten winners on one list - or the 45 on the 'see again' list.

But the only person who can make that happen is you.


Karen said...

Thank you Kate for sharing your own road to publication, it helps. When my name didn't appear on any NV list I was miserable, a few tears and two glasses of wine later I took a long look at my chapter. I realised that by attempting to write for the Modern series I was trying to squish a square peg into a round hole. Desire is my natural home and that's where I shall aim for. I've put away my NV mss, I had already completed a first draft, and I'm moving on.
Thank you.

Morton S Gray said...

I too was trying to fit myself into a box I didn't necessarily fit! My story has since taken flight because I've taken away all the perceived restrictions. New Voices taught me a lot and I'm moving forward a more determined writer. Mx

Jessica Hart said...

Great post, Kate, and how true. It's very rare to get a story that works perfectly straight away - there's nearly always a lot of wrestling and teeth gritting and rewriting before a story makes it into print. Drafting and redrafting is all part of the process.

Christine Muir said...

The 'New voices' comp taught me alot about myself and my attitude to writing. Im moving forward with a new eye on things - weeding out what I know in my heart doesnt work, even though I lovd it (!) and getting to the bones of the characters, rather than having a too clever plot.

I enjoyed reading your post and your journey to publication. Congrats on your 25 years!

Kat Cantrell said...

Kate, what a fantastic commentary on what it takes to have a career as a published author. One thing I’ve learned in the New Voice contest is having a great first chapter does not automatically equal a great second chapter. Or a third – or even a great book. It takes work and perseverance to ensure future readers a satisfying story, as you have clearly outlined. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Joanna Terrero said...

Kate, thanks so much for sharing this experience with us.

I love this part the most:

It was that 'what can I do about it' that got me into being a writer.

joanne robinson said...

You have just put everything into perspective. I treid to hard to fit into a genre I thought i should write in, instead of writing the way I felt comfortable with. So now am trying something completely different and enjoying it. Whether it comes up to scratch remains to be seen....

Lorraine said...

Excellent post, Kate!
I also entered the NV competition and was amazed at the number of entries. Although I had hopes, I wasn't all that surprised when my name wasn't on the top ten. There were plenty of excellent entries to choose from and I sure didn't envy the editors the chore of sifting through to pick only ten. The added critiques and list of 45 hopefuls was an added bonus.

Celebrating 25 years of publication! Congratulations! You must be thrilled! Thank you for sharing your journey. Hopefully, I'll get to celebrate my first published work soon.

I look at rejections and revisions as part of the learning curve. Someday, I'll produce a ms the editors can't say no to. lol

Happy writing!

Julia Broadbooks said...

What an excellent and well timed post. I have hated to see some of the New Voices entrants get so discouraged, especially since I'm not sure I read any entries that I thought were hopeless.

The longer I keep working at this the more I believe that at least for me writing is all about the rewriting. That's where all the really great stuff finally makes it down on paper.

Alexandra said...

Thank you for this uplifting post. I also entered the NV competition and it's been a great learning experience as well as making some new friends who are happy to talk romance. Reading your blog and the comments has been a great 'put everything into perspective' moment for my flagging confidence.

Congratulations on your 25 years of publication.

Rose Red said...

Brilliant post, Kate. I entered New Voices and didn't get anywhere and have to admit to being really despondent for a couple of days and found it very hard to be objective about my writing! But, thanks to a lot of great advice from fellow New Voices I stopped despairing and started writing again. Thanks for sharing your story it's really helpful and gives all us aspiring writers some hope!

carrie said...

Thanks for your great article Kate! I'll definitely bookmark it. When they say develop rhino skin, they really mean it! =) I'm thrilled to have made it this far in New Voices, but I've also got a lovely selection of "you've got to be kidding me" rejection slips as well. =) Thanks for sharing your story! - carrie spencer

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Excellent points, Kate! The truth is, if I'd had to put a 2nd chapter up in the contest I won, it would have surprised a lot of people too. Because I needed to learn a lot before I got to that happy moment of selling the book. And that phrase about digging deep into your characters? It was all over my revision letters. So, so true.

CCMacKenzie said...

Hello Kate Walker.

This is an excellent and timely post Kate. I didn't enter the NV competition, but I certainly cheered on the chapters I enjoyed.

I wonder if some of the bitterly disappointed writers realise that selling an MS is just the beginning? Have they thought that perhaps they are not ready?

It is so hard when you have poured your heart and soul into a project. Even harder to have it criticised in a public forum. I know one lady who felt as if she'd been publicly flogged. Since my big mouth had encouraged her in the first place, you can imagine how I felt.

The good news is she loves telling stories - and that's the point. Only born story tellers will ever get there, because they can't help themselves.

A story teller views being published as a step along the way. Their aim is to tell a better story each time, constantly improving the craft. For them, the journey never ends.

I wish everyone who makes the next round the best of luck.

Big Hug Kate,
Christine Carmichael (your stalker!) xx


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