The Story In My Head

There’s a recent TV commercial that shows people listening to audiobooks, and as they listen, the story comes to life around them. A woman on the beach listens to a science fiction story and her surroundings alter into an inter-planetary landscape. A young man caught up in a historical novel looks up to see his breakfast table peopled with characters in eighteenth-century garb. It’s a great commercial, and reminds me vividly of how the stories I’m writing take over my life. Or at least, they used to.

For years, I carried the world of whatever book I was working on around in my head. While I did laundry or the dishes, I would find myself transported to a longhouse in ninth century Norway or a castle in eleventh century Wales. As I checked out books for patrons in my job at the library, the young mother with toddlers would transform into my heroine in a medieval gown. Fetching music CD’s for a young man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, I envisioned my hero in chain mail and tattered surcote.

I would think about my story before going to sleep at night, when I woke up in the morning and those times during the day when routine tasks allowed my mind to wander. My body might be functioning in the everyday world, but my mind was elsewhere, consumed by the struggles and passions of my characters.

Much of my writing time was in the morning before work. Often in the middle of a scene, I would realize I had to quit or I would be late. I would get up from my computer in a trance-like state, grab my coat, drive to work, greet my coworkers and take my place at the circulation desk. Then, and only then, would I leave my story completely behind and re-enter the reality of my life.

For so long, having a story alive in my head was a constant. Then, a few years ago, it left me. I no longer walked around seeing historical landscapes or struggled with my characters’ dilemmas during the work day. Unless I was at the computer and actively writing fiction, I seldom thought about my books. Writing and my stories became a separate part of my life.

The change may have come about because I was so discouraged about my career. So many editors and agents had failed to engage with my characters and come to love them, it started to feel like they were real only to me. I decided I was writing mainly for myself. As a result, my stories became less compelling and consuming. My characters lost their flesh and blood power and grew transparent and frail and fictional.

Another reason for the change might be that my head became filled with other creative urges. My mind’s-eye saw plans for my garden, or remodeling ideas for my house. I imagined scenery from the trips I was planning, rather than the landscapes of the stories I was writing. Now that I had the time and money to indulge my longing for beauty and adventure in the real world, I started to rely it, rather on the world in my head, which had been my companion since childhood.

Taking a year off from writing fiction to indie-publish several books didn’t help either. I spend my creative energy thinking up cover images and blurbs, rather than planning novels. When I finally got back to writing fiction, it was much more difficult. The books didn’t follow me around, demanding my attention. I could shut them away, limiting the power of my stories to affect me to the small amount of time I was actually writing. Because I wasn’t spending as much time with them, solving my characters’ problems took a lot longer. I should have been able to write faster, since I was more experienced and had more free time to write, but it was taking longer and longer for me to finish a book.

But something happened over this past year. I once again started to feel that real life wasn’t enough. My garden lies dormant half the year. The time between trips stretches into months. There are no compelling home improvement projects to obsess over. What’s a girl to do? Well, write, of course. And not just write, but let the story take over my life.

It’s there waiting for me when I wake up. Niggling in my consciousness during the day. Blooming into life as I try to fall asleep. The story in my head is back. I’m so glad.

Book Revision, The Extreme Version

This week is the beginning of a new year. And for me, a new book. Except it’s not really a new book. I’m going to re-write a historical romance I wrote, and which was published, nearly fifteen years ago.

I’ve revised and re-released most of my backlist, so this isn’t a new experience for me. Except in this case, revising this book isn’t a matter of tightening and improving my prose and tweaking the story. This time I’m going start from the beginning and re-write the book the way it was meant to be written.

The reason I didn’t write it that way the first time was because this was a book I was coerced into writing by my publisher. They were starting a new erotic romance line, and since my books were fairly steamy, they thought I would be a good fit. My editor found a proposal I’d written for her predecessor (I was on my third editor by then) and suggested I write the story as an erotic romance. I told them no, that even though I wrote hot love scenes, I didn’t put sex in my books just for the sake of writing sex. In fact, I told them no three times. But in the end I gave in. Not for the money, or to revive my flagging career, but because they said if I wrote this book, they’d buy the third book in my Dragon of the Island series. I really wanted to see that book-of-the-heart published, so I agreed to write the other one.

They’d sent me several books to read, to give me an idea of what they had in mind And they came up with an underlying theme for the story and a title. I thought I knew what they wanted, and I did my best to give it to them. The process was intense and agonizing. Normally my stories just happen and I let the characters do what they want. I may have to push them in a certain direction to keep the plot from sagging, or rein them in here and there to give the story coherence, but I don’t force them to follow a certain formula, like having sex every X number of pages. But with this book, I had to do that. And to keep the sexual tension going, I not only had to force them to have sex, I had to keep them in conflict for most of the book. (The title they gave the book was No Surrender.)

The result was a disaster. I don’t know if my editor hated the book, but her boss, the head of the romance line, did. She disliked it so much she pulled it out of the erotic line and published it as a regular historical romance. Which meant it shocked and upset quite a few readers who bought it expecting an R-rated romance and who got an X-rated one. Other readers were turned off by the relentless conflict between the hero and heroine. Despite its flaws, the book actually sold fairly decently, proving it’s true that “sex sells”.

But it was demoralizing experience for me. It shook my confidence in my writing and in my judgment. It tainted, and eventually ruined, my relationship with my agent, who had strongly encouraged me to write the book. I felt as if I’d sold my soul for nothing. Even having the third book in my series published didn’t help. The Dragon Prince sold poorly and ended up being the last book I sold to my publisher. In fact, it would be another ten years before I contracted a book with any publisher.

But one good thing was that I used a pseudonym, so in some ways, it’s like No Surrender never happened. I’m free to start over and write the story the way I originally conceived it. I can take my characters and set them free. At the same time, I don’t have to develop the setting and the historical details and all the things that make up the world of the book. The framework is already there. It should be fun. And even if it’s harder than I expect to be, it will be wonderfully satisfying. My characters get to have their romance, as it was intended. And I get to write the story I envisioned so many years ago.

A Character By Any Other Name…

Usually, the names of my characters simply come to me, along with their physical characteristics. I always know how they look, because long before I have any idea of the plot, I visualize at least one scene with the main characters. It may be the first scene, or it may one that happens later in the book, but that initial image is what sets up the whole story. I know if my characters are tall or petite, or if it’s the hero, if he is very muscular and tall or merely average for a studly hero. I know their eye and hair color, and if their hair is wavy or straight. They appear in my mind as clear as a photograph.

Based on their physical characteristics and the character’s general personality, which I usually have a glimpse of from that initial scene, the character’s name will generally pop into head. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more of a challenge. Since I'm an impatient writer, who wants to immediately jump in and start writing, I don’t wait until I find the perfect name. I come up with a temporary name and use that until I find something better. As a result, the heroine in my current WIP has had three different names. Thank heavens for the “search and replace” feature!

To find potential names, a lot of authors use baby-name books or online sites. But for historical novels, that only works up to a point. When you need a name that fits a specific time and place, you have to do more intensive research. I often use The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. When that fails me, I start delving into historical records. But finding a name that is historically accurate can involve other issues. A lot of traditional names from the more archaic eras are odd-sounding. Eneuawg and Goleuddydd are historical Welsh names, but I would probably never use them for a character. The same with the Saxon names Ulfcetel and Aelfgyth. Readers want to have some sense of how to pronounce the characters’ names. If you use too many unusual names, readers will get confused and become overwhelmed with keeping track of who is who. They might even stop reading altogether.

For my books set in contemporary times, it’s easier, although sometimes there are too many choices. Because of the time travel sub-plot, my modern heroine needed to have a name beginning with “M”. Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds of names that fit that criterion. It you narrow it down to names that are popular currently, it gets a bit easier. Then it’s a matter of finding one that sounds right, that intuitively fits that character.

I've written a couple of fantasy novels, and in them I used mostly made-up names. I combined real words from real languages for some names and for others, altered real but obscure names to create new ones. It's interesting how some sounds we associate with females and others with males. And how some names sound right for a hero and others are a better fit for a villain.

The process really can't be explained. We all tend to associate specific characteristics with certain names. Often our feelings about a name are based on someone we knew with that name. Or it may be the way the name sounds or some other connection. I remember when my son was trying to figure out a name for his new kitten. She is an unusual-looking cat, what I call a pastel tortoiseshell, with gray, gold and cream all swirled together. I wanted to name her Paisley, but my son immediately rejected the name. It seems he knew a girl in preschool named Paisley and he didn’t like her. For the record, he ended up naming the cat Trainwreck. A tough-sounding name that appealed to him, a guy in his late teens, and which the cat lived up to, becoming the terror of the local mouse, rabbit and, alas, bird population when she came to live with us when my son went off to college. (Trainwreck now lives happily with my son and his wife, who was his girlfriend when they first got the kitten, in their tiny house in San Diego.)

How you feel about a character’s name is hugely important. In the cases where I’ve struggled with a character’s name and/or used several different ones, I also tended to struggle with their personality and their role in the book. It’s almost as if the character doesn’t become clear to me and truly come alive until I find the right name for them. A character who has the “right” name from the beginning is usually easy to write. Their personality, motivation and conflicts are immediately clear to me.

But what if you find the perfect name for your character and then realize another character’s name starts with the same letter? In that case, I usually change the name of the character who is less important to the story. With two names starting with the same letter, it’s too easy for the reader to get confused. But finding a new name can be agonizing. Some characters, even secondary ones, are simply that name, and creatively, it’s difficult to find an alternative that feels right.

Maybe I’m the only author to whom character names matter so much. But I don’t think so. I was recently talking to a writer friend who was struggling, and part of the reason was because she kept getting the heroine’s name in her current WIP mixed up with the heroine’s name in the book she was editing. Until she got the right name clear in her mind, she had difficulty moving forward in the book.

The only thing harder than naming your characters is finding a pseudonym. But that’s an issue for another blog post!

 

Fate and the Crooked Pathway

I recently had a dream about the boss who fired me. I remember being pleased to see him (in real life he’s been dead for nearly ten years) and wanting to thank him for firing me. Because it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. If he hadn’t fired me and I hadn’t struggled to find a job and ended up staying home with my toddler children, I might not have started writing. Bored and frustrated, I channeled my angst into poetry and then a novel. Although I only wrote a few chapters of the novel, a family saga, before I realized I was way over my head.

If I hadn’t been fired and finally been forced to take a job working at a bank where I sat all day, the discs in my lower back might not have given out, resulting in back surgery. Because when I signed the paperwork for the surgery and got to the part where it said I could potentially die, I realized I couldn’t die. Not only because I had two small children, but because I hadn’t written a book yet.

If I hadn’t been fired and been forced take the bank job I hated, I might never have considered applying for a position at the local public library. It wasn’t a career job, and it didn’t pay very well. But because of what I’d gone through, I applied for the job and got it. And it was working at the library where I discovered the genre of historical romance and realized this was a kind of book that I could write.

Being fired, which was devastating at the time, set all the steps in motion for me to become a writer, and also for me to get published. Because it was the support and encouragement of my co-workers at the library that made it possible for me to see myself as a writer and to take the necessary steps, like joining RMFW, which gave me the connections to sell that first book.

Since then, my career has been very up and down, with a lot of downs. But on my journey, when things have been very grim, I’ve reminded myself, that a lot of the time, bad things happen for a reason. When doors slam shut in your face, it means you’re supposed to backtrack and go a different direction. And even then you may still find you’re not going the right way. You may have to alter your path several times before you find the right one. The one that will lead you to where you need to go. Although where you need to go might not be the place you expected.

My philosophical outlook may have no meaning beyond being my personal coping mechanism. A way for me to see my checkered career path in a positive light. But even if that’s all it offers, it still has value. By allowing me to remain positive, it’s given me the strength to fight through the tough times and keep writing. And since writing is a big part of my personal happiness, that’s definitely a good thing.

Getting faster all the time… Not!

I’ve been writing fiction for almost 25 years. You would think in all that time it would get easier and the writing would go faster. But this is how it really is:

I begin my book. Three lines in, I start to agonize. Am I starting in the right place? Is this a dramatic enough opening? No, that sounds too passive. I need action verbs.

Eventually I move on. But, is there too much backstory? Is this description immediate enough? Am I using all five senses?

A few paragraphs more. Am I showing rather than telling? Oh, there’s an extra that. And you’ve already used really. Sheesh. Caught in your usual bad habits. But moving on, is there too much backstory here? It feels like an info-dump. Maybe you need to tell the character’s story through flashback. But that could interrupt the flow of the narrative.

I struggle through a few more pages. But are my characters likeable? Are they going to be able to change and grow enough to satisfy readers? And what’s the motivation in this scene? Their goal?

I finally reach the end of the first chapter. Am I in the right viewpoint? Can the reader really envision this scene? Is it dramatic enough? I can’t end the chapter here. I need a hook to keep them reading.

It goes on. I tell myself I can fix everything in the revision stage. But more and more I find myself going backwards, rewriting the previous scene and trying make it at least tolerable. Then I start worrying, are you trying too hard? Maybe you’re turd polishing, trying to shine up what is actually unredeemable crap.

I grit my teeth and move on. Just get the story down. Let it flow organically. Remember how you used to do it when you didn’t know all that stuff?

Admittedly, it was a lot more fun in those days. My first book I wrote without a critique group or any self-censoring/editing. I felt like if I could just capture what came to me, get down on paper what my characters were feeling and doing as I watched their phantom selves act out the story on my internal screen, it would be magical. I know now that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. The magic is in my head. Getting it on paper requires hard, grinding work.

And every year I learn more, and it slows me down. At exactly the time when I need to be more productive. Because to be a successful writer these days, (everyone says) you need to publish a lot of books, as quickly as possible. And here I am, writing slower than ever.

But the other thing that’s happened in the last 25 years is I have a different perspective. Some of the people dearest to me are no longer in this life. Their absence is a reminder that simply being alive is something to celebrate. And if you get too focused and obsessive, you might miss out on some of the joy.

So back to the story. Which seems to get a bit better all the time. I’m starting to like my hero. And my heroine’s not too bad either. And about all those passive verbs, don’t worry so much. You can fix them later.

Fifty Shades of Self-Doubt

As I was reading Jeff Seymour’s recent blog (http://rmfw.org/my-names-jeff-and-im-a-failure-by-jeff-seymour), I was struck by the thought that for a writer, there are all kinds of ways for demoralization and discouragement to find their way in and poison your life. Jeff describes his sense of failure in terms of sales and income, in other words, his writing career. I’ve certainly spent my share of time agonizing over similar issues. But I have to say that worries about my career haven’t caused me nearly the misery as some of my other bouts with self-doubt.

Despite his sense of feeling like a failure, Jeff still comes across as fairly confident in his writing abilities. He describes his book as good art and shares how this was validated by having it named to a list of the Best of 2014. But what if you publish several books that don’t get positive reviews or win awards? It’s very easy for the insidious doubts to creep in. It’s hard not to wonder if getting published was a fluke. Maybe it was all a mistake, and you just got lucky. Maybe you have no talent, and now that you’ve been exposed as a lousy writer, you’ll never sell another book.

And then there are the reviews. A single one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads can destroy whatever confidence you've gained by getting published. A few ho-hum two and three-star reviews drag down your rating and inspire more agonizing. Readers are the final arbiters. If they don't like your book, you know you're in trouble.

Or, maybe you’re confident you're a decent writer but worry there’s something terribly flawed with your story ideas and your fictional vision. Technical ability can be worked on and improved. You’ve seen it happen in critique groups and in the publishing world. A writer you considered mediocre finally writes an exceptional story. Clearly they’ve been working at their craft and it has paid off. But what if you begin to feel that no one else is interested in the stories you’re drawn to write. Where do you go with that?

Of course, if you’ve never been published, the claws of self-doubt can dig in even deeper. That’s when you wonder, after the tenth or twentieth rejection, whether you’re wasting your time, not to mention your money, on those conferences, contest entry fees, critiques and writing advice books. There you are, selfishly taking away money from the family income to indulge the hopeless cause of your writing.

You may have confidence in your talent and your stories but end up feeling that fate is against you. I’ve known authors who got published just as the line their book was featured in was closing down. Or they published their first book at the exact time their genre fell out of favor with readers. Or maybe you’ve been cursed by an incompetent agent, who never sends anything out, even to editors who ask for the manuscript. Or the editor who acquired your book moved on right afterwards and your new editor considers you damaged goods. Or your book got the most terrible cover ever. Or it came out the same month as a blockbuster hit that left every other book in the dust.

Most of us who’ve been in the business awhile accept that at least a part of publishing success is due to luck. But that doesn’t help if it you’re one of those people for whom it seems if not for bad luck, you would have no luck at all.

Of course these days you can make your own luck. You don’t have to wait for an editor who believes in your story. You can publish it yourself and go directly to the readers. Unfortunately, the freedom to indie-publish doesn’t free you from all the things that can undermine and discourage you. Yes, you have control. You control your cover, your release date and every marketing detail. But with control comes responsibility. For everything. Which means if things don’t work out as you hope, you have no one to blame but yourself. And that can lead to even more layers of self-doubt and questioning.

Sometimes it seems endless, the way the world can gnaw away at our writing dreams and leave us empty and hurting. But because there are so many things that can trigger the doubt lurking in our artist souls, we have one advantage. Self-doubt is an incredibly common problem, something all but a few fortunate writers face at one time or another. Which means that lots of creative and dynamic people have endured and survived what you’re going through, and many of them are willing to share what helped them go on. What restored their faith in themselves and gave them new motivation and optimism.

If you are attending the Colorado Gold Conference a week from now, you will have a chance to meet some of these veterans of writing hard times. You will be able to network with them informally at meals, in the bar and after workshops. And there will also be a panel on this very subject. Come and hear Jeff, me and three other writers (including the 2014 Writer of the Year, Shannon Baker) as we discuss our battles with self-doubt and discouragement. We’ll share what worked for us, how we overcame our fears and despair and lived to write another book.

My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.

The Importance of Passion

By Mary Gillgannon

One of the mysteries of life is what makes a bestseller. A lot of the list is made up of books by writers who’ve been writing for years and have finally garnered a big enough following to reach that pinnacle. But there are also books written by unknown, and some cases, previously unpublished authors, books that suddenly grab the public’s interest and become wildly popular. Their success is completely unpredictable. They are often not the most well-written books, although they may offer an original twist on a well-known and popular plot. I would also argue that in most instances, they are books the author felt passionately about.

A case in point would be Fifty Shades of Grey. No matter what you may think about the book, no one can argue with the fact that this was a book of the heart. E.L. James didn’t write it with the intention of writing a bestseller, or even with the goal of getting it published. She wrote it because she had become obsessed with the book Twilight and found herself reading it over and over. So she decided to write her own story and began posting it on fan fiction sites. Other Twilight fans read her chapters and encouraged and critiqued and became invested in her story. She did the opposite of what most authors do and developed a fan base before she ever approached a publisher.

There is no doubt her fan base helped catapult this book to its phenomenal success. But I personally think that’s not the only key to its amazing sales history. I think that Ms. James’s passion for her story comes through to readers and that’s why the book has affected so many people, who in turn, have recommended it to other readers and so on.

Part of my reasoning has to do with another runaway bestseller. At the time my first books were coming out, the publishing phenomenon was The Bridges of Madison County. It was the book everyone was talking about. The book that defied the critics and industry prognosticators (and like Fifty Shades of Grey, made a lot of authors absolutely crazy). I remember reading The Bridges of Madison County and thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I discussed the book with my then editor, and when I started to criticize the story and (gnash my teeth over the writing) she said, “I think the book has a lot of passion and readers respond to that.”

That concept was driven home to me a few months later when I went back to my class reunion in Iowa and set up a booksigning in the closest town that had a bookstore. Despite my efforts to promote myself as “a hometown girl makes good”, my booksigning was only a moderate success. The book store manager, perhaps sensing my discouragement, told me that I was actually doing pretty well. She recalled a booksigning with Robert James Waller, years before he wrote The Bridges of Madison County. He had published a book of essays and had a signing at this store. And he sat there all day and didn’t sell a single book. “Look at him now,” she said. “He’s a best-selling author. Maybe that will happen to you.”

Obviously, it didn’t. But I’ve never forgotten the picture the book store manager painted, of an author who endured years of rejection and yet never lost faith in his vision. An author who felt passionately about his story. An author who wrote a book that most critics hated but that millions of readers found compelling.

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve written a book (or books) that you believe in passionately and (pick one): it’s not a bestseller, it sells modestly, it has gone nowhere, no one would even publish it. I have written a several true books of the heart.  The first one (and my first book) did get me my first publishing contract, but none of the others have come anywhere close to turning my passion to gold.

Writing a book you feel passionately about is not a sure pathway to best seller status. But in many cases, it is a key ingredient. Readers can tell. They can feel what you’ve invested in a story. They may not love your book and recommend it to their friends, because the magic doesn’t always happen. In fact, it practically never does. But if your book lacks passion, then I believe it has very little chance of rising to the top.

An Afternoon With A Master

By Mary Gillgannon

A few weeks ago, Nora Robert’s book Liar hit the top of the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list. I was delighted by this news. Since I also write romance, it’s cool to see a romance writer make it to number one. The genre is often disparaged and sneered at, but there can be no doubt romance is hugely popular, accounting for almost 40% of ebooks sold and over 20% of print.

The other reason I felt a kind of personal thrill over Nora’s success is because I once had the opportunity to spend several hours with her and discuss writing. It was at a conference nearly twenty years ago. We were sitting in the lobby with my editor at the time. Nora, who was the keynote speaker, walked by, and my editor asked her to join us. A short while later, my editor left, but Nora stayed and chatted with me and three other “newbie authors” for a couple of hours.

At first the conversation was very general, but it gradually turned to writing. Nora was so gracious and relaxed, my friends and I took the opportunity to glean what knowledge we could from this amazing professional. We asked, of course, how she managed to be so prolific, managing to write six or more books a year, under two names. (And unlike bestseller James Patterson, she writes every word herself.) She talked about her work ethic and “Catholic guilt” and said she writes for several hours almost every day, even when traveling.

Next, we asked about her writing process. You might imagine that someone so prolific would have to plot and outline ahead of time. But Nora’s process is fairly loose. She comes up with an idea and/or characters and starts writing, developing the plot and doing research as she goes along. I asked if she ever got stuck and she said, “All the time.” But then she explained her magic solution: “When you write yourself into a corner, you just have to write yourself out again.” A simple enough sounding technique, but it embodies some very important philosophies: Never giving up and having faith in your story and in your own abilities.

With every book, I write myself into a corner, not once but several times. Early in my career, I would panic when this happened. My confidence in myself and my writing would start to waver. I would worry the book totally sucked and maybe I should abandon it and write something else. (Some books I did abandon, at least temporarily.) But now I know writing is more about persistence than skill or creative brilliance. I also know that if I hit a bump or a rough spot, I have to keep going. If I keep putting words on the paper, the answer to the question—what happens next—will eventually come to me. And I’ll be out of the corner and back on the smooth writing road again. I figure if this technique worked for the 200-plus books that Nora has written, it ought to work for me.

Your Book… Or the Editor’s?

By Mary Gillgannon

A writer recently posted a question on the RMFW site about working with an editor and whether you have to make all the changes an editor suggests. I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago. Here are some ideas on how to deal with difficult editing situations:

Do you have an agent? If you do, then having them serve as the go-between sometimes helps. It’s an agent’s job to fight for you and your book. They can contact the editor and find out how strongly he or she feels about the changes. And if there are some changes you really don’t want to make, then the agent can help you negotiate a compromise.

Did the editor acquire the book, or get assigned to it? An editor who has no personal stake in your book may be more critical, or even want to put their stamp on the book by making changes that fit their vision. In general, if the editor acquired the book, then he or she really likes your story and the changes they’re suggesting are truly geared towards improving it. Having a sense of the editor’s motivations can help.

What do your critique group and/or beta readers think? They are familiar with your story, but still have some objectivity because it isn’t their book. Having their input can help you decide if the suggested changes really have merit.

Search your heart. Has the editor pointed out things that deep down you know are a problem for you? Sometimes we know there are issues but we fight fixing them. Revising is hard work and not very much fun. But sometimes it needs to be done. It’s an editor’s job to make us face flaws and help us fix them.

Talk to the editor. Find out if he/she has specific suggestions on what you need to do. Be certain that you know what they really want. Ask questions. Suggest some solutions and see what they say.

Search your heart, this time for your real motivations. Is your ego is bruised by the editor’s implied criticism of your abilities? Or do the changes truly affect the story in a way you’re not comfortable with?

Pick your battles. Decide what changes you’re willing to make and what changes you want to fight. Then negotiate. Be positive. Thank the editor for helping you improve the book. Tell them about the issues you agree with and how you plan to fix them. Then tell them the things you don’t want to change and explain why, focusing on the book and your vision of the story. Be firm but polite and reasonable.

If they insist on all the changes, you’ll have to decide how important this contract is. I’ve known authors who refused to do the changes, gave back their advance and walked away. That takes a lot of courage, and may not help your career much, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do for your own peace of mind. Even if you don’t walk away, if the editing experience with that publisher has left you demoralized, you need to move on to another publisher. Life is too short to stay in a business relationship that makes you unhappy.

In my own situation, after conferring with author friends who had read the book, I agreed to make about two thirds of the changes and fought the rest. It wasn’t pleasant and I had to go over the editor’s head to the senior editor who had acquired the book, but in the end, I won. But it left me depressed and discouraged and somehow “tainted” the book in my mind. That’s why I decided to look for another publisher. I finally found one and have been much happier with my editing experiences with them.