Where Did I Go Wrong?

Posted by on Jun 1, 2017

Where Did I Go Wrong?

Tired of rejections in your publishing quest? Chances are good it’s not because your story had an epilogue, or your brother put a jinx on it when he said “romance is dying as a niche” during dinner at Olive Garden last week, or a stranger sitting in a  cubicle with no view on the seventh floor wants to ruin your day. My money is on something you did. So, here are four of the prevalent, hard-to-explain mistakes we’ve seen at Crimson: RETURNING AUTHORS DIDN’T GROW. And by “grow,” I mean grasp the concepts and techniques you and your editor worked on in the previous manuscripts. That’s also not the same as missing a big hurdle, like internal conflict or having the characters fall in love too quickly—those points count, of course, but it’s easy enough to send you a revise and resubmit letter for those whiffs. It’s the smaller offenses piling up that generate the dreaded “it’s just not right for us” responses. For instance, if your editor has devoted a lion’s share of time in the last four books to flagging information dumps, working with you on telling versus showing, calling out chapter arcs that don’t close, noting that random POVs shouldn’t rear their heads at the end of the story … well, at some point an author needs to conquer these issues. In fact, even grammar can become a problem. Yes, there are copy editors in the editorial process. But if we wear them out with a correction per sentence, or even two per paragraph, we’re using valuable resources to fix its and it’s 147 times rather than catching the fact that a sentence would convey its meaning more clearly if you relocated a misplaced modifier. Yah, I’m going there: Writing fundamentals aren’t issues to fix in editing. They are habits that need to form your entire approach. When they continue to appear in your submissions, publishers say, “I don’t know how to help her grasp this. Maybe someone else will have a better approach.” And you’re set adrift. The fix: Use the editing cycle to ask questions! Be specific in reviewing what you don’t understand. Your editor should be glad to walk you through explanations, point you to more resources, and, frankly, hold your hand through the learning phases, because understanding these hallmarks down to your toes is what will move your career forward—and, selfishly, make your editor’s next manuscript with you even more fun. YOU DISSED YOUR WORK ON TWITTER. Remember that day when you said this story was awful and the characters weren’t cooperating and maybe you should have never picked this career? So does the publisher (and potential agents). Yes, that was a human moment on your part. But so is the “ugh” feeling on ours when the product lands in our hands. Yah, I’m going there: Disparaging moments at the keyboard are...

Read More »

Subtle sabotages every author does at least once

Posted by on Mar 3, 2016

Subtle sabotages every author does at least once

Pull up your latest manuscript and get ready to do some searching. Chances are good you have some phrases in there that are stabbing your story in the back. And the sad thing is, they look so innocent. Then again, so do termites, and just look at the damage they can do: “I don’t know why, but X.”  This little freeloader, and its baby brother, “I can’t explain it, but I just x,” is a favorite go-to when authors have painted either their character or themselves into a corner. It’s code for, “well, I don’t know what just happened here, but I’ll use feelings to excuse reason and get back on track.” Frankly, it’s lazy. If you don’t know where to take the story, take some time to visit with your characters off the page. Learn more about what makes them tick, how they think, what they want, and put those traits in action to solve this moment. “I don’t know why” is a cry for help that your story hasn’t supported this conclusion, action, decision, emotion the character is about to dive into. If it’s your hero or heroine being blind or willfully stubborn at this juncture, don’t let them off the hook with the “I don’t know why” excuse. Keep their feet to the fire and make the own the moment and solve the conflict. The good news? Many times this phrase is a mere writing crutch. The character proceeds to explain why in the next sentence. 🙂 “I think” crutch. Human beings, and often women in particular, want to avoid the hard edges. So we soften our opinions and hedge in an effort to avoid confrontation. That may work in a social setting where you need consensus or when you are pondering new viewpoints, but too much of time it only renders your hero and heroine as wishy-washy. Throw in a little tough love and kick away this phrase they’re leaning on: “I think we should get out of here and head over to my hotel room.” v “Let’s get out of here and head over to my hotel room.” The second version is someone I don’t doubt wants to go check out the sheets and pillows as opposed to kinda sorta maybe being talked into it. It’s OK for your characters to own their decisions, whether it’s a salad order or their dreams—unless hesitation is part of their personality or interpersonal conflict. Then, by all means, salt some “I thinks” into your dialog! “As if” misuse. Ah, this one sucker punches a lot of authors. It signals that the character is comparing the current situation to a fantasy, something surreal, impossible, unbelievable. But too many folks fill in a solid, realistic situation. For instance: “Give me the code or I’ll kill your puppy,” she said. He looked around the room, as if seeking an escape....

Read More »

Short and sweet: Don’t do this

Posted by on Mar 3, 2016

Short and sweet: Don’t do this

Amazon is now offering readers a chance to report spelling and punctuation errors, and the retailer will pull down books with egregious problems, which sends fear into the heart of every writer. English is a complex language, and even copy editors sweat the details a lot of times. I fret over punctuation in emails, lest someone call me a fraud, and still mistakes creep through. Well, that’s life. But the kind of mistakes that attract wholesale quality accusations usually stem from ignorance—said more delicately, you didn’t know it was wrong to correct it in the first place. The biggest offense? Fouled up dialogue! This one, frankly, confounds me because authors read. And nowhere among the professionally polished manuscripts will you find a sentence that looks like “I love you.” She said. “If you are going to kill me, do it now. You’re irritating me.” My mother said. “Should I meet you at the the church door?” He asked. “That way, I can hand you the ring.” These random acts of capitalization either A) start a brand-new, very exciting sentence that imparts the knowledge  “she said” or B) God is talking to you. There is nothing holy or monumental or even kinda special about them. They are plain old pronoun speech tags, and book after book after book after book shows them as lowercase. And unless it’s a question or exclamation, there’s a comma before the speech tag, too. So professional books publish these as “I love you,” she said. “If you are going to kill me, do it now. You’re irritating me,” my mother said. “Should I meet you at the the church door?” he asked. “That way, I can hand you the ring.” If you’re hanging your head in shame right now, shake it off. Plenty of people make this mistake—the important step is to stop doing it...

Read More »

3 conflicts that don’t work (and how to fix them!)

Posted by on Oct 26, 2015

3 conflicts that don’t work (and how to fix them!)

My stance on instalove situations is well known among romance writers, so I probably don’t need to sell you on that opinion today. You get it. The hero and heroine can’t be on the same page emotionally. They need an interpersonal reason—a personality quirk, competing goals—that keeps them apart. And the next step is where many authors stumble. Just what exactly is worthy of keeping two people from falling in love? Here are the top answers I see in manuscripts, and why they could be stronger: 1. I’ve sworn off men/women. AKA I’m taking a hiatus, I don’t have time to date, I don’t need anyone in my life. Is it a real emotion? Sure. But it isn’t going to hold up in your story because the first time the hero and heroine find themselves together deliberately, it blows that reasoning out of the water. You don’t have anything to cling to in your quest to make it to shore; the tides of love will simply sweep your story out to sea. Not to mention this conflict is becoming very stale in the marketplace. Yah, I’ll go there: It’s lazy. The cure: Give your characters a concrete reason to not trust in a significant other and concentrate on that more than the vague summary of “I don’t want to date.” The last relationship fizzled because he belittled her efforts to get a promotion at her job despite her lack of a college degree, and she’s not going to surrender her hard-won dignity again, especially given the hero is also a white-collar professional like the ex. Perhaps the counselor told him to wait one year after his divorce to start a new relationship, and after watching his little brother drunk and miserable on Christmas Eve because he didn’t follow that advice, your hero is determined to heed it and save himself. Come up with a compelling backstory that gives your characters depth and reasons for their goals that can’t be solved in a single conversation or tossed overboard with a sexy, come hither smile. 2. We work for the same employer. My concern with this one is that the stories rarely outline a consequence for this conflict beyond “someone will get fired,” and even that is becoming a ho-hum threat. Also, it’s often treated as one of those rules on the books, but everyone in the story plays down its significance either with their advice, their reactions, or their own behavior. The cure: Up the stakes on what happens if one of the characters is fired, and do yourself a favor by not allowing “I’ll have to move,” “I can’t afford it” as the answer. For example, I worked on a manuscript last year where a heroine was afraid to be fired because this was her big opportunity to get ahead in her career. But her career was the restaurant...

Read More »

Why watching TV is damaging your writing progress

Posted by on Oct 14, 2015

Why watching TV is damaging your writing progress

Well, duh, Sturgeon. If you are watching television, your fingers aren’t on the keyboard, churning out chapters. Everyone knows that, so this blog post is pointless. Ah, but this isn’t a time issue for me. As a development editor, I’ve noticed a creeping perspective among the TV and movie buff authors: They write as if their book is a movie. Granted, someday it may be recreated on a big screen with Chris Hemsworth as your hero, but that is not yet reality. Television and movies dominate the entertainment world because they are great at what they do: allow the audience to witness events and action and emotions. He grabs her in his arms and she puts her arms around his neck and they kiss until someone in the room clears their throat and the lovers break apart, looking pleased and embarrassed simultaneously. But the key word is “witness.” At no point are you not sitting in a seat observing the actors in motion, whether they are hiding behind a castle wall or trying to get one last burst of speed out of their engine on the race track, or sitting at their desk in a posh office, deciding whether to fire someone. A book’s strength lies in allowing the reader to be the character. You are the one with your back against the cold stone wall, or gripping the wheel in your hand to feel the gravitational pull toward the fence, or holding the pen and hesitating to sign the personnel papers. If you aren’t offering your reader the opportunity to wear the clothes, taste the food, deal with the crisis, experience the emotions, by default, you are competing with The Big Bang Theory or Arrow or The Vampire Diaries for attention in that moment. Books aren’t equipped to go up against film media on that score—visuals win that showdown every time. The good news is, the reverse is also true. Movie directors who try to put you in the character’s shoes end up with dizzying variations on The Blair Witch Project. They have definitely learned their lesson about encroaching on our territory; we have a clear playing field to dominate our creative playground. So start strapping a GoPro camera to your characters’ foreheads, if you will, when you write. You don’t have to say “she looked around the room” because detailing the scene makes that obvious. Nor do your characters have to announce they are thinking, hearing, smelling or another sense. They won’t sum up what happens as the first sentence in the paragraph before the actual events happen, because hey! How do they know? This ain’t a movie they watched last week on Netflix, pal. But while this post isn’t about time, you do realize I suckered you on the topic. TV v books is another way to explain that illusive “show don’t tell” advice we editors...

Read More »

I’d bet money your story lacks emotional conflict

Posted by on Aug 13, 2015

I’d bet money your story lacks emotional conflict

And sometimes I do lose the bet. But overall, if I put $20 down on every manuscript I see, I’d owe Uncle Sam taxes on my winnings at the end of the year. I’ve puzzled over this lack for years now, and I think the problem starts with the definitions of both conflict and romance. Too many people think of conflict in negative terms: violence, abuse, hatred, fighting. Many of us aren’t wired for confrontation, so we shy from it in our stories, especially romances where the point is just the opposite—we want characters to fall in love. But the result is a story where she sees him and he’s hot. He sees her and she’s hot. They smile, they say hello. They have a conversation fraught with emotional excitement (and lots of physical distraction) and hope to see each other again. They go out and have a marvelous time. They’re in love and they just know it. This is the guy/gal for them!  And while the world falls apart around them (i.e. what many people label “conflict”), everything between our hero and heroine is moonlight and roses because together they can conquer anything. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Yes, I believe in love at first sight, but only in real life. In books, it’s as boring as cleaning out the dishwasher, and I don’t know how to package that up all nice and pretty. By the time your couple gets naked, the whole book concept earns a “get a room, pal” reaction from readers passing by. Think your manuscript has escaped this fate? If your characters are on the same wavelength, caring about each other, dreamy-eyed and trusting before the last 10 to 15% of the book, you risk DNF ratings and reviews that say, “Eh, it was OK.” However, when you grasp the definitions of conflict and romance, that’s a whole ‘nother book: Romance: the act of falling in love. Happily ever after (or happily for now) is the end result, not a destination along the way. When they’re in love, the story is over. Romance is about the attraction, the uncertainty, the questioning, the resistance and final surrender. In other words, your characters need to experience emotions beyond “oooh, I’m so lucky.” Emotional conflict: Each character wants something that contrasts with the other’s goal, or there’s a strong personality difference at play. They come from different backgrounds or they have different political views. They had a dust-up in the past that affects the present. She is an optimist, he’s a skeptic. He was falsely accused of rape once and is afraid of relationships, she is a prosecutor who has never seen an innocent person in the courtroom. When the H/h show these traits in action, it creates a spark of tension, something they have to work out between them to “earn” their happily ever after. (Pssst, a positive goal creates...

Read More »

What you want to hear from your editor

Posted by on Mar 18, 2015

What you want to hear from your editor

No. I don’t care how old you are, everyone is still two years old inside when it comes to hearing the word no. We hate hearing it. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. You also learned to stop saying it, and now you’re deep in the throes of conflict avoidance. It’s a full-blown inability to tell someone when they’re off track, stemming from a need to be loved. How does this apply to you? Editors are adults, too. While I was at RWA last July, I grabbed a seat in the Marriott lobby, the better to meet people instead of getting my work done. (Procrastination, thy name is Julie.) The gal next to me was doing the same thing, and she quickly seized on the word “editor” on my name badge. She, too, was an editor, hanging out at the conference, looking for potential new clients. Not five minutes into our conversation, she asked me for some big advice. “I had a manuscript where the story was just terrible. It didn’t make any sense, and the characters weren’t very bright. But I didn’t want to hurt this writer’s feelings. I mean, she might not hire me again. How do you handle those situations?” My short answer: I tell the author the plot doesn’t make any sense and the characters aren’t very bright. If I don’t, the collective courage readers get from anonymity on the Internet will certainly fill that gap. Your development editor shouldn’t be afraid that you won’t like her. She shouldn’t shake to deliver unpleasant news. She should be professional enough to do it politely and in a way that teams up with you to solve the problems, but the bottom line is, good editors don’t shy away. No matter how you might act at the...

Read More »