From the Round File: Together is Enough

I’m not going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.

It was a difficult decision but I just finished a book and I’m on the cusp of finishing another non-creative project, plus there’s day job stuff and the holidays. I want to write in November–I want to write a lot in November–but NaNoWriMo would be unhelpful pressure.

In the two years I’ve done it, I’ve never won. I wrote about 30,000 words the first year I participated and just shy of 35,000 words last year, but I owe NaNoWriMo a great deal, including my entire career as a creative writer. I’d started the odd fictional thing before, but I’d never finished anything longer than a short story.

To inspire those who may be NaNoWriMo-ing, or considering it, here’s the opening of the book I started exactly two years ago today. There is so much here that’s bad. It’s fueled by insta-lust and relies on two strangers quoting Wallace Stevens to each other–which is one nerdy fantasy. And those are only the beginning of reasons this novel will never see the world outside of my hard drive.

Reading this reminds me how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. So get writing!

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The Call

It wasn’t a call at all, actually. It was an email. But you know what I mean: the moment you get an offer from a publisher. The moment you start dreaming of long before you finish writing a book and which haunts you for years, until you begin to doubt that it ever will come true.

Mine came a couple of weeks ago.

Let’s rewind. I started writing fiction during National Novel Writing Month in 2011. My first effort, Together is Enough, is a primal scream about graduate school and the politics of higher ed wrapped in a romance novel. It’s basically a hot mess.

Despite the fact that Together is Enough is cliched, badly plotted, and not infrequently hilarious when it shouldn’t be, I enjoyed the writing. A lot. After a lifetime of reading fiction — obsessively, compulsively, voraciously — I was creating it.

It was hard, yo. And I had a lot to learn. Oh did I have a lot to learn! Continue reading

A Look Ahead

The other day, I had a conversation with a potential critique partner. She asked, “What kind of books do you want to write?”

I’m embarrassed to admit, I was a little stumped. What I eventually said is that I want to write historical romances that show as much interest and enthusiasm in American history as the best European (read: British) historicals do and that I want to write sexy, youthful contemporaries that capture what I feel like is missing in the market today (e.g., romance between smart, ambitious professionals, etc.). The manuscripts I’ve completed so far are all pretty serious. I’d also like to lighten things up a bit and have a little more fun, while remaining true to myself and my voice.

In the next year, I’d like to finish The Easy Part and revise it. I want to finish the revisions of Brave in Heart and Together is Enough. I want to write a full-length book for the Dauntless Love series plus one other manuscript (either the next book in that series or a sequel to The Easy Part). I want to win NaNoWriMo, either with one of those manuscripts or maybe with a third project. I want to send out query letters for Brave in Heart and The Easy Part. I want to get ready to enter a manuscript in the 2014 Golden Heart. If I haven’t been able to find an agent or a publisher or to final in Golden Heart, I want to prepare to self-publish in mid to late 2014.

Most of all, I want to improve my craft. I’m a better writer now than I was 12 months ago. I want to be a better writer still 12 months from now. This means writing every day, focusing on showing versus telling, keeping my dialogue realistic and light, and becoming a better planner.

What are your 2013 writing goals?

The Stages of Hating Your Manuscript

I finished a radical revision of Together is Enough this week and I’m so very close to finishing Brave in Heart. So incredibly close. As a reward, I made the catastrophic mistake of picking up a book that shares both a genre and a setting with the former. It was a lovely book. Character-driven, tense but believable, politically progressive, compelling, and concise. Just terrific. After I finished, I said, “Damn it! I’ll never write anything as good as that!”

Those different processes — writing, editing, reading — are part of our lives as aspiring novelists. But they bring with them almost predictable attitudes towards our works in progress. I think it plays out something like this…

When you start drafting, you’re enthusiastic about your project. Out of all the ideas you have, this is one you’re writing now. So you naturally think it’s going to be awesome.

Then, you start writing and you hit the first plateau. It suddenly doesn’t seem so awesome anymore. If you’re like me, this happens at about 20,000 words.

After a lot of hemming and hawing, you push through and finish the manuscript. As you type those words, those lovely “the end” words, it is so gratifying. “Gosh darn, this project is awesome,” you think.

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More 50-Word Pitches

Just for fun …

Together is Enough: literature instructor Keira Smith feels like a professional and personal failure when she meets Brennan Daly, a sexy working-class professor from Ireland. Torn between what she likes and who she feels she should be, Keira struggles to define herself and find satisfaction. (Contemporary Single Title)

Brave in Heart: Margret Hampton ends her engagement to Theodore Ward, fearing his inability to act on the passion in his heart will doom their marriage. More than a decade later, when Theo renews his suit, Margaret goads him into enlisting in the Union Army. They will need to discover how brave they are to get a second chance at love. (Historical Novella, 19th-century America)

Plot vs. Story

My day job is as a graduate student. In that life, I’m writing a dissertation on nineteenth-century popular American literature. The creative writing is an outlet for things that won’t fit in my dissertation and a solution for occasional bouts of paralyzing writer’s block. But beyond that, writing novels has taught me things about fiction that reading it — professionally, obsessively — for years hasn’t.

One of those lessons is that plot and story, which I had thought were interchangeable terms for the same thing, are very different creatures. Story is what happens between a set of characters in a discrete period of time. Plot is always, by definition, an artificial framework that you tap the story into. It’s a frame for a novel’s who, why, what, and how.

I am almost, ALMOST, done with the first draft a novella that I’ve been writing since late June, the project I’ve been calling Brave in Heart. I decided to write  a novella because my first full length novel, Together is Enough, had (and has) a lot of plotting problems that I wasn’t sure how to fix. I needed to play more with writing fiction and attempting something shorter (32,000 words versus 70,000+ words) seemed like a good way to do it. I made a bad call, however, because the shorter length requires an even more perfect plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I had to make story tweaks too. For example, does a novel opening in the right place? Are the characters making the most interesting choices given how I’ve defined them?

Mostly, however, what my writing needed was plot fixes. Where, if anywhere, should the backstory go? Do we need to see more or less between major scenes?

Writing a novella did not turn out to be either easier or faster than writing a novel. (Though in my defense, another novel got in the way and ate up half my writing time.) It did give me a different perspective on the puzzle-box that is plotting.

Giving Away the Store

As I continue to work on revisions, one of the problems with Together is Enough — and there are many, oh so many problems — is that in the first 50 pages, I pass up entirely too many opportunities to build tension that’s internal and character-based. Instead, the text currently relies on external conflict.

The result is that there’s no suspense. He likes her, she likes him: so what’s the problem? It feels like I’m jerking the characters around rather than that they have a gulf to overcome.

I’ve been doing a lot of “killing my darlings” — eliminating pages of description and exposition, cutting scenes, moving things around, condensing — and while the product will actually be longer, it feels tighter.

Now, the hero and heroine don’t kiss in the third chapter and start dating in the fifth. That would deny too much potentiality.

Still More Contest Updates

I didn’t final in the 2012 Indiana Golden Opportunity but the comments I received on Together is Enough are so ridiculously helpful that I can’t find it in myself to feel anything other than excited. One of the judges actually liked it quite a bit. The other thought it was promising but very rough. Both provided incredibly constructive notes on both the manuscript — the first 50 pages of it! — and on the scoresheets.

As I’ve said before, it’s difficult to feel anything other than happy about the feedback I’ve received: I haven’t been writing for very long, I sent the manuscript out for contests before it was ready for primetime, and I entered contests without any real hope of finaling. I was primarily interested in (anonymous) feedback and thus I achieved my objective.

Between the judges’ comments and the feedback I’ve received from friends, I actually know what to do now to make Together is Enough better. Yay! Now I have to find the time to do it, which will be difficult because I haven’t done any real writing on my in-progress manuscripts in about a month because of dissertation work and family commitments. (Yikes.)

The only real question is what to do with with Together is Enough once I’ve revised it. I do want to resubmit to the editor from the Golden Claddagh. Beyond that, to Golden Heart or not to Golden Heart, that is the question.

Because you don’t get in-depth feedback from the Golden Heart, just numbers, there’s no real upside if you don’t final. On the incredibly off chance that you do final, however, it’s the sort of thing that can have a real impact on your career. Much more so than any other contest.

On the flip side, it’s an expensive contest and I would have to join RWA. (I’d been planning to do so, but had thought I might put it off until next year, when I hope to have three manuscripts completed and plan to begin querying agents.)

While I have a better idea about how to revise Together is Enough, part of me still feels like it’s a very personal, very limited project. Brave in Heart and The Easy Part have benefited from what I’ve learned from the process of completing a manuscript, they’re more commercial, and I think they may be better. They’re also unfinished and no one else has seen them at all. They’re definitely not Golden Heart-ready.

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Working from Areas of Strength

I’m currently working on revising Together is Enough. And as much as you try to fix problems during revision, you also have to work from areas of strength.

The middle of the manuscript is a mess. The hero doesn’t have a subplot (or flaws, really) and much of the middle of the book exists because I wasn’t ready to get the events in the last third. But rather than fixing lackluster scenes or expanding on minor characters that I don’t really like, the solution may be to take the things that I like about the first third of the book and expand on them.

Build more tension and drama into the first part of the book. Take it and turn it, in other words, into the first two-thirds rather than trying to fix what’s probably unfixable.

Contest Updates

It was a good news/not-so-good news kind of a day. First, Together is Enough placed second in the contemporary category of the 2012 Golden Claddagh. While I didn’t get a request for a full manuscript, I did get some very helpful feedback from an industry insider. I have some concerns about how likeable — or more specifically, how relatable — the heroine is. Also, the hero needs a better secondary story-line. Finally, the middle of the manuscript is a mess. (Not that the editor mentioned that, because she didn’t see the full thing; I just know it is.)

The not-so-good news is that I didn’t final in The Rebecca. I don’t have the commentary back yet, but I’m hopeful that there will be good notes. I’m not devastated or surprised in the least.

Overall, I feel very happy about both results. I’ve been writing fiction for about 10 months now. I have one project drafted and two substantially drafted. While I have a long way to go, there are things about my writing to which readers respond positively. I have so much to learn, but I feel good about my progress.

I’m not sure how to move forward, however. I still need to finish my two works in progress, but in terms of revision, I don’t know what to do next with Together is Enough. While there are identifiable problems with it (see above), I think the biggest issue may be that it’s too insider-y. Even if it was written perfectly, which it obviously isn’t, I don’t know if it has much commercial appeal. Whereas my current projects seem more universal. I need to think about it some more, but given the constraints on my fiction writing time, there may be other, better uses of my time.

In other news, I desperately need to find critique partners and I haven’t the slightest idea how to do so.