Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Regress Report (or Why It Is Sometimes Better to Take Away than to Add)

First things first.

Judging by the lack of a phone call yesterday, I didn't final in the Emerald City Opener contest, which I entered back in June. I didn't really expect to, of course, but naturally, I hoped!

I'm still looking forward to getting my feedback sheets in the mail sometime in early September, maybe as soon as next week. Although at this point, my first seven pages probably only distantly resemble what I submitted, I'm still extremely interested to see how my story fared relative to others that were entered. And since I have learned that your first two pages are critical for convincing an editor/agent to read further (the contest entry was seven pages), I am definitely anxious to find out what I could do better in those first 400 or so words.

Now, onto the meat and potatoes.

If you've been watching my Write-O-Meter since I added it to the blog last week (this assumes you actually check in with me every few days, which is the height of conceit on my part, LOL), you may have noticed it hasn't moved much. That's partly because, sadly, I haven't written as much during the past week as I would like. I was aiming to knock off four pages (roughly 1,000 words) per day, not including weekends (when virtually no writing gets done because everything else has to get done), but it hasn't worked out that way. It seemed like a reasonable goal (and still does) because under normal conditions, I can write 1,000 words on a daily basis without a hitch. Sometimes more. But mainly, I set myself that goal because if I achieve it, I should finish the book by the end of September, and that's been my deadline for a while now.

When I started writing this thing back in February, I got to 40,000 words in something like a month. Six weeks at the most. The thing just flew off my fingers. I thought, "I can write a 100,000 word novel in three months, easy!"

And then I got critique partners. Need I say more? The project ground to a halt.

Well, that's not completely accurate. It didn't exactly grind to a halt. But I quickly discovered lots of things that were just plain wrong with the story. Things I had to fix in order to move forward. So I began to spend at least as much time revising what I'd already written as writing new stuff. And revising it again. And yet again.

Lest you think I am complaining about my wonderful critique partners and their feedback, let me assure you, I'm not. When I think about the mistakes I made writing those first 40,000 words, I want to weep. Some of what I wrote was just plain awful! Now, I suppose I could have written straight through to the end and then solicited feedback. It's possible I could have then fixed all the things that were wrong with it afterwards. And it might have been faster. But I doubt it.

The reason I don't think it would have been faster is that once my critique partners started pointing out the flaws in my writing, I started making a conscious effort to avoid them in anything new I wrote. So, while it took me longer to write the second 40,000 words than the first 40,000, the latter were just a lot better to start with than the former. Which means they need less editing and less revision, which means it shouldn't take nearly as long to polish the second half of the book as to polish the first. So it all works out in the end.

I think.

So, anyway, I haven't been writing as quickly as I'd like, but I did manage to pump out a twenty-page chapter over the past week or so, which was pretty close to my original goal. So, given that, how come my Write-O-Meter didn't move by twenty pages?

The answer is that as I have been adding, I've been cutting. At this point, I'm assuming my final word count for the first draft will be around 110,000, or roughly 440 pages. All of my projections for completing as of September 30th are based on that count. But the truth is that I'm a little worried, based on where I am in the story and where I still have to go, that it could wind up being a 500-page monster before I'm done.

Why is 500 pages bad, you ask? Well, because the standard, single-title historical romance novel is about 375-400 pages. If you happen to read them (and since you're reading my blog, I assume you do), pick up any off your shelf and look at the page count. You'll find the majority of them are right in that ballpark.

So, bottom line, it's hard to sell a 500-page historical romance novel. Not saying you can't (Diana Gabaldon has managed to sell a half a dozen of 'em! Of course, she doesn't really get pubbed under the "romance" banner, but I just looked and The Fiery Cross--which I haven't managed to read--is 978 pages in large paperback format with fairly small type. To quote Shaggy, "Zoinks!"), just that it ain't easy. If nothing else, that sort of length limits your options for publishers.

All of which means I'm going to have to come back through this manuscript on the second pass and eliminate a LOT. Forty pages worth of a lot. Yikes! Where am I going to find forty pages of material to cut? When every plot point, every scene, every paragraph, every word is absolutely essential to my story?

Okay, I lie like a rug. It's not all essential. And part of the reason my word count didn't go up by twenty pages this past week is that I cut out five. Except I didn't really cut five full pages.

See, one of the tricks I've learned is that word count for a novel isn't determined by the actual number of words (the way MS Word would count them), but by a formula. The standard manuscript format is Courier New 12-point type with one-inch margins all around and spaced so that there are roughly 25 lines per page (which is very close to double-spacing, but not exactly). The assumption is that there are roughly ten words per line, which means 250 words per page. Therefore, when an editor/agent looks at your manuscript and tries to figure out its word count, she simply multiplies the total number of pages by 250 to arrive at the word count. And this applies even if you have a page with only one or two lines of text on it!

So you can see how important it is, if you're worried about running over a certain word count, not to pad your manuscript with pages that have very little text on them. It's shooting yourself in the foot.

Going back through my manuscript this week, I discovered five chapters that ended with two to four lines of text on a page. And it turned out to be a fairly simple exercise to go back through those chapters and eliminate a word here or there to reduce a paragraph by a line, thereby cutting the whole chapter back by a page. In some cases, I think the tweaks I made even improved the text as well as making the chapter shorter. For example, I had a paragraph that wrapped over by a single word. I noticed that I'd used the word "change" twice in two sentences. I changed the second instance to "alter", and bam, the paragraph took up one less line. Coolness!

And the bonus for this is that I now can write five new pages without increasing the page count. Which, in my case, is sweet. Because at this point, I need every extra page I can get!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Pen Name (or Why I Want Everyone to Read What I Write Without Knowing I Wrote It)

Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last, post.

Oops, wrong blog!

Over the last couple of days, there has been some discussion on one of the loops I subscribe about writing romance novels and how it can be a little difficult when you're a churchgoing mommy with kiddies in the house to really let it all hang out, so to speak.

(Aside: The phone just rang. I answered and waited a few seconds. Almost hung up on the wrong number theory. Then a deep, commanding male and obviously recorded voice came on the line. "We are serving other customers at the moment. Please wait and one of our representatives will be with you shortly." Um, hello, you called me and you have no live human available to talk with me? You want me to wait for you? Click. What is up with that?)

Now, I mentioned that as a Unitarian Universalist, the churchgoing part is probably not a problem. I suspect if I stood up and told the entire congregation I write soft-core porn (this is what my mother calls romance novels) on the side, they'd probably all stand up, applaud, and tell me which covenant group I can join to celebrate my inner pornographer. (My seventeen-year-old nephew recently announced in a sermon that when he told members of the church he is a "flaming bisexual," everyone said, "Congratulations. And, by the way, we have a support group for that on Tuesday nights.")

I did, however, confess a certain discomfort with the idea of people who know me "in real life" reading what I write. Especially not my husband, mother, sister, etc. (My kids don't count, as they're still much too young to be interested in reading adult novels, the romance aspect aside.) Everyone assumed, perhaps fairly, that it's because my stories include sex that I'm shy about this, but that's not it. Because it would feel just as weird to me if I were writing a book in another genre, up to and including anything but the blandest of children's books.

You see, as I already said in an earlier post, I have these people in my head. And it's a little embarrassing and even puzzling to me. Because these people do and say things I would never dream of doing or saying and yet, they must be me in some fundamental sense, mustn't they? So I wonder, if my most intimate family and friends knew what was going on in my head--people who think they know and understand me--how would that knowledge change how they think of me? Would it change their opinions of my character and personality? Would they give me sidelong glances, wondering if I might engage in extramarital affairs because one of my heroines does or whether I'm into S&M because one of my villains is?

Now, I don't have this problem when it comes to sharing my work with my critique partners or even my Internet friends (I used to be quite a newsgroup junkie, though the book has recently overcome that particular obsession). In fact, I'm eager to share my writing with other people--as long as I've never met them face to face! Of course, I assume the day will come when I will actually meet all of my CPs face to face, and I'm pretty sure I'll be able to stand up to that pressure. Because they're writers, too, so they understand! But do non-writers understand? I'm not sure they do. Even if they are your closest, most intimate friends with whom you can normally share your deepest feelings and secrets.

Of course, perhaps I'm not giving my family and friends enough credit. Or maybe I'm just stinking insecure. On some level, I suppose I'm afraid that the people I love and respect most in the world won't like what I write and that might crush me. (Okay, I did not mean to get that heavy here. I promise to lighten up in a minute!)

But at the same time, I've become very aware of the way in which author=book and book=author in the minds of most readers. Hell, there's even an entire branch of literary criticism based on the idea that you can understand an author's story by picking apart the author's life. So I don't think it's entirely irrational to think that what one writes might have subtle (and not-so-subtle) effects on one's relationships.

(Damn, I hit publish too soon. I'm not done yet!)

The real reason I decided I should have a pen name, however, has almost nothing to do with my deep aversion to the idea of people I know reading what I write and knowing I'm the person who wrote it. It might be a reason, I'll admit, but only a teeny-tiny one. Avoiding stalkers might be another sliver of the reason, especially since I am putting myself out there in the Internet world and have a family to protect.

Here's the main reason: my real surnames (both my married and maiden ones) are unpronounceable. It's that simple. I don't want to spend my entire writing career (assuming I ever actually have one, LOL) correcting people's butchered pronunciations of my name. Not to mention their butchered spellings of same. I do that enough in the grocery store, at school, at church, at work, when the phone rings (unless the person on the other end is a recording--see, I knew I'd circle back around to that phone call eventually; I never write anything without a purpose!). So I chose a pen name that I think looks and sounds nice, is easy to pronounce, and should be a heck of a lot more marketable than MyRealFirstName EitherOfMyRealUnpronounceableLastNames.

The fact that it might also mean someone I know buys my book, reads it, enjoys it (or doesn't, for that matter) and never knows I actually wrote it is merely a bonus.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague (or Why I Never Met a Cliche I Didn't Like)

Yesterday, I stopped obsessing and sent my entry for the Rose City Romance Writers' Golden Rose contest to the coordinator. I'd spent the better part of three weeks getting one critique after another on the first three chapters of Living In Sin and polishing and repolishing the thing in the hope of making it shine like a newborn baby's butt. (Actually, I've never seen a shiny newborn baby's butt and I've had three of them, but they--the babies, not their butts, LOL!--do have a really nice smell, sort of reminiscent of the famous new car smell.) Fortunately, most of the suggestions were on the order of pretty small potatoes, which may bode well for my entry. I'll find out at the end of September, I guess!

But one of the things that came out of the critiques I received had to do with a single sentence in Chapter Three. It read like this:

By the time Patrick arrived at the tavern after church, he knew the cat was out of the bag.
Now, I knew "cat out of the bag" is a cliche when I wrote it, but I had a good reason for using that cliche. Or thought I did, anyway.

You see, that expression is straight out of the lingo of the con game (it refers to an actual scam that goes back to medeival times). And a few pages later in this story, the reader is going to discover that Patrick has some serious con artist tendencies. In fact, in this chapter, Patrick actually hatches a "pig in a poke" scam (another very old one) against a couple of crooked characters who've injured his friends.

So I thought with that "cat in the bag" phrase, I was doing a nice, subtle job of foreshadowing. Except, darn it all, no one else saw it.

Well, I take that back. One of my CPs actually said it was a cliche but that it was "darn near perfect" in the context, so I think she got it. But most of my readers just saw a cliche and suggested I remove it.

I hemmed and hawed. I impugned (in my own mind) my readers' intelligence for not seeing the beauty of it as a foreshadowing device. I waved my artistic license.

And then I took it out. In my contest entry, the sentence reads:

By the time Patrick arrived at the tavern after church, he knew his former anonymity was a thing of the past.
Okay, good, it doesn't use a cliche. Or does it? What about "thing of the past"? Shit! I tried "he knew he was in trouble" before that, but decided that was a cliche, too.

Which brings me to the crux of the problem: it's nearly impossible to write without occasionally dropping a cliche or hackneyed phrase into your narrative. In fact, I'd wager a guess that it is impossible. That you'll never find a book, anywhere, by anyone, that doesn't include a single cliched phrase.

Go on, I dare you. I'll be here when you get back in about 40 years.

I'm told, however, that the editors whom you want to impress to publish your novel when you enter a contest or send in a partial/full hate cliches. That cliches will turn your manuscript into a wallbanger faster than you can say "you'll never be published in this town". Which is why I took it out of my contest entry. I didn't want to get pitched against the wall in a fit of pique.

But I'm hard-pressed to understand how this actually works in real life. Given that I just said I don't believe there's a single book in the English language that doesn't have a cliche in it, how do writers get their cliches past these editors in the first place?

Of course, I'm not about to provide an answer to my rhetorical question. I have no idea how they do it. I imagine it has something to do with the overall ratio of cliche:not cliche, as well as the distinctiveness of the writer's voice and story. But it might also just have a little to do with luck and how much the cliches you do use jump off the page and announce themselves.

Which brings me full circle on my contest entry. Because I realized after I'd sent it that it also includes this sentence, toward the end of Chapter One:

If he’d had the first inkling that Lady Rosalind fell into that category, he would have avoided her like the plague.
Ouch! And yet, no one commented on that cliche. Nobody. Which I find utterly fascinating and completely inexplicable.

So, anyway, as of this morning, the cat went back in the bag. Yep, it's a cliche, but I firmly believe it works in the story. And if that one cliche (or the plague above) is the only thing that prevents my manuscript from being published...well, that would be a dream, wouldn't it?

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Irony Meter Runs Amok

After skipping last week's entry due to a combination of laziness and bummed-outed-ness (because I wasn't at the RWA conference in Atlanta like almost everyone in the romance writing world), I'm pumped up for this week's entry. You see, I've been reading posts in the romance blogosphere the past few days that are seemingly unrelated but have tripped my irony meter right off the scale.
The first (though the most recent, chronologically speaking) comes from author Shana Galen/Shane Bolks on Jaunty Quills, excerpted below:

I guess I got my first taste of the literary scorn for genre fiction when I signed up for a novel-writing class after I finished my first book. The instructor read our first submissions, and during the second class, she assigned everyone outside reading. Most of my classmates had to read books on character, dialogue, plot. I was told to read books on feminist theory.

Apparently it wasn’t so much plot or point of view that I needed help with (though I certainly could have used help on both!). The instructor was more concerned with her stereotype that romance novels shows women as weak creatures who need a man to save them.

Fortunately, I ignored her advice and kept writing romance because, for me, writing a romance novel is a feminist statement.

The second is the kerfuffle over a letter written to Romance Writer's Report (the RWA's magazine) by Jan Butler essentially castigating RWA for allowing books portraying "alternative" relationships (e.g., homosexual, bisexual, polyamorous) to be published under the banner of "romance". I won't bore you by reproducing the letter either in full or in part here, but if you want the gist of it, I suggest you read the excerpt on Kate Rothwell's blog. You can also read a host of comments in response to the original letter, as well as Ms. Butler's own defense of her position, in both Kate's blog and on Smart Bitches.

Now, I'm sure at this point, you're wondering what connects these two topics in my pitiful little mind.

In a nutshell, it's this: romance, however varied its forms and permutations, can't please either the left or the right. To the highbrows on the educated left, romance is too conservative. It's anti-feminist and demeaning to women. (The fact that most romances portray women's sexuality in healthy and empowering ways seems to have escaped their notice.) But then to the right, romance is equally contemptible for being too progressive. "Perversions" aside, there's too much sex and, by extension, too much feminine empowerment, and conservatives long for the days of the sweet love stories in which the hero and heroine didn't consummate their relationship until after they were married and then only in the most euphemistic of terms. (When were those days, again? I remember reading a few Harlequins of this variety when I first started reading romance in the late 70s, but I pretty quickly graduated from those tame things to Bertrice Small and the like. The hotter the sex, the hotter the romance!)

Last week, I heard this quote from Aldous Huxley:

An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex.

And my first thought was, "Damn, I'm never going to be an intellectual!"

And even though I am happily plugging away on writing my own historical romance novel and enjoying (almost) every second of it, I am not immune to what I perceive as the scorn in which romance is viewed in the wider world. Despite the fact that romance is an incredibly popular genre and that I read and enjoy it myself, I feel compelled to apologize for writing something so trivial and, well, non-literary. I don't fool myself that I'm writing the Great American Novel, but then I wonder: who's to say the Great American Novel can't be a romance? Not to say that it would be mine, mind you!

But why the hell not?

Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, if you'd like to read about RWA Nationals from a first-timer, check out my critique partner Lacey Kaye's blog. Her take on the conference is both informative and hilarious.