Monday, February 06, 2006

Saving the Book From Hell

It happens to every writer, no matter how skilled you are: the book from hell. This is a book that absolutely does not go where you want it to go, and which limps like a three-legged dog as it wanders away. When you read over it, you get this sick feeling in your stomach that whispers, "This book sucks."

Having said that, I will admit that I always get the "this book sucks" feeling with every single book I write. But it's usually late in the process. For me, it tends to hit in galley edits, when it's too damn late to do anything because the book has been typeset. When I get that feeling, I end up going to my editor or my critique partner and whimpering, "It doesn't really suck, right? You'd have told me, right?" And they always pop me upside the head and say, "CUT IT OUT! It's FINE."

End-of-book suckitus is just part of the writing process, because writers are all neurotic. (This is another argument against doing too many rewrites during the early part of the process. If you start rewrting too early, you'll get suckitus before the book is even finished, and then you'll never complete it. This was why I never finished a novel until I hit 40.)

However, whenever I start getting that feeling early in the process, it's a bad sign. When I'm in the heat of a book, I'm always convinced it's brilliant. There's a kind of high involved that's like the first buzz of being in love. You're convinced the loved one is without flaw. You don't let yourself even notice his habit of leaving his underwear on the floor.

Fact is, I think you need that high in order to get through the grueling process of writing a book. That's why critique partners like my wonderful friend, Diane Whiteside, are so invaluable. Diane doesn't have to love my book, because she's not writing it. She can usually tell me when I'm going off-track early enough that I can fix it without killing my forward momentum. (If you don't have a CP and you want to write, you need to get one. Join one of the many yahoo groups for romance writers and ask around. My own AK loop is

But whenever my gut starts telling me the book sucks when I'm in chapter five or so, it's bad news. This happened to me in an early draft of MASTER OF WOLVES. As I mentioned in the previous blog, I hadn't thought the book through far enough, because I had a cute, high concept idea I couldn't resist. Werewolf hero goes undercover as a police dog and falls in love with his handler.

So I wrote four chapters of the hero and his beautiful police officer partner, and just had a ball. They chased drug dealers. He turned into a man and snuck sandwiches because he couldn't stand kibble... It was really fun, and I thought it was funny. Unfortunately, it wasn't a romance. It was the Shaggy Dog with a badge. Diane Whiteside finally said, "AK, this ain't working. Where'd your romance go?"

So I realized I had to spring the hero's secret sooner. I decided the heroine was going to have to become a werewolf early in the book. But all that meant the plot I'd come up with wasn't going to work. I threw out all but a chapter and started over. Sixty pages down the drain, and my deadline coming up. Argh. So I replotted and wrote all the way out to chapter eight before that little voice started whispering again. "This book sucks."

ARGH!!! What was wrong? I read it. My critique partner read it. I read it on the plane to the RWA conference. The book sucked. I didn't know why. Diane couldn't tell me why either. She'd gotten too close to it too. Finally, in desperation, I asked my agent to read it. Now, I rarely ask Roberta Brown to hold my hand on stuff, but this time I had no choice because I did not have a clue. Roberta started reading it and called that first day and said, "This book is wonderful! I love it. What's the problem?" I said, "There's something wrong. I just can't put my finger on it."

Then the next day she called and said, "This book goes off the rails on page 103." She had it down to the PAGE NUMBER. We discussed it. Finally I realized my kickass cop heroine had started whining like some bimbo from an eighties romance. Kickass heroines do not whine. So I gutted 80 pages, replotted the book AGAIN, and proceeded to write 300 pages in a month. It turned into a rollercoaster of a book that I think the readers are really going to enjoy.

This has happened to me before, by the way. MASTER OF THE NIGHT did the same thing, and so did FOREVER KISS. From what I gather, it happens to almost every writer, even the really big names.

There are three things you need to remember when dealing with this kind of problem. First, as I said in the previous blog, you really need to plan the book and consider how it's going to work as a romance. You need to look at the structure and make sure you have a strong internal plot, an external plot, and a romantic plotline, all of which you need to weave together. I'd write them out on notecards or something and color code them, to make sure one of the threads doesn't disappear on you. You particularly can't afford to lose the romantic storyline, because you're writing a romance.

Second, when a book goes off, you often don't see it. You need to find somebody objective to look at it. Even your critique partner may not spot the problem. Diane had a similar problem with one of her books that I didn't see coming, because I'd been reading it chapter by chapter, and I had gotten too close to it.

Finally, you may just have suckitus. An objective reader can tell you if the book really sucks or not, or whether you're just being neurotic. You may want to find several trustworthy readers who are willing to give the manuscript a read, and see if any of them agree on the problem. If they agree, that's your flaw.

But even if your book really does suck, don't give up. As long as the underlying structural idea is sound, you can fix it. You may have to gut it and start over, but believe me, you won't be the first.

Happy writing!



Brenda Williamson said...

What are you doing in my head AK? I totally agree, I think my stories suck right up until I actually finish them. That's the place where I usually set the book aside for months and come back with all kinds of new ideas to incorporate. My bigger problems though are usually the beginnings. I fall into that category of telling the story, so generally I end up dumping the first chapter and then pick apart the facts in the first chapter to feed into the story as I go.:-)BrendaWilliamson

Kate Douglas said...

Wow, is THIS a timely post! I'm writing the final third of Wolf Tales III right now, and all of a sudden I've got a new character and my heroine doesn't want to bond with the guy who's been her love interest throughout the story and I'm going nuts and wondering how in the HELL I'm going to work this out without rewriting the entire friggin' book. Right now, the way it reads sucks the big one...and there's no time left to put it aside and let the ideas simmer. Time to go wrestle with the damned heroine again...

Dakota Cassidy said...

OMG-- I had suckitis with my reality show based book. I kept thinking, I have this GREAT concept, but how the hell did I get to the middle of the book without a way to resolve the issue.

How can I get the hero and heroine together without making them both look like crap for cheating on a reality show where the prize is a BRIDE? The hero is vying for a chance to marry this woman, for crap's sake. The heroine is on it to payback the bride for screwing her in high school. it was hard to redeeem her too.

OY--I re-wrote and re-wrote and plinked and plucked until I'd finally done that layering thing and it all made sense. THAT was the book from hell, but I learned a lot and in the end, even though NY said the hot stuff wasn't nearly early enough in the book, they had awesome things to say about it and I was thrilled.

All in all, a learning experience for this newbie, but one I wouldn't take back for the heaven I found at the other end :)

Dakota :)

Jenn said...

First off YOU are a big name writer. Second, thanks so much! I hate to plot, but I do have a general idea of how things happen. It's always hard for me to say I'll do this, this, and this. THAT always happens.
But, suckitis, it pretty much sucks. Glad to know you get it too.
I cultivate my neuroses, they keep me company here at the keyboard on cold winter nights. The voices in my head are many, they are legion, they are loud.

Strlady said...

I just wanted to drop a line to thank you for the post. I'm sure that the writers will be able to empathize. Me? I loved the werewolf hating kibble... I caught myself laughing at the description of what the hero was going through.
I'll definitely have to pick up this one!!

Lynn said...

Honey, can't wait to read it. And thanks for the advice. Where did January go? We all so need to get in touch and especially plan your book signing(s). Hugsies!

Trinity said...

Angela, I just love your sense of humor. I think it's what I've always enjoyed most in your writing. And even in venting your frustrations over your writing, you still make me laugh! But it's absolutely great encouragement at the same time. I'm tring to figure out my characters in a new novella, and they just suck! But I'll get through. Thanks!!
I actually just now got copies of "Night" and "Moon" that I'm getting ready to start on... Can't wait to get through them! I'm sure they'll be great!

Faith said...

I think revisions are a constant process. Even when a book is published, you read it and think, "I could've written this part better" or "I could've tweaked this section a bit more".

Heck, I've caught several typos in one published novel before!

H.S. Kinn said...

That's an invaluable bit of advice for anyone trying to get through their first novel. Or their fifty-first, for that matter!

Silma said...

I admit that having a good CP is the key to catching up most of those mistakes. Sadly, it's hard to find one. I've tried for almost 2 years.

As for getting all sidetracked, that's specially true with me. Since I write my stories in a non-linear way, sometimes the story goes one way and I'm in another page, and we don't seem to agree. *lol*

Rose DesRochers said...

I agree with you. Erotica writing says something about human beings and looks at sex as a beautiful art between two people. Comparing porn to erotica is like comparing fruit to vegetables