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 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/angelaknight/)
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.
Posted by Angela Knight at 7:59 AM