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!


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How NOT to take 20 years becoming an "overnight" success

First off, if you're stopping by my blog after seeing a mention of it in ROMANTIC TIMES, thank you so much for coming. And if not -- thank you so much for coming! LOL!

When I saw the magazine was out, I started thinking about what would be the one message I'd give aspiring writers who are just getting started in the business. The answer was obvious -- don't do what I did.

Now, on the face of it, I've done pretty well since my first book came out in June, 2004. I've had four novels out, the latest of which was on the USA Today list for three weeks. One of the anthologies I was in, HOT BLOODED, won the Borders Group Award for best selling romance anthology last year, and another book, FOREVER KISS, won RT's Critics Choice award for Best Erotic Romance.

All of which sounds pretty good, until I tell you how close I came to blowing it. I want to share my mistakes with you, because I'm pretty sure some of you are doing the exact same things.

I decided I wanted to become a novelist when I was nine years old. From then on, I always had a book going. There were maybe two years in the past 36 when I wasn't actively working on a book. The trouble was, until I turned 40, I never FINISHED any of them. I always convinced myself they weren't good enough. I'd write a few pages, and I'd immediately start rewriting, and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite, seeking perfection, until I became so thoroughly SICK of the idea that I'd just walk away. Then I'd start another book and do the same damned thing.

So my first piece of advice is this: DON'T REWRITE UNTIL YOU GET THE FIRST DRAFT FINISHED. Or at least more than halfway done. The editing function of the brain is different from the creative function. Once you turn that editor on, creativity comes to a screeching halt. So resist the impulse to rewrite. Then, when you do get it finished, give the book two complete rewrites and send it out the door. Do not let yourself tinker the book to death.

After you finish the book, SUBMIT IT. Fact of the mater is, I was probably publishable fifteen years ago, but I never submitted anything (Because, hey, never finished anything.) You're going to get rejections. Ignore 'em. If the editor has any suggestions about how to make the book better -- THAT WORK FOR YOU -- make them. Otherwise, send the book out again. Repeat the process until somebody buys it or you realize you can write a better book.

As to agents -- Kids, I hate to say this, but for newbies, messing with agents is generally a waste of time. Yes, there are some markets that require agents, but agents are like the rest of us: they don't like to work all that hard. It's a lot easier to get an agent after you get an editor's interest.

True story: in 2000, I decided I was by God going to finish a book. Wrote FOREVER KISS. (The one that won the Critics Choice award.) Sent queries to ten agents, got ten rejections. I was really discouraged, so I mentioned it to Alexandria Kendall, who publishes the Red Sage erotic romance series SECRETS. I'd been writing novellas for Alex for years, and she believed in me. She said send it to her, and she bought it. We ended up making a ton of money on it. Anyway, soon afterward, I got a call from Cindy Hwang at Berkley, who had discovered my Secrets stuff and wondered if I would be willing to write something for Berkley. Youbetcha. I came up with two ideas that weekend, pitched them on Monday, she said send a proposal. Then I got online and asked my Secrets author pals if any of them knew any agents. Emma Holly suggested her agent, Roberta Brown. I called Roberta, sent her a copy of an anthology I did for Ellora's Cave, and she accepted. Within a month, I had a tw0-book contract AND an agent who got me more money that I would have been able to get myself.

The point of this story is that it's MUCH easier to get an agent after you've engaged an editor's attention. The second point is that once you have engaged an editor's attention, GET AN AGENT. A good agent -- check them out and make sure they're not thieves before you sign anything with them. Agents can get you more money than you can get yourself, but only if they're honest. Mine is! (Many, many writers and artists have been ripped off by dishonest agents. Protect thyself.)

Next -- I realize a lot of people swear by the fine art of seat-of-the-pants writing. Many of them are writers I personally worship. You may be one of those people who can't write any other way, in which case, God love you. But if you're not sure whether you're a ploter or a panster, TRY PLOTTING FIRST. Spend time thinking about your book. What are your conflicts? What is the thing that keeps your hero and heroine from instantly falling in love on Page 1? And there had better be something, or the book is going to be impossible to write. Here's a trick I've learned: the more conflicts there are, the easier the book is to write. Figure all that stuff out. Figure out what your hero wants, what your heroine wants, and what your villain wants. Then figure out the steps each will take to GET what he wants, and how the others will react to those moves. They're going to do something to get in each other's way. The villain is going to try to murder the heroine, and the hero will try to stop him. Or the heroine will decide to steal the hero's priceless antique whatzit, which she needs to stop the villain. How is the hero going to react to that?

THINK about your cool book idea, and whether it will really work as a romance. I had a nifty high-concept idea: werewolf hero goes undercover as a police dog to investigate a murder, and ends up falling in love with his handler. Cute idea, huh? Only thing is, I had neglected to consider a simple detail: If the heroine thinks the hero is a dog, she's not gonna fall in love with him. DUH. Thus I got 100 pages into the book, going nowhere, before I realized I had a serious problem. I had to go back and gut that book four times before I figured out how to get it to work. If I'd sat down and really thought about the implications, I would have seen the problem coming.

Now, in case you're wondering, I did do some stuff right. First, I learned my craft. I learned how to write a clean sentence, and I studied the market. I read the stuff I'd written, and I looked for my strengths and weaknesses. Reading the stuff I wrote in the early 1990s, I realized that the scenes that worked best were the love scenes. I tried to figure out why the love scenes worked and the other scenes didn't, and realized it was sensual detail and emotion. Then when I found a publisher that was publishing sensual stuff, I targeted that market and was quickly accepted.

Finally, when I DID have an opportunity thrown in my lap -- Cindy Hwang's phone call -- I did not let my fear and insecurity keep me from writing the best book I was capable of. I seized the opportunity and ran with it.

I firmly believe if you apply these lessons to your own writing career, you'll be off to a good start.

Remember: never give up!

Angela Knight