Sunday, April 11, 2010

Harder Than It Looks, But Easy Enough To Get Wrong

I  went on a "Writer's Retreat" yesterday.  It was sponsored by my local RWA chapter, Southern Tier Authors of Romance (STAR).  This event alone was worth my dues -- they rented a local B&B for the day so that everyone got a room of their own to write in with NO phone calls, NO family obligations, NO Internet distractions.

I got 5,000 words written.

After it was over, I stopped by a nearby quilt shop and bought some fabric to cheer myself up.  (Hey, after being super-virtuous about my recent medically-imposed diet and passing on scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, fruit tart and croissants, I deserved a low-fat, low-sugar, low-carb treat: 100% cotton!)  The shop's owner, who recognized me, asked about the writer's retreat.

When I said I was writing a romance novel, she said, "Are you looking forward to being published?"

I had to laugh.  I explained that for every five thousand romance writers, one gets published.  (I made those numbers up, but I gather they may be approximately right: see the range of answers here.)

Jennifer seemed perplexed, so I tried to explain.  "It's harder than it looks, but easy enough to get wrong."  She liked that so much, she wrote it down; it seemed to fit her experience running a business.

Maybe all writing is like that, but it's certainly my experience with writing romance.  I don't suppose every single reader of a romance has thought, "I could do this," but enough have that they then go on to think of their own romance story.  Some may try to write that story.  Of those, some think, "Yes, I want to get published," join RWA, attend conferences, enter contests, query agents and/or publishers, investigate self-publishing or smaller publishers outside the mainstream commercial publishing model, and write write write.

Some of those writers succeed, some give up, some are still trying.  I don't find the old saw, "I write because I have to," true in my case.  I could do something else, or a whole lot less of anything else.  I write because I think I can succeed.

The challenge comes in improving my writing while I'm still doing it.  This past week, I focused on characterization.  What might I do better?  There are tons of online courses I could take, as well as conferences I could attend, and contests I could enter that would provide me with feedback.  I have books on writing that all say pretty much the same thing.  It's not the tips and techniques I need, but the wisdom to see how they apply to my writing, to see what I'm doing wrong.

Reading is easier than writing.  We can read a novel and see what we like and and what we don't.  I'm reading Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt; it starts with a preposterous first chapter in which Lucy, the heroine, assaults the hero, kissing him to gain practice she can then use on this other fellow she thinks she's in love with.  I was irked by this -- it seemed egregiously modern, both in tone and temperament, for a young Englishwoman in 1817.  (I kept thinking, Another fifty years and they'll be locking up a girl like Lucy for being "hysterical.")

But then Chapter Two starts this way:
Lucy Waltham's appetite was insatiable.
Henry liked to jest that when she married, he would provide her with a dowry of two cows, six pigs, and two dozen chickens -- just so her husband could keep her fed.  It was only a joke, of course.  In all likelihood, her dowry would be worth far less.

Now that's more like it.  We learn a lot of Lucy's character, and Henry's, all in a lovely bit of economical writing.  That's characterization, folks.  That's how it's done.

But that's reading.  I may be a cranky reader -- no, I am a cranky reader! -- but when I don't like what I'm reading, I know what I don't like and why I don't like it.  I can read my own work, but can I see what works and what doesn't?  Not really.  That's why we have critique partners.  (Mine is invaluable.  Note to self: time to send more bribes gifts to Switzerland.)  The responsibility to improve my writing skills is mine alone, though.  And that's a lot harder than it looks.

At the same time, writing is easy.  Hey, if I can write 5,000 words in under five hours, I think I've earned the right to say it's easy.  How many of those words are any good, though?  It's easy enough to encourage a false confidence, even arrogance.  It's easy enough to get wrong.

I could dash off an 80,000 word romance in a wild rush, then submit it to be savaged by agents and editors.  I might learn a lot, or I might learn nothing I didn't already know.  The problem is, I don't bounce back from the "ordeal by market" as quickly as others.  It's not that I don't recognize some basic facts about the process, namely that a) they're aren't actually trying to hurt my feelings, b) there are some really helpful insights in even the cruelest critique, and c) my writing will probably be better if I do what people suggest.  I get all that.  It's just that it's a crude approach.  I'd rather exhaust all my own best-efforts at editing and polishing before I ask others to find the flaws.

Which leaves me here:  Aware that my work needs something, probably something I can't see, and possibly something I won't know how to fix.

It's harder than it looks, but easy enough to get wrong.


  1. Excellent and insightful post. And you're ahead of the game by your willingness to improve.

  2. Reading is easier than writing.

    It's true, but also...I think you can't write unless you read, and read a lot, and read critically. (Which it sounds like you already do.) I think reading's an essential part of the process, the most essential along with "finish it."

    "Finish it" is shorthand for, basically, part of what you were saying - a lot of things about writing can only be learned by doing. You have to learn how YOU do it, because otherwise critiques won't help you as much. I think there needs to be a level of, not self-confidence exactly, but maybe self-knowing? Only you know what you're bringing to the story that's different from what any other writer would bring. Only you know how you would approach making a change in the way you're structuring your story.

    Sorry if I went on too long. I think about the practice of writing a lot, and then feel compelled to inflict my thoughts on others.

  3. Thanks, Tumperkin & Lori.

    Victoria -- This is absolutely the right place to go on too long!

    I agree with what you're saying, although it's easier to know it's what I need to do than it is actually to do it. Still, I'm working on it.

  4. Having spent the past two months wrestling with a character in my WIP, I know exactly what you mean.

    Having you as a critique partner has been an enormous help. Your insight has helped me to improve my writing, but, as you say, it's ultimately up to me.

    My participation in NaNoWriMo was also beneficial. Since then, I'm more inclined to push myself to get the words down on the page even if my muse is having an off day. It's much easier to polish bad writing into something more readable than it is to write perfect prose on the first go.

  5. I love that line, I write because I think I can succeed! So true. I mean, I could be reading :)


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