Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What we learn from books gone by

Maven Carrie RyanJust recently I posted my "slush pile" story on Fangs Fur and Fey (you can read it here). As I was thinking back on all that I've written, I realized that which each novel attempt I learned something really important.

My first book was a western set romance -- an idea I'd come up with in high school and wrote when I graduated from college. After typing The End, I ran spell check, printed it out and read it out loud (my poor cat) on a Saturday afternoon. Sure I made some edits, but nothing major. And then I queried about 7-8 agents. While some requested fulls, nothing ever came of it.

What I learned: First, I didn't like the research. I didn't like having to figure out how far a horse could travel, whether they had shoe-laces, when the phrase "wait a second" came into being, etc. It was hard. Second, I learned that authors generally brand themselves meaning that, at least in the beginning, they build a readership by writing similar books. No way was I going to brand myself writing western romances (one big reason other than the dread research was that westerns were not selling!).

How I changed: I decided to write in worlds I knew and to write books like the ones I was reading and loving (the last western I'd read had been back in high school when I'd originally plotted that first book).

Taking all of this into consideration, my next book was a RomCom along the lines of my fave authors Jenny Crusie and Jane Heller. I got pretty much to the end, a lot of it not fleshed out enough, and then sat down to write the query letter. While writing the query letter I realized there was a fatal flaw that started on page one. This flaw dealt with not only the external conflicts, but also the internal and made the RomCom not quite so Com.

What I learned: First, I tend to write dark and had to really pull myself back whenever I felt myself veering away from light and fun. Second, know your conflicts and make sure they're solid and believable.

How I changed: I chalked that book up to experience and went to law school (taking four years off from writing).

Book number three was the oft mentioned YA chick-lit, Dead Bodies and Debutantes (I was reading a ton of chick-lits and less RomCom, hence the shift in focus). I wrote it out of order, thought I had the whole plot in my head, and accidentally queried too early (in my own defense, it was a pitch workshop with a fantastic agent and no one realized she'd be requesting pages). As soon as she requested pages from me, I polished up the first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued. CP said to cut, action started too late. So I cut Chapter 1 and then Chapter 2 and polished again.

But I also didn't want to send the partial out without the rest of the book written "Just in case" the agent asked for the full. So I tried to finish the book but spent a lot of time writing scenes out of order, trying to put them in order and failing, and whining. So I sent out the partial, sure I could finish the book in a week if necessary. It wasn't necessary -- DB&D was rejected.

What I learned: Finish the &%*# book!!! And once you finish it, don't just run spell check and read it out loud like I did with my first book -- really edit the sucker. Get in there and rip at it and make sure the motivations and conflict work and are consistent and ramp up the tension.

How I changed: I swore I would not, under any circumstances, query on my next book until it was done and thoroughly polished. No matter how close I felt I was from the end, no matter how little I thought I had left to edit, no matter whether a CP jumped the gun and pitched the idea to her agent.

I've read time and again that with every book you write, you grow and learn. I'm a big believer in that. Not only do you learn the types of lessons I talked about above, but you also learn the nuances of pacing, of dialogue, of story-telling and translating ideas from your head to paper. These are just examples of what I learned from some of my larger projects, but I learned from other "failed" writing as well.

From my attempt at a YA vampire book I learned not to chase trends, especially when you're heart's not in it. From my attempt at a Caribbean RomCom I learned that sometimes a great idea just doesn't translate and you have to set it aside. From my "descendants of Gods and Goddesses" book attempt I learned that even the idea you think is totally creative and hasn't been done, might have actually been done.

What have you learned from past writing projects?


B.E. Sanderson said...

Things I've learned from previous books:

Adverbs are like seasonings - they should be used sparingly.

'That' is usually unnecessary.

Even if you have a great idea and it's well executed, the market may not be ready for your brilliance.

Even if you have a character you love and think is totally believable, not everyone will love her, too.

Great post, Carrie. Thanks. =o)

Bill Clark said...

I've read time and again that with every book you write, you grow and learn. I'm a big believer in that.

Great post! You illustrate that growing and learning process beautifully with your own examples.

What's this about law school?! Isn't that where they teach you to twist words and meanings in order to win arguments? :-)

Celeste said...

LOL on the research part. There is a category romance proposal sitting on my harddrive that my CP loves and wants me to finish. I think it's great, too, and I am sure it would sell (unlike some other hairbrained ideas I have). Unfortunately, I have no drive to do the research needed to finish it!

Jackie Barbosa said...

Hmmm, what have I learned from books gone by?

1. To write scenes that *show* things happening instead of occasional dialogue punctuated with "she did this, he did that, they went here, she went there." Yeah, I know. Duh!

2. That not all stories are worth finishing.

3. The ones that *are* worth finishing generally seem to finish themselves.

4. There's always more to learn and ways to improve.

Darcy Burke said...

I've learned the delete key is my friend and that no matter how much I love a line or a passage, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work.

Take my time and savor every scene to get the most out of it. This absolutely makes a better book.

Awesome post, Carrie!

Carey Baldwin said...

Great post. Well the big thing is relaxing into my own voice (to some extent). Still have a bit to go on that, but am getting there.

I learned so much from taking a disaterous first draft, which was literally written without knowing ANYTHING about craft (e.g. pov was changing with each line of dialogue - who knew what pov was?)
grabbing it by the throat and not letting go until I had "fixed" it to my satisfaction.

Would it have been easier to write a whole other book instead? I'm pretty sure it would have been. But I'm not sure I would have learned as much.

Short list of what I learned:
Pov is your friend, use it wisely.
No cliches ever
Don't let narrative bog down your story
If it doesn't move plot, reveal character and enhance setting or theme all at the same time, CUT IT
If it's not intense, CUT IT
If it's not tight, CUT IT
Dialogue should sparkle
Sex should be hot
If you're not sure about a scene (you guessed it), CUT IT

Well, I could go on, but I dedcided to Cut the rest :-)

Erica Ridley said...

Man, I've learned so much from the MSs decomposing in the magical mulch pile under my bed.

I learned it can be a good idea to run the basic premise by a trusted CP *before* you write 100,000, just in case there's a logic flaw underlying the whole plot.

I learned as much as I like to read suspense, I'm not cut out to write it. At least not romantic suspense.

I learned that even if a story doesn't come out right the first time, add in a dash of distance and objectivity and usually it can be rewritten a thousand times better.

P.S. to India: Great points!!

lacey kaye said...

LOL, Erica. I want to vote for all of them!

Diana Peterfreund said...

My number one lesson is:

Go with the chemistry. If you start noticing something working, follow it.

I blogged about that today.

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