So the Top 28 finalists have been chosen. They’ve been notified and have sent in their final submissions and very soon (next week) the top 3 finalists will be contacted. Public voting on those entries starts 16th November. At which stage only those 3 – out of the 700 entries – will be involved and can hope to go on and win the main prize.
So what are the rest of you going to do? Give up? Decide that you are a failure, that you can’t write at all? Decide that the editors just don’t get your writing? That they can’t see how brilliant you are? Believe that the voting was rigged? That other contestants had more friends/workmates/family to call on to vote for their entries to get them through? Well, as I said last time –
I can't give you the 'secret', the 'formula' to being published - because if there is one then I honestly have never ever found it in the past 25+ years - or the 30 before that! - but I can tell you the one thing that will guarantee that you'll never ever be published and that is if you give up now. If you can't take the risk of rejection, then you're making sure you'll never know the joy of success.
Every time I see a contest that is focussed on the submission of a first chapter, I have to have a small, secret smile. First chapters? You want a first chapter ? I have a computer full of them. And so do almost all of my writer friends. First chapters that I thought were great. Chapters that began a wonderful story. The best story ever. Chapters with a stunning hero, a lovely, delightful heroine, a deep conflict, a fascinating premise. First chapters that would sell without a doubt – and sell in their millions . . .
Except that they are still sitting there in my computer, not going anywhere. Because I never did finish them. They are not the beginning of books but just that – opening chapters – of a novel that never worked out – that never grew into a book. They ran out of steam. And as a result they are not part of my publishing career. You can add to those the two submissions I made before The Chalk Line was bought, the batch of titles that never quite made it even when I was published.
Last weekend, I was a speaker at the Saturday School on the Writing for Publication course my husband teaches on at a local university. I took along several copies of my books to talk about. I talked about creating characters, motivation, conflict . . . But then I picked up my latest title and held it up. What was wrong with this book, I asked. Why was it deceptive and not really revealing of the life of a writer? Blank faces. No response.
My point was that a newly published book, all neat pages, colourful cover, corrected text shows nothing of the reality of the creation that goes into it. You walk into a bookstore, or go on to a web site to see the huge range of books – the new titles that are up on the Mills & Boon site – or the Harlequin one – and not one of those editions will show any sign of the blood sweat and tears that went into creating it. If reality had been on display then the book I was holding up should have been, hovered over by the crows of doubt, lying in a nasty little pool of messy emotion, dripping with it when I picked it up. But a lovely new edition shows nothing of that.
Here’s where I feel that I’m starting to sound like the teacher – Miss Grant - at the opening of the TV programme/film Fame:
"You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying...in sweat." ~ Miss Grant/Fame
Because if you think of writing as a sprint, a quick dash to success, popularity – and money – well, for some it might work that way. But not for many. For most of us writing for publication is a marathon. One in which you have to pace yourself, try, try try again. And keep on trying. Even when you’re published. Each time you’ve ‘made it’ and a book is written – and the revisions are done and accepted – there is the wonderful glow – and the sinking feeling that you have to do it all over again.
So what can you do to make the So You Think You Can Write a positive, a valuable experience for you even if your names wasn’t on the long list, never mind the short one?
You can study the ‘winners’ - the Top 28 - really study them. Look at the way they are written, the characters they introduce, the potential conflict they hint at.
Look for what the editors saw in them, the things that made them want to read more.
Think about where you would take those stories. How you would develop them and the way their characters would grow. What would be the emotional turning points? What would create a Black Moment – and what would the characters do to change that? To bring about their happy ever after ending?
One of my favourite exercises in plotting and developing a story has always been to watch the ‘soap’ – to study the way a writer has built a character and to try to work out which way they were going to take that person’s story. And then to see if there were other ways it could develop, still with the same characters, the same conflicts.
You can read the books published in the line you’re aiming for - but read them as a writer not just as a reader. Read the opening chapter – and then put the book down. Look at the way the chapter has been create – the way the author introduces the characters, sets up the conflict. Above all else how does she make you care about these people. Think about where it’s going, what the characters’ story will be. Then read on.
Study the way the author builds the rest of the book, the way she tells the story of these characters, the way they develop, the way they create the story, add to it, make it develop and change.
Yes, I know – you think you’ve done this before. But if there’s one problem that I have seen most frequently in manuscripts I’ve critiqued for the RNA New Writers’ Scheme or for courses I’ve run, it’s having characters who are doing what the author thinks they should be doing, in the way that she thinks will develop the story the way she has decided it will go, rather than the way the hero and heroine will actually take it if you leave it to them.
You can learn a lot this way.
And then you write.
And then you write.
You can enter the Na No Wri Mo (National Novel Writing Month) if you want – or not. This isn’t about speed, it’s about learning. So it doesn’t matter if you write a novel in a month, or 6 months – what matters is that you write. And you get that writing right.
Michelle has some great advice for you if you want to enter Na No Wri Mo – but the very best advice she gives is worth repeating:
3. Have a basic outline but really allow your imagination and your characters to take over. Don't try to fit the characters to the plot, allow the characters to influence the plot. Always ask why and think about ways to deepen.
4. Keep it Simple and go deep.
4. Keep it Simple and go deep.
As she says: The key word here is First. First drafts are always that drafts and things can dramatically change as you go through the process of refining and defining your story, but it is easier to work with words than to fill a blank page. . . What you want is a book you can sell, rather than a fast book. Everyone writes at a different pace.
If you write too fast you can rush through to the scenes you want to write, without thinking about how the characters get there – and WHY.
You owe it to your characters to tell their story – their way.
Because that’s the difference between entering – and even placing - in any contest and writing a real novel. A book that an editor will want to acquire and that a reader will want to buy and enjoy.
The word is storytelling. We can all create an exercise in a creative writing that is a first chapter – some more successfully than others – but it’s the storytellers who create a romance that is so vivid, so intense and emotional it reads like something real. Like the characters told their story to the author and she wrote it down for them.
That’s how I feel when a novel is working. It’s what I look for in the romance I read. It’s what excites me, involves me, makes me care.
The eventual winner of So You Think You Can Write will – with help and advice from the editors, with probably revisions, rewrites, more revisions – work her way to doing that. And that’s what will make her a winner – this time. It’s what can make you a winner too. Maybe not in a contest, but at some point in the future, when you’ve trained and practised and built up to running your own personal marathon – so go for it.
I know it seems a long way off, that you’ve tried your best and not got anywhere this time. But you have. You’ve been training, practising, building up your stamina, strengthening your writing muscles. Are you going to waste that?
I hope not.
A couple of weeks ago, I had my latest book accepted. My 61st title for Harlequin. It was something of a struggle (I’ll talk more about that on my own blog). When I first started out trying to write romance, I never dreamed of getting to this point. The only way I did it was one word at a time. What is that saying? A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. In the same way, my collection of 61 titles started with a single word. And another . . .and another. . . .
So start writing – or keep going. It’s the only way. And just about every writer ever published has been where you are now, knows what you feel like now. Perhaps Na No Wri Mo is just the launching pad you need – but you won’t know till you try it. Go on – give it a (another) go!
Kate has just discovered that five of her earlier titles have been republished as eBooks in the new Mills & Boon Vintage (90s) collection. She’s not too sure about being described as ‘Vintage’. But they’re also republished in the Harlequin Treasury and she can cope with being a treasure!
You can find out more about Kate Walker, her books and her latest news over on her web site and her blog.