Pacing, Post-Its, and whose story is it anyway?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rejection or a critique often highlights the one thing you already suspected you needed to address. I’ve read that so often from other people and before I submitted my MS, I was tempted to do a Post-It plan – but I resisted.

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Come on, I said, I’ve prevaricated enough, I’ll never send this off. Look at my detailed chapter and scene breakdowns, why do I need coloured sticky posts? Well, the genius that is Julie Cohen could probably have told me why, here’s an earlier post where I credited her with the best advice I ever received.

Julie’s post it seminars and tutorials are legend, that’s the one that most often gets linked to,  but I remember this one first with handwritten cards  – that was far more to my taste – is this the point to mention my irrational hatred, almost fear, of sticky paper? I’ve always had it, I detest labels, I used to have slice them off apples rather than peel them off – that sticky residue touching my fingers, urggggh!!! OK, so I’m revealing too much here, and you just try having young children these days who want to put stickers on everything, they get all over the house, is there a pair of socks without a sticker stuck to it? And when they come out of the washing machine all mangled and manky….I’m sorry, where was I?

Ok, my dislike of Post-Its is illogical, and I could have used coloured cards, but I was also at that “please get this story pout of my sight” phase and so I sent it off. And got “uneven pacing” as a rejection point. So I did what I should have done before and wrote out all the most important information that needed to be revealed in the story for each character, and laid them out as they currently chronologically occurred. I filled in other Post-Its with a breakdown of the most important internal and external plot points for my H & h, and then I looked at this mess up above.

It certainly showed I needed newer Post-Its that didn’t curl up so quickly, and a better choice of colours rather than having to use yellow for general plot and pink and blue for my protagonists(forgive me). But more importantly it showed me that I had too many big revelations happening too close together. I should add here that while searching Julie’s archives I had found this post about not holding information back from the reader for too long and this follow up one. I’ll admit that it had made me pause all those months ago but I ignored it – I think I knew even then that I was falling for the old trick of keeping secrets to build suspense and I had too many revelations in the second half. But where else to put them without upsetting the balance of the whole MS?

Yeah, OK, I shied away from what I deep down knew, my pacing was uneven. The post it’s showed me what I feared, a lot of work was needed – no major rewrite, just rejigging the times when information was revealed – no biggie huh? Except of course each move causes a knock on effect of reaction and new action and later revelations are also impacted. I knew the story worked as it stood, it could just work so much better….

So thank you Julie, again, for giving me the tools to improve my work. My messy Post-It work-in-progress isn’t very close to Julie’s at all, but that doesn’t matter; it’s what it’s made me see and think and feel that’s important. For instance, there’s a couple of blue notes stuck to the side – they were big information reveals that turned out to never really featured in the MS, my synopsis and gut feel about the book made me think they must be vital, but in the actual telling and the post it outline, they didn’t feature.

Which tied in to the lack of blue notes in several areas and the revelation that I’d been pitching this book – to me, and to others – as the Hero’s story, well he is the one with all the hooks and tropes after all. But the Post-Its showed me very clearly that it’s my heroine’s story. I don’t mean that it’s woman’s fiction, it’s still very much a category style romance with equal time and importance given to both main characters. But my heroine’s lack of tropes had made me forget how much she was driving the story, it was all there on the paper (ok, screen) and in the synopsis and pitch.

Maybe it’s that #metoo has happened since I finished and sent off the MS. Maybe it’s the state of the world in the years since I started blogging with election and referendum results around the world drowning out marginalised voices. Maybe it’s the many examples of women who even with all of the above, “nether the less, persist.”

Whatever it is, it’s made me look at my whole story afresh. My heroine was always determined to do things her own way, and the hero saw and respected that and only offered help or advice on her terms. Just because he had more frequent rejections to overcome in his life, it didn’t mean their impact was greater than those she revealed. I knew that; the only time I cried when writing was over one of her scenes. This new way of looking at it as her story is just the final impetus to make the story the best it can be. So, yet again Julie; my heroine and I thank you, and we (not too grudgingly) thank the Post-Its too.

 

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The single best piece of writing advice

Give something up.

There you go, that’s it. I did write a longer introduction but so many blog posts like this are click bait and here you can see the advice without even having to open a link on twitter. But if you do want more, and to read about the brilliant teacher who gave me this nugget of wisdom, do please read on.

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I haven’t written a lot about writing here, partly due to feeling unqualified and partly due to seeing too many “the x number of things you MUST do to achieve y” blog posts. However, I am a writer and part of the reason for starting a blog was to share and give back some of the amazing support, advice and laughter I’ve found in the romance community

One of the earliest people to exhibit all this was Julie Cohen whom I met in 2002 online at the Harlequin community forums, and then in person at an RNA meeting which went from bar to restaurant and back to a flat and falling asleep during Fifteen Candles and waking up with a book/wine/John Cusack hangover. Which is actually how most of our most of our meetings have gone. She has links on her blog to much of her brilliant writing advice – warning, she is a Post-It pusher and I have learned many things from her, such as; it’s tricky to inflate a Dalek in the middle of Reading shopping centre, fresh coriander can be edible and even nice, internet searches for “nude Canadian hippies” will bring you more blog visitors than you ever imagined (see also sucking big hairy donkey balls – actually no, don’t try and see that.)

Here’s a photograph of her and an amazing opportunity to get a critique from her and a signed copy of her latest book. You also have until Monday to bid on this auction, although I may well have tried to buy it for myself. A great cause and many wonderful members of the writing community offering superb items.

At some point, probably in our first meeting, before she was published, I asked how she had completed and submitted three books to Harlequin in such a short space of time – she worked full time as a teacher then and I couldn’t imagine how she found time to write with so many claims on her time

She simply said, “I gave things up.” Specifically watching tv and spending any amount of time cooking food.

I had already seen the oft repeated advice of “butt in chair, hands on keyboard,” “you can’t edit a blank page,” “write every day,” “Make it a habit,” “if you don’t respect your writing time no one else will,” and so on. I had listened to the idea of “make time to write” and while I am the very opposite of a morning person I had set my alarm early and tried to write for an hour before leaving for work. It took a while for my sleepy brain to kick in and then when it did I was enjoying it so much I almost missed my bus. I tried writing in the evenings but was frequently too tired. I tried lunchtimes, but again, I would get so caught up in my writing that I would be late back to my desk and have to stay after hours and then fail to recapture the mood when I got home.

So many excuses.

Julie was the first person to not talk about “making” time that wasn’t there. She didn’t spell it out for me this baldly – give up something you love – but the matter of fact way she talked about her writing showed that she absolutely knew what she was doing and that she was going to succeed. I don’t know why it took me so long to follow her advice but she was, and is, a shining example of “if you want it, make it happen, it’s in your hands.” If you want time to write and are working full time and have family or other commitments, yes it’s hard – but if you want to be a writer find what you can cut back on to make it happen.

I balked at Julie’s examples back then as cooking each evening after work was my way of unwinding. I also didn’t watch much telly but did read avidly every night. Only this year when I was determined to finish a book I had been working on for far too long did her words truly sink in. I have only recently managed to carve out some precious reading time alongside life with small children but I switched it to writing time and Finished The Damn Book (another of Julie’s maxims.)

Maybe it had to be that I gave up something I really enjoyed? Giving up housework didn’t seem to inspire me the same way (my partner, Dr J, would argue I don’t do enough in the first place to give up, and he has a point.) Julie’s advice coalesced a lot of the other favourite quotes – by giving up what I loved I valued that time even more, I used it ruthlessly, every second, no re-reading or editing, I just wrote and it did indeed become a habit and it became easier and I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write, no long minutes gazing out of the window wondering what to type next (ok, fewer.) Treating my book and my writing with respect made my view of myself better too, and when over the summer I lost that writing time I missed it and plotted and schemed for how to get it back. It had become more than just a habit, it was a necessity. It was mine. It was me.

I have finished the damn book, I now need to edit it and make sure shit has happened – to (badly) paraphrase another of Julie’s nuggets of wisdom. I believe Nora Roberts is usually credited with saying “you can’t edit a blank page.” Julie’s version was “give yourself permission to write crap, a crappy draft can be polished later.” Sadly one radio interviewer cut her off before she could finish her thoughts and she was worried that it sounded as if she was saying it was ok to write a crap book. Anyone who has read her books knows this isn’t true.

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When I gathered my copies of her books together to photograph for this post I realised that as well as not having yet bought her two most recent books, I need to get back my copies of The Summer of Living Dangerously and Dear Thing. I am also on my second copy of Spirit Willing and my third Honey Trap – this is the danger of lending her books to friends; you may not get them back.

Thank you Julie. Even for the coriander.