Letting Go of a Favorite Title

From the very first, I called the novel Manda the Brave. Manda was such a bold character, in spite of all the blows and setbacks in her life. She carried that bravery into sobriety and into her relationship with a very difficult hero Joel. Okay he’s rich and witty and cute as all get-out, but he’s difficult!

It was Joel’s AA sponsor Phil– the wise man of the book– who dubbed her “Manda the Brave.” As soon as Joel told Phil her full name, Phil called it:

“Manda the Brave,” Phil commented.
“What?”
“Her name. Doughty is Irish. I believe it means plucky and courageous. And anyone contemplating involvement with you needs courage. Manda the Brave,” he repeated.

Manda stood up to Joel when he was out of line, and she got him to rethink a few of his own rules. Manda dared to love Joel and to make a life with him– not by compromising her own values, beliefs, and sense of self– but by learning to negotiate with him through disagreements. She was at his side day and night after his accident. So Manda the Brave cemented itself in my mind as the perfect title.

And then my publisher said, “Would you consider changing the title? Manda the Brave sounds like it could be a YA book. Your theme and plot are definitely geared toward adults.”

If she’d asked any earlier or any other way, I’d have been devastated. But she was right– it did sound very young adult. Breaking All the Rules seemed to fit both Manda and Joel, but a quick Amazon search revealed it’s a popular title, and one popular romance writer has a book by that title coming out in February. Scratch that.

At a loss for a new title, I put it out to my test readers.  One by one, they came back with suggestions. Finally, the new title emerged: Stepping Up To Love. So far everyone likes it. We’ll see what the publisher thinks.

What inspires romance?

I took an interesting detour the last few weeks to explore a subgenre that I hoped would be a good fit for my romances. My books and stories involve 12-step spirituality as an integral part of the relationship, what I’m calling “higher powered romance”. I don’t see my stories as Christian romances, so they don’t fit well with what is typically called “Inspirational” romance or “inspired romance.” While some contests give a broader definition for “Inspirational,” the titles and blurbs that catch my eye all seem to be Christian in focus.

One subgenre I recently encountered is called “Inspirational with Edge.” Blogger Joy Tamsin David gives a detailed and interesting definition of Edgy Inspirational that is frankly Christian. Several sites explore these ideas, each in their own way. These include: Love Inspired Authors; Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers; Julie Lessman – Passion with a Purpose – Inspirational Romance for the Heart and Soul; Kaye Dachus – Humor, Hope, and Happily Ever Afters; Shawna K. Williams – Author of Grace-Inspired Fiction; Michelle Sutton – Healing Hearts – Fiction making an impact on real lives; and others.

Two “edgy inspirational” authors in particular caught my eye, and I enjoyed their books very much. Author Pamela S. Thibodeaux‘s book The Visionary is an example of a Christian romance that deals sensitively with the impact of abhorrent sexual, physical, and mental abuse on siblings, all in the context of compelling, parallel love stories. Author Carrie Daws writes a series in Crossing, OR, (Crossing Values, Ryan Crossing, and so on) that feature family values, Christian transformation, and romance. Both these authors have firm footing in Christian values and in the transformative power of love between a man and a woman.

After exploring and reading with great interest, however, it’s become clear to me this is not a subgenre that fits my higher-powered romances.

Then I opened the cover (well, okay, clicked to page one!) of the e-book A Year to Remember by Shelly Bell (Soulmate Publishing, Inc.). This funny, fast-moving romance addresses food addiction in the context of 12-step programs. Sex? yes. Christian? no. The heroine is Jewish, looking for a Reformed or Conservative Jew. Resolving the addiction is part of her journey to true love with her soulmate. I think I’m coming home!

Reconciling feedback

I received a wide variety of feedback from the critique session, much of it directly relevant to the edgy inspirational romance books I’m currently writing. Even the non-romance-genre folks in the group had important observations. I was able to do a complete rewrite of the troubled scene as a result of the feedback, and it gave me a better foundation for continuing the book (that is, book two Justin’s Time Out).

While I was rewriting Justin’s Time Out, I also received feedback from the Golden Pen contest I’d entered over the summer with book one (Manda the Brave). The marks were good, I thought, as a new contestant in the field of romance (6, 6, and 7 out of 9, with one recommendation to advance to the next round). Is anyone surprised that some of the feedback from the expert readers was the same as I’d received from the critique group for the troubled scene? :-) The work I did rewriting the troubled scene from book two gave me a good jumping-off-point for a start-to-finish revision of book one. I am making final edits now in preparation for

  1. entering Manda the Brave in the Golden Heart contest in November,
  2. also in November, pitching Manda the Brave to a publisher who will be at a conference run by my writers group. (see Write On! Rochester featuring Write it Forward: Everything the Writer Needs from Craft to Publishing. with Bob Mayer.)

Above all, I’m still having fun with the writing and the characters, setting, etc. I’m very glad I read an article by Claudia Welch in the August 2012 issue of Romance Writers Report (RWA). “Protecting the Girl…”  addresses the stresses and strains that can divert a writer’s energy away from the joy of writing. Being mindful of those distractions has been really helpful!

On the eve of a critique session

I’ve joined a terrifically creative and supportive writer’s group, but you know what they say– people don’t know you until they’ve heard your story. Well, I’ve submitted a troubled chapter from Book Two to a Critique Session that will convene tomorrow.

I accompanied the troubled chapter with questions about the characters, and I really do want to know how the readers see them. My unspoken question, after revising the chapter over and over, was really “can this chapter be saved?” It will be a humbling experience, I’m sure, but I hope a worthwhile one as well.

Do I wish I hadn’t submitted it? Not the case! Just the act of releasing it for criticism made a big difference. I was no longer intensely invested in the structure or emotion of the chapter as it stood. As soon as I submitted it, I got some ideas for cutting at least the first third of it, and a few other radical changes. One fundamental problem, I can see in retrospect, was that when I drafted the chapter, I wasn’t clear about its purpose, other than to move the story from Point A to Point B. “Plot-driven” doesn’t work well in a character-driven book! Duh!

I’ve also offered to critique other submissions, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the submissions. They range from short-short -to- chapters from a YA novel -to- fictionalized historical -to- memoir. Heartbreaking, suspenseful, informative, mind-blowing. After years of critiquing masters theses, it’s a pleasure to read creative work by colleagues and to provide input when I have something useful to say.

(August 16, 201…

Aside

(August 16, 2012) I received a very thoughtful email yesterday from one of the reviewers of the Golden Pen contest which runs now through early December. On the closing day of entry, the reviewer sent me an email saying she had reviewed my entry and sent it on to the judges. She invited me to contact her with questions and wished me luck. I’m thinking she didn’t need to do that, but I sure did appreciate that point of contact! It prompted me to do two things:

  1. to connect to her author page, check the description for her just-released romantic suspense novel and let her know how impressed I was with the book trailer… and that I was ordering a copy of the book (which I never would have known about otherwise!)
  2. to go back to the website for the contest to see what the process is now that the reviews are underway. Those details were “I can’t deal with this now!” details when I entered.

How is it possible that entering a contest was less anxiety-producing than writing the query letter?

When I caught the announcement for the Golden Pen contest in the latest bulletin from Romance Writers of America, I wondered if I could enter. Unpublished in fiction? Check. Not under contract? Check. Deadline not until August 15! Check!

Ah! but did I have the courage to enter? I decided to prepare the entry and test my courage step by step as the process unfolded.

Right from the start, it was a nerve-wracking to see a list of technicalities that covered everything from margins to maximum length of each section. I checked and double-checked every rule as I put together my entry.

That said, since I had already prepared a synopsis for a query and had already finished the book, it was mostly a mechanical job to pull together the pieces for the contest. In this case, the pieces were the synopsis (not to exceed 15 pages double-spaced), followed immediately (in the same file, in a new a section) by the first consecutive pages of the manuscript (with page numbering for the section starting over at one); the whole submission was limited to fifty-five pages. I stopped my excerpt after page fifty-two, which was the end of one of my favorite scenes.

When all was said and done, entering the contest was a lot like submitting a paper for a course. The audience was a very important one—professional judges who can give exceptionally valuable feedback. But perhaps because I teach, the whole process of submitting and evaluating papers is part of my everyday life, not something fraught with angst. I have to trust that the judges are using consistent criteria for all the submissions in each category. And I have confidence that this opportunity for feedback—whether the feedback is devastating, disappointing, encouraging, or career-making—will be helpful with my writing and with my publishing goals and with my desire to build a readership.

Okay, I’m at the last step. Am I sure I removed the metadata from the file? Check. Saved the file in RTF format? Check. Named the file exactly according to the contest rules? Check. I click send.

Joel’s “nature notes” on Twitter

In the beginning, I used Twitter to post nature notes for my friends. Because Twitter imposes a 140-character limit for each tweet, it was a good venue for short descriptions of something beautiful out my window or on my walks. Some people are easily bored, after all. But YIKES! enforced brevity required careful selection of words to make a picture come alive.

The old posts were marked private. I may find a way to bring them back. If not, I hope you will enjoy Joel’s tweets moving forward. Search Twitter for “TompkinsFalls” (one word, no spaces).

–from his perch on LakesidePorch in Tompkins Falls

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Getting to Know the Lead Characters for “book two”

Last week, I found myself making false starts on Book Two of the Lakeside Terrace romances. I liked the lead characters’ names– Justin and Gianessa– but these strong, slippery characters seemed to change out from under me whenever I put them in a scene or– watch out!– placed them in the same scene.

I don’t do frustration well. However, in the last few months, I’ve attended workshops and read widely, and I recalled  two approaches used by accomplished writers of character-driven fiction that might help me out. Sure enough, applying those lessons spared me some serious head banging. Here’s how.

At the Maine Romance Writer’s Retreat in May, Denise Robbins led us through exercises to bring our characters to life. I tried interviewing Justin while I enjoyed a lovely dinner on a terrace overlooking a garden in Williamstown, MA. I learned some fascinating things about him as he sat across the table from me, gazing at a statue of a young woman emerging from the fountain, caught in the act of braiding her hair.

http://orchardshotel.com/photogallery/index.cfm

A few days later, I started interviewing my character Gianessa while enjoying coffee at the Haven Cafe and Bakery in Lenox, MA. Gianessa told me right away that she liked the outfit of the woman at the next table and expected to wear it in her first scene. Furthermore, she’d been chomping at the bit to have a conversation with Justin without my interference. I wisely got out of the way and just took notes while they went to it. Sparks flew!

The other technique that moved the story along was Debra Dixon‘s Goal-Motivation-Conflict chart. Over several days, I worked on the external and internal GMC’s for each character. I found it was easiest to start with the two returning characters– Manda and Joel– and get to know them in their new roles. Manda’s sister Lyssa came next. Then Gianessa, who had a fascinating connection to Joel that brought her into conflict with Manda and with herself. Finally, Joel’s relationship with Justin got me started with Justin’s chart, which led me to another new male character who may not survive. Just as the characters wanted to reveal themselves, so their story wanted tell itself in terms of their compelling goals and their many intersecting conflicts. When I finally noted the dominant impressions for the two lead characters I saw how perfectly they complemented each other and how their internal conflicts posed “impossible” barriers to their ever getting together.

So when I start a book thinking I’m in charge (eye roll here!), I need to take the frustration as a signal to let go and let the characters teach me about themselves, using those wonderful techniques taught by authors like Denise Robbins and Debra Dixon.