History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 October 2006

Does practice make perfect?

Back in 2003, I was writing lots of romantic erotica, but my dream was to write a big Regency historical -- someday. Someday, like after I learned enough about London, about Regency history, about the clothing and costumes and customs. After I learned how to write a longer book, to manage an external plot and weave in a cogent sub-plot.

Someday, after I mastered all of that, I'd write that big historical novel.

Then I went to the New York RWA conference and heard Dennis Palumbo speak on The Three Cosmic Rules of Writing. You've never heard of Dennis? He's a psychotherapist in L.A. who works with screenwriters (and he's a screenwriter himself -- his most famous script was for "My Favorite Year"). His first cosmic rule of writing -- You Are Enough -- changed my entire perspective. His message was that I, with my present set of skills, could write that Regency historical novel NOW. Anything I needed to learn would best be learned by writing the novel.

After hearing Dennis's presentation in 2003, I started brainstorming ideas for that novel. In 2004, with a solid idea in mind, I went to London to do some hands-on research. Just standing in Grosvenor Square (even though it's very different today than it was in 1815 -- did you know that they used to lock the gates to the park, and only residents on the Square had keys?) gave me confidence that I knew enough about Regency London to start the book. When I came across details I didn't know, I put a comment in the manuscript and looked it up later, or asked one of my History Hoyden pals. I revised scenes as I went, writing the best book I knew how.

Five months later, I had a completed manuscript and an agent excited about shopping it around. And all because I was willing to take a chance and tackle a book I didn't think I was ready to write.

Flash forward to the present. I'm working on a book that my agent is less than excited about. When I pitched the idea to her, I got a litany of "you can'ts" -- You can't make the hero an artist; you can't make the hero less wealthy than the heroine; you can't have the heroine improve the hero's appearance. Getting an assessment like that from my agent was a major rug pull. I wandered around in the desert for weeks, berating myself and convinced that she was right and I'd never be able to sell this book.

Somehow, a little spark of confidence flickered to life in the pit of my belly, a little voice whispered "F you" to the agent, and I decided to write the book anyway. That's not to say it's been easy. I question every aspect of the plot, I try to sanitize the characters at times, I struggle with almost every scene. But these characters want their story to be told, whether the book sells or not. Selling is not the be all and end all of writing, after all. I often compare writing to musicians who play scales and arpeggios for practice. Do they think, "Oh, I just wasted an hour playing scales when I should have been practicing that Beethoven concerto?" No. They accept that practice is an important part of honing their skills. And if this manuscript of mine turns out to be "practice," I'm trying to hold onto the confidence that all this practice will make me a better writer.

I'm sure a lot of writers have similar stories, and I'd love to hear them. Did you ever write the book of your heart and have it succeed? Did you have it not sell, and were you aware that it helped you hone the next book?

Another interesting thing that I've learned while struggling with this book. The scenes that have been the most difficult to write, the ones that feel like pulling teeth with a pair of Vise Grips, don't read that way. Test readers have assured me there's no evidence of the difficulty I felt while writing. I wonder why that is? Perhaps a solid foundation in craft will carry me through the most difficult passages. All I know for sure is that my writing process, such as it is, changes with every book I write. There's no formula out there for me to use again and again, no scientific experiment that yields the same results each time, no recipe, no "wash, rinse, repeat." As Machado said, "Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking."

I'm in a self-reflective mode today, but I hope I've given you food for thought.

Bliss to all,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm working on a story that I never intended to pitch because I thought it was too dark and gritty and violated too many "Your heroine can't..." rules. (A friend said it was so scary she couldn't make herself go out to her car at night after reading the opening.) Yet the first editor I pitched to, wanted to see the whole thing. It's going out into the world at the same time as another story that doesn't have any objectionable elements, so I'm curious to see which does better. I love them both, but they're totally alien to one another.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi Poppy! I'll be curious to hear which of your stories gets a better response, too. I'm betting it's the one that grabbed your reader by the throat and wouldn't let her walk to her car at night. The books that I remember are the ones that broke the rules, for sure.


2:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've heard that same Dennis Palumbo talk, and you're right about it being fantastic. And it’s so reassuring to be told that you, yourself, are enough. We don’t hear that often enough (and so many writers refuse to accept that you have to write to write, just like you have to practice scales to play Mozart with any level of competence). I can see where it would be easy to get locked into the prep work (research) and never start on the actual novel, cause you will never know it all, and it can be hard to accept that you know “enough” to move into the next phase.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Sheri said...

Great post Doreen! And I think this applies to those of us who don't write too - it's so important to 'follow your heart' in whatever you're doing in life :-)

Thanks for the reminder!
I can't wait to read the book!

2:22 PM  
Blogger treva said...

Jeez, Doreen, you know my (current) philosophy -- writing is too hard not to write something you enjoy. The first thing is to make it something you want to write. The second thing is to write something others will want to read. Of course paradise is achieved when you can do both.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for you, Doreen! My personal opinion is that it takes too darn long to write a book for an author to spend that time with characters she either actively dislikes or is bored with. So, if there's a sexy spark in this hero, jump into bed with him and write his story!

THE IRISH DEVIL was the book of my heart and there was only one editor who'd take it - a NY editor at that! My chapter mates had gone dead silent and then pityingly told me to rethink my choice of genres. Heck, my epub wouldn't even touch it back then because it broke too many rules. I was scared stiff to pitch it to that one editor. But she just listened to me and said, send it!

I really, really believe that an author's passion for the characters and the story is at least as important as the market is. After all, who creates a new market except a new type of book?

Good luck!

2:49 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I think you have the right attitude, Treva -- writing is hard, and we owe it to ourselves to write stories that are meaningful to us. That said, you know I'm not willing to settle for anything less than paradise!

Kalen (and everyone!), you can find a lot more inspiration on Dennis Palumbo's Web site.

Sheri, thanks for stopping by. I can't wait to see you this weekend. Virtual hugs til then.

Bliss to all,

2:51 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hello Doreen,

Boy, did your post resonate with me. I kept NOT finishing the book because I kept stopping to look things up, and polish, and fix things contest judges told me "New York" would hate (yes, a comment for real).

I finished the book, won another contest and the editor asked for more (and kept asking) and I kept stalling because I somehow decided I wasn't ready and made excuses that the MS wasn't ready. I finally dragged my butt to the post-office and mailed the book. The editor called me four days later.

You are right, and Kalen, too. It's hard, but you really do have to cut through that crap and decide you are a writer, start and finish the damn book. Submit, take chances and at some point just say I am enough, not completely done, but done enough.


2:58 PM  
Blogger Ann Jacobs said...

Yes, Doreen, I've written the book of my heart, a contemporary category romance with an athlete hero (a big no-no unless you're Susan Elizabeth Phillips) and a wimpy heroine. (I hope I managed to show her growth more clearly in the present iteration!) It was a finalist in a big contest, making me think, "Oh, boy, this one's a sure winner!" Wrong! I shopped it to every publisher in NY and Toronto to no avail. I sold three other books to Berkley, and a novella to Red Sage. Then Bouquet Romances came out and snatched up my very first "baby" for their launch of the short-lived line. I revised it then to reflect what I'd managed to learn about writing in the seven years between writing the book and getting it published. Fast-forward seven more years, when I got the rights back and sent the book to my editor at Ellora's Cave. She liked the concept--but wasn't too keen on the writing and felt that while erotic in tone, the actual sex wasn't hot enough for EC. I could have sold the book as was to Cerridwen, EC's mainstream line, but I agreed with SueEllen that it really wanted to become erotic romance. Its hero fit right in with another loosely connected series for which I was finishing the second book at the time, so I wrote him into Wrong Place, Wrong Time? as an important secondary character--and rewrote the entire book of my heart to be reborn as OUT OF BOUNDS. You can read more about the book's evolution if you want to, at my blog: http://annjacobs.blogspot.com

3:29 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I'm glad to read so many success stories from those of you who stuck with books you felt passionately about.

Kathrynn, what a great Cinderella story! I love that you were able to sell that book almost in spite of yourself. I believe that when a book is going to be bought, there's nothing we can do to stop it. And a book doesn't have to be "perfect" to sell to an editor. Our job is to get the words down and get them on paper.

You're absolutely right, Diane, it takes a book that breaks all the rules to invent a new genre. I'm glad "The Irish Devil" found a champion in that New York Editor. You're a trailblazer.

Ann, what an inspiring story of breathing new life into a book to help it find a home. I'm hoping that when I'm done with my work in progress, I'll be able to massage it into a form that resonates with an editor. What I'm trying NOT to do right now is sanitize the characters or dumb down the plot. No editing of the "you can't do that" variety. One of my best crit partners told me that the hero's backstory was too tortured, but I'm not changing it. It works for me, and it works for the hero. Edits will be made to suit me -- which sounds like what you did with the evolution of your book, Ann.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. What a brain trust we have here! I'm always touched by the generosity of other authors.

Bliss to all,

3:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Can I start by saying Ann amazes me! That's a wonderful life for the MS of your heart.

My first book is the book of my heart. I love my alpha heroine and the alpha/beta man who has to WORK to keep up with her. I’d put it aside after my second MS finaled in the Golden Heart, but when my now editor asked me for something, I dusted off my “baby” and sent it!

Tons of people, agents, editors had told me my heroine was too strong, that my premises was too sexy, or not sexy enough. *roll eyes* I’m just so happy that I finally stumbled into the right hands. LOL!

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little bit off the Practice Topic--

You can't have the heroine making- over the hero? That sounds fascinating to me. A reverse Fair Lady. Who wouldn't be interested in THAT??

Sometimes I think agents get stuck in ruts, too. To sell something different might be just plain hard work. Do agents want to work hard? Sometimes I wonder...

As I was discussing with a musician friend of mine this week, the Big Publishing Guys give in to cookie-cutter mentality until there is nothing fresh to offer in the arts. It's happening now in the music industry. All product. No art. No message. No soul.

If you write a book from the heart, Doreen, the readers will find you. I don't know why we as authors, can't believe this about our own work sometimes.

However, I am concerned about the passages you said were so difficult to write. What was so difficult? Is your muse burping on something? This has always been a clue for me that I was on the wrong track in some fashion (not enough conflict, wrong POV in the scene, etc.).

Good luck with this project!

4:51 PM  
Blogger Kate Douglas said...

Great subject Doreen, and dear to my heart, considering how long it took me to break into NY (like, uh, twenty years?) The kicker is that the story that got me started is one I wrote purely for fun. It started out as a freebie on a reader's list for one of my epubs and evolved into a serial for Margaret Riley's new publishing house, Changeling Press. Writing it one short novella at a time, I ended up with a totally unique take on the werewolf concept that not only "caught" me an editor--and contracts for six novels and six novellas, but gave me the amazing opportunity as launch author for Kensington's new Aphrodisia line. I think when we write something we love, our passion for the story makes it shine. That's what I think an editor is looking for--an author's passion shining through her work. If you don't feel it, it's not going to show.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for the words of wisdom & support, Pat.

My work in progress is definitely a "My Fair Lady" story with the roles reversed. The heroine is trying to make over the hero. I'm loving that aspect of the story so far. It has a lot in common with "Beauty and the Beast," one of the archetypal stories that speaks to my soul.

I'm always dismayed when agents & editors start talking about art as product. I know they have their own mangers to line with cash, but to an artist at least, the point of art shouldn't be commercial interests.

There is such a small consumer base for art, we should have the freedom to produce whatever we want without worrying about the opinions of the outside concern of commerce. It's great to make money doing what we love, but let's face it, there are easier ways to get rich.

About the scenes that were tough to write. I think they're tough because I hear the voice of the negative ego in my ear, questioning whether or not I'm doing the right thing or going in the right direction. The voice of the Muse? I don't think so, bu then again I have trouble differentiating my muse from my negative ego. I take Dennis Palumbo's advice and write down every negative thought that comes up, then at the end of the session I look at the list and say "Hey, what have YOU written lately?"

All the best,

5:26 PM  
Blogger Angela Knight said...

Doreen -- Oh, this is so right. In 2000, you couldn't sell a vampire romance if your life depended on it. All people wanted were cowboys. I couldn't write a western if my life depended on it. So I wrote a vampire who was a cowboy, and had a ball! By the time the book was published, vampires were hot and the book was a hit. So I agree -- do what you love, and it will show!

6:59 PM  
Blogger Karin Tabke said...

I'm a firm believer in flipping off the so called 'rules' and just writing the dang story. Sounds like you did the same thing, Doreen, you were just more philosophical about it. :)

8:10 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Angela. I think your book would have blazed a trail even if vampires hadn't been hot when it was released. It shows that you had fun writing that one.

And Karin, I do tend to put things in a philosophical perspective. I probably spend too much time meditating.


9:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm with Treva. For me it's mostly a practical matter. Because if I tried to write stuff I didn't feel deeply I wouldn't know if it was working or not. I know that the only thing I can write is what I can write--which is plenty hard enough for me to pull off. And then there's the scary part, to see if anybody else cares or gets it.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Angie said...

This post came at just the right time! I know that my WIP is a story that needs to be told, but I hesitate because nothing else out there is like it--and in this industry, that isn't always a good thing business-wise. But I'm going to plow on; this is a great story.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

You know, I haven't found any correlation between something being "easy" to write and being a better story. I seem to alternate between one book flowing like mad, with me laughing all the way through, then the next book being hard work. As soon as I get to my required page count for the day, I close that baby down.

And with the hard books I'm always telling my CP, "I don't know where I'm going with this, I'm just writing, I don't know if it makes any sense. . ." Then when she sees the book, she's like "What the hell are you WHINING about?"

So don't be scared of the story that's scary to write. Your skill is in making it LOOK easy! If you're the type of writer whose characters run the story, then sometimes they are going to lead you to places you hadn't planned to go.

Btw, I haven't sold the book of my heart yet, but it was the book that got me an agent!

8:07 AM  
Blogger Edie Ramer said...

I'm writing a "difficult" book now. And it's difficult to write too. I should have been done a good month ago, yet I'm still a hundred pages from finishing the first draft. I've thought of a premise for a paranormal sexy book, the kind that's in demand right now, but I'm sticking to my difficult book until it's done. Maybe I'm either stubborn, but I like to call it determined. Either way, I'm not stopping until it's done.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Doreen! It seemed to take forever to sell my first romance, all because it was a western historical and I kept trying to find an agent first. I kept hearing that western historicals were dead, and the fact my book had won a couple of contests meant nothing. I loved the story and just couldn't let it die, and at the urging of Karin Tabke, I sent it to her editor at Kensington. Within two weeks I had a two-book offer.

As for research, I do enough at first to get going, then flesh out the details as I need them. It's worked for me so far. I'm one of those who can get blissfully lost researching, so I have to set limits. :)

8:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Jan! Great to see another historical Zebra Debut author over here.

I'm another one who's grateful that Kensington takes unagented submissions and has such a great program dedicated to finding and promoting new authors!

9:40 AM  

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