The following is a "confession" of sorts. Mistakes I've made which I hope may help others to avoid similar pitfalls.
* * *I’ve always admired those who could juggle family, birthday parties, soccer, and PTA, and still find time to write. I made some efforts during my children’s growing years, but they were pretty pathetic. My mother, a highly successful children’s book author, told me, gently, that perhaps writing wasn’t for me. (It was a real thrill some years later when she changed her mind.) But, believe me, wisdom didn’t come easily. Below are some of the pitfalls I encountered.
Shooting Myself in the Foot.
There was a business downturn in the early ‘90s that prompted me to give up my costuming business and become a full-time caretaker for my husband, who had suffered a massive stroke. Retiring from the costume business also allowed me time for writing. At last. There were no author groups, particularly not romance groups, in my area, so I plunged in blind. And made Mistake Number One. The Sometime Bride came to 140,000 words. But these were the days when an author could still submit directly to almost any New York publishing house, so I blithely sent it off to Ballantine. Mistake Number Two: when I received a letter from a senior editor stating they were interested in Bride if only I’d make the heroine older, I stood on my high horse and responded that my heroine had to be that age. The book simply didn’t work otherwise.
It was the early days of e-books, and fortunately Starlight Writer Publications didn’t feel the heroine was too young. In August 2000, The Sometime Bride came out to reviews I still cherish. But later, after the demise of that early e-publisher, I found homes for other books, but not for Bride. Evidently, Editors have been so sensitized by the publicity on twenty-first century pedophilia that they wouldn’t take a chance on a heroine whose marriage age was not unusual for her time. Morals of both Mistakes: if a publisher asks you to make changes, even if you feel strongly about it, be open-minded. Try to work with it. Such a great opportunity may never come again. Also: modern sensibilities do affect historical novels, so think before you write. It’s easier to avoid writing something that might not play well with readers than give up a scene or two you absolutely love.
On another tack, you often hear editors say, “Write the book of your heart.” Well, that’s what I’ve always done, and I discovered the book of my heart often wasn’t the book of the editor’s heart. Some authors seem to have a natural feel for what romance readers want. I, on the contrary, tend to write what I want to write, and the “books of my heart” tend to be too long, too literary, too much story, not enough romance. Question: Do you want to please yourself, or do you want to make money? Some authors seem born to write romance; others of us have to work at it. Moral of this story: Steep yourself in romance: read, read, read. Get the feel of it, then try to come up with a new twist, if possible. Yet not too many new twists, because today’s readers don’t want to cope with overly complex situations, new words, etc. They’re often reading on the run, multi-tasking like mad, and don’t want to have to think too hard while being entertained.
A story to illustrate this last point: I recently won an RWA chapter contest with a Futuristic Paranormal. The editor-judge commented that I should make the various terms more clear. I thought they were glaringly obvious, but I forgot not everyone reads SF, watches SF movies, etc. The agent/judge said that he would have requested the book, except the niche market for this sub-genre was so small. Moral: If you want to be saleable, you need to appeal to a broad market.
Pleasing myself, as opposed to readers, brings up another writing problem, that old bugaboo, Point of View. Most of the novels I read over the years had multiple points of view. (No, not head-hopping from person to person, but points of view from more than the hero and heroine.) That’s probably why I ended up writing traditional Regencies for Signet, because the style of that sub-genre included multiple points of view. Which, I’m afraid, is among the reasons trads fell by the wayside, being dumped by both Signet and Zebra within a year of each other. But I had been writing that way for so long that it was almost impossible to adapt. But over the last year or two, when even e-publishers began demanding simpler POV, I had to force myself to stricter discipline. POV Advice: stick to the tried and true for both print- and e-publishers. Hero, heroine, and possibly a villain. Publishers’ sales figures are showing them what modern readers like, and in these difficult economic times, publishers have to be very careful to give readers what they want.
Another common problem: cross-genre. E-publishers deserve halos for giving cross-genre novels a home when the marketing departments of New York print publishers balked, wailing, “How are we going to tell the bookstores where to shelve it?” No problem with e-pubs. They simply list it under both genres. Moral here: just be aware of the problem.
And now, my biggest near-disaster. I do a lot of research, and not just for my historical novels. But as I approached my fourth Regency for Signet, The Harem Bride, I must have gotten a bit cocky. I was writing about a girl visiting the British Embassy in Constantinople for an evening affair. She has a brief meeting with the ambassador, for whom I made up a name. Simple. Who could possibly know, or care, who was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1803? But as I was editing that chapter, something nagged at me. Maybe I ought to check and see if the name of the ambassador was on record. I googled, “British Ambassador, Constantinople, early 19th c.” And page after page after page began to roll across my screen. The ambassador was Lord Elgin of Elgin Marble fame. That is how he was able to obtain a firman to “acquire” the friezes from the Acropolis. (Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time.)
Needless to say, I not only choked and replaced my made-up name with Lord Elgin’s. I made him and his problems getting the government to buy his marbles part of the plot. The moral of this tale is obvious: check your facts. Take care with your research. Don’t end up with egg on your face.
Tripped Up by Fate.
I’ll end with the “just plain strange” portion of mistakes I have made. This comes under Circumstances That Can’t Be Helped, such as having publishers’ “lines” close on you. (It’s happened to me three times!) The following incident was worse. I tell it because it is so unusual and because it illustrates that sometimes bad things happen, even when we’ve done everything right.
A number of years ago, I was surprised to see a youngish Arab walking down my street in South Venice on Central Florida’s Gulf Coast. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I saw him twice. He was noticeable because he was truly “foreign,” not an American of Arab descent. And it was rare to see anyone walking down our street. We were a car, truck, motorcycle, bike community. There was also something special about him—a determined stride, a pulsing energy that was apparent even to someone passing by in a car. This was a man who walked with purpose. I remember wondering if he had escaped from a government safehouse, as ours was just the kind of sleepy, out-of-the-way community the FBI might use to hide someone.
I ended up making the man I’d seen the not-quite-villain of one of my books, and I came to like my fictional character well enough that I had my heroine help him get away at the end. And then came 9/11, and the FBI swarming our little town, shutting down two flight schools, confiscating all the library’s computers. Horrified, the town discovered that two of the 9/11 terrorists—one the coordinator, Muhammad Atta—had lived among us, training to fly at our airport. And, yes, they briefly lived on my street, before their host family threw them out for not respecting the wife of the household. And, yes, both times I saw my Arab, he was walking toward the airport. The aura that surrounded him was fanaticism, though of course none of us recognized it at the time.
I put my book away. I simply couldn’t face that I’d made an almost-good-guy out of one of the 9/11 terrorists. Maybe one day I’ll try to find a home for it, but . . .
I hope you begin to see how easy it is to go astray, sometimes because you haven’t been flexible enough, sometimes out of sheer ignorance, sometimes through carelessness, and sometimes through the machinations of Fate. Hopefully, one of the above tales will help you avoid a pitfall or two.
Thanks for stopping by Grace’s Mosaic Moments. Hope to see you here next week. And please remember comments and questions are always welcome.
Grace, who also writes as Blair Bancroft & Daryn Parke
And who, by the way, runs an editing service. If you’d like to know more about Best Foot Forward, please request a PDF brochure from editsbyBFF@aol.com.