Author Confessions—Stumbling Blocks
What gets in the way of your writing? Carolyn Hector, Holly March and Anna J Stewart confess some of their writing stumbling blocks. Can you relate?
When I first scanned this topic to write on, I wasn’t sure I wanted to contribute. But when I did an epic eye roll when I was recently told a “friend” is going to finally do something with her manuscript, I thought maybe I’m not alone in the writer’s world of self-doubt..
So, here’s the story…. I’m a Scorpio. I don’t forget things or let it go too easily. I swear almost twenty years ago I entered a writing contest. I entered two different manuscripts (because how do you favor one child over the other). I’d made friends with a group of ladies whom we all shared a passion for romance reading and writing. We chatted via yahoo groups until we all decided to attend the same conference for readers. This event had an aspiring authors contest. Over dinner, I recall, one of the ladies made the comment to me, “Had I known you were going to enter, I would have submitted my manuscript.”
I could look at the positive side of the statement. She could have meant it in the way of “If you jump, I jump” type of way. But I heard it more as her looking down her nose at me. It was in her voice. I’m not paranoid. What I heard her say over the years in my head is… “OMG you entered? You suck, my work is better and I would have won had I entered.” (cue the witch laughing… you know the one from A Christmas Story where the teacher and the mom sing “you’ll shoot your eye out”).
I’m eleven published books into the game and still to this day, sharing my work is frightening! My insecurities have gotten the best of me. You see, I’m not classically trained. I haven’t studied the craft. I just know I have stories in me and have to put them on paper. You can take all the classes, workshops, or whatever but no one can train you on how not to get your feelings hurt over critiques, reviews, and comments. The question is, what are you going to do with it once it’s out there. I can give you a list of what not to do.
Because of the comment from that “friend” I let it take me fifteen years to enter a contest again. Harlequin had a So You Think You Can Write gig going and I submitted Mistletoe Mischief. I managed to place in the top ten. Yay Me! My book came out in 2015 under the title, The Magic of Mistletoe.
Now, I don’t even know how I came across this particular website that trashes books, but my cover was trashed. My poor cover model hero. People went in on the fact the mistletoe in the guy’s hand wasn’t even mistletoe. I want to say his clothes were mocked and by the end of reading the reviews, he was apparently not attractive and basically a sad sack. I didn’t even create the cover! No one mentioned the story or the unique career my heroine, Macy Cuomo had (she was a Christmas Exterior Decorator). Don’t forget, I’m the author with the brother who read my spiral notebook romance out loud in a Julia Childs' voice in front of the dude I was crushing on at the time. I’m sensitive.
When I decided to share my list of blurbs, the ones accompanied with pictures of my cast in case a famous director reads my romances and wants to turn it into a movie, her comments were, “Why is everyone so good looking?” and “Do you have some sort of Christmas fetish?” And that was the last time I shared my blurbs with anyone for a while. But clearly I got over it. I had to. I have too many stories I want to tell.
I read a review once of one of my books. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to read the reviews. But I wanted to see how people felt about the story. I received either one star or two because the reviewer hated my hero. And with her comments, guess what? I didn’t shrink into myself and cry. I internalized it and looked at the positive side—she really read my book.
Recently, I submitted a proposal and after almost six months it was sent back with grave concerns—okay, maybe grave is a bit dramatic, but hey, I’m a writer. The book was a few weeks away from being due and I was shy a few chapters of beating the deadline. I felt traumatized. I couldn’t write for another two months. Once a year I submit myself to torture by entering RWA’s RITAs. I’ll get a few nines and eights, and a three, which humbles me. I’m not always going to be someone’s cup of tea, but I am always going to be me, which means I have to continue writing. Someone out there may like it. It may resonate with them.
At the end of your story, you have to be true to what you’re writing. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you from writing for over a decade like I did the first time.
So what I’m saying is, it’s normal to have some insecurities and even self-doubt. Maybe. I think. Oh what do I know?!
I confess! A lot of my biggest stumbling blocks have been caused by misunderstandings. I am an Aspie, and I frequently take something literally while neurotypical people extrapolate the real meaning. It was two months ago old when I learned that “lift with your knees” did not mean… lift with your knees, but rather keep your back straight, stick your bum out, and bend your knees while you lift. I could never understand why I couldn’t lift with my knees. All I ever got was strain and pain!
And the #WritingCommunity is chock full of little sayings.
“Kill your darlings” is about not being pretentious in your writing and not getting so hung up on a metaphor you’re proud of that you cannot edit your book properly, rather than “you have to kill off characters”.
“Books need conflict” does not mean just creating stumbling blocks and drama, but also that you must represent internal conflict and character growth rather than have a main character meander from event to event.
“Write what you know” does not mean that you must only write life experience, but that you take your life experience and use it to flesh out the reality you are creating.
Little phrases like this are the sort of thing people write articles about in newspapers, and get book deals about, and they are supposed to be catchy and memorable. Everyone understands the subtext, except ol’ muggins here! My adult life has been one long stream of me going, “Ooooooooooh! Now I get it!”, and being laughed at—mostly gently.
When I heard about the #OwnVoices movement I panicked and spent months convinced I was the worst sort of appropriating scum for writing a romance set in Morocco with black main characters. The movement is not supposed to stop people writing characters from other ethnicities, but to stop people fetishising other cultures or reducing them to stereotypes. Provided you do the research and approach cultures not your own with respect, you have every right to write them and include them. Just do not take a place that could be filled by someone from that ethnicity. When someone else comes to LoveAfricaPress with medieval romances I shall be thrilled. I wrote it because I wanted to read it, you know?
Misunderstandings, however, pale in comparison to Imposter Syndrom.
My biggest problem is reading my favourite authors and then looking at my own work and my own life experience and worrying that I am not good enough to be writing alongside them. This was compounded by trying to write romance and finding that my approach was… different.
I started to worry I was ‘not like other girls’ in the worst way. (Not in the One Direction BS song lyric way.) One beta reader cautioned the—for want of a better word—wanton reactions of my characters, saying that women don’t think that way. Women don’t desire a man until they know him, said my twitter feed. Fortunately, I then found Kiru Taye, and heroines who do react powerfully with desire and demand, and I realised I was not some sex-mad broken creature because I see Alun Wyn Jones sing the national anthem and get all deep-breathy.
Why am I sharing this? Well, beloveds, I want you to remember it when you feel like your book is different from everyone else’s. I want you to remember when you’re about to shelve a project because it doesn’t match. If a 21st century Difference Feminist with feminist parents and an open approach to sex and sexuality can start to think of herself as overly “wanton”, maybe there’s a gap in the market for heroines who say “gimme”.
There’s a gap in the market for you too!
Harlequin once gave me this feedback: Don’t write what you think we want. Write what only you can write.
Aspec people deserve books where the relationship is not rooted in sex, people like me deserve to have characters drag their other half to bed. These things are not mutually exclusive. Romance is a spectrum, and you will find your hue!
Every author worth their salt talks about: block, self-doubt, the frustration, and the fear. If you are like me—and I am aware of the huge white and het privilege showing in this statement—your biggest stumbling block is yourself. Before you get into the cliquey nature of publishing and clear preference given to white, straight authors, you still have to get past the fear and start querying.
My mother has written an amazing book about self-discovery and self-actualisation set against a backdrop of racial tension and prejudice in 1970's Bermuda. It is about a woman who learns she is worthy even without a husband, with a thriller plot, competition, and a handsome, rich policeman as a potential love interest. It’s amazing, even if there are scenes too harrowing for me to read.
But she’s too scared to send it out. She has been editing and re-editing it for ten years and won’t let me get my hands on it to format. And that book may well never be published.
So get out of your own way, and as one of my twitter mutuals who is far cleverer than I am—I cannot remember which one, sadly—said: “query with the confidence of a middle aged, white, allocisgender, male, heterosexual who just gave up his job in IT management to write an erotic novel”.
And if you don’t understand a pithy statement about writing, consider this: you might be misunderstanding it, or it might just not apply to you. And that’s fine! Someone just made it up when they should have been writing their book!
Anna J Stewart
My first publication came about as a result of a detour. For years I’d been writing paranormal romance, plugging away, submitting to both agents and editors, getting the usual “we love this but” responses. The frustration nearly suffocated me until the year I entered that same manuscript in RWA’s the Golden Heart. It finaled in the Strong Romantic Elements category and soon after earned me my first agent (I didn’t win by the way, LOL). I assumed submitting that paranormal romance would get easier and finally my foot was in the door. Turns out, my agent ended up getting the “we love this but” response. Her reaction? What other romance genres do you write?
Um... *blinks* I’d literally been writing paranormal romance for over a decade. I’d been breathing magical worlds, living through my supernatural beings and characters and, well, what did she mean what other genres? This was the path I wanted, had been working for: traditional publication in paranormal romance. The only thing I had other than paranormal (aside from a historical western that will never see the light of day) was the very first book I ever finished. It was a manuscript I’d submitted to Harlequin (Silhouette at the time) and earned some great feedback on, but it was seriously out of date, not only because society had moved forward, but because I, as a writer, had grown. I could do a complete re-write and edit, I could gut it and give it a go. It wasn’t a question of whether I could. The question was: Did I want to?
I had to go back and reexamine exactly what my dream was, what my goals were. The answers all led me to the same place: traditional publishing. That was the goal. I have nothing against Indie publishing—I’ve since done some myself—it’s just not where I’m comfortable. After making my list of pros and cons I sat back and thought “I have nothing to lose”. And so I rewrote, reworked, and took the unexpected plunge into contemporary romance—with suspense elements—and submitted the revamped manuscript.
While waiting to hear back from editors on that submission is when the magic really began to happen. With that unexpected detour and shift came the opportunity a friend of mine offered me, to take part in a sweet, contemporary anthology for the Harlequin Heartwarming line. The idea was a fun one, a riff off Love Actually called Christmas Actually, about the Banning siblings. Now I’d never ever considered writing sweet—no sex in a romance? *gasp*—let alone writing short (I was lucky to come in around 100K for my stories), but again, what did I have to lose? You know what happened? That anthology sold. A few weeks—and an agent switch—later, so did the single title contemporary—to Berkley. Not only did that one sell, but they wanted two sequels as well. Four sale. In less than three months. Six months later? A three-book deal with Heartwarming.
All because of an unexpected detour. All of that happened between 2013 and 2014. Since then, I’ve published nearly 40 titles, most of which have been with Harlequin. Those sweet romances? Yep. Number ten, The Firefighter's Thanksgiving Wish, is out this month. I’ve also subsequently sold to Harlequin Romantic Suspense—four out to date, three more contracted. I’ve got new single-title-contemporary ideas swirling through my head and will start pounding those out soon. So yeah, those detours that might come your way? Give serious thought to taking one or two. Because it might just end up leading you exactly where you want to go.
As far as paranormal romance? I’m still writing those. I published five paranormal novellas in Heart’s Kiss Magazine over the past few years and am gearing up to write another in just a few weeks. And that Golden Heart book? It’s on my schedule to revamp for next year…to start making the rounds again. Because who knows? This time it might just make it.
Anna J Stewart's latest book, The Firefighter's Thanksgiving Wish is available now. You can find out more about Anna on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or at www.AuthorAnnaStewart.com.
Do you let things get in the way of your writing? What are your tricks for getting past them?Let us know in the comments or join the discussion on our social media using #Confessions