By Jackie Hyman w/a Jacqueline Diamond
Iâ€™ve been thinking about sagging middles, probably because of eating too much holiday food. Well, never mind my pathetic waistline. Weâ€™re talking about books.
I HATE sagging middles. When I write. And when I read.
Whatâ€™s a sagging middle? Picture this: You create a dynamite situation, building to a killer climax. In your mind and your synopsis, itâ€™s a canâ€™t-miss storyline.
Now comes the hard part: writing. You blast through fifty, seventy-five, maybe even a hundred-some-odd pages. Suddenly, you stop.
Look at all the rest of the pages you gotta fill before the climax. Scary.
It saddens me when authors let the tension drop at this point, regardless of whether theyâ€™re writing suspense or strictly relationship novels. The characters mill around, have way too much sex (unless youâ€™re writing erotica), talk things over repetitively, and worry.
Potentially interesting incidents may occur, but theyâ€™re episodic, springing out of nowhere and leading nowhere. Whereâ€™s the momentum? By the time that exciting and/or heart-tugging climax comes around, the tedium has claimed half your readers.
The good part is that, in the course of writing 80-plus novels and novellas, Iâ€™ve learned steps you can take to strengthen that sagging middle and make it fun.
Hereâ€™s what I do:
#1. Reread what Iâ€™ve written. Pick up the emotional thread.
#2. Reread my notes and bio sketches. Jot down lists of backstory and traits to include, and points to make.
#3. Look at the proposed climax and figure out what needs to happen to get there.
#4. Examine the proposed character arcs, and make sure theyâ€™re strong enough..
#5. Review the main relationship and conflict.
I develop a subplot or subplots that interweave all of these issues with the main plot. Ideally, the subplot (s) create an interaction between the external action and the charactersâ€™ internal development.
In Nine-Month Surprise (February), the second book in my Downhome Doctors miniseries for Harlequin American, the main storyline concerns the heroine getting pregnant by a man she met on an out-of-town trip, a guy who abandoned her while she slept. Then he turns up as her townâ€™s new obstetrician, divorced with 6-year-old twin daughters who enter her first-grade class.
So theyâ€™re thrown together. Sheâ€™s teaching his kids â€“ and sheâ€™s pregnant by him! Naturally, I created reasons for his emotional withdrawal and her emotional neediness. When they start to resolve their issues, thereâ€™s additional conflict because sheâ€™s determined to leave Downhome and take her dream job in Seattle..
BUT I donâ€™t write pages and pages of sex â€“ I need other interesting things to happen! And I preferred for them to involve his position as the townâ€™s obstetrician.
In reviewing my notes, I spotted some interesting secondary characters who were important in their lives. Thatâ€™s when I got a subplot idea.
The heroineâ€™s fortysomething aunt, a widow with a grown son, gets pregnant too, by a guy who thinks heâ€™s in love with someone else. This infuriates her son, a police lieutenant. Before he can start shooting, the obstetrician gets dragged in as mediator, with the heroineâ€™s help.
One more trick: I make sure that each scene sets up the next scene, so the story never stops dead. Little plot reversals, surprises, bits of suspense keep building to the turning points, which is when we get major reversals and kick the plot into a higher gear.
What I did with Nine-Month Surprise is NOT the kind of stuff that keeps my mystery/intrigue novels pumping. No dead bodies, no threats, no bumps in the night. But in a category romance, subplots should spark enough interest to keep the reader absorbed.
So if your bookâ€™s middle is sagging, look for storylines that will deepen and extend the main conflict and expand on the characters. Also, donâ€™t forget to build expectations and then twist the story so the reader gets a pleasant surprise.
The best part is, the writing goes faster when thereâ€™s forward momentum. Because I canâ€™t wait to find out what happens, too!
A few months ago, I got the news that any unpublished writer would be thrilled to getâ€”A revision letter from an editor was on its way to me.
This was for my single title, historical romance, TO REIGN EDEN, which is set in London and California in 1875. Technically, it could be termed an American historical and as many of you historical writers know, news of selling in that sub-genre has been grim the past few years. So, imagine my surprise when I actually received the letter and not a word was mentioned about changing the part of the story set in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I thought for certain the editor would tell me to expand the part set in London, but that wasnâ€™t the case. Of course, I re-read the letter, wondering if she missed the fact that itâ€™s set in the West. Nope, she hadnâ€™t missed it. Three-fourths of the book is set in the West. Wow. Terrific! Does this mean that Westerns are on their way back to bookstore shelves? I certainly hope so.
When the editor told me the letter was on its way to me, I rejoiced. Finally! Iâ€™m going to be given some direction for my story.
Then I get the letter. And I freeze. Waitâ€¦what happened to the excitement? The thrill? The changes were not complicated by any means, but for the life of me, I couldnâ€™t immediately see HOW they were to be made. Of course, the changes suggested by the editor would definitely make the story even stronger and that was a good thing, right? Then what the heck had happened to me? Was it just that I needed time to digest the notes and look at my story a different way? The seven months separation–while it was on the desk of the editor–wasnâ€™t enough time? I felt as if a wall as humongous as the Green Monster in Fenway Park blocked my path. Where did it come from? And how do I get around it? Scale it, move it, or go around?
I WANT to make the changes, I truly do. I want this to be the best story it can possibly be. And writingâ€™s a businessâ€¦I know that. Then how do I thaw out my fear of revision? Will this happen every time I get a revision letter? Or did it happen now because this is my first story and the first time I had ever submitted anything to the publishing industry? I really hope itâ€™s the latter.
Now, I havenâ€™t been just sitting around, not writing a word. My intent is for TO REIGN EDEN to be the first in a series about the dynamic Harrison family, so as soon as I sent off TRE, I wrote a first draft of another story and outlined the story of a third. But after working on those for several months and still not hearing back from the editor (and thinking she just simply threw it in the nearest trashcan where it belonged), I decided to cover my bases and start a contemporary romantic suspense that Iâ€™d been wanting to write for a few years. Yes, years. So I did.
Now, Iâ€™m nearly finished with the contemporary and Iâ€™ve received the revision letter for my historical, so now itâ€™s time to focus on that one again. Iâ€™m sure I can do it now. In fact, the thought of hitting the story hard this week has excitement running through my veins now, not fear. Maybe the contemporary story just demanded to be near completion before it would release me to go back to my historical. Doing just that, going around, seemed to be what I needed in order to get past that wall.
Wish me luck as I venture on the other side. And to any of you who have experienced the same fear that builds up that ugly mental block, I hope you find a way to face it down, too. If you have, what did you do to overcome your own Green Monster? Scale it, move it, or go around?
I adore fall. It truly is my favorite season. Even up here in perennially green Washington, we have enough leaf changing to warm my autumn loving heart. So imagine my horror, when here I am still enjoying my fall asters, my pumpkins are barely turning orange and my husbandâ€™s grumbling about falling leaves on his lawn, when the late night news does a spot about retailers putting Christmas stuff out earlier than usual.
â€œChristmas??? Itâ€™s only October,â€ I complained grumpily. Then I looked at the calendar and realized that perhaps it is time to start preparing for the holidays, but not the ones youâ€™re thinking of. Forget about the usual rush of the November and December and letâ€™s get perfectly clear about what is really bearing down on all of us: New Yearâ€™s Resolutions.
Now before you start grumbling about my putting the champagne wishes before the turkey platter, I intend to make a good case that the time is NOW to start thinking about where you want your writing career to go in 2006. Better now than at the end of a six week, turkey induced, sugar cookie propelled, one-more-piece-of-fudge-canâ€™t-hurt coma, only to find that on the morning of January 1st (after a few glasses of bubbly and a warm smooch from the DH) youâ€™ve vowed to write a bestselling, seven-figure advance, 650 page epic comedic romance set in the French Revolution.
So this year, letâ€™s have clearer heads prevail. What do you need to do in 2006 to take your career toward the next step? Yes, right now, make out your New Yearâ€™s goals for next year. Write them down, the first things that come to mind. What are they? Finish a book? Find more time to write? Find an agent? Try a new genre? Okay, those are great starts and usually where New Yearâ€™s goals end. By February 4th theyâ€™ll hardly be on your radar.
This year, take one more step and list under each of these goals the steps you need to take to accomplish it in 2006. Say you want to finish your book, but finding more writing time is a problem. Ask for an Alphasmart for Christmas. Come January 1st, youâ€™ll be writing on the go, and those pages can start adding up. Consider this: write one page a day, 250 measly words (they donâ€™t have to be perfect, spelling doesnâ€™t even count) and youâ€™ll have your draft done before the end of the year. Be creative, now, quick, get your goals in place, set a clear vision for 2006, before you wander into a Target and get caught up in a frenzy over those tins of Danish cookies or mesmerized by the twinkling of tree lights.
~ Elizabeth Boyle
This is the speech given by Mindy Neff and Sue Phillips in recognition of Chelly Kitzmiller at the October 2005 meeting of the Orange County Chapter of RWA.
I know there are a lot of people in this room who donâ€™t know Chelley–mainly because she moved off to the Tehachapi mountains! But I think itâ€™s so important for our members to understand our chapterâ€™s history, and for all of our past presidents and board sisters to be recognized and remembered.
Today, weâ€™d especially like to recognize and honor Chelley Kitzmiller, the very first president of our chapter, and Iâ€™d like to take a few minutes to tell you about this remarkable woman.
Way back in the day when authors had little or no access to other writers or writing workshops, Chelley was an avid romance reader with a burning desire to write. So, when she saw an announcement that Rita Clay Estrada was coming to California to establish a Romance Writers of America chapter, Chelley not only attended, she raised her hand and volunteered to lead our new chapter, organizing and putting in place many of the programs and services we still have and use today.
The first OCC meeting was held in Chelleyâ€™s house with only a handful of members. Later, the meetings moved to a restaurant and included lunch and a general meeting. It was Chelleyâ€™s idea to give out flowers for sales like we still do every month. She gave out daffodils, and somewhere along the way weâ€™ve merged into roses. She also set up the raffle–like weâ€™ll be doing this afternoon–and along with another member, began the OCC Unpublished contest and the mentor program. Although we no longer have the mentor program, it was very successful for many years and together with the contest, both programs have been highly instrumental in growing our chapterâ€™s membership.
Because I wanted you all to know more of the personal side of Chelley, I asked Sue Phillips and Jill Marie Landis for some highlights. Iâ€™ve already stolen Sueâ€™s thunder by mentioning some of her memories, so Iâ€™ll let her tell you what Jill Marie Landis had to say.
Jill says: â€œAnyone who really knows Chelley will tell you that the phrase, “That’s impossible” rarely enters her conversation. She’s tireless, loyal, enthusiastic and generous. Her close friends know to run for cover when she says, “Hey, I have an idea…” because she always has an idea.
â€œChelley is always on the move. Her enthusiasm and creativity know no bounds. Since her move to the mountains of Tehachapi, she’s started two successful bookstores and a Radio Shack, and organized a Tehachapi street fair–and thatâ€™s only a few of the things she’s done. Early in her career as a writer, she also worked as a publicist for other authors. She has a gift of pushing people to do better, or to at least see the other side.
“Chelley’s husband, Ted, is a self-proclaimed “Acorn Shaman.” He reads the acorns in the fall to predict the weather in Tehachapi. It started out as a joke to everyone but Ted, but now folks stop by the Radio Shack (which the Kitzmillers own in conjunction with their daughter’s bookstore, Books and Crannies) and ask for weather predictions before planning their vacations.
Her great love is animals. All kinds of animals. She is forever taking in abandoned dogs, Chihuahuas in particular. At any given time they have from six to eight of them around. (Jill calls them the piranha pack.) Chelley has two burros, an assortment of fowl, a cockatiel, cats, and an occasional goat. When she lived in Orange County, she owned a monkey.
Recently Chelley has taken up photography and is taking weekend workshops and classes so that she can submit and sell photographs along with her free lance writing for magazines. She also sells a line of her own photo cards. In addition to doing her own writing, she has ghost edited for a major New York Times author. Currently she has a novel being submitted to publishers, she’s working on a new book, and is under contract with Time West Magazine for a major travel article on the El Camino Real and California Missions.
I have to say, Chelley, that you are one amazing woman, and weâ€™re very lucky that you were here 24 years ago, willing to give your time and energy and talents to take a handful of romance authors and hopefuls under your wing, setting in motion the fabulous Orange County chapter that we are today.
Would everyone please join me in a toast to Chelley Kitzmiller, who raised her hand 24 years ago and became the first president of our Orange County chapter. Thank you, Chelley!
In appreciation for all youâ€™ve done for our chapter, weâ€™d like to give you this plaque in honor of your leadership and service as our first OCC President.
I entered my first contest in 1999 and finaled, ultimately placing last in my category. Even though I didn’t enter again for a few years, I was hooked. In the past three years I’ve entered more contests than I’d like to count, finaled in enough to be proud of, received editor requests, made friends with other contest divas, and had my hopes crushed many times.
Contests are a fun ride, they’re nerve wracking, and aggravating–sometimes all together. Are they worth the time, trouble, and expense?
Absolutely. You get used to sending your work out. You develop tougher skin by learning how to take criticism–even when it’s wrong. And sometimes you get comments that are tremendously helpful.
If you final, it’s an opportunity to get your work in front of an editor. Not all contests provide editorial feedback, but at the very least, by their placement, you see how the editor responds to your work. Editors do request partial and full manuscripts off contests. And, sometimes they buy them.
Okay, now that you’re interested, let’s talk strategy. Not all contests are created equal. Some are just for the first few pages, some are for fifty-five pages (including synopsis), and some are just for queries or a first kiss. You have to decide where your work fits best, and what you want to get out of it.
Targeting the final judge is often a good idea. Are you aiming for a particular judge from Harlequin or Pocket or Avon? Some contests only use published authors for their preliminary judges, like the Orange Rose and the Maggie.
Should your manuscript be complete before entering a contest? Heavens no! Of course, if you win and get a request, you might wish it was, but if you are entering for feedback it’s best not to have completed the manuscript first.
Do all contests cost money? Actually, no. There are writing contests run on websites, and there are writing contests run by publishers, like the Delacorte YA Contest and Harlequin for their new Epic line.
More strategy: some contest websites have the score sheet you can download. If it has high points for the h/h meeting in the first chapter and yours don’t, that’s probably not the right contest for that particular story.
There are so many contests to choose from! These days almost every RWA chapter has one. Many of them are listed in the RWR. There are also two contest loops you can join. My favorite is Donna Caubarreaux’s Contest Alert and it’s accompanying website Diva’s with Tiaras. Every year Donna keeps track of contest finals and wins and three top achievers get a tiara! (Bring your own boa). To sign up for her contest loop send a blank email to ContestAlertfirstname.lastname@example.org. RWA also has a contest loop. To join send a blank email to email@example.com (you have to be a member of RWAalert to join).
I picked this topic because on October 8, OCC will be celebrating its 24th Annual Birthday Bash. The Orange Rose winners (both pubbed and unpubbed) will be announced. Along with nine talented writers (three of whom are my OCC sisters), I’m a finalist in the unpubbed contest. Wish us all the best! We’re really all winners, because we’re writing and getting our work out there. Bottom line, that’s what this is all about.
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