Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest author Barbara Monajem: Hmm, does this story work?

Barbara Monajem wrote her first story in third grade about apple tree gnomes. After dabbling in neighborhood musicals and teen melodrama, she published a middle-grade fantasy when her children were young. Now her kids are adults, and she's writing historical and paranormal romance for grownups. She is the author of the Bayou Gavotte paranormal romances Sunrise in a Garden of Love & Evil and Tastes of Love & Evil, as well as three Regency novellas for Harlequin Undone: Notorious Eliza, The Wanton Governess, and The Unrepentant Rake. She lives in Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.

Last month, I submitted a full manuscript – a Regency – to my editor at Harlequin. A few weeks later, I got my revision letter. She wanted lots and lots of changes.

This in itself wasn’t a surprise.  I never get it quite right the first time, so thank God for editors. I’ve had four so far, and they’ve all been great at picking out what’s not working, at asking good questions, at putting me back on track. They’re not always right, but in this case she was 90 percent spot on. I suffered a minor twinge of dismay at having so much rewriting to do, but what really, really bugged me about this particular revision letter was that I already knew much of what was wrong with the story. Not consciously, or I wouldn’t have sent it in – but subconsciously, I knew, and had known all along. Thinking back, I remembered being uneasy about certain aspects of the story. I even recalled passages where I’d thought, “Hmm, does this work?” But those niggling doubts hadn’t registered strongly enough for me to do something about them.

This is a problem.  The more an author hones her craft, the more aspects of it should take care of themselves automatically. We learn to vary our sentence structure, to cut excess words, to stick to one point of view at a time, and so on. Catching what’s not working story-wise before sending it to an editor is just as important. Obviously, what works and doesn’t depends a lot on the genre you’re writing, but I’ve written for Harlequin before, I’ve received both acceptances and rejections, and I know more or less what they want.  I should get more and more efficient…right?

Hopefully so, but on the other hand, writers aren’t robots. We can’t write the same old stuff every time without getting burnt out or bored to death. We have to be willing to take chances, to listen to the muse, do something different even while doing the same. Which leads me to what I’ve been blogging about this month – my latest novella for Harlequin Undone, The Romance of the Toe Bone.

No , that’s not the real title. I knew Harlequin wouldn’t go for that. It’s actually called The Unrepentant Rake, which perfectly captures the hero’s personality. (He was a hoot to write!) But the story premise and the happily ever after depend on a holy relic that’s been passed down in the heroine’s family for centuries— the toe bone of St. Davnet, an Irish saint of the 6th or 7th centuries.

My muse loved the toe bone concept, and so did I!  It was so much fun. And yet, I was sure my editor would find it too weird – so sure that I forgot to look for St. Davnet’s staff when I visited the National Museum of Ireland last summer. (Duh! I wanted to see the staff anyway, and it’s not like I get to jet over to Dublin any old time I like.) I was surprised when her revision letter didn’t tell me to ditch the toe bone, and even more surprised when she accepted the revised story, toe bone and all.

Sooo… What do you listen to? Experience? Commonsense? Instinct? The muse? I hope to get better at this, but sometimes, I just don’t know.

One lucky commenter will receive a free download of The Unrepentant Rake.


Liane Spicer said...

Hi Barbara, welcome to Novel Spaces and congrats on your new releases!

I've had that same experience with feedback from my critique partner. Realised I'd been thinking the same things (manifested as little niggling uncertainties) but either didn't trust my own judgement or rationalised too much. I think it happens when we've written and edited a story and become so familiar with it that we can't find an objective distance - which is where the critique partner or editor comes in.

So - I listen to all of the above, but sometimes it just takes that second pair of eyes to clarify things. That's why even the most experienced, gifted writers need an editor. I read an article recently where someone examined the short story submission of a famous writer, a short story that was first pubbed in New Yorker and is considered a masterpiece. The submitted version was a far cry from the published version; it took the editor's pruning and shaping to become the gem it was meant to be.

Charles Gramlich said...

That hits the nail on the head for me, that niggling little doubt that I ignore. I don't know why I do that because it comes back to bite me. But it's for reasons like that that I claim the title of laziness for myself.

Mia Loveless said...

For me, I'll listen to the combinations of experience, commonsense, instinct and the muse. By then, it will be perfect :-) Is there really something like that? Mia Loveless

KeVin K. said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Barbara.

I've only had one bad experience with an editor. She was on a deadline and rather than tell me what she wanted changed in a short story, she rewrote the sections herself. My first clue was when layout sent me the page proofs. I yanked my name off the story.
That one instance aside, every time I've worked with an editor the revised story has been better than the original - even when I don't do everything the editor wanted.

Liane mentioned her critique partner and I know many writers have trusted first readers or beta readers. I've never done that. Whenever I feel I'd like someone else to look at what I'm working on, it's a sign I've lost sight of the story. My first reader is always an editor at a paying market.
Do you have critique partners or first readers? Or do you rely on your own craftsmanship to complete the project, then listen to the advice of an editor?

Barbara Monajem said...

Hi, Liane -- Thanks for having me here. You're right about objective distance. Often, I think I've made something completely clear, but my critiquer says, "Huh?"

Hi, Charles. Hmm. Maybe I should get out that old wet noodle and slap myself a couple of times.

Hi, Mia. LOL. I don't think I want to achieve perfection -- it would be an impossible act to follow! ;)

Hi, KeVin -- One of my editors wrote a few paragraphs when we were on a tight deadline. It wasn't my voice, exactly, but it worked well enough. I do run my stories by a critiquer first. She definitely helps but doesn't usually pick up on the same stuff as the editors...

Josie said...

You said it right on. At this point, many of us know what to do, but it takes a good editor to make our story and writing better. And,

Best wishes on your newest release! I'm sure it will be another smashing success.

Mary Ricksen said...

See now here's the problem. I like the toe bone thingee!Good luck dear friend!

Barbara Monajem said...

Hi, Josie -- I am so grateful for editors and their expertise! And thanks for the good wishes.

Hi, Mary -- LOL. I confess to a great fondness for the toe bone, too. :)

Nightingale said...

I find that as I learn more I over edit myself. I love your work and your covers are super.

Louisa Cornell said...


Great post and you hit a lot of my hot buttons. It is SO hard to know which to listen to more - instinct, knowledgeable critique partners, judges from contests and any of a 1000 other sources. And the worst is the idea if you listen to it all your book may sound as if it was written by committee. I am truly fortunate to have a fantastic critique partner who isn't afraid to call me on it when I overwrite, underwrite or go down the garden path. And our relationship is such that if I decide to go with what I have she backs me all the way.

Working on my fourth manuscript now and I think I am getting better at realizing when something just doesn't work. I certainly hope so!

Judy said...

Each novel/story is an adventure and I agree that certain facets of writing should become easier as we go forward but the most important thing as you pointed out is to take chances and write from the heart. I love that you had fun with the story! Good luck with it!

Barbara Monajem said...

Hi, Nightingale -- I guess either over- or under-editing can be a problem. How to reach that happy medium??

Hi, Louisa -- Great to see you here! As one who has wandered down many garden paths, I sympathize. ;)

Hi, Judy -- You're right, each one is an adventure. You need the know-how and the equipment, but you also have to take some risks.

Jewel Amethyst said...

In my first book, my editor worked with me to rework the book. Believe it or not, half the edits she made I had done myself in the time between submitting the book and recieving the acceptance. And yes, it was those little niggling doubts that drove the revision.