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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Finding an Honest Compass

Please welcome guest blogger Carrie Lofty

This past weekend I attended the Wisconsin RWA chapter's conference just outside Milwaukee. During a workshop, one of the attending editors cited a passage of someone's manuscript and mentioned that it contained both "lovely" and "forced" imagery. I understood what was meant, of course, and most writers would--keep what works and ditch the rest. In fact, I probably could've compared notes with that editor to find many shared opinions regarding what deserved to stay and what proved distracting, clichéd or tedious.

But that concept is exceptionally difficult to apply to one's own work.

How can you tell which details to leave and which to cut? What makes the story more authentic, and what drags it to a slow, miserable death? Where is emotion stored in all those words? I don't know about you, but my words start to jumble and taunt as I get deeper into the puzzle of revisions. Losing my way almost seems part of the job--hence my reliance on the "compass" metaphor.

So how to develop your own honest internal writing compass?

My first suggestion is that you keep every detail grounded in point of view. If a detail doesn't help enhance or deeper a character's persona, it has to go. One of my favorite little phrases in my debut, WHAT A SCOUNDREL WANTS (http://www.carrielofty.com/WaSW.html), was "cinnabar red." However, that attention to color detail really didn't suit my hero, especially as he was running through the woods to escape armed soldiers. And I obviously couldn't use it from my blind heroine's point of view!

However in my current work in progress (http://www.carrielofty.com/Portrait.html), the heroine is a painter. I let her dwell on color to her heart's content. In fact she obsesses over color. Her gloves and her gown are both purple, but the shades are not exact. That knowledge bothers her and enhances the feeling that she's out of place at a formal supper. Point of view dictates every detail choice.

My second suggestion is that you read liberally from other people's unedited manuscripts. When I say "unedited," I mean those works which have not yet been polished by a professional editor. Published books a great for showing you what works. The compelling stuff is all still there! But you never get to see the dreck that was cut long before printing.

Seeing what doesn't work can be far more obvious than examining what does. When I'm reading a book that compels me to turn the pages faster and faster, I'm not in the mood to break it down and tease out the threads of beauty. Part of me doesn't want do for fear of spoiling the magic.

I judge contests for my local RWA chapters, and I help my critique partners find their ways out of messy first drafts. As such, I see a lot of works where all the dreck is still thriving like wordy weeds. It's all there--clichés, weak verb choices, awkward metaphors and similes. In one recent batch of entries, I noticed a whole host of new romance clichés, including heroes whose noses were broken in fights (all the better to give aristocrats that sexy edge of rough physicality). I ran right back to my work in progress and cut that exact same cliché!

Seeing your own mistakes reflected in someone else's work can be a fantastic learning tool, as long as you're honest about flaws and strengths. Finding that honesty is part of our job as writers. We're striving to be more honest with regard to human emotion, characterization and the nature of love and life. But that process begins with honesty in our own brains.

This is where I advocate the use of trusted critique partners for those authors who haven't found their own internal compasses just yet. Craft classes can also be useful, such as my upcoming FF&P workshop where I dive deeper into the topic of point of view (http://www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=159). The process of consistently and critically examining your novel(s), craft and writing style can be a heart-wrenching experience. Then again, so is getting another rejection letter.

So get to work! Look in dark corners and poke at your weak spots until they toughen up. Only then will your rejections turn to requests, your requests into sales, and your sales into untold fame and fortune. (I'm still waiting on that last part!)

Born in California, raised in the Midwest, Carrie Lofty met her husband in England—the best souvenir! Since earning her master’s degree in history, she’s been devoted to raising two precocious daughters and writing romance. Her January release, Scoundrel’s Kiss, featuring a Spanish warrior monk and the troubled woman he’s sworn to protect, was the sequel to her Robin Hood-themed debut, What a Scoundrel Wants. This June, Carrie’s sensual tale of two lovelorn musicians in Napoleonic Austria will help launch Carina Press, Harlequin’s new all-digital venture. With Ann Aguirre, she co-writes hot'n'dirty apocalyptic pararnormal romances as Ellen Connor. Their "Dark Age Dawning" trilogy is coming soon from Penguin.  http://www.carrielofty.com/  http://ellenconnor.com/

Beyond Research: Stronger POV & Effective Use of Detail runs from June
6th through July 11th with a break for the holiday


Pamala Knight said...

Great advice Carrie! I totally agree with all your points. When I judged contest entries earlier this year, I was amazed at the devices (cliches, etc.) that took me out of the narrative and were ones that I also employ in my writing.

I'll be signing up for the POV class too. Can't wait!

Kelly McCrady said...

Great advice, Carrie. Curiosity point--did you have your painter use the term "cinnabar red" that you couldn't use for Will? No sense letting such a fine description stay on the cutting room floor :-)