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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Letting Go of Your Novel

Please welcome guest blogger Kara Lennox

I love revisions.

Well, let me rephrase that. I love to analyze a novel-in-process, figure out what’s wrong with it, then tear it apart and fix it. I love that moment of discovery when I can see why a book isn’t working, and the moment of blinding clarity when I know how to fix it.

Sometimes, that requires a page 1 rewrite. Sometimes, merely revising one pivotal scene will make all the difference in the world. I might need to alter a key relationship (change the heroine’s boss into her father, to make a certain conflict more personal) or raise the stakes (she won’t just lose her job, she’ll trash her reputation in the industry).

Then there are those books that nothing will save.

I don’t often abandon a book. Yes, I have several half-finished books on my hard drive. Most of those aren’t abandoned; they’re merely “resting.” But a few books have been officially abandoned because they harbor fatal flaws no amount of revision can fix. It’s a tough decision, saying good-bye to an idea that once held such promise. But like pulling a bad tooth, it has to be done.

Here’s an example:

When I was writing regularly for Harlequin American, I got this idea, and it so tickled my funny bone that I had to write it. The premise involved a hero who was trying to quit smoking. I wrote up the proposal, it was approved (as in, money was sent), and then my editor gave me the bad news: “I don’t know what I was thinking, but we just can’t have a hero in the American line who smokes.”

There was absolutely no way to change the story; the hero’s smoking habit was integral to the plot. If I took it out, I would have no story. While I’m convinced the book would have worked on some level, it wasn’t going to work for American, and it just didn’t fit anywhere else.

Another book I abandoned was a “dark chick lit” book. The title was Mary Sunshine Must Die. My heroine was a not-so-nice person who set out to sabotage the career of Mary, the new girl in the office who appeared to be living a perfect, charmed life. During the course of the story, my heroine comes to realize her rival is not perfect after all, and she becomes Mary’s champion. It was a huge character arc.

The problem was, while a flawed heroine is okay, mine was simply too flawed. No one could stand her, and they weren’t going to stick with her over hundreds of pages to see her make the change. As I worked this book over and over, trying to fix it and still keep what made the book special for me, the chick lit market crashed. I had to abandon it.

It’s a heart-rending decision to let go of a story you love. But sometimes you must—for your own good.

Plots can be fixed. (Yes, I am teaching a class called Plot Fixer for FF&P next month!) But an unsympathetic main character or a premise that’s just not compelling, or doesn’t fit into the marketing niche you’re aiming for—those are often fatal flaws.

If you have been grinding away on the same book for years, if it’s been rejected twenty times, let it go. (Yes, there are famous success stories of books that collected zillions of rejections before becoming a huge bestseller; if you’ve written Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Hunt for Red October, feel free to ignore me.)

Start something new! Sometimes, after you’ve written five or six books, you can go back to the one you left behind and see instantly what the problem is. Every so often I go back and look at abandoned projects. Usually, I feel no inclination to drag something out and try to fix it. The longer an abandoned project sits, the easier it is for me to see why no one liked it.

Only once did I revise an old book and sell it. One Stubborn Texan was rejected at least twice by Harlequin, in the early 1990s, but after ripping it apart and putting it back together, I eventually sold it to them a dozen years later.

I know it’s hard, but learn to let go of those old, shopworn stories. You’re a professional; your books are your product. The more you write, the less sentimental attachment you’ll have to any one story, and the easier it will be to make pragmatic decisions about where lies your best chance of publishing success.

(But, hey, anyone want to publish a heartwarming, sexy category romance with a hero who smokes?)

Plot Fixer, presented by Kara Lennox, runs from November 7, 2011 through December 4, 2011

Kara Lennox (a.k.a. Karen Leabo) has written more than 50 contemporary romance novels for Harlequin/Silhouette and Bantam Loveswept. Since her first novel was released in 1989, her books frequently appear on romance bestseller lists and have finaled in several romance industry contests including the National Readers' Choice Awards, the Holt Medallion competition, and the RITA. Her Harlequin American Romance PLAIN JANE'S PLAN won a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice award.

Kara is a frequent speaker on a variety of topics at writers' conferences around the country. She also teaches many of her workshops as online classes. Currently she is working on a romantic suspense trilogy, "Project Justice," for Harlequin Superromance, to be published in 2011.

On a good day, Kara writes ten pages before lunch. Visit her online at her blog: http://karalennox.wordpress.com.


Jeanette said...

I for one would LOVE to read a romance novel about a smoker (it's a dirty habit, but it's still hot). One about someone trying to quit sounds brilliant.

It is sad to give up on a novel, but sometimes it's like euthanasia and it really is the kind thing to do.

Great post. Lots of food for thought...

Kara Lennox said...

Thanks, Jeanette. Maybe someday soon I will publish the smoker book myself!