Sorry guys, this is meant to be a book review, but I didn’t get time to read anything to review. My posts are always more like ”learn from my mistakes”. This is another one!
It’s been an “interesting” week.
Now “interesting” can mean good or bad, can’t it. If you’d asked me on Thursday evening, I’d have said bad, horrendously bad. Today, looking back, it’s pretty darned good.
On Thursday, I got a rejection, my third, from the Mills & Boon London office, on a submission for the August Medical Fast Track.
What could be good about that? Has Jane finally lost the few remaining marbles in the rattly tin can that passes as her brain?
When I got home from work and read that email, saw the horrible impersonal words of the form R, I could have cried. I didn’t. I swallowed the tears with a strawberry milkshake and a big piece of banana bread (still being a good girl and sticking to my diet- it was my home made high protein lower carb version of comfort food!), and pretended I was okay. I wasn’t. It hurt worse than a hard kick in the guts.
I’d had my doubts about subbing. Medical wasn’t a line I’d seriously thought about writing for. I’m a nurse, and I think it’s harder for people with a real medical background to write a Medical. Nurses have the medical knowledge and know the reality of working in a big hospital or a GP surgery, but that’s not what a Medical romance is about. It’s about the romance! But still, it was a good opportunity to get feedback fast from a Mills and Boon editor. I had a story idea and characters I knew well with a situation that I thought could be Medicalised. Once I got the Superromance partial I’d been working on subbed, I started on this one.
I wasn’t happy with it. Even Tuesday morning (last day for Fast Track submissions), I wasn’t going to sub. I didn’t want to let my characters down by sending them in too soon. Then Tuesday evening I though what the heck, what have I got to lose, I might get some useful feedback. Though I knew I’d thrown together the chapter in a hurry and it wasn’t my best writing, though I knew my characters and situation probably didn’t fit the line, I still hoped to get some comments, something I could use. The form R at first seemed worse than useless.
Whilst we appreciate the care and attention that has gone into the preparation of your submission, regrettably we feel that your story and characters are not sufficiently developed for publication in any of our publishing programmes.
Here are our top tips to bear in mind for your next submission:
- Ensure that your story and conflict are character-driven.
- Focus on the internal emotional conflict of your characters
- Use secondary characters to add richness and depth to your central romance but don’t let them take over!
- Target your work to a particular series – this means you need to read current books in the series you are aiming for and understand what that series delivers to the reader.
We are pleased to have had the opportunity to see your work, and thank you for thinking of Harlequin Mills & Boon.
Arrgghh! It feels like no feedback at all. Feels like I’ve gone backwards, when my first rejection had some personalised feedback and a compliments slip, and the last two have been pure form. Impersonal, nothing directly relating to my actual submission. Feels like all it’s telling me is “Give up, now, your writing sucks.” And yes, that was my first instinctive reaction- I should give up and save myself the pain.
The second thought (once the ouch of it stopped stinging so much) was “I’m not going to stop writing. I’ll still keep doing it anyway no matter what. I’m not going to let this make me give up on romance for years like I did before. So what can I possibly learn from that about how to improve my writing and give myself a better chance next time I sub?”
Turns out, plenty! I was so wrong after my last form R to see it as no feedback. It was feedback, just not the feedback I wanted.
I might think that my characters and story are well developed, my story is character driven, my secondary characters don’t take over at all,and my story does so fit the line, but if that doesn’t come across to the editor reading my submission, I haven’t done my job properly.
I took a step back from the hurt feeling and looked at what I’d sent in. Oh. My. Goodness. So much wrong with it! It’s a wonder the editor (Anna Boatman, BTW) was kind enough to send a form R. She should have just sent back the shortest rejection ever- “WTF?” Okay, there are a few bits here and there that I like, reading it back there are several things that make me smile, but overall, it’s baaaaaad. Breaks all the rules, and not in a good way!
Here, in the spirit of being a salutary lesson in what not to do in your submissions (I’m sure none of you will commit all these sins in the same sub like I did!), are all the mistakes I made-
- Hero and heroine don’t meet soon enough- started with a four page prologue with the heroine and her best friend talking in an office. The hero is talked about. Then I go on to write another four pages in hero POV before he and the heroine meet, briefly, and hardly talk. He is by himself for those four pages and the two that follow. Then I have the heroine by herself thinking about the meeting with the hero while she’s doing other things for four pages. Finally, on the last page of chapter one, the hero and heroine meet properly. When I rewrite, they’ll be together from page 1!
- Infodump central- any time characters are by themselves thinking, even if they’re doing things at the same time, the risk of dumping in backstory is high. I sure did. I thought I was being subtle about it, but no, it’s still infodump. I need to drip this in, keep some things back. The characters don’t need to tell us all about themselves in chapter one.
- Not enough dialogue- The characters are by themselves for too much of the chapter. When they do talk, it’s mainly to other people. There’s a total of four lines of dialogue between the hero and heroine in the whole chapter. Getting the heroine and heroine together faster will fix this too.
- Characters seem unsympathetic- I know these characters inside out, so I know they are good strong likeable people. That didn’t come across at all in my first chapter. All that internal monologue made them seem self-centred, whiny, and weak. Especially my hero, who is a wounded Warrior, battling with survivor guilt and finding his place in the world. It can be tough to make a hero like that Alpha enough for the lines that need an Alpha hero. Best not to make the readers first view of him be sitting around feeling sorry for himself! He needs to be shown as damaged, yet strong. I didn’t do the heroine any favours either. She’s a dedicated nurse, on call 24/7 for her small community. Having the first thing she’s shown doing as taking the afternoon off to go skinny dipping in the creek wasn’t the best idea! The reader will understand and accept that later, when they see how hard she works and how much she cares for her patients, but not at first meeting. And especially not in the Medical line, where medical staff who care for their patients beyong anything realistic is part of the promise. Which leads me to…
- Not fitting the line- I have a hero who isn’t a doctor. One strike. I have a hero who’s not really Alpha- two strikes. I have an unusual setting that I’ve never seen used in a Medical before. Three strikes, I’m out. A fourth isn’t needed, but I had another one- nothing “medical” in the first chapter to set the scene properly and give the medical setting that will be the backdrop to the unfolding romance. This story is not a Medical. I tried to Medicalise it so I had something for the Fast Track, and it didn’t work. I should know that trying to write something to fit a line that’s not right for me because it’s “Too good an opportunity to miss”, isn’t a good idea. I tried it with the Presents contests, but I didn’t learn and went and did it again. Oops! Still, I’m kinda glad I did, because I learned so much from it, from all those failed attempts. It’s not a failure if I walk away nodding thinking, yeah, I learned something there I can use, something valuable.
- Not enough focus on the relationship and internal conflicts- okay, that’s obvious in chapter one. The characters weren’t together long enough! But the seeds of the internal conflict are there, aren’t they? And I thought I’d brought the developing relationship and the emotional conflicts out well in my synopsis, hadn’t I? Wrong! On both counts. The seeds of the internal conflict are there, sure, but in internal monologue infodumps. Without the characters together on the page, it doesn’t mean anything that the heroine tells us she is wary of getting involved again after the last disastrous relationship, and the hero tells us he feels guilty about his best frind dying in the incident that seriously wounded him. Conflict only works when each character’s issues are triggered by the other main character. It’s dynamic, not static. The synopsis deserves a section of it’s own…
- Synopsis is a list of external events- oh dear. I really thought I had this one right. I hoped that showing I had a good story in my synopsis would encourage the editor to overlook the flaws in my first chapter and ask for more, with some revision suggestions of course. Only when I asked the other Sisters to look at it did I realise I’d left out the most important part- the relationship issues. Not completely, it’s there, but I just haven’t made it clearly focused enough. This was a major lightbulb moment for me. My synopsis makes it look like the external stuff is what catalyses the change in the characters and the relationship. Which jumps to another of the form R’s points…
- Story not character driven- I couldn’t see how this applied to my story. It was all about the characters and their issues. But what I sent off didn’t show that. The chapter showed stuff happening and the characters thinking about it. The synopsis just showed stuff happening. What I wasn’t showing and hadn’t fully realised myself was- the external events reflect and symbolise the internal situation, but they don’t make it happen. The character’s internal shifts are what makes it happen. I can have exactly the same story and have it internally driven not externally driven. This is big, because it changes not just how I approach my synopsis but the whole story. I knew on one level that all these external events symbolised internal shifts, but it just clicked on a much deeper level what that means when I’m writing. It’s about what drives the story, what makes things happen, what comes first, the internal shift or the external event. Here’s an example.- there’s a country ball in the story, and the heroine’s friend plays Fairy Godmother and makes her over for the Ball. The synopsis reads that the friend pushes her into it. Nope. How it needs to happen is that the heroine is ready to change, has already decided she wants to let the hero see who she really can be, and asks her friend for help.
- Secondary characters- this story has a lot of secondary characters. It’s set in a small community, and the heroine works with them all. I want and need those secondary characters in the story, but they need to be kept secondary, and not get in the way of the focus on the central realtionship. They won’t in the completed story, but in the synopsis a secondary character gets a whole paragraph, and in the first chapter the heroine spends more time with two other secondary characters than with the hero. They are all good, colourful, interesting secondary characters, but that’s not how it works in category romance! The other thing I see myself doing is thinking “Series”, adding in secondary characters not because they are necessary to this story but because I want to write their story to in another book.
- Worst mistake of all- not honouring my own best way to write. I know I write my way into stories. I know the best way for me to write is to do a quick first draft so I really know the characters and the story, then throw most of it away in the rewrite. I know my first draft first chapter is going to be absolute crap and nothing like the first chapter in the finished version. So why the hell did I go against that completely and try to write a first chapter and synopsis in two weeks when I know that’s not how I write? I guess so I would have this fab learning experience and be able to write a rambling blog post about it!
So who’s brave enough to share what they’ve learned from their rejection letters?
Oh, and just so it’s not all doom and gloom and because you deserve a reward if you’ve read this far, here’s a half-naked man for you- the inspiration for my hero!