Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Help! My Writing Stinks!

Fellow Golden Heart finalist Courtney Milan shares how she turns frustration into inspiration.

What do you write?

The easy answer is that I write historical romances.

The harder answer is I write historical romances set in the interstitial period between the Regency and the Victorian era. Over those few generations, the whole idea of "society" changed from one where people had lived for generation after generation, doing the same inherited jobs for generation after generation, moving in the same social circles for generation after generation . . . . Suddenly, society broke down (especially among the lower classes--but this trickled upwards). People started moving; the industrial age broke out with a vengeance, and the result was a large class of much more mobile workers, instead of a long-rooted rural class.

In the upper classes, this meant that land lost its value as currency. And noble obligation shifted from a system that was almost feudal in terms of its dependency to the far more laissez-faire capitalism that dominated the nineteenth century. People that understood this profited (quite often at the expense of others); those that clung to the old ways did not. It was a time of tremendous social upheaval, and part of what was so upsetting for many is that long-rooted traditions simply disappeared over the course of a decade.

I think there are a number of strong parallels between that time period and ours today. Our grandparents recognize that the world has altered hugely; the children of today, I think, will think that the word "community" means something very different than what they had in their world. I'm not trying to knock either definition; quite the opposite. I think that one of the fundamental human hungers is for community, for a place in society where you fit in and are needed and need others in return. For all that people talk about capitalism and commerce in the news, I think what we most desire is giving. We need to feel like we have something special to give, and we want to receive in return. Love is both the most selfish and the most generous thing in the world.

Romance, in my mind, is ultimately about that hunger. It's about finding the person that grounds you in community. I love writing in an inherently selfish time when the very notion of "community" was in flux, because it means that my hero and my heroine can not only be missing love in their lives, but often are missing that vital connection--and it's one that has been disrupted because the community they would have fallen into twenty years ago no longer really exists in a form that sustains them. So they not only have to grope their way towards love, but they have to invent a place where the future stops being scary.

So the long answer to "what do I write?" is: I write romances where people learn that joining a community--joining the right community--isn't about subsuming themselves into another person or a family, but realizing that love in all its forms makes you into a bigger person.

How long have you been seriously pursuing your writing?

I've been reading longer than I can remember (my mom taught me to read starting as soon as my eyes would focus on a point). I never really stopped. It seemed natural, when I was ten, to want to be an author. I wrote a book. It was not very good, and unfortunately, my self-awareness was a lot better than my ability. I tried again, and again, and again (although I never actually wrote another novel). My honest assessment at that point was that while I was a decent writer, in terms of crafting sentences, I was absolute crap with anything above essay-length.

So I gave up when I was eighteen or so. Mumble-something-years later, I participated in Avon's FanLit contest, and met people who really encouraged me to write seriously. So I did. This was about a year and a half ago--in October of 2006. Luckily, mumble-something years had given me more maturity.

But the honest answer is that I have always been seriously pursuing writing. I've never stopped writing, even though I stopped writing fiction. It's just that my writing took other forms.

Is the Golden Heart your first contest final?

Well.... no. I finaled in two contests somewhat earlier, too--but I have to admit the only reason I entered them was to get feedback for the Golden Heart.

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?

My writing moods vary from "I am a genius! Bow before me!" (please someone else admit you have those days too! they're embarrassing to fess up to, but they're SO FUN when they happen) to "I am an idiot--how have I ever managed to convince anyone I am halfway worthwhile? I better delete my book and eat worms."

What do you do with those "eat worms" moments?

I try to use those moments to make lists of things I think I can do to improve. If I did actual editing in the bad moods, I think I could do significant damage. Forcing myself to be really, really specific helps a lot, because it takes all that negativity and makes it constructive.

Can you give an example?

In my last "I am an idiot" mood, I started with the following:

* I am an idiot because my sex scenes are lame and boring.

And then I made myself elaborate:

* My sex scenes are lame because there isn't enough emotion connecting the characters, and they are boring, because they feel like an ordered check list of then-he-touched- that. Yawn.

Which then turned into:

* This scene really shouldn't be about sex; it's all about how my hero doesn't want to say goodbye. And that's what he's trying to communicate the whole time.

* Gee. How do other people who write good sex scenes get around the laundry list? I'm going to go check people who are good at this. Huh--Elizabeth Hoyt uses a lot of actions, but she never lets it feel like a laundry list. Hey--it's because her actions are both specific and reactive. She really slows the crucial moments down and weaves the emotion in, so that every breath is about the underlying conflict in that scene.

So it's all about taking what you don't like and figuring out WHY it isn't working for you?

It's surprising how soon "I am an idiot" can turn into a plan to escape idiocy. So if you're having one of those days . . . run with it! Pick a part of your manuscript and use all that negativity to get specific and constructive. And if you're harping at yourself about something you really can't change, move on and find something that you can do something about.

All you have to do is make sure that if you're saying, "I am a wannabe," you add, "I am a wannabe because . . ." And keep adding that "because" until you've focused in on a specific thing you're doing wrong, and you've identified a way to do it better.

To learn more about Courtney Milan's writing (and what she does in her spare time!), go here.


  1. My writing moods vary from "I am a genius! Bow before me!" (please someone else admit you have those days too! they're embarrassing to fess up to, but they're SO FUN when they happen)

    Oh I have those days too! *grins* Then I run into a door or sit on a plate of food (no fooling). I figure it's the universe's way of keeping me humble. :D


  2. Such a great ideas, Courtney, about turning something that is lacklustre into something that will really grab the reader. Digging into that emotion, but not with a recipe-like, "add 'furrowed brow' approach.

    I often know THAT a scene stinks, but can't figure out what to do. So, I either pick at little pieces of it, like it's a knot I'm trying to disentangle.

    Or I cut the whole thing.

    LOL. I like your more moderate, insightful approach.

    Great thoughts, Courtney. Great topic, CJ. Thanks for having Courtney on! (OK, now it sounds like I'm on a TV talk show. LOL)


  3. Cool post. Very helpful. Thanks!

  4. Hi Courtney! *waves* Welcome to the blog.

    I like this idea. It's proactive and useful.

  5. A great topic, and useful advice. My "genius" days are few and far between, but my "idiot" days, well... Turning those doubts into an opportunity for growth is a fabulous idea. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This has to be the most helpful blog ever. when i get stuck while writing, I mope and then take a break (to clear my mind) and then give up and just start writing another part of the story. Your way sounds much more productive. Thanks Courtney.


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