Today I thought we’d talk about challenging yourself when you write.
Do we have to?
But I’ve just finished writing an entire damn book. Isn’t that enough of a challenge?
So what makes you so qualified to tell me I need to challenge myself, huh?
Mmmm. Good question. How about I tell you a story about how an unpublished writer finally became a published author?
(Sigh). If you must.
It’s a good one, I promise.
Sheesh! Whatever. Knock yourself out.
Once upon a time, our heroine–let’s call her Anne–thought she’d have a go at writing a novel. Anne was an avid reader of many genres but her favorite books to read were SciFi and fantasy. After a couple of truly tragic attempts to write chick-lit (a la Marian Keyes or Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones’s Diary fame) she finally decided to write a fantasy about a blind woman plucked from her protected life on Earth and transported to a primitive world where magic and gods exist.
Mmm, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.
Well, this young blind woman is transformed by potent magic into a Seer, a being with awe-inspiring powers at her command–if only she can learn to use them before they kill her. And she–
Hey! Nice try. Let’s get back to the real story. It took Anne 9 months to write Seer’s Hope, and when the manuscript actually finalled in the first contest she ever entered, she figured she might not be too bad at this writing stuff. In fact, when she discovered there were two more Seer stories inside her that she had to tell, she wrote those, too. She called them Hope’s Children and Soul-Mate. By writing them, she proved she could finish more than one damn book and actually write a trilogy. And all the while she was learning her craft and figuring out how to be the best writer she could be.
Okay, you kinda got me interested now. You gonna spill some more about this “best writer she could be” stuff?
I’m getting to that. When she wasn’t writing, Anne read books. She entered more contests. She talked to other writers. She researched and queried agents. And most significant of all, she attended writers’ conferences.
Why is that last one so significant?
Because attending conferences gave Anne a chance to meet with literary agents face-to-face.
Lemme guess: she wowed some hot-shot agent and got representation, got a mega-huge book deal and lived happily ever after. The end.
Nope. She did get requests from a couple of agents but her writing wasn’t good enough yet. She still had a lot to learn.
Bummer. So if she didn’t end up being represented, why is meeting an agent at a conference so important to this story?
If you’ll let me finish! Now one particular year, Anne was heading for her agent appointment when one of her fellow writers told her something which made her stomach plummet to her toes. As it turned out, this particular agent didn’t represent fantasy at all and no-one had actually known this rather pertinent fact until now–horrors! Rather than cancel the appointment, Anne decided to go ahead with it. And after chatting for a bit, the agent told Anne if she ever decided to write something other than fantasy, she could send it to her.
When the conference ended, Anne went home and took a good hard look at the manuscript she was in the middle of writing. Of course it wasn’t the same as her Seers trilogy, but it wasn’t completely different style of writing, either. It had a new high concept, a new plot and new characters, but it wasn’t challenging her as a writer. So she scrapped the four chapters she’d written and started again.
She scrapped what she’d written? You’re freaking kidding me. Was she like, insane?
Not at all. She needed a challenge. She wanted to write something totally different, totally out of her comfort zone. She ended up writing a shorter, 1st person point-of-view, paranormal romance about a cursed warrior from another world and the modern-day woman who ends up accidentally bonded to him.
Ooooh! Cursed warrior, huh?
Well, Wulf does have the most delectable pectorals. Not to mention a penchant for wearing leather, and a really big…uh…sword.
Sounds like my kinda guy!
Believe me, this Crystal Warrior is every woman’s kinda guy! But getting back to my real story: because Anne chose to write Chalcedony’s Warrior from her heroine’s POV, she learned an incredible lot about showing the reader rather than telling the reader. And she because she couldn’t head-hop from character to character, she became a far more disciplined writer. She also learned she could write pretty steamy love-scenes! And as the icing on the cake, when she entered that manuscript in a contest, it won. The readers loved the story–especially the sexy bits!–and told her she had a strong “voice”.
So she won this contest, the manuscript was published and she lived happily ever after…. Nice!
I wish! But rather than let it get her down, Anne kept writing. She’d had so much fun writing in 1st person POV that she wrote another two books in the Crystal Warriors series. And although writing more books in the series might not have been the smartest career move for an unpublished writer, it taught her how to write stand-alone books which are still part of a series.
Lemme get this straight: so now Anne has gone from writing big meaty fantasies, to writing 1st person POV, rather sexy paranormal romances.
Not exactly. You can’t pigeon-hole her quite yet. You see, she hadn’t finished with the challenges. Next up, she took what she’d learned by writing 1st person POV stories and went back to writing 3rd person POV, this time a “sweet” paranormal with a SciFi twist.
A SciFi twist, huh? C’mon, do tell. Dying of curiosity here.
Speaking about dying, I’ll give you the high concept for When Lightning Strikes. (And, by the way, one-sentence-long high concepts were another thing Anne had to learn about in order to successfully pitch her manuscripts):
What if you died in a lightning strike, then were brought back to life by the same alien who rode the lightning bolt which killed you?
Mmmm. That is quite a catchy high concept.
And the other challenge with this particular manuscript, was to see if she could write a story to a deadline–in this case, so she could enter it in a contest. She had two months before the contest closed for entries so gave herself 6 weeks to write the manuscript and 1 week to revise it. She calculated the daily word-count needed and even though she was on holiday with her family for a couple of weeks, she stuck to it. And When Lightning Strikes eventually got a highly commended in the contest.
I’m guessing it’s not the last manuscript Anne wrote, huh?
You guess right. She still had to learn about beginnings, because although she had some great ideas, her stories were a little slow to get started. And of course, with each breakthrough she made, with each lesson she learned, she went back and revisited her old manuscripts. She deleted sections and rewrote bits and changed chapters round. She tightened up POV shifts and generally applied whatever she’d learned at any particular time, to each one of her old manuscripts. She set herself deadlines, and treated each one as if she’d been given a set of revisions from an editor.
Anne kept on writing new stores, too. Because she loved reading Regencies, she wrote a fantasy set in a twisted Regency-style world–that is, it’s also a fantatically religious world where chastity is rigidly enforced by the Council and Clerics. It’s a world ruled by men, who repress their womenfolk and force them to dress like Quakers. She called it Scent Of A Man, because the hero begins to emit pheremones which make him irresistible to women. And there’s a complete role-reversal in the beginning because the hero is the virgin, and the heroine is an “experienced” woman who’s actually a spy from a rival nation.
Anne also read a lot of paranormal YAs, so she wanted to see whether she could write with a YA voice. She wrote Freaks Of Greenfield High, a story about a teenage cyborg who enrolls at high school, discovers he’s beginning to experience human emotions, and falls in love with a Goth outcast.
Have any of these been published?
Nope. Not yet. Even though over the next few years Anne’s manuscripts regularly finalled in contests, she just couldn’t catch a break. Obviously she still had things to learn.
Hang on, you said this was a story about a published author.
So what did she get published?
Anne heard about a contest for an erotic romance novella. And because she’d never written a novella before–
She decided to challenge herself to see if she could.
Got it in one. And the other challenge was to see if she could write for the erotic romance market, too.
She wrote a paranormal erotic romance about a jaded Drakon demon and a woman who’s committed a terrible crime and is drowning her guilt in alcohol and casual sex. It’s a bit dark but as with all her writing, there’s an element of humor, too. In this case, provided by an amoral Demon King with a penchant for black comedies such as the TV series Dead Like Me. Her novella was called Even Demons Get The Blues and when she entered it in the contest, it finalled. And even though it didn’t win, the editors from the publishing company who ran the contest liked it so much they wanted to buy it. Incidentally, her novella is a Red Sage Presents June 1st release.
So that’s the end of the story. What do you think?
I reckon Anne did the right thing. She could have kept polishing the first manuscript and rewriting it whenever she got contest feedback on how to improve it, and never got round to writing anything new. Instead, she kept doing what she loved, which was writing, and because she challenged herself to try new things and step out of her comfort zone, she finally hit the right note with an editor and ended up with a publishing contract. Cool story! Just one thing I want to know.
What’s Anne gonna do with all those manuscripts she’s written now she’s published?
Well, I’m pretty happy with most of them now, so those ones I’ll keeping sending to agents and editors in the hope that someone will love them as much as I do. And there’s a couple I’d like to take another look at, so of course I’ll see what I can do to improve them.
So Anne is you, huh?
Yep. Anne is actually my middle name.
Why didn’t you come clean from the beginning?
Would you have stuck around to listen to me harping on about my personal writing challenges?
Er…. Honestly? Probably not. We writers do tend to go on!
I rest my case.