Well, I could say, ‘Write the best book you can’, and that would be true. I could say, ‘Read as many modern medical romances as you can, and that will give you an idea of what the line is currently looking for,’ and that would be true, too. Joining a writers’ group is good provided you don’t join one where everyone trashes everyone else’s work, and you crawl home feeling completely disheartened, or – indeed – everyone says everything is perfect which isn’t helpful when you suspect in your heart it’s not.
Write. Write every day even if it’s only a little. Read – read a lot – but don’t assume that what you enjoy reading is what you’re going to be good at writing. My favourite ‘comfort’ books are those by Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks – the Landover series – and Georgette Heyer. Could I write books like that? Never in a million years. So, how can I help you?
Well – notice I’ve used yet another ‘well’ – bad Maggie but I’m just talking to you so that’s OK – I would love to be able to give you a set of hard-and-fast ‘rules’, a list of cast-iron certainties which – if you follow – will guarantee you success, but I can’t. Sadly, no-one can, but what I can do is give you some tips, a list of things I’ve done wrong in my time so you won’t make the same mistakes. Will avoiding my disasters ensure you become published? I can’t promise you that, but I can promise, if you follow my tips, at least you won’t make the same cringe-worthy errors I did, so follow me, folks, as we go back in time to a younger, considerably more naive, and very much a beginner, unpublished Maggie Kingsley, talking to an editor.
Me:. ‘I know the beginning of my story seems slow, but you see I needed to establish the setting, and to get in my hero and heroine’s back story, but – trust me – it really gets going after page 30.’
Editor: ‘Maggie, if it really gets going after page 30 then that’s where your story should start. Neither I, nor a reader, want to wade through pages and pages of back story, and setting. You can establish a rough setting in around three sentences, and then you can embroider that throughout the rest of your book. As for back story…..I don’t want to be bombarded with a lot of back story about people I don’t yet know so drip feed it to me over the course of your book. Hook me in instantly with a great opening line/ paragraph, make me want to read more, and don’t have me thinking, is this story actually ever going to get started.’
Me: ‘You said you wanted conflict. .I ‘ve given you loads of conflict, and now you’re saying you don’t like it.’
Editor: ‘Because you haven’t given me conflict, Maggie. You’ve given me two people who do nothing but bicker, and argue, and shout at one another. Conflict arises when two people have different goals, different dreams. Conflict occurs when your central characters are unable to let go of the past because of something traumatic that happened to them, or they are stuck in a rut because they are afraid of an unknown future. Conflict is a hero never wanting children, and a heroine who longs for a family. Conflict is when a working class hero thinks he will never fit in with your heroine’s posh family. Conflict can arise from many things, but a couple arguing all the time doesn’t create conflict, only two very annoying people you’d cross the street to avoid.
Me: ‘Why don’t you like my hero and heroine? They’re lovely people – the kind of people I’d want as my best friends.’
Editor : ‘I’d want them to be my best friends, too, but two nice people who meet, fall in love, and get married…..? Sorry, Maggie, there’s no tension there, no drama. Throw stones at this couple, put believable obstacles in their path, give them flaws, weaknesses, hang ups. Nobody is perfect, and if they truly are perfect then I’m sorry but I suspect their story will be rather boring.
Me : You said you liked my ‘voice’, but now you’re saying my story isn’t ‘fresh’ enough. How can I come up with a new, fresh, plot when it’s all been done before?
Editor: ‘Of course there’s nothing new under the sun, but it’s your job to put a new spin on it, make it seem new. Think of Beauty and the Beast. It’s Twilight, it’s a scarred war veteran who is sure no-one will ever love him, it’s a woman who has had a mastectomy, and never wants a man to see her body. Take any well worn theme and, if you think out of the box, that’s how you’ll get originality.’
Me: ‘You say my language is too ‘flowery’. It’s not ‘flowery’. I’m simply being literary, erudite.’
Editor: ‘Maggie, you’re being pretentious. A ‘he said/she replied’ or ‘she declared/he exclaimed’ will slip past your readers unnoticed. Saying things like ‘he reposted’, ‘she ejaculated’ – I’m sorry but that’s just pretentious. And not just pretentious. I shouldn’t be sniggering when I’m reading what you’ve written, but I was.’
Me: ‘My hero, and heroine, meet, have problems, resolve these problems, and finally get their happy ever after. How can you say it’s not emotional enough?’
Editor: ‘Well, maybe the fact that your h and h fought all the way through your book, only to declare their undying love for one another in the last three pages might have something to do with it. Maggie, I’ve got to see the gradual change in how your h and h feel about one another. I want you to give me highs, and lows. I want black moments, I want moments of tenderness. I want to smile, to reach for my handkerchief, I want to care about your h and h. Make me care, Maggie. Make me think that even though this couple clearly belong together there is still a chance they might not actually get their HEA. Wring every last bit of emotion out of their story so when I read the words ‘The End’, I’ll smile with delight.’
Me: ‘I’ve put in loads of medical detail, and you’re saying it’s too much. How can it be too much when the line is called Medical romance?’
Editor: ‘It’s too much because you’re forgetting this is first and foremost, a romance. If your readers want to learn about various operations/procedures they will buy a medical text book. That is not to say the medical detail should simply consist of a cut finger, or a split lip, but you’re getting bogged down in medical detail. If you’re unsure about whether you have too much ask a friend, or a relative, to read your medical ‘passages’ then ask them how much they skipped. If they skipped over a lot you’ve got too much. If they say, ‘What medical detail?’ you’ve got too little.’
Have I made any other mistakes on my writing journey? Oh, my heavens, yes. I use the word ‘that’ far too often. I always have to go through my finished manuscript removing loads of them, as well as all the unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Sending my first mss to a publishing house in single line spacing not realising it should be double ensured it rocketed back, rejected, faster than the speed of light. Peppering my dialogue with exclamation marks which – as the editor said – made it look as though my characters said everything at a hundred decibels was another stupid error. I still make mistakes. There’s that red nightdress for one. It’s actually in one of my published books, and I didn’t notice what was wrong until a reader pointed it out to me. I still wince over that red nightdress. Maye I’ll tell you why I wince one day, and maybe I won’t, but for now, have a good day, and I hope to see you again soon.