Monday, November 28

The Book Under the Bed

I wrote The Growing Season sometime in the 1990s--I think. I've slept since then, and written many more manuscripts that have gone to their imaginary home under the bed. The Growing Season had another title to start with, but I don't remember what it was. It had somewhere around 60,000 words if I remember right, and its protagonists were named Micky and Pat. Micky was the widowed mother of four teenagers and Pat the widowed father of two. They lived in the country in central Indiana (just like me), Micky was short and a little overweight with curly brown hair (just like me), and I thought it was a wonderful story.

I was new to RWA, new to everything romance except the reading of it, and RWA in general and the Outreach chapter specifically were more help than I can begin to thank them for. I gritted my teeth and entered The Growing Season in its first contest.

It won it. I was on top of the world. I knew, without any doubt at all, that I was on my way.

The prize in the contest was a critique by members of another chapter. By the time I finished reading the individual comments, I was ready to give up writing forever. I have no idea how the manuscript won the contest, because the women of the Saskatchewan chapter hated everything about it. Including the curly-haired Hoosier heroine. In my mind, in my heart, it was me they hated.

From 15 or so years out, I can still feel the pain of those comments. The experience made me a kinder (some would say mealymouthed) judge of other people's work. It also cost me three months of productivity, because that's how long it took me to start writing again. Only after those three months was I able to sift out that those other writers--many of them much more experienced than I--were right about point of view, about the strength of secondary characters, about...many things.

It took years for me to know for sure they were wrong about some things, too. When they indicated the Rules are written in stone. When they said no one wanted to read about less-than-perfect heroines or rural people who carried around ten extra pounds.

I feel melancholy when I think of Micky and Pat, of the hopes I had for their story, of the dreamer I was then, but grateful for the things I learned. I've sold five books since then, started God knows how many, and finished...well, a lot more than five. I'll never drag most of them out again. But thank you, Micky and Pat. I'm still on my way.


  1. I'm just now rereading one of my first manuscripts--one from 1984. It was typical of the time, strong moody older hero, very young innocent heroine. I took it to the RWA National Conference in Detroit that year and had a appointment with a Harlequin editor. I was expecting her to be bowled over by my brilliance, but...she wasn't. Not at all. Suggested I go back and start over. I was crushed, but now that I've pulled it out again, I get her comments. We are so naive when we start this business...

  2. Aren't we though, and isn't our growing-up process a painful thing sometimes! Thanks for coming by, Nan.

  3. That's hard, Liz. I'm glad you didn't give up!
    I remember my first critique group with less than fond memories. It was a conglomerate of authors who worked through a Yahoo group and they said to up load a chapter and whenever someone had time they would crit it. I went in all confidence and hope and left the group less than a month later embittered, but not against all, crit partners. The one crit I got basically told me to write her way, change the way quirky secondary characters speaks no one talks like that... but they do in Oklahoma, USA where it was set and where I live. She 'told' me to cut this, or reword that. "I wouldn't write like that" when 'she' WASN'T writing it. I was. I felt like she was trying to rewrite my story for herself. And she may have been right on some of it. I'll never know because she told me to make changes without reason or explanation why. Just do it.
    It took ne a while to get past that harsh crit and write on. Later that year I found my first two real cps and I thank those wonderful women every day for my current success. No, they didn't help me with anything past that first one- but they helped me learn the craft. We are still friends today, even though one is on her way to NYT status, I'm certain of it. :)

  4. Hi, Calisa. You're so right about CPs. I have been very lucky with the ones I've had, both past and present.

  5. I went through the same sort of thing. I entered my first manuscript, Pagan Heart, in the Southwest Writers contest and it won. I was so sure that the instant she saw me she would promise to publish it and I would be on my way to a bestseller. Needless to say that didn't happen and when I look at that manuscript now I know why. I think about rewriting it because I love the story and maybe some day I'll get to it.

  6. Good luck, Debbie. I don't actually have mine anymore, but think pieces of it crop up sometimes anyway.

  7. I think the beauty of first manuscripts is that, in their sometimes-awful-ness, we still feel a connection to those characters! So glad you kept pushing on...because you're stories are some of my favorites. Great post, Liz!

  8. Boy, am I the only person whose first manuscript didn't win a contest???
    It was about an older woman/younger man, and somewhat biographicl.
    It was awful!
    It's called Dance the Dance, and the first contest I sent it to came back with the comment, "I cannot judge this. My son is older than the hero."

  9. LOL, D'Ann. At least she was honest. I love the title, BTW, and hope you use it again. Younger woman/older man is a concept that has never interested me, (think I've been a mom too long) but I think it's pretty popular now.

  10. I've cannibalized my 1st MS so much! I set it in England; openly plagerized a dinner scene from a book I was reading at the time (to be changed later!!); and 'miraculously' moved it to the USA. Never finished it, though the characters have been reworked and a few favorite scenes have shown up in other works:)

    The first one I finished is Love Finds A Way, which I self-pubbed in 2007 and was recently re-released last month in e-format. And no, D'Ann, nothing I've ever written has ever won a contest. I managed to make it to the 2nd round of one, but not the final.

  11. My first attempt at romance writing was a historical that gets pulled out every now and then. it's changed title, names of characters-you name it- only the general theme is intact. One day I'm determined it will get published.

  12. My experience is unique because, I first started writing novels after forty. And my first book never made it under the bed. I just knew it was a winner so I sent all 500 pages to the then president of Pocket Books.

    Of course he returned it, at his expense, I didn't know about sase's at the time. But he had some nice things to say, so I kept rewriting it.

    I took classes, joined RWA and while I waited for Kensington to decide if they wanted it (the second time I submitted it to them - didn't know you weren't supposed to do that either), I wrote two more and submitted them as well. Danged if they didn't buy all three.

    And silly me, I thought I had made it. I wrote another which they bought, then another which they refused. After a long dry period (7years) I started selling again. My 19th published work comes out in a week. So it pays to stay with it.

  13. Oh, man, I know exactly how you felt. Had many a "tough love" judge over the years.
    My first book is tucked in my closet. I love it with all of my heart, but I did things bass akwards (as they say). I wrote the entire book without having a clue what the techniques of story telling were. Then I joined the Romance Writers of America. I still dream about getting that book in shape - but sometimes you just have to move on. I've heard it takes three completed books to get your writing chops up to par. There's a reason most first books have the honored spot under our proverbial beds...
    fun blog.

  14. My first completed manuscript has a place of honor on my closet shelf forevermore. I love the hero and heroine but there are sooo many flaws that if I try to correct them, the story wouldn't be recognizable as the same one. I learned so many things writing that book, the main thing being that I can finish a manuscript and maybe that's the real reason I'm so resistant to revising it. Great post.

  15. Wow, Allison, that's the story everyone loves to hear, especially those of us who have long, dry spells.

    Hi, Molly and Nancy, I'm so glad you came by. We did have adventures with those first stories, didn't we?

    LOL, Lynne. I think I wrote my first FEW books without a plot. It's still my nemesis, right in there behind synopses.

    That was a big one, Katherine, and one I agree with: I wanted to prove, to myself, I think, that I could finish a book-length manuscript.

  16. Wonderful post and so on point! I was nearly destroyed by contest comments once myself. I learned critique partners are more beneficial...good ones, that is. Some contest judges know what they're doing. Others do not. I once had a judge lambast my ms because my Cherokee Indian was educated, could read and write and did NOT live in a teepee. Obviously, this person knew nothing about Indians other than what she might have learned form old western movies made before 1970.
    But that ms is still under my bed too. Maybe one day, I'll take it out, polish it up and start submitting again. Then again, maybe not. I have 3 published books now and lots of sequels to finish!

  17. Thanks for stopping, Lilly. None of us should have dust bunnies under out beds--just old manuscripts!

  18. Oh, Liz! I modeled my first heroine after the person I wanted to be. Big mistake. She was way too perfect.

  19. Liz, great post and great comments. I think a lot of my early beginnings started out as autobiographical or more alternate reality--the life I imagined instead of the life I had.But then the characters would kind of take over and live their own lives.