Jilly: Learning From Other People’s Stories

Learning From Other People's StoriesDo you enjoy deconstructing books, or movies, or TV programs, or your friends’ WIPs? Do you find it useful as well as enjoyable?

It’s been three weeks since I uploaded Dealing With McKenzie to the RWA Golden Heart contest website, and since then I haven’t looked at my completed manuscript or written a word of fiction. I made a deliberate decision to give myself the rest of January to reflect, regroup, and recharge my batteries before diving into Cam’s and Mary’s book.

I spent most of my mini-break learning from other people’s stories in various different ways: lots of reading, four fantastic days zooming around Arizona talking non-stop with Kat and Kay, a wonderful weekend brainstorming with the other Ladies at Justine’s house, and most recently judging my assigned entries for the Golden Heart contest.

Here are a few of the good things I learned from spending quality time with other people’s stories:

My favorite new book for January was Tessa Dare’s Say Yes To The Marquess, and my absolute favorite thing about it was the opening scene. I read the book for fun, and then I went back to the beginning and re-read the first scene half a dozen times because I thought it was really, really good. It got the heroine and the hero on the page immediately, established the world, set the tone, gave the heroine a clear and credible goal, gave the hero the power to block that goal and a sympathetic reason for doing so, absolutely crackled with sexual tension, and propelled me headlong into the story whether I was ready or not. Wow. I sat on the sofa and thought that’s what I want my opening scenes to do. It gives me something to aspire to as I wrestle with Cam and Mary. I think/hope I have all the elements I need to do a good job, but we shall see.

We discussed story a lot last week in Arizona. Kat posted on Friday about Kay’s killer question that went to the heart of Cheyenne’s story and led Kat to go home, wipe her white-boards and go back to the fundamentals. It was also a timely reminder to me to stay focused on Cam and Mary’s love story and not to get sidetracked by shiny subplots and fascinating secondary characters. They’re a valuable part of the book, but it’s easy to go overboard. Losing sight of my central story cost me months of effort and a painful number of deleted words last year.

Team 8 Ladies also solved a plot wrinkle for Justine (my suggestion was correctly discarded as being neat, but too convenient to be credible – useful lesson there), and we had a blast dreaming up modern-day equivalents to the hand of the gods and the heroine’s symbolic death for Michille’s Antigone story. We spent a happy hour talking to Michaeline about masked balls, movies, and her heroine Bunny Blatavsky, and I also enjoyed a very satisfying few hours with Kay, figuring out a story outline for her next book, working title Phoebe 2. I loved what we came up with and can’t wait to see if it works when Kay tries it for reals. All this exercise for my right-brain got the Girls working overtime, and on two consecutive mornings at Justine’s house I woke up with new insights about Cam and Mary, including something that I think will be very important for the ending (always good to know that upfront).

I’ve just spent a happy weekend reading my assigned entries for the Golden Heart. It was exciting to read brand new stories from other unpublished romance writers. Judging the manuscripts was a big responsibility, and it forced me to think hard and analytically about what worked for me and what didn’t, and why. Without breaking any confidences, two big take-outs I got were about titles and synopses. At first, I saw a list of the titles I’d been assigned without knowing what sub-genre they were. Some of them were crystal clear, others not so much. It hammered home to me what I’d been told about Rent & Cornflakes not being the right title for my contemporary romance. And even though I’ve read and written quite a few synopses, this was the first time I’d actually used one in combination with the opening pages of a story to understand the whole – the writing and the story structure. It was a holy cow! moment. Finally, I truly get what the damn synopsis does. I think that understanding will help me to do a much better job next time I have to write one.

So even though I haven’t written a word, I feel as though I’ve done much good work over the last few weeks. Now it’s February already, and I have to back up all this feel-good, fluffy stuff with bodies in motion and words on the page. Zero scenes in the bag, seventy to go (more or less). I’ll keep you posted 😉 .

So how about you? Did you learn anything new lately from reading a book, or watching TV, or just knocking ideas about with a few good friends? Care to share?

6 thoughts on “Jilly: Learning From Other People’s Stories

  1. I always did like critiquing other people’s stories. There’s a lot less pressure and baggage when I am thinking up new directions for someone else’s stories. (-: None of that, “X would never do that because he’s a love child — oh, I just figured that out now!” or “I could do that, but it would mean re-working the first two acts completely and I don’t want to do that.” Those are the kinds of things that come up when I self-critique. The first is kind of cool, but the second is about sheer laziness on my part (-;,

    And I often find that something that doesn’t work in someone else’s story and Really Bothers Me is something that is a problem in my own story. It’s easier to work it out on someone else’s problem, then I can apply solutions to my own problem.

    I just finished a “historical biographical novel” called “Noon at Tiffany” that really helps me with my book in so many different ways. The book has a fascinating story at its heart: Clara Wolcott comes to New York to design beautiful things, and winds up working for Louis Tiffany, who is a tyrant and takes credit for her work — all the while not paying her as much as the men, being demanding, and being somewhat in love with her. But the author struggles with sticking to historical facts and developing a narrative that speeds the reader along. Clara is rescued twice by knights in shining armor. The first time doesn’t work out so well. She’s restless without her work, and then the guy dies and (I don’t want to spoil it any more than I have).

    Anyway, the book gave me a lot of insight into the New Woman, who didn’t necessarily need to be married in order to survive. It’s complicated my heroine’s relationship with the Main Heroic Guy, though. Is he a boss? Is he a saviour? Is he really a potential lover? Would he smother her or provide her what she needs to grow as an artist?

    All things many of us are still wrestling with 100 years later.

  2. I agree 100% about finding that often the things that trip me up in other people’s story are the ones that aren’t working in mine – or ones that I wrestled with and somebody else gave me a helping hand with. On the road last week Kay, Kat and I talked a lot about Cheyenne’s goal. The problems Kat had identified were very similar to the ones Jenny C (and others) had seen with Rose. I also fell into the trap you identified above – to fix the problem I had to go right back to the beginning and do quite a lot of re-working, and I tried very hard not to go there.

    Noon At Tiffany sounds interesting, though I struggle with the biography/novel combo – I never quite lose myself in the story because there’s always a part of me that’s trying to identify which bits are real and where the author gave the story a helping hand. I’d rather read a great biography but I suspect I may be in the minority 😉 .

    • Oh yeah. I can’t recommend Noon At Tiffany’s (sorry, my typo) as a lose-yourself-in-a-story book. It was OK, but not great. However, it was fascinating after I finished reading it. Really great learning experience as far as writing goes, and also thinking about women’s roles and the struggle between home/love and career/power. I think Clara had five potential mates in the story, and each represented a different set of dynamics. So, I’d recommend it for anyone who is writing love stories, because there is a smorgasbord there. (Although, none are straight-forward happy endings. Clara had something to gain, and something to lose, with each mate.)

  3. Sounds like a very productive month, Jilly! It’s great to hear you put so much thought and effort into judging the GH. Those entrants will get some excellent feedback :-).

    Titles, ugh. Say Yes to the Marquess is a good story with a fun title (don’t know if you’re familiar with the reference across the pond – there’s a TV show here called ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, with real-life brides going to a high-end wedding dress store to try on dresses. I’ve watched it with my daughter and it’s weirdly addictive.) Tessa Dare has some other really good titles as well. Like you, I struggle with them. My Girls still isn’t right, but nothing else has occurred to me yet.

    • LOL, I didn’t catch that, although I think I’ve heard of “Say Yes to the Dress.” OK, now it makes a lot more sense. I would guess that most romances would have the heroine saying “yes” to the marquis so I was trying to twist my mind around that.

  4. You got a lot of good stuff done in January, Jilly! I just finished reading “You Know Who I Am” by Diane Patterson, which was terrific, and it reminded me again about the necessity of getting bodies in motion. The action never stops (the opening scene is a magic act, where the protagonist is strapped to a turning wheel, and her husband is throwing knives at her—it’s a magic act—and he’s furious with her). Even small action kept the story moving. Also, the protagonist, a (to me) deeply sympathetic character, is a murderer, on the run, and consequently, homeless. And yet, I rooted for her the whole way. If you write it right, it works. I’ll check out Say Yes to the Marquess.

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