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Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing Life: The Black Moment of a Writer's Soul

In all my books, the hero will at some point experience the "black moment", when all hope is lost and he/she is faced with  hopeless odds and there is no turning back.

I had never really thought it applied to the writing process until I hit a BLACK MOMENT last Friday with the sudden realisation that I was writing the WRONG BOOK. I am not talking about "writer's block", although that is a related symptom of the disease. (When you are writing the WRONG BOOK, every word is extracted from your subconscious like fingernails being pulled from the roots)

It began with a bad decision... I decided to write a Regency Romance. I won't say it was a cynical decision but I was looking at "the market" and trying to be sensible and business like. I did a business case evaluation and decided on a balance that Regency sells- English Civil War doesn't. Don't get me wrong, I like Regency romances - Anne Gracie and Jo Beverley are 2 of my favourite authors. I read and enjoyed Jane Austen but Georgette Heyer bored the socks off me as a teenager (although I have recently come to enjoy her work). As a period of history "Regency" is not seated in my soul - I can do Georgian and Victorian but I don't live and breathe Regency in the way my Regency writing friends do. So yes, it probably was a cynical decision but once I started writing it, I came to like my characters and I enjoyed playing with the social mores of the time.

Now if you have ever read my books you will know I like a gnarly plot and I simply couldn't write a "straight" regency. Oh no...a little bit of a murder mystery crept in, just to amuse the characters and give them some external conflict to play with. I finished did nicely in a contest for unpublished a full request...and a rejection. Several more full requests and more rejections until the last rejection. It was one of those lovely rejections that makes you think the editor actually really liked the book but it didn't quite fit the fact she said "too much mystery". Oh... back to the submission roundabout until an email appeared out of nowhere from the same publishing house, requesting a submission to another line.  With a few tweaks it may be suitable for the "crimrance" line  ie...all I needed to do was convert it from a romance with a mystery to a mystery with a romance. Easy, peasy! 

Welcome to Mt. Doom and the vaults of Mordor...

So that is what I have been doing...all year. Yes, all my writing energy has gone into "tweaking" this book. The problem is a proper mystery or crime story is structured differently to a romance and this book was written as a romance. To do it justice, required a major rewrite and on Friday as the characters gathered in the stable for the climax, involving shoot outs and carriage chases, I stared at the computer screen and realised it was all wrong and wrong on so many levels but I couldn't put my finger on the cause of the trouble. I had reached Mount Doom. I emailed my wonderful critique group in utter despair and one of my group emailed me back:  Are you sure it's rubbish or are you mourning the story that was? Is it because it's not singing in your heart like your stories normally do?

YES! She had hit the proverbial nail on the head. It was both of those things but primarily the second. This story had never sung in my heart. I had begun writing it for the WRONG reasons. It had always been the WRONG STORY. What if it was accepted even as romance? Did I want to go on writing Regency romance?, because it is not my period of history. I'm not comfortable in that period and I really feel one of the reasons for its rejection was because my voice lacked authenticity.  The conventions of regency romance are not my sort of stories and when that was combined with trying to make it fit into a mystery template, I was, in point of fact, trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. Even if I managed to make it vaguely circular and force it into some sort of compliance, it would never sit properly. I was cheating myself and more importantly I was cheating the reader.

So I have just spent over half a year on a story that I now know is going nowhere. It is the WRONG STORY. What to do?

Should I...?

  • Battle on and finish it, submit it to the editor who requested it? Odds on it will be rejected but what if it's not? Is it a one off or do I want to write regency "crimrances" or will she get a terrible shock when my next book is an English Civil War "crimrance" (you know...that period that nobody wants to read about!)? Or
  • Do I accept that career wise I made a wrong decision, take the learnings from the experience and write something I want to write...the story that is singing in my heart?
There is a third alternative that I am considering... To do a total rewrite, set in a period I feel comfortable in eg Victorian or Edwardian...but right now I couldn't bring myself to do that. My characters are exhausted - I am exhausted. I think we all need a cup of tea and a good lie down.

So, I am setting it aside  and picking up the story I have been wanting to write all year - the one I want to pitch at the conference in August, the one that makes my heart sing and my eyes light up when I talk about it. 

Sometimes the lure of publication may not be all that it promises to be...not if you find yourself writing the WRONG BOOK.

Back to a happy place...


  1. Oh hugs. Don't despair. Yes it certainly sounds like a break is in order and time to focus on other projects will help.

  2. That's such a hard call. But when you write what you love it shows as it does in your English Civil War novels. Glad you've made that tough decision!

  3. Been there, Alison, commiserations!

  4. I am going through exactly what you describe right now! Wrote something for the wrong reasons, no heart in has finalled in a contest after one total rewrite and now been accepted by a publisher but they want so many changes in a short amount of time that I am OVER IT!! I will probably try to finish it and get rid of it but don't feel the pride I have had previously. Will be interested in what you eventually do with yours.

  5. Thanks everyone. It is heartening to know that this is not an uncommon writer's problem. Sometimes I think you just have to be honest with yourself. is so hard. We are so fixed on the holy grail of publication at all costs that somewhere along the way we lose the reason why we write (*note to self...good topic for another blog perhaps). Although I have friends who have told me the book they hated, detested, never want to see again is often the ones the readers really attach to, so perhaps that angst comes through?

  6. Been there, Alison. It's tough, after having done all that work and going through the angst, to set it aside and dive into the work you really love. At the back of your mind those words hum, "But what about all that effort? Don't waste it."

    I did the same with a Georgian one and a YA. Bored the socks off me. So back I went to romantic suspense and Regency. And hey! All my Regencies are stuffed full of mysteries and crime because that's what I like. A pox on those who say there's too much emphasis on mystery. Huh!

  7. I don't think it will be wasted, Vonnie. I do have plans for it, but I want to pursue another idea first ;-) that may be related...

    Having made the decision I just feel like a weight has come off. I have my "joie d'ecrivant" (excuse the bad French) back again.

  8. Ohh Alison Isn't it tough being on the road less travelled ! Hang in there. Even though my novels are in the not so fashionable eleventh century one must be true to one self.Write what is in your heart.

  9. Oh, what an awful thing, Alison! Poor exhausted characters and poor exhausted you. I think we've all been there, to a greater or lesser extent. It's easy for me to say, it's not me trying to sell them, but I love the books you do like to write so much that I would be happy to see you continue doing it. There are many regency writers, but there's only one Alison Stuart!

  10. Sometimes the lure of selling our work in the marketplace can override our natural inclinations. With apologies to Billy Joel - I love your work. Dont go changing to try and please us, stay just the way you are.

  11. I think a great stories are the one's that came form the writers soul. Not the churned out same'ol- same'ol. Stay true to your writing self Alison. I Love yours and many RWA authors who push the boundaries. Action, historical Romance works for me. It why I'm fussy over regencies. If there isnt ENOUGH Mystery/thrill in them, I usually dont buy them.

    Having said that I believe there IS a reason these characters did pass by and maybe there is a place for them in a far off series or other. Your are too good a story teller to have randoms show - up :)

  12. Marianne...I absolutely agree with you and I think that comment alone is worthy of a follow up article next week. I've some very interesting feedback on and off line.

    Thank you everyone for your support and it is heartening to know my English Civil War stories are of interest. I have a cyber sock drawer full of them...

  13. I loved this post, Alison. One can definitely get too logical and market-driven with writing. In the end, I think you really have to write what you LOVE and not what you think others might love. That belief and passion then shines through the whole story. Now I just have to follow my own advice.
    Good luck, and I can't wait to see what you write next.

  14. Hey Alison

    thin it take courage to admit something like this to yourself, and yet you admitted it to the world on your blog.

    Good on you for recognising that now it not this books moment, and putting it aside. Not slogging over it more. Its time will come - just not yet...


    Now, great to hear yo are moving onto the new story and that's singing in your heart - sounds like it is this ones time...

    Good luck on your new story and may your characters in the old one enjoy their rest in Fiji... when they come back it will be with vigour and energy and it will be their time...LOL

  15. Venetia... We all have our own writing journeys and sometimes we take a wrong path. Admitting it is the hard part.

    Thanks, Tina. This story felt wrong for a long time, I just wasn't listening to what the characters were telling me. When they're back from Fiji, we'll have a family conference. :-)

  16. A heartfelt sigh of doesn't that suck?

    *passes the virtual chocs*