Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unpredictability, and a word about feedback (or two)

So I mentioned in yesterday's post that Senior Exec Editor Birgit Davis-Todd visited our chapter on the weekend and gave us a gold mine of tips and info about this crazy business. One of the buzzwords many of us heard in New York at the RWA National Conference was UNPREDICTABILITY. So one of the questions put to Birgit was what is unpredictability and why is it so important?

As I've been reading through the New Voices entries, I've seen several chapters that are "by the book" so to speak. There are reasons why tried and true hooks work. But at the same time, it's quite obvious when you read other chapters and see how the author has taken the tried and true hook and twisted it with something special and different to, well, make it stand out. They do something unpredictable, and that is what editors love and will tell you makes a story fresh and innovative. Oh yes - in addition to unpredictability, there's also an editorial saying that goes "Innovate, don't imitate".

There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a marriage of convenience, secret baby, runaway bride, marriage in jeopardy story. It's what you do with it that matters. A few years ago in Washington at Nationals, editors Joanne Grant and Kim Young did a presentation on Cliches. As they were going through their slides, I had a sinking feeling those cliches sounded familiar. Why? Because I think I'd done seven out of the ten of them. BUT the difference is - and they did point this out - is that when you take a cliche and twist it and add something different and fresh, it works. It's all in the execution (Speaking of cliches...I seem to be full of them today).

So getting back to Birgit's talk - she mentioned several books that twisted the usual themes and made the books unpredictable. I wrote down 3, because the authors happen to be personal friends of mine and I was super-pleased to hear them mentioned. I'll give you a basic reason why each was unpredictable, too.

Claimed By The Highland Warrior: Michelle Willingham, Historicals: Marriage in jeopardy story. The hero and heroine have been separated by circumstance without consummating their marriage. When they reconnect, he's still a virgin. She isn't.

Molly Cooper's Dream Date: Barbara Hannay, Romance: Very current with the addition of texting and e-mail and using social media and a romantic medium.

Surf, Sea, and a Sexy Stranger: Heidi Rice, RIVA/Presents: Hero is not your typical Presents Alpha with an abundance of sexual prowess. In fact, he's got impotence issues.

Even when I sold - more than 5 years ago now - I was told that one of the reasons Hired By The Cowboy worked was because I took a secret baby and marriage of convenience story and twisted it (the baby is not the hero's).  If you care to read it as an example of taking a stock theme and making it your own, you can download it for free at www.tryharlequin.com.

Anyway, as you're writing, keep in mind ways you can twist your plot/theme to make it different and stand out. It can be scary - heck yes! Taking risks is always a little scary because sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. BUT taking risks is important, too. My first HQ editor once told me, it's far better to take risks and have editorial pull you back than write something unspecial and predictable.

Now - a quick word or two about feedback. I KNOW all you entrants in New Voices are hungry for comments and excited or discouraged. Boy do I get it - for those of us published that stuff comes in the form of reviews. And you can get 20 wonderful comments but it's the one bad one that sticks in your head and makes the self-doubt demons come out to play. I get it - I've had some absolutely wonderful reviews for my October book BUT I had one recently that wasn't so great and it is the one that is sticking in my mind, of course.

But at the end of the day, you need to do one thing. You need to shut out the voices. You need to forget the comments, forget the reviews, and tell your story.  So many people are stressing over comments and ratings and forgetting to do the most important thing - work on getting your chapter two finished and polished. And if you're truly serious about pursuing publication - finishing the book. This contest is wonderful but in 2 months it'll be over. Look at the big picture. Look at where you want to go. Stop sweating the small stuff, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. And have fun.

For more about that, you should read the fabulous Kate Walker's Pink Heart Society blog about worrying about the right things.


  1. thanks for sharing, Donna! Great advice - and you're right, all the good comments in the world are easy to forget...but the bad ones will stick with you for a looooong time.

  2. That is the best possible advice. The temptation to chase the roses and obsess over comments can be strong and focusing on the story is the very best antidote.

  3. Jen Drogell10:06 a.m.

    Great post Donna thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing Donna. I've read two of the books you mentioned and they are fabulous examples!

  5. What great advice,for a new comer like me it tells me know matter what when i finish it its my own work and creation thank-you

  6. Great advice Donna - thanks - Caroline x

  7. Great post, Donna. And everyone, do download Hired By the Cowboy - it's a treat!

  8. I listened to Kathleen Scheibling and Wanda Ottowell talk about this on their pod cast (11/3/10) and started a "reverse damsel in distress" story that's working out well so far (I'm at about 50%).
    Thanks for posting the examples, I'm going to check them out. And I'm going to download yours for my new NookColor.
    I read your blog almost every day at work, but I usually can't post from there.

  9. Oh, I have the first two in my TBR pile!

  10. Great post. Loved the examples of twisting the tried and true plot.

  11. Wonderful post, Donna. I was just thinking about how I needed to read something on unpredictability :-)

  12. Sorry it's taken so long for me to get back in here - I've been working feverishly on the deadline book with random "shake out the cobweb" episodes on twitter. Anyway, you are all welcome, i hope it was helpful!

    I remember Melissa James did an article at one point about twisting plots too.