Anatomy of a Superficial Novel Part Deux

on February 17, 2011

Yesterday, an aspiring writer emailed me and asked if I had any advice. I told her: write every day, learn to discern advice from critique groups (or anyone who reads your work) to figure
out if it makes your story stronger or not, be self-critical without being self-defeating, and edit ruthlessly. Few published authors sold their first completed manuscript–I sold my fifth. So if you love to
write, and knew today that you would never be published, and yet you still wrote, you’re halfway to publication.

That “I sold my fifth” means only one thing: I didn’t give up.

Most of us write and rewrite and become better writers because of it. There will always be the writers who sell their first book; there will always be the writers who can’t self-edit and think that everything they write is brilliant. Fortunately, I am neither, and I am in the majority.

I rarely repost a blog, but today I am. It’s two years old and I original wrote it for Murderati. But I blogged yesterday for my friend Robert Gregory Browne because he was on a tight deadline and forgot today was my day to post here. I stared at the computer, brain dead, and remembered a comment a couple weeks ago that someone sent me about this exact blog post and I thought wow, it’s perfect! And still relevant.

ANATOMY OF A SUPERFICIAL NOVEL

Some writers sell their first completed manuscript. I wasn’t one of them. I sold my fifth.

When I speak to non-writing groups (and, unfortunately, some writing groups) and share that fact, they’re surprised. Why did it take me so many books? Why didn’t I self-publish if NY didn’t see my genius? Why didn’t I rewrite my first book to make it better? My husband told me once that he would have rewritten and edited and tweaked his first book until it sold or he was dead.

If I had done that with HOT LATTE, I’d be dead before I found a publisher.

I told this story over drinks at the 2009 PASIC conference to our own Toni and Rocki. Rocki stared at me, mouth open, and said, “YOU–YOU Allison Brennan–actually wrote a book called HOT LATTE?!?!”

I had a good reason. Every morning my heroine walked to the local coffeehouse and ordered a hot latte. Duh.

HOT LATTE was a romantic suspense. It had all the elements of a romantic suspense novel–and then some. I wrote it in three months (while working full time, though at that point I only had three kids), then edited it, proofread it, and thought it would certainly land me an agent and sell. Because, after all, FINISHING a book was the hardest part of writing! (Oh, ignorance is bliss!)

I sent out over fifty queries to agents I’d “pre-qualified”–I didn’t know anything about writers groups or critique groups. I was ignorant of most things, except I did know that I shouldn’t pay to get my book read or published. I actually found the Preditors & Editors site before I heard of RWA! So my pre-qualifications were kind of limited–they couldn’t charge fees, they couldn’t be “not recommended” by P&E, and they needed to be looking for romantic suspense. (After this first set of queries, I greatly improved my querying system! But this was my first book.)

After I sent the queries, confident that I would get an offer, I started on my next book. I had a lot of rejections, but that was ok–already, I knew my new book was better. I wanted to have it done before I had that contract in hand, so I’d have another book all ready for my new publisher.

Oh, the joys of ignorance.

I ended up with one request for a full manuscript. I was elated. Certainly she loved my voice, and all it takes is one person (well, two if you count the editor who will buy it . . . )

I sent that puppy off, with a nice cover page, an SASE (though I suspected she’d call if she was offering representation, so we could chat), and hope. I mentioned in the cover letter that she’d requested the manuscript, and I was almost done with my second novel–PROTECTING HART–(do I hear laughing?) and would she like to see that too?

A few weeks later, I received my SASE. The agent had enclosed my cover letter (attached to writers classes that she and her agenting partner offered–be wary, scams come in many shapes and sizes!) with one word double-underlined:

SUPERFICIAL.

Fortunately, I have a pretty thick skin. While the scant criticism stung, I had already finished my second novel and had started querying again. (And no, I never sent another query to that agent. But in 2008, about five books after I hit the New York Times list, said agent asked if I could do her a favor by speaking at a small, regional writers conference because she was a great admirer of my work. Saying no (very politely) felt good. Is that petty?)

I have since analyzed my first completed manuscript and “superficial” is the last thing I’d call it. Convoluted, messy, poorly written–yes. But there was a plot–a whole lotta plot–that changed the boundaries of “six degrees of separation” theory to, I don’t know, two degrees of separation . . .

If I were writing my logline for HOT LATTE today, I’d have something like this:

Seattle detective investigating a string of serial rapes that take a sudden deadly turn, he realizes that his new, sexy neighbor alarmingly fits the profile–and the web of attacks is getting closer to home.

Okay, that’s rough, but it doesn’t sound TOO bad, right?

Except that the book had so much . . . more. In fact, it had EVERYTHING.

HOT LATTE
Romantic Suspense–120,000 words
By Allison Brennan

Leah Cavanaugh is a virgin. (Dammit, I know SOMEONE is laughing at me now . . . )

Leah works from home, the top floor of a Victorian flat, for a Seattle-based computer company similar to Microsoft. Her primary job is computer security–monitoring the network, testing new security protocols, etc. (I know nothing about this, I made it all up–didn’t even know enough to know I knew nothing.) She hears a noise in the vacant second floor apartment. Because even then I couldn’t stand too-stupid-to-live females, I didn’t have her investigate. She called the police. (Yeah!) Except then she remembered her first floor elderly neighbors, the owners of the building, and she feared they would be hurt or injured by the evil intruder. So grabbing a baseball bat (because all single white female virgins living in urban cities have a baseball bat handy), she ventures downstairs, not wanting to confront anyone, but to reach her neighbors so she could stay with them until the police arrived. (Don’t ask me why she didn’t simply CALL her neighbors on the phone.) The intruder is in the stairwell and she hits him; he attacks. Just to defend himself, mind you, because he is after all a cop and the new tenant.

Ta-da. A classic romantic suspense set-up.

The opening chapter wasn’t bad, which is probably why I got that request for a full and finaled in a contest.

But it gets worse. A whole lot worse.

* Det. Mark Travis, sex crimes, moved to the apartment because he was being stalked by his psychotic ex-girlfriend. He got a restraining order against her when she went all Fatal Attraction on him, and he’s embarrassed by it.
* Leah is a virgin. Mark is a womanizer.
* Leah was engaged to a charming VP in her company, who she learned was having an affair. She broke off the engagement.
* Leah’s best friend is the kind, happily married VP colleague of her cheating ex.
* The kind friend discovers someone is stealing secrets from the company, and Leah is tasked with figuring out who it is.
* Meanwhile, Mark and his partner Dave are investigating a string of rapes. Now one of the victims ends up dead.
* Leah goes to a nearby coffeehouse every morning (remember: HOT LATTE. As if anyone could forget . . . ) The guy behind the counter is infatuated with her.
* We learn soon that he’s stalking her.
* Mark and Leah start talking. They’re attracted. They kiss. (This takes about 100 pages, there’s a lot of other stuff going on! Corporate espionage, stalking, police investigation . . . )
* Mark’s ex-girlfriend tracks him down and sees him kiss Leah. She plans revenge.
* Leah’s ex-boyfriend turns out to be the one stealing secrets. She turns him in. He disappears.
* Someone trashes Leah’s apartment. (It’s Mark’s ex-girlfriend, but they don’t know that.)
* Leah’s stalker sees a confrontation between Mark and his ex. (Clue! Foreshadowing! Obvious!)
* Leah moves into the rectory with her brother, an ex-Marine turned priest. (No one laugh–in SUDDEN DEATH I used this too, only he was ex-special operations turned priest. And it worked this time . . . I hope!)
* Mark continues his investigation and begins to suspect that Leah is in danger because of the physical victimology and because the pattern of attacks is getting closer to her apartment, spiraling in.
* Her ex tracks her down with his two partners in crime. He’s furious she foiled his plans and wants her to break into the payroll system and transfer payroll to his Swiss bank account before it’s direct deposited into employee accounts. She refuses. He shoots her brother. Peter is dying and she’s forced to help.
* Mark and his partner come in and rescue them, arrest the bad guys.
* Mark and Leah have sex.
* He tells her his theory about the rapes. She doesn’t believe him. He suspects her “kind” friend in the company. She’s furious.
* The stalker breaks into Mark’s apartment and steals a knife. He kills Mark’s ex-girlfriend and frames him.
* Mark’s arrested and put in jail.
* The stalker kidnaps Leah. Takes her to his house. She tries to escape, but fails. He returns, re-captures her, and takes her to a cabin in the Cascades because he learned the police had found his identity.
* Mark’s partner helps prove he couldn’t have killed the ex. They learn Leah is missing.
* Because of the investigation that’s been going on, Mark figures out the killer had to be the guy at the coffeehouse. They go to his house–no one is there.
* . . . Except the killer’s mother, who’s long-dead in her bedroom. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t say it.)
* They have evidence Leah was there; through property records track down the cabin.
* Surround it. (Yeah! SWAT!)
* The killer wants to get married. He sets up a fake wedding and makes Leah wear a wedding dress.
* Bedlam ensues. Mark rescues Leah, but I think Leah ends up killing the stalker–I don’t remember. It’s been seven years . . . okay, now nine years . . .

Is it any surprise the book was 120K words? It had virtually every element that romantic suspense has–all in one book! No wonder I thought I was brilliant. ROFLOL.

And I didn’t even tell you about the crime scenes. Suffice it to say . . . I had some timely memories from previous victims to help Mark figure out Leah was in jeopardy.

Murder, rape, stalking, corporate espionage, virgins, psychopaths, jilted lovers, sex–HOT LATTE had it all. And then some.

I’ve used many of these elements in future books: Seattle setting/sex crimes detective (THE KILL); stalker/rapist (SPEAK NO EVIL); psychotic ex-girlfriend (KILLING FEAR); ex-soldier priest (SUDDEN DEATH). They work much better solo . . .

I’ve never regretted writing this book, even though it never sold (and it never SHOULD sell. And I don’t think I have the manuscript anymore, in any format electronic or print.) I learned so much about story, pacing, characters, and suspense. Writing HOT LATTE helped me develop my voice. There are some things in that book that are still true for me today:

* I always develop a villains POV. (Well, not anymore. In KISS ME, KILL ME — that comes out on Tuesday (Blatant Self-Promo) there is not villain POV.)
* I usually have at least one law enforcement/investigator as a protagonist. (Also not true — neither Sean nor Lucy is in law enforcement . . . yet.)
* I have a hero and heroine, they get to have sex, and they survive by the end of the book. (Really, the very basic frame of all romantic thrillers.) (And yes, I’ve done that in all my books except ORIGINAL SIN because Moira and Rafe didn’t have sex until book two, CARNAL SIN. I thought it was worth the wait . . . )
* I love writing romantic suspense.

KISS ME, KILL ME will be my sixteenth published novel. I’m currently writing IF I SHOULD DIE, Lucy Kincaid #3.

I’ve been thinking recently about debut novels. My debut was THE PREY (my fifth completed manuscript.) Because I enjoy being mentally tortured, I read my reviews. Most people think that my books have gotten better, with minor exceptions. (My mom is always honest with her opinion!) Some people love THE PREY and my first trilogy, and pretty much think everything I’ve written since is crap. But one review for THE PREY said something very interesting:

I have to be honest; If this had been the first Brennan novel I’ve read, I probably would have enjoyed it more. But because I’ve read her more recent work, I found this one lacking.

I don’t regret writing and publishing THE PREY. I love the story. But I happen to agree with this reviewer. If I wrote that story today, there are some things I would have done different. Not major story points, but there are some scenes that didn’t need to be in the book, and others I should have written. I would have limited the introspection more (during revisions, my editor asked for introspection in a variety of places. In hindsight, she didn’t want them in EVERY space–she just wanted more depth. I went overboard.) And I would have made my heroine more sympathetic. She was a bit too cold, though justified.

I’m proud of the book because it was my first publishable book. Not the first book I wrote, but the first book that was “good enough” to see print. But like HOT LATTE and PROTECTING HART where I learned about story elements and structure and pacing, I have learned a lot since writing my first trilogy. And I think most authors will agree that, with some exceptions, they’ve improved.

It’s only when we get bored with our stories that they lose their spark.

What do you think? Have your favorite authors gotten better? Stayed about the same? Disintegrated into a pile of mush? Do others feel the same, or was it just you?

As an author, do you feel you’ve improved? Did you sell your first book? Tenth? If you didn’t sell your first book, knowing what you know today about your voice and writing, be honest: is that book publishable? Could it be salvaged? Or is it a valuable lesson learned (and kept hidden from the world) that helped you become the author you are today?

I’m giving away one copy of KISS ME, KILL ME which comes out on Tuesday. Read an exclusive three chapter preview here. Comment by midnight Friday PST.

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