Saturday, May 23, 2009

Welcome Sherry Thomas

The Book of Your Heart/The Heart of Your Book

I am an advocate for writing the book of your heart.

But I am a latecomer to that position. I did not take that view until after I’d finally finished DELICIOUS, my second book, for the third time.

Why didn’t I think so before? Well, for one thing, I have never had a book that I single out as the book of my heart. I like all my book ideas and can’t wait for the day when I’d have enough time to finish every single last one of them.

Perhaps more importantly, I have cringed at what people call stories of their hearts. Haven’t you cringed at one? At the entirely unmerited optimism of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed writer who was going to be slaughtered the first time she sent that baby out to the real world, where contest judges, agents, and editors would unleash their relentless scorn upon it?

I mean, a vampire who sparkles? Get out of town!

I used to think, when presented with an unwieldy book of the heart, that the writer needed to abandon ship, pronto. I never said it, but oh boy have I thought it. Just forget it. Move on. Write something else. I then shake my head inwardly as I meet the writer a few months later and she is still at it.

Multiple times during the writing of DELICIOUS, my second book, I’d wished I could just chuck it. The whole setup was nuts. Much better to abandon ship. Move on. Write something else--God, anything else. But I was trapped by my contract, obligated to rewrite the entire book again and again as my editor rejected it again and again. (My discard pile for DELICIOUS ran 250,000 words deep.)

And then, incredibly, miraculously, between the second and the third full draft, something magical happened. I found the story after all that wasted verbiage. I found the heart of the book.
It was a moment of epiphany for me. It’s not that there aren’t ever terrible ideas. There are. But fiction, by its very nature, can be made to coalesce around just about any idea. Therefore, it is rarely, rarely the fault of the idea, but overwhelmingly the fault of the execution that dooms a story.

And a lot of times, when a writer tinkers and tinkers with a story but doesn’t really improve it, it’s not because s/he is over-attached to the idea, but because s/he cannot separate the idea from the approach to the idea.

For example, DELICIOUS began as just another story of a man who falls for his cook. I throw in a fiancée for the man to complicate matters. But the man and the fiancée are together merely for convenience and he sleeps with his cook.

I wrote two versions of that particular story, two very different versions that in the end didn’t differ that much: the man sleeps with his cook in both versions. I thought I needed it to happen, because I write very hot books. How could I write hot books if there is no sex?

It took the failures of both these two versions for me to understand that never mind the hot, I did not have a story when I did not have a true hero. In the third and final version, my hero cares very much for the young woman to whom he is engaged, and as much as he falls completely for his cook, he chooses honor over physical gratification every time.

In other words, I threw out my whole previous approach. I did not tinker. I rebuilt from scratch. As a result, I had my story. (And would you believe it, I also managed to up the hot.)

Come to think of it, I do this a lot. PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, my first book, was a complete rewrite of a manuscript that had been laid aside and forgotten for years. NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, my new release, went through an emergency rewrite this past December. In each case, it is never the story itself that is ditched, but the approach that did not work.
The heart of the story is always there, waiting to be unearthed.

Now I never laugh at story ideas any more—anything can sound ridiculous when taken out of context, and to condense fiction is to take it out of context. Instead, when I cast a critical eye on my story, I do not doubt the fundamental concept, but take a hard look at my approach, whether it should be repaired, improved, or replaced altogether.

When I’m asked for advice to give other writers, I tell them they can write the book of their heart. But first be sure to find the heart of their book. And be fearless and ruthless when it comes to words already written. Toss it all out, if you have to. You have my permission. Heck, you have my encouragement. Do not let the old stand in the way of the new. Don’t be afraid to start afresh.

After all, nobody ever said it was easy to write the book of your heart.

But it is doable.
______________________________
Sherry's newest release, Not Quite a Husband, hit the shelves on May 19th. For more information on this and her other fabulous historical romances, check out her website.

12 comments:

Karen said...

Hi Sherry and welcome.

I'm always interested in hearing authors talk about editing and the rewriting process. I love your idea of finding the heart of the book. I also think being able to separate the idea from the approach to the idea would be a valuable skill to learn. Taking an idea and turning it round and round and looking at it from different angles. I feel better about the rewriting I'm involved in right now with my wip. I had been asking myself why I couldn't just 'tinker' with what was already there? After your post I'm ready to keep forging ahead.

BTW, loved the bio line on your blog. Too funny! Also enjoyed the book video for Not Quite a Husband. And because I love food, I'm definitely reading Delicious first. I've never clicked to read an excerpt and been gifted with so much information and insight into the book. Very cool.

Sherry Thomas said...

Hi Karen,

Thank you. Lovely to be here.

LOL, yes, I model my book pages after Eloisa James. So there is tons of info.

And if you like food, then DELICIOUS is definitely a good place to start. Everybody keep telling me it makes them hungry. :-)

I think of writing first drafts as getting the wrong stuff out of the way. It's not the most efficient way of writing, but then nobody has ever accused writers of being efficient!

Karen said...

I like that - getting the wrong stuff out of the way. I'm going to borrow that line of thought.

Silver James said...

G'morning, Sherry, and welcome to the prairie. Your insight comes at a very good time in the process for me. I'm within days of finishing a revision for a book to pitch at RWA and I'm pleased with the rewrite. That said, my next project is to rip apart the book of my heart and glue it back together, though not quite from scratch.

Written three years ago, my "heart book" contains my favorite heroine (and character), my favorite RML, and my three favorite secondary characters--each of whom will get to be MCs in their own books eventually. I had an editor absolutely shred the proposal. Yes. It felt like my heart had been ripped out, stomped on, and tossed on the compost pile. Ever since, that book has haunted me and I've now figured out what needs to be done. With luck, I'll have it ready to pitch, if not at RWA, then by the end of the summer. Frankly, I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Thank you for sharing your own tribulations with the process. I have hope now! :) I have both PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and DELICIOUS languishing in the TBR pile. *sigh* *blush* I fear I read whatever falls off the pile next.

Getting the wrong stuff out of the way is a great way to look at the revision process as a whole, not just the first draft! Thanks for the inspiration.

Janet C. said...

Good Morning, Sherry. It's great to have you visit The Prairies!

I've been struggling with Lady Bells - having written it, revised it, revised it, revised it... well, you get the picture. But I realize now that the revisions were just surface editing (as Karen said, I was tinkering). Now I know I have to 're-write' it. The heart of the book is strong, but my approach was not. It's voiceless - if I could use that word.

Thank you for your words of wisdom. They've come at just the right time.

Question - do you see yourself writing in other subgenres, over and above historical romance that you do so well?

BTW, Silver - give that TBR pile a little push so that Private Arrangements falls first. It's a wonderful story :)

Sherry Thomas said...

Silver,

I think one day I'm going to post the sixteen-page, single-space editorial letter I got for the first draft of DELICIOUS.

So I perfectly understand how you felt.

Well, you go at it. And best of luck with the rebuilding of the book of your heart. And may it win friends and astonish editors at RWA!

Janet,

Hi, and thank you for inviting me.

What an interesting way to describe a manuscript not quite yet meeting its full potential--voiceless.

Best luck to freeing the voice of your story with your revision.

And yes, I do have a straight contemporary romance almost done and I have always wanted to do SF romance.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Welcome Sherry, I'm so very glad you're taking time to visit with us.

Like Janet said, your post is oh so timely.

You see, I did write the book of my heart. Nbr 3 out of 5, it's like a middle child. Not given as much attention as the others but always in my thoughts. It was the easiest to write. And the fastest. It made the rounds through my CP's on onto the contest circuit. And it finaled 3 times last year. But a lot of judges said they tried to like my heroine but I didn't give them enough Goal and Motivation. So, I worked at it and tweaked it and this year sent it in to 2 major contests. I didn't final in either one which was a major disappointment.

But do you know what? I just rec'd the 2nd results back and after scouring the judges' comments, I realized that most of my good scores were for my hero and my writing. The judges are still saying I need to work on my heroine's GMC. And they're right. Sure, I tweaked it writing-wise, but I didn't change my heroine because I couldn't see her any other way. But this last batch of judges really took the time to point out where my GMC flaws are and I thank them for that. Yet, I have no clear picture of her any other way.

Now put that together with your post, and it is so clear. I need to put Charley's Saint on the shelf for a couple years and separate myself from it. And just thinking about that, I'm feeling like a weight has been lifted and I can now move on to other projects.

Your post is very special, Sherry. Thank you.

DebH said...

wow sherry

thanks for your input and inspiration. i will definitely remember to keep the heart of the story in the forefront of my mind. i appreciate the idea that the first draft is a way to get the wrong stuff out of the way first. definitely something to keep in mind.

it reminds me of what Chuck Jones (of Bugs Bunny fame) said about drawings, which i've adapted to writing words. everyone has masterpieces inside them, you may have to draw (or write) a lot of pages before you find them. so start early and often.

thanks for visiting the Chicks!!!

Molli said...

Hello Sherry, and thanks for joining us today. As usual it's late before I check in, but I'm glad I did.

Finding the heart of the book -- I like the way you put that. I had no trouble doing it with my first story, a bit of a problem with the second, and I'm still prospecting on the third (none of them published, by the way -- yet). I appreciate your sharing, and particularly the reminder that "fiction ..... can be made to coalesce around just about any idea." After reading this post it seems to me that the reason I'm stalled on my third story may be I'm trying to find the right approach, so I'll give that some thought--thanks.

Sherry Thomas said...

Anita,

You are welcome.

And you might not need a couple of years. Sometimes a few months is enough. Or even a few weeks. as long as your new approach works.

Best of luck!

DebH,

That's a great analogy from Chuck Jones. I love it.

Molli,

May the right approach to your third story come soon and come strong.

Janet C. said...

Sherry - just jumping back in to thank you again for guest blogging. As I said - and others have also implied - your post was not only timely, but thought provoking.

It was great having you here - best of luck with the new release - and we hope you consider coming back to The Prairies soon.

Christine Rimmer said...

What a great way to look at why a book doesn't work. I can honestly say as a writer that I'm not attached to my words. I often find that if I really love the writing in a section of a story I'm working on, it probably will have to be cut eventually--because in the end, it reads as me, the author, taking over. I'm fine with cutting the heck out of it.

But I can recall times when my approach wasn't working and I couldn't see it. From now on I will be looking for the heart of my stories...

Thanks, Sherry. Love your books. Can't wait to read your contemporary romanace, too.