Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stepping out of My Box into the Unknown

This week, one of my efriends gave me a compliment that has stuck with me. I find myself thinking about it at odd times of the day and feeling good. It’s because I stepped out of the box into unknown territory. And survived.

It started when eharlequin announced the second ‘Pass the Plot’ challenge a couple months ago. You see last year when they announced it, I jumped at the challenge but then withdrew my name when I realized it was a Blaze author leading the team. And I’ve regretted it all year.

So this year when they announced Harlequin Historical author Joanne Rock would lead another Pass the Plot, I put my name in for the challenge. You'd think I would've checked Joanne's backlist because I would've seen that she writes medievals like this book cover here, but I didn't and now I'm glad I didn't. Because when the list came out, I was chosen to write Chapter 7 of a Scottish historical set in Northumbria, 1150. I was fine until I read Joanne’s first chapter. Then I panicked. The Scottish brogue was thicker than a pair of Arctic mitts. We’re talking the middle ages here, folks. Yes, I’ve read and enjoyed many medieval stories, but I’ve never written one. I always allowed my story ideas to fade away because I was too scared of screwing up the clothing or language or weaponry or something.

Yet my name was ‘out there’ for all 2000 eharlequin members as well as anyone else who happened by the site to see. There was no going back this time. So, I settled in to wait for my week. Every Monday, a new chapter appeared on the Pass the Plot board. Every chapter seemed to increase the brogue, the conflict and the sexual tension. Every day increased the worry I’d make a tremendous fool of myself. Meanwhile, my week crept up on me.

And to top it off, we would get points for using certain words and phrases. The writer who received the most points would take home the Pass the Plot title for ‘bragging rights’. And you should’ve seen the list! Well, look, here it is:

Keyword/Phrase List:

Aye=1 point

Sword=1 point

knight=1 point

mount(s)=2 points

behemoth=2 points

Highland(s)=2 points

"Curran of Donedin"=5 points

"Nessa of the Glen"=5 points

"Siobhan cackled"=5 points

"her furious heart"=10 points

"the knight’s broad, muscular thighs"=10 points

"she would have no lands, no dowry and no future" = 20 points!!

Fun list, eh. The ‘behemoth’, and ‘the knight’s broad, muscular thighs’ were intimidating. And if you put those together with 'mount' and 'her furious heart' you could have raise some heat!

Then on June 8th, Nancy Holroyd’s Chapter 6 went up and wow, did she up the stakes. Not only had she thickened the brogue, but she wrote a moving love scene after the hero and heroine married via a handfast for a period of ‘a year and a day’. Nancy ended her chapter with Nessa and Curran along the right side of a cave wall trying to evade capture. And I had to write the next chapter. Yikes!

During the week I thought about the story but I didn’t have any clear indication of what should happen to them next. However, the one thought that kept running through my mind was where Nancy had Curran tell Nessa to keep to the right and stay close to the wall. He even warned her not to go straight or left.

So Friday when I sat down to write Chapter 7, I asked myself, why not? What if she did go left? What would happen? And just like that, my 1000 word chapter fell into place. I had to surf the net a couple times for Scottish brogue. Then, I almost screwed it up when I was about to email it to Dee Tenorio, the hostess of the board, but I decided to wait until Sat morning and look at it with fresh eyes. Am I glad I did! To keep the continuity, I had copied and pasted Nancy’s last couple chapters before starting mine. Then I wrote out about 1200 words and tightened it down to 1000. But the next morning something nagged at me and when I looked at it, sure enough, the word count included Nancy’s paras. So, I had to add in another couple hundred words to bring it back up to 1000 words. Phew!

I waited until Sun morning to check it again. And again. And finally I emailed it off to Dee.

Sure enough, Monday morning, my Chapter 7 was added to the Board. I eagerly read it and found where I’d put the word ‘anguish’ in 2 sentences close together. How’d I miss that? And of course I spotted a couple other little things I’d tweak if I could.

I’d gone on the discussion board saying I couldn’t match the 142 points by Jane H back in Chapter 2 and so I was going for the adventure, but still . . . eagerly, I looked for my Keyword total . . . and there it was . . . TBD. What? Hmm, I’m not sure what that means or if they’re just trying to add suspense to the challenge or if I screwed up some of the phrasing and they don’t know what to do with it.

I think the best compliment I received, though was on Facebook from my efriend JodieG who said, ‘LOL, Anita Mae! You used them quite well, without crossing any line I know you don't like to cross. Good job!’

Yep, I stepped out of the box and put myself in a potentially compromising situation. Except I found an alternative. I’ve heard horror stories from writers where they are forced to compromise themselves because an editor wishes certain words, phrases or scenes to be used and the contract has been signed and the advance spent. But there is always an alternative. You just might have to dig a bit to find it.

Have you faced a situation where someone wanted you to cross your personal line? Do you have a personal line? Or would you do anything to get your book published? Have you stepped out of your box and signed on for ‘the unknown’? Would you if you had the chance? Have you read my chapter 7 of Pass the Plot?


Captain Hook said...

Great post and awesome chapter, Anita! If that's an example of your writing, I definitely want to read your books when they're published.

As for stepping out of my comfort zone, well, my comfort zone is pretty broad. Then there are things I can write about fine even though they give me the heebie-jeebies. I write them because they are part of the real world.

Take Cassandra's Secrets for example. One of her kidnappers is a pedophile. She's 13 and he's very (sickly) interested. Whenever he gets alone with her, he tries to cop a feel.

Is he a comfortable character to write? No! He makes me want to vomit, but he adds a very realistic element to her kidnapping, so I use him.

Hope that makes sense.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes Capt'n, it does make sense. It's like you've picked the most vile person you can think of to be the kidnapper of a child. If the victim was an adult, no one would care if he's a pedophile. But him being a ped ups the stakes when a child's involved. Anytime the action is taken away from the little girl, the reader will wonder what she's doing and if she's safe. That's actually a stroke of genius on your part. So yeah, I'd agree you've stepped out of your comfort zone on this one. Good for you and good luck with your wip.

And thank you for going over and reading my chapter. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Smooth sailing, Capt'n.

Karyn Good said...

Wow, Anita Mae. What a fantastic addition to the Past the Plot challenge and congratulations on stepping out of your comfort zone. I'd say you succeeded admirably.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks Karyn, I appreciate that.

And although I love the compliments, I want to hear about your experiences even if it's not writing related.

And if you haven't been tempted to step outside your comfort zone yet, what would it take to tempt you?

Do you know, I just realized we have enough people here to write our own online round robin if we wanted. We could do it on Sundays. Hmm... just a thought.

Silver James said...

As a writer, I have very few lines I won't cross, though there are several that I'd never cross "publicly." Those shall remain private.

As a person, I've often had to step outside of my comfort zone. If I had my way, I'd be a hermit happily hiding in my writing cave and writing. Except part of me wanted to be published. And with that aspiration comes many chances to fail. One of the hardest things I've ever done was ask a well-established author to read FAERIE FATE and give me a cover brag if she liked it. I did so, in a rather off-hand way that left her an easy out. Amazingly, Jennifer Lyons, author of BLOOD MAGIC, agreed, enjoyed the book and gave me wonderful praise (along with nudges about release date and encouragement in my writing.) Dude! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I love your voice, Anita Mae, and you did a great job "wiggling" out of your dilemma. Writing an accent is HARD! I use both Irish and Scottish brogues as well as Cajun patois in my books. It takes a deft hand to pull it off.

Hope Chastain said...

Nicely done, Anita Mae! I hadn't been keeping up with Pass the Plot, due to an interruption in my internet service. You did a beautiful job and managed not to compromise your principles! I'm so proud of you! *hug* I could just see Nessa dangling over the precipice.

I've stepped out of my comfort zone with some of the writing challenges at, but some of them are just out of the question. I think the main thing is never to write anything that would reflect badly on the Lord. As long as we remember Who we're writing for, I think we'll be all right. You did great!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Silver, good for you! It takes guts to to make a 'cold call' on a relative stranger, especially one 'in the know' and ask them to read and maybe even endorse your book. That's putting a smile on my face! :)

I love your term 'wiggling' out of my dilemma.

The part I found hard with the brogue was how much to use. I didn't want to overwhelm the reader where they were trying to figure out what I was saying and coming out of the story. But I have to admit, the phrase that keeps popping in my head at odd times of the day is Curran saying, 'Nessa of the Glen, dae na leave me now.'
It's like those other times when I break the rules in writing; it might not be correct, but I love that line!

Thanks for the boost, Silver and congrats and doing what you gotta do.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey, welcome back, Hope. I actually thought I'd see your name listed, too since you write English Regency, I believe.

The thing with the writing challenges - they're all done on a volunteer level. So you're right, if you don't feel comfortable, you don't have to do it. Even if you back out, they'll find someone else and no one will think badly of you. I'd really like to think the Harlequin editors are reading the challenges and know exactly who's doing what and why or why not but that's just wiashful thinking on my part. They're too busy with their slush piles. :)

Thanks Hope. It means a lot that you stopped in and shared your thoughts on this matter. Hope you get your net service fixed.

Helena said...

If I go back a few years, I can remember feeling that I was out of my comfort zone when I began calling myself a writer, when I dared to talk to established authors about, of all things, writing! It seemed so presumptuous of me at the time. Of course, I soon discovered that most writers are very supportive of other writers regardless of what stage they are at, published or unpublished, etc. It seemed like a real leap for me at the time.

In my personal life, I have had to step out of the box fairly often since I was widowed. From simple things that I had never done before like starting a lawnmower, installing a doorknob, or filling up at a self-serve, to actually doing a long-distance drive on my own. Biggest was probably when I took a solo trip to Europe to go hiking in the Austrian countryside where my husband grew up. My box of possibilities has stretched quite a lot in the seven years that I have spent discovering that I can survive on my own.

I find it also takes courage to write about my own life experiences, and I have done that, too. Still working on a piece about the hiking trip, but haven't quite found the right voice for it yet. That has something to do with comfort level, too.

You've made us put our thinking caps on today, Anita. Good to have to examine our inner resources and limits.

I read your chapter quickly and certainly got a sense of the panic/thrill the heroine was feeling. Makes me want to go back and read all the previous chapters. Is this the first time you have done the group writing thing? Do the required elements make it more challenging or more restrictive?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow, Helena - after being married over 30 yrs, I can't even imagine being a widow. But yeah, I can see how you'd have to learn a whole new set of things you used to take for granted - well, I guess I take them for granted anyway.

A solo hiking trip through the Austrian countryside is the stuff dreams are made of and it sounds like you had that dream for awhile. I'm glad you found the courage to do it while you could. I'd like to read what you've written based on your experiences there.

You asked if this was the first time I've done the group writing thing and I have to say, no, it's not.

Do you remember 'Cold Feet' - the group writing project of the Sask Rom Writers? I was asked to write the scene where he has an epiphany while trudging back through the blinding snowstorm and the welcome back party scene afterards. I believe I ended the scene with the heroine on his lap. :)

Yes, the required elements make it more restrictive and because of that, more challenging. I think that's why I like the eharl challenges. They really stretch my imagination to the limits. And I really like the feeling after I've accomplished the task, too.

I enjoyed your thoughts, Helena. Thank you.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Congratulations on meeting your challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone. I enjoyed reading your chapter.

Last summer my husband was desperate for a speaker for his Rotary club (it was his turn to find one) so he asked me to speak on epublishing. My first inclination was to say no, since I'd rather pull out my own teeth then speak in public, but he was in a pinch, so I agreed. I stepped out of my comfort zone and made my little speech. It went well and I've gone on to give the speech twice more. Even though speaking in public makes me nervous, I'm glad I took that step.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Anita, taking a break from essay work to check in. I will give your chapter a read-through when I have a little more time to enjoy it, but I'm very pleased to hear you dove in and took a chance!

I'm not sure if I have a hard personal line or comfort zone when it comes to what I write...with the addition that it better be damn worthwhile to the plot. I've read some books where the author threw in a few awful bits of sexual violence sheerly for the reaction, I'm pretty sure, and I did not like them, but it was because it felt very exploitive. If it actually served the plot (sexual acts in Toni Morrison's Beloved would be a good example), it wouldn't frustate me (but would bother me I'm sure, as it is meant to do). Now, the actual act of writing something that far out of my comfort zone could be a different experience (I've had threats but not followed through on them), but if it mattered to the story, I'd certainly make it work and make sure it was good.

But if you're talking less perversion/deviation lines (and my mind went there first because we talked about them in Philosophy today) and more personal neutral morals and standards, there are plenty of things I won't do. I won't compromise on what I feel are important elements of storytelling or composition, and lose my voice or vision in the process. Little changes, logical editorial decisions, sure. I've heard examples of movies (Blade Runner was one, I think) where the director originally planned a more tragic ending, and the studio forced a change to make it happy. Unless it was a vastly superior ending, I don't think I could do that. If I'm not writing a story with a happy ending, I'd hate to have to tack one on for the sake of popularity.

But of course I'm speaking from the place of utter idealism, the writer with no ties to the industry and no need to make accommodations. Ask me again in five years...and hopefully my answer will be much the same ;)

Janet C. said...

Good job, Anita. Challenges really make us stretch and grow - and you rose to the challenge :)

I've been stepping out of the box for more years than I care to admit. Moving to a university farther away than home province one AND being 3 years older than most freshmen (didn't go right after high school). Moving to the Arctic for my first job - all by myself (the entire 4 years there was one giant leap out of normalcy). Renovating a house with no prior knowledge of renovating. Quitting way too many jobs in order to move and try something new and exciting. Getting jobs I had no training/background in. I could go on - but you can see I'm an adventurer.

I believe stepping out of boxes is the best thing a person can do - it fires you up and, like I said, makes you stretch and grow as a human being.

Again, well done :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, that's wonderful that you helped your hubby out when he was in a crunch situation. It shows you loved him more than you feared speaking in public. :) Good for you to take that step and then reinforce it a couple more times.

Thanks for sharing.

And, I'm glad you liked my chapter. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley - your 2nd para reminded me of Howard Stern where he says things for the shock value to bring attention to himself.

Your first impression was correct - and the line I didn't want to cross was having to write a pre-marital love scene with certain words thrown in for effect.

The instance I was talking about in my post about editors was where a friend refused to add certain words and descriptions in her manuscript yet they were there when the book came out in print. Scary concept.

If only I were talking about utter idealism but I seem to get lost in that sphere. :(

Thank you Hayley, for your unique view.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes, Janet, you are a true adventurer because you kept going even when you could have easily given up and no one would have thought you were a quitter.

No wonder you said you were getting itchy feet; you needed a new adventure. I hope you never lose your sense of adventure, Janet. It'll keep your spirit young even when your 130 yr old bod wears out. :)

Thanks for reading my chapter.