Monday, May 21, 2007

Bump It Up

I heard Jane Graves speak on Saturday at my RWA chapter meeting. Jane writes romantic comedy and her fifteenth book, Hot Wheels and High Heels, goes on sale July 1.

Jane talked about receiving a rejection letter a decade ago that told her "there's nothing wrong here, but you've failed to rise above the other 850 submissions I got this month."

Stung, she approached half a dozen agents and editors and asked what helps a submission to rise above the rest. They used words like "original," "spark," and "something I haven't seen a million times before."

Using their advice, Jane decided she needed to "bump it up," and she's been doing that ever since.

She used the manuscript of her latest novel to help explain what she meant.

There are lots of books out there with a heroine who is on the ropes--whose husband has left her for a younger woman. Jane's heroine, Darcy McDaniel, is almost forty, and she's been married for fourteen years.

Bump it up.

Darcy was once the trophy wife. She has no marketable skills.

Bump it up.

Her husband leaves her while she's in Mexico on vacation with a girlfriend.

Bump it up.

She returns home to find he's emptied their bank accounts, run up their credit cards, and sold their house and all its furnishings before skipping the country.

Bump it up.

Coming in from the airport, Darcy walks into her house to discover another family eating dinner at her table.

Bump it up.

Her no-good husband took her jewelry, and her clothing has been donated to Goodwill. "She raced to the front entry and scrambled up the stairs, images of street people filling her mind. She saw them huddled in doorways wearing her Emilio Pucci pants and smoking Camel nonfilters. Stretched out on park benches, using her Gucci jackets as pillows. Carrying drug paraphernalia in her Fendi bag."

Darcy goes ballistic, running around her house, trying to collect HER French art deco vase, silver candlesticks and Waterford clock. The new owners don't try to stop her; they dial 911. Darcy is escorted off the premises of her own home by the police.

Bump it up.

Enter the hero. An ex-cop named John Stark who can't stand high maintenance women. He operates a repo company, and he's after Darcy's Mercedes Roadster.

See what I mean?

Jane says the secret to a successful novel is to have C*O*N*F*L*I*C*T on every page. That's right. Every page. Keep throwing pressure at your characters. Don't let them relax or get comfortable.

She also said you need to be very specific: specific in describing your characters, specific in your dialogue and specific in your introspection. "She pulled to the side of the road in front of the double-wide on lot 38G, a vinyl-clad structure with plastic shutters and a limp metal awning. A pot of pink geraniums sat beside the front door, wilting in the heat, and Christmas lights drooped over the picture window in the living room. Clayton, take down the damned lights, her mother would say, and her father would say, not if I'm gonna have to put them up again next year."

To read the first chapter of Hot Wheels and High Heels, go here. I promise; it's a delight.

And remember . . . bump it up . . . and be specific.

Another two-post day. Read on to the next post.


Marie Tuhart said...

I love this blog today, Maya. Mainly because at my RWA meeting on Saturday the speaker said the same thing about conflict. She's a YA author and talked about how she started writing romance. But that conflict was everything. And you have to get the conflict in early, and make worse and worse and worse yet.

Maya Reynolds said...

Marie: I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Jane, who is as funny in person as she on the printed page.

Thanks for posting.

Laura Vivanco said...

I think this 'bump it up' advice may work for some authors and readers and not for others. Same goes for 'have C*O*N*F*L*I*C*T on every page'. Readers' tastes vary, as do different authors' voices and what suits one person may not suit another.

As a reader I can get tired of conflict. And I worry that the conflict and bumping might get in the way of nuanced characterisation. It doesn't have to, but if an author didn't quite know how to handle it, she could be so busy bumping the plot and escalating conflict that the characters end up frantically rushing around and behaving in an over-the-top manner.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: Of course, in the case of Jane who is writing comedy, she's working in broad strokes. However, conflict doesn't necessarily have to be a big thing. It's the ongoing tension that keeps things moving.

It took me a while to learn that if my characters were comfortable, my readers were asleep. That's why good critique partners are so valuable. Mine taught me to end chapters on action, not with everyone going to bed at the end of the day (encourages the reader to close the book and go to bed, too).

Donald Maass, the agent, does an exercise in his classes on writing where he has the students open their manuscripts to a random page and then asks if there is conflict on the page. He does the same thing over and over to point out to them that they want to keep the plot moving.

Keeping a plot moving does not have to happen at the expense of characterization. I agree; it often does, but it doesn't have to happen.