It’s really hard for us writers to put our work out there—open it up to criticism from not only the public, but particularly from fellow writers. It feels like running out into the middle of a medieval battlefield sans not only your armor, but also your underwear.
Wake up call: those stones you hear whizzing by your ears? They’re not always projectiles of ill intent. Sometimes, they are sacred offerings. Nuggets of pure gold.
I was honored today to have a 30-minute, private chat with best-selling historical romance author, Patricia Grasso, after our regional RWA meeting. This was a preplanned consultation following a sequence of emails between us where, basically, I pleaded for her help on my struggling work-in-progress. Pat was hesitant to share her “lots to say” about my synopsis and first chapter, afraid I’d either cry or get mad. After assuring her I would do neither of these things, she agreed to sit down with me after today’s meeting.
I will admit: I came with some trepidation. Not that I haven’t developed somewhat of a tough outer shell after dealing with three different publishers and three different editors on three different manuscripts. But we’re talking Patricia Grasso here. Have you Googled her lately? Seen her impressive lineup of historical masterpieces?
We sat and she pre-empted with a disclaimer: “You can take my suggestions and use them, all of them, some of them, or ignore everything and write the thing however you want. But here’s my take on it. Hear me out.”
And I did. She criticized my POV switches, highlighting the fact they were confusing to the reader. She suggested some major plot changes that I may or may not use. She pointed out chunks of backstory that need “to go.”
“You remember that fairy tale where the little kid drops bread crumbs to mark his trail in the forest?” she asked.
“Hansel and Gretel,” I replied.
“That’s it,” she pointed at me. “That’s how you put in your backstory. A few crumbs at a time.”
She questioned the personality of my hero: “Come on. Have you ever read a romance with a hero with this particular flaw?”
“Yes,” I replied, in my typically defensive manner. “I just finished a book where the hero had the same flaw. By Lisa Kleypas.”
Pat regarded me for a moment, chin tipped up, before replying, “Well, you’re not Lisa Kleypas. And you’ve got a long ways before you get there.”
Ouch. Good point, Pat.
But what I had anticipated as a tumult of critical stones thrown on my work-in-progress soon began to sparkle like gems (stop laughing, Pat). It didn’t take long for me to realize this wasn’t an annihilation of my work. It was a diagnosis, by an experienced and highly successful veteran of the romance genre, with a suggested plan of treatment.
“Here,” she said, pointing to two circled sentences on the pages. “I love these lines. You have a flair for injecting comedy into your stories. You need to play these up.”
That surprised me. Although I do like to try to be funny, I never really thought I was very good at it.
“But I write contemporary romance,” I replied, “with ghosts. Where is there room for comedy too?”
“There are no rules that say you can’t have humor in contemporary, even if there are ghosts.” Pat sat back in her chair, tapping the pages. “This is your strength, the part of your voice you need to emphasize. Play up your strengths, diminish your weaknesses.”
Developing writer’s voice was the topic of today’s NECRWA meeting, with a fantastic presentation by speaker Gail Eastwood. Pat’s comment couldn’t have come at a better time, in a better place. I almost heard the tumblers click into place inside my head. Wow. Breakthrough.
This is only one of the really great things about membership, the camaraderie with RWA writers. Not only do we get together to share our successes, mourn our rejections, exchange our ideas, and learn something really useful from our speakers, but every once in a while, we get lucky.
Today, I got very lucky. Thank you, Patricia Grasso, for taking the time away from your own writing life to analyze my work. For setting my derailed writing journey back on the tracks. And for sending me forward with a swift, enthusiastic kick in the butt.