When to Hold ‘Em

Like most authors, I enjoy some parts of the writing game more than others. I have a good eye for prose, for making solid sentences stronger, for adding a dash of color to an otherwise unprepossessing phrase. I like to polish, in other words.

I am not nearly as adept at coming up with story ideas. If you’ve read my books, you’ve seen the tropes–secret babies, marriage or courtship of convenience, snowbound romance (waves to Pietr and Joy). The standard plotting advice–turn the trope on its head!–is also in evidence. Darius is the fallen woman with a heart of gold (‘cept he’s not fallen and he’s not a woman). Quinn Wentworth is a duke on death row. Ned Wentworth, as we shall see, is the thief who never learns to steal.

But coming up with something truly original? I struggle mightily, sometimes roosting on an idea for years before I can see its potential. I’m far more likely to think in terms of scenes, conversations, or themes than I am to envision an actual plot. For other writers, the slipper is on the other foot.

Those lucky souls can see whole story lines, start to finish. They can flip, rotate, invert, or twist any plot, and their problem is pruning away subplots, red herrings, and idiosyncratic settings. Sometimes, they are also impatient with the endless revision required for a well told story or their characters can come off a little plot-bunny-ish.

I had written many books before the fundamental paradox of writing became clear to me. It’s the old gambler’s dilemma: You have know when to go wild and know when to go home. A writer like me is always editing: That story won’t work, that subplot is anachronistic, that source of conflict doesn’t get intense enough… inadequate, silly, weak!

When it’s time to polish prose, those instincts result in a better story. When it’s time to get the clever premise into the light of day, that constant self-editing stifles the brilliant idea before it draws breath. The impulse to judge immediately stops a good notion from dancing off into real creativity.

Miss Dignified CoverSo I’m working harder on thinking of stories in terms of “I like that because…” or, “It could work if…” This is hard for me, because contending with myriad possibilities makes me anxious and impatient. I want an opening scene, a catchy opening line. I want one flashlight beam to follow the heck out of, and leave the grand designs to those suited to such conceptions.

Except that a great book needs a grand design as well as polished prose. In fact, a wonderful life probably needs a balance of editorial acumen and creative license, too. A time to dream and a time to do.

Do you tend to be more critic or composer? Are you full of ideas, but not so keen on execution, or the person who gets the job done even if the result isn’t so fancy? Maybe you are one of those lucky few who can toggle between different modes? To three commenters, I will send an ARC of Miss Dignified (who will be on sale in the web store Dec. 14, and available from the major retailers Jan. 4.)

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31 comments on “When to Hold ‘Em

  1. I’m definitely more of a critic. But at least I’m as critical of my own work as of that of other people. When I was doing technical writing, my biggest problem was finishing. That is, I was able to get my thoughts down and complete but every time I read through the document, I modified something so I never felt that I was done. These days, I do make myself stop but it’s hard because I know I could still make something clearer or more concise or… This is true even for short emails! I think I might have a wee bit of perfectionism lurking in my makeup (being born on the cusp of Virgo and Libra, I think it’s inevitable).
    And thank you, Grace, for plugging away anyway and giving us readers your wonderful books to read!

    • I’m the same way… just one more read-through, just one-monre-one-more… except that after a while, I’m creating as many typos and dangling modifiers as I’m cleaning up. Time just let it go, Grace…

  2. I’m definitely more of a critic. But at least I’m as critical of my own work as of that of other people. When I was doing technical writing, my biggest problem was finishing. That is, I was able to get my thoughts down and complete but every time I read through the document, I modified something so I never felt that I was done. These days, I do make myself stop but it’s hard because I know I could still make something clearer or more concise or… This is true even for short emails! I think I might have a wee bit of perfectionism lurking in my makeup (being born on the cusp of Virgo and Libra, I think it’s inevitable).
    And thank you, Grace, for plugging away anyway and giving us readers your wonderful books to read!

  3. There are authors who make a good living writing the same book over and over. I buy ‘em and read ‘em sometimes, too, although they aren’t usually on my pre-order list.

    As someone who has lots of ideas, I also know that I lack a certain filter that means I crash and burn quite often, too. I also don’t get much finished.

  4. Ideas come easy for me and when I was a teenager I wrote many a story that filled many exercise books but what let me down was my poor grammar,I would be pleased with the content but I knew it just was not right.My poetry was better and I went on to compose many.I was a deep and disgruntled young person sitting on my bed in the evening not with the family but alone.I dreamt I would write stories,film scipts,poems,songs.I still have some of the poems,drawings and songs in a box and though very old and tattered they remind me of my journey.When my grand children came along my story telling was always asked for and still remembered today.They are all young people now going through all the emotions,highs and lows and dreams.But your blog this week took me back and I see that I had plenty of ideas but not the confidence to see it through or the know how to obtain it.My life took a completely different course and I met some amazing people who invested in me to achieve the best I could in my line of work.

    • Most writing coaches say the idea people are truly blessed. We can learn mechanics and prose techniques, but that spark in the imagination is a rare gift. It’s no wonder the grandkids want to hear your stories!

  5. I think I get the job done without being too fancy. I resolve problems during at work. Often, I have to research to uncover how a simple request got turned upside down. I work through the problem and call out to explain the resolution. I do toggle a bit- different managers answer different questions and different associates need feedback.

    I don’t fluff up the dogs or spray them with fancy coat shiners when I get them ready for the ring. They get a spa day…bath, blow dry and nails (todays’s chore) and they look beautiful. I think judges prefer a clean shiny coat vs. one with a lot of product in it.

    My work emails are short and sweet while my texts are the opposite. I guess I know my audience!!

    I am glad you mentioned Ned! I have been waiting for hiss book! I have liked the Wentworths. Each story has been a great read!

    • If showing dogs it like showing horses and cows… you can exhausts and bankrupt yourself before you even going in the ring with the “grooming and showmanship” effort. I prefer your approach. Keep it neat and clean, let the personality and training win the ribbon, not the turnout.

  6. Definitely the idea queen. They come pouring out of me like the Lord gifted me with a hotline to creation. But that is it’s own curse. My Dad used to misquote Sophocles with, “He whom the gods would destroy, they first grant everything.”

    I get an amazing amount of them accomplished or passed along to the person who needs them, barring health & financial interruptions. One writer friend has a standing call with me when she gets stuck on her sagging middles. Another when she’s stuck in her financial planning & can’t see the forest for the trees. I start babbling and they start frantically jotting down things while muttering, “Ohhh! Why didn’t I think of that?”

    I woke up this morning with the fully formed business plan for a friend’s child who was looking for a side job that suits their personality, but fits around school hours. Curses on a school system that won’t allow gifted children below a certain age to take college classes. But my flash of insight will be the equivalent of a business degree if they do all the research required, plus pay their way through the grad school I see coming after they finally gallop through college at a ridiculously young age. And it will keep an agile but bored mind focused on productive ideas. Insert cliche here about idle hands…

    But the down side is I end my days feeling like I accomplished nothing until I sit down & list out all the notions I’ve actually managed to bring to fruition, even if they aren’t always the big flashing neon light variety. Still…I’m plugging away on one of the big ones between life happening. Last big one took me years, but here I sit in my little queendom on a lake when no one else could see it happening, so I suspect I’ll get there in the end. Even if I first got the current big idea around 2008. Sigh…

    • You make a profound point: Ideas are great, but great ideas take work. I am so very pleased with my publishing career, in part because it was YEARS in the hatching (and it’s still hatching). The dreams that come true, however long that takes them, mean a lot.
      And you know people charge money for those book doctor calls…

    • I bet you ARE creative, but it might come out more in the twiddling, tweaking, and twisting than in the initial “Once upon a time” phase. I love a good story, but I also love good writing. Some authors–Julie Anne Long, for one–have both, and oh, how I envy them (and wish they wrote faster).

  7. I’m definitely an ideas person with no skills in execution. It is a frustrating combination, but age, at least, brings some acceptance of my limitations. My daughter loves to write and I can give her a million ideas off the top of my head when she is stuck, so it can be useful.

  8. I am definitely NOT a composer! SO I have a lot of admiration for those who are. I would make a terrible writer or artist. I would also make a terrible primary researcher having to come up with my own hypotheses to investigate. I would be a better lab tech who would follow the lead of the person who designed the experiments.

    • They also serve who implement. We can’t all be the idea people. (And I saw your review of Mary Balogh’s latest… you have mighty pen, Make Kay, even if you aren’t using it to write 100,000 word HEAs.)

  9. Grace, this has absolutely nothing to do with being a composer or critic (although I am a type-A perfectionist, so I’m pretty sure I’m a critic). Anyway–

    What I would like to know is if there’s a way to order the entire Lady Violet set from your website without having to purchase each individually. Is there a shopping cart I’m missing? Or, better yet, a one-click-gets-you-all-six button? That would be heaven!

    Thanks for any help you can offer.

    • Yikes… that will take some formatting, and I have no idea what to charge for it, but I will try to get that in place by Christmas. I can’t do it for “all” of my series because some of them are split between self-published and traditionally published, but I can do it for a some of them.

  10. Well – I have two artistic sisters. I still like coloring books and most of the time I can stay between the lines.

    The most creative thing I do is to design small computer systems. It is more about logic than creativity – how do you get there from here – so I suppose that is a little like the scaffolding for a book.

    • That sounds very like the scaffolding for a book. In most genre fiction, we know how the book will end. Somebody will solve the murder, the mid-life grief and empowerment will balance out, the protags will find their HEA, the superhero will best the super-villain… It’s the how you get there that keeps the readers turning pages.

  11. I am an idea person I think. I can not even dream of coming up with the wording/phrasing of Grace. I especially love it when I have to look up a word. Could be I am hopelessly weird. I tried explaining that to some colleagues and they looked horrified, like I scared them out of reading your books. Sorry.

    Having said this too many times, I will point out once more that the Captive Hearts Trilogy was inspired, original and one of your very best offerings. I live in hope that one day “whoever” will cave and allow them to be made into audio books. Not that anyone cares but The Traitor is the best one.

  12. I also loved The Traitor. But I love them all. Sometimes though, I wish the protagonists would just TALK to each other, before it has to be a huge crisis so they can figure it out together. I am crazy about Devlin, for example, but he was begging Emmie to just TELL HIM, and it drove me mad. That poor guy! When they do work with each other I find it very satisfying. I appreciate the ministers/vicars, with their problems just like the laity. One of my favorites is Daniel. I am always intrigued that your characters solve their problems with cleverness instead of too much violence, and that the siblings and other characters from other stories show up to help each other. The conversations and thought processes of the characters are what I come back to in rereading after I have solved the problem, because they are all very real people with realistic doubts and insecurities. I also like the children, who have ideas of their own. Even the animals, like Will’s dogs, are interesting characters with their own opinions. It makes me happy to see characters from various stories helping out in other books, so you see how they are doing in their HEA lives.

    I am very much an editor and polisher and critic, not a composer at all. I have been working on the same story in my head at 4 am for years now and it will never see the printed page. Thanks, Grace, for all your books.

  13. Dear All,
    I am an antique doll dealer, house restorer and amateur farmer in New Hampshire. I have just come back from from doing an antique doll show in Gaithersburg Maryland. It was not a very successful show which has given me a chance to think hard about my strengths and weaknesses. I have excellent ideas, but I am slow in making them happen because I’m very perfectionist I’m in their execution. I want to control all aspects of the execution and think hard about details. I am also too generous. I did the show with a Frenchman who has been a close friend for the last twelve years. We shared a large booth and showcase. I allowed him to take up 2/3 of the car, booth and case. My business and friendship will fail if I let that happen again.

  14. Grace, I loved this glimpse into your writing lifestyle. I am not a writer, couldn’t do it. But I love to read. I love stories and can recognize a good one that pulls me in and won’t let me go. My first book of yours was The Captive and I’ll share why I loved it. Christian endured physical, mental and emotional trauma. But when he found out about Gilly’s trauma he switched gears and he was thinking all about her and how he could make her life better. Now that’s a hero. Same was true with another favorite of mine, the Duke’s Disaster. Noah puts himself in danger to protect his lady and his ego is second to hers. So there are tropes, and there are twists to those tropes. But the characters make the difference. In my opinion. I love your characters. BTW, I am so in love with Pietr and Joy.

  15. My husband is the one with the wildly imaginative ideas in the family. When he writes a book, he comes to me to edit and design the book. It’s a match that works for us! I do much better writing non-fiction, like cookbooks (working on #3!). I am envious of people who can come up with the intricate stories and plot lines!

  16. I’m an idea person, but only in a few areas of my life have I been able to bring the ideas to successful fruition and completion. People in my life have called me creative, which I’ve repeatedly refuted since I can learn a skill and follow a pattern and once I know that skill can get more ideas and do more projects. But I didn’t create the original pattern. In other areas of my life, even having greatly desired to do something I always come up against some large obstacle. Writing…ideas but no idea how to execute. This has happened in so many areas in my life I couldn’t begin to list them. And they leave me feeling defeated.

    As we mature, I know we gain either confidence or the wisdom to be kind enough to ourselves to let things go. But I know very few people who don’t carry some of the same feelings (whatever they are) for the rest of their lives. My only hope of living with that is to be as kind to, and encouraging of other people’s failures and successes.

    I’ve always been the person who could see the other side of the story of someone’s actions or mistakes. So I bend over backwards before I criticize. So when it comes to reviews of books, I have written very VERY few critical ones. I’ve been working on reviewing the past two years and it’s HARD. If I like something I just want to gush. I want everyone else to like it too. But most of the time I think I’m not qualified to write a really intelligent review, still I work at it.

    Your books Grace, I just want to gush about.