Fiction Archeology 1: Character in You Again

So, You Again. I either resurrect this sucker this time or it’s going to be the first book I’ve ever given up on.

For the past several days, I’ve pulled every file, every document, every jpg I’ve ever had on this book since 2004 (yes, that would be ten years since I started it) and waded through the files. So far, 687 of the files were so corrupted I could open them. Another 236 were duplicates or fragments I skimmed and knew I wouldn’t use. And then there were the 314 jpgs that just didn’t work any longer. Yes, I trashed 1237 docs and jogs. There’s still plenty left to read through before another cull: I kept eighty-nine outline and note docs and 143 jpgs, and probably half of those will go before I’ve got this book focused. And that’s all before I start on the actual scene files:

Screenshot 2014-03-04 11.12.38

The moral is, if you’re going to keep working on a book (and killing two laptops with Diet Coke so that you have to rescue great whacks of documents in a hurry), stop and cull before ten years go by and you’re looking at a nightmare.

So as I dig down through ten years of layers on this book, I have realized many things. One is that starting this book as a homage to Agatha Christie, my version of the people locked in a country house with a murderer, was a bad idea for two reasons. The first is that I always start with my protagonist, my romance heroine, who shows up in my head and starts talking. If I try to go into a book any other way, it sets me back weeks, if not months (or years, in this case); Faking It is another example of this. So in the past ten years, my heroine has been named Zelda, Esme, Emma, Roxy, and now Zelda again. She’s been a cookbook writer and a botanist. She’s been depressed, angry, flirtatious, sexually rapacious, detached, and dead. Hey, it’s been ten years. People change.

Meanwhile, her best friend has only had two personas, Beth, a very sweet woman who bored me to tears and Scylla who has a difficult relationship with reality. I’m keeping Scylla, she’s very much alive on the page for me. Plus Scylla gave me the character dynamic I needed for the heroine. The two women have been best friends all their lives, working partners since they were 17, and they’ve fallen into the assumptions that plague any set of two: they’ve defined themselves by their relationship to each other. That is, Scylla is the creative dreamer and Zelda is the practical anchor. They write books about food which, unless you’re on the Food Network, is no sure way to make a living, and they’re in early thirties, so the peripatetic life they’ve been leading is beginning to pall. What they need is something to blast them out of their assumptions, which is the first act of the book. Because of what happens in the first act, really from the first scene, the women’s characters arc in opposition to each other, Zelda becoming the imaginative one (she starts seeing ghosts, people think she’s crazy) and Scylla becomes the practical one (because Zelda’s losing it). I think the opposites arc ends at the crisis, and the last act is them both finding a middle ground, independent of each other. I like that arc and it’s alive in my head instead of just making sense on paper, so I’m good with that.

Weirdly, most of the supporting cast is solid in my head. Rose, Malcolm, Quentin, Mike, Ruby, Ruby’s boyfriend (who’s had so many names I’m just going to toss them all and start over), Mary (gotta change that, too many M names), Angela, Nora, Liam, Francis, Issy . . . All of those people have very clear characters, back stories, arcs, I know them all. Well, I should, I’ve been thinking about them off and on for ten freaking years. So the only one I don’t have is my heroine. Oh, and my hero. Yes, the two main characters in a romance, and I’m still a little shaky on them. His name started out as James. I thought that was too formal, so I changed it to Spencer, but Spencer turned out to be kind of a stuffed shirt, so I changed it to Sam, and Sam is just not going to work here. James was a lawyer, but that was kind of stuffy, too, so I made Sam a hostage negotiator, which was more useful in the book, but . . .

So this week, I’m going through all the actual story I’ve put on paper, culling all the duplicates, all the stuff I know isn’t going to work, and I’m prepared to jettison most of it. When I went back to rewrite Bet Me, I think I ended up with about four thousand words of the original; everything else went. The good thing is, I like a lot of what I have, just from skimming it, so I should be able to salvage more. I have almost 60,000 words on this book (I think; could be more), they’re just all over the place, probably because I’m fuzzy on those two vital ingredients in a romance, the heroine and hero.

Oh, and the other problem with making this my homage to Agatha Christie’s Golden Age country house mysteries is that I am not an Agatha Christie writer. But then on an impulse, I re-read a Georgette Heyer country house mystery and realized that’s who my inspiration was, which makes sense since Heyer inspired me to write romance. The Girls: always as work, even when you’re reading for pleasure.

And now I must go do some more archaeology and hope I find a heroine and hero buried in the debris.

67 thoughts on “Fiction Archeology 1: Character in You Again

  1. Wow! That’s a lot of docs to wade through. I’d be dizzy trying to make sense of it all. My brain shuts down with too much detail. I need a clean, swept, hosed down path with not an errant leaf or bit of dust to see my way clear. : ) But I’m so glad that you’re looking at this story again. We need another Crusie novel. Can’t wait to see what you create.

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    1. The problem is that I know there’s good stuff in there, so I can’t just junk it all. I just have to clear it out and focus it.

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  2. I’m having a similar problem with a book I’ve been kicking around for years. I have a concept/setting/hook and I had an original plot with my hero and heroine but then I worried that the looked… less than heroic. But changing him meant changing the plot. Changing the plot meant potentially changing the heroine. And round and round in a circle I went to the point I just set it aside and walked away. I keep coming back to it (because really I think it could fork off into the stories of her friends in the book, her community) because I love the concept and I like the heroine but the jigsaw puzzle aspect of it is driving me crazy. I’m used to my characters talking to me and lately (scarily long actually) all my characters have been silent. The ones that have whispered to me (one gave me his entire origin story during Seether’s Country Song) are totally outside my genre wheelhouse. I’ve always written contemporary romance and these talky characters are paranormal, which I’ve never even attempted to tackle outside my fan fic days. Ugh.

    So seeing how you excavate a story in this condition is really of great interest to me.

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    1. You know, I’d really ignore the outside stuff like worrying about how readers are going to react. By the time the book is finished, he could be completely different. I think in the first draft, you just rely on the Girls and keep writing.

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      1. I always feel like my brain is distinctly divided by creativity & common sense/logic, and that stupid logic keeps getting in the way of the creativity these days. Grrrr.

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        1. It’s a two step process. 1. Creativity. 2. Analysis (Logic). Lather, rinse, repeat. (I was so tempted to put “3. Profit” but it would be a lie.)

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  3. I love Zelda. I think of her as The Girl Who Waited. Waiting for her story to be told. Last I remember she was a botanist. Whatever her job description I hope she gets her own book. She deserves it.

    No pressure though. 😉

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  4. I look forward to watching this process. I have a couple of stories that I just haven’t been able to make gel over the years, even though the basic story/plot pulls at me. So it’s probably the main characters that haven’t been up to snuff.

    And I look forward to another Crusie book, too.

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    1. It’s actually “Silla” like “Scylla and Charybdis” which is no help if your teachers didn’t give you obscure Greek myths. However readers read it, it’ll be two syllables so it won’t screw up the rhythm of the sentences. Also Quentin calls her Priscilla early on and she corrects him.

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      1. Agreed. Thank you! I had no idea how to pronounce Scylla (I went with Sigh-ya) and I didn’t have to read obscure Greek myths so I don’t know how to pronounce Charybdis either.

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        1. Charybdis is “car-rib-diss,” unless the textbook I use to force Greek myths onto unwilling teenagers is lying to me. 🙂 It’s one of the pieces of The Odyssey that made it into our textbooks very, very abridged version!

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      2. I have a cat named Scylla; a huge grey cloud calico with pickle juice colored eyes. However, my mom said Scylla looked more like a Betty Bubbles and the name stuck.
        Also, when she meows she sounds like Edward G. Robinson……I realize that this has nothing to do with the topic, BTW. :p

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  5. Persistence. This is what it looks like.

    Hello dahlinks. Am crazy busy. Will catch up soon.

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  6. The important thing here is you are making progress, moving forward, figuring out what to keep and what to toss. I already want to read this book. Go,Jenny, go!

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  7. When I have too many M names or whatever, and when the character is yet solidly Mary in my head, I call them by a nickname — so their name is still Mary and maybe their mother calls them that, but everyone else and the text calls them Polly, or Starsky, or Dusty or whatever. This trick works better for me than trying to change names arbitrarily. I got it from Indiana Jones.

    I am also trying to ressurect a book. And just thinking about the problem I have with it, I had a great idea for it.

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  8. Wow. That is a lot to go through! Good luck with it all. I’m wondering…since you already know the supporting cast really well, would it be helpful to ask them what kind of hero and heroine is needed for THEIR story? Maybe they can take out a personal ad.
    Wanted: hero and heroine for a Georgette Heyer inspired country house mystery ala Crusie. 😉

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    1. As I remember, her detective heroes are all rather suave. There was one who had a flat with grey walls (very avant-garde). And one heroine was rather plain and bred bulldogs. But I think the heroes and heroines in her historicals are stronger. Though maybe it’s just that I haven’t read the detective stories for a while.

      I love the idea of a Heyer-inspired Crusie, though. Fingers crossed.

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      1. The one I read switched heroines in mid book. The love interest was a lawyer and re-reading it, I realized that one of the heroines probably inspired Scylla.

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    2. Most of the Inglethorpes are selfish jerks, so they’d be wanting marshmallow characters so they could mow them down to the money. Issy just wants Zelda away from James. Rose wants Zelda and James at Rosemore because somebody has to run the place and Rose doesn’t do work in any form. Quentin wants everybody to go away.

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  9. If this story is still bugging you after ten years, it really wants to be told. Here’s hoping you find a great hero and heroine patiently waiting for their big day.

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  10. Jenny, have you ever thought that maybe this story is not a romance? You have lots of characters there, already alive, and lots of plot, but “…I’m fuzzy on those two vital ingredients in a romance, the heroine and hero.” The story is trying to tell you something, right? Maybe it’s a mystery with a romantic flavor?

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    1. Oh, it’d definitely a mystery with a romantic subplot. I know Zelda well enough to write her until I find her. Oddly enough I know James(?) too; his voice is clear in my head, I just can’t seem to conceptualize him as a character.

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      1. I wonder- could you be having a problem with him because you want him to be a certain way, and HE wants to be something else? What if you pulled a Mary Watson with him? You said he was a lawyer, but what if he was someone pretending to be a lawyer but they had some sort of hidden agenda, or he wasn’t even really that guy? From what I remember of this plot he and Zelda knew each other a long time ago. What if he’s an imposter and she goes along with it until she can figure out his angle?

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        1. That could be a lot of fun. In this book, though, he’s the one sane person in a family of whack jobs, cheats, and liars, so he has to be a straight arrow. At the moment, he’s a hostage negotiator because, as he tells Zelda is one of the five thousand scenes I have, his upbringing was the perfect training for it. So he’s manipulative, but he manipulates people to get them to put down their weapons, which is really useful in his family. It’s odd because I know his personality, but that doesn’t give me his character, his voice. I think I just have to sort the stuff out and then write it until I find him.

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          1. I’ve had several, none of which worked. At the moment, I’m holding onto Mary Louise Parker for one of Zelda’s placeholders, but not the only one. I trashed dozens of placeholder pictures for her and for James because they were just wrong.

            Writing is hard, she whined.

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  11. I’ve just been re-reading all the Heyer mysteries. Even the not-so-brilliant ones are a bucket of fun. I’ve also just been re-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (again) because I just love Phryne and Jack’s chemistry. I’m looking forward one day to meeting Zelda and James and Scylla.

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    1. I love the Heyer mysteries. Second choice, the Allingham Campion mysteries. The Golden Age is so far distant now, they’re historical novels.
      People keep telling me about Miss Fisher. I must look into that series.

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      1. The Miss Fisher books are better than the TV series though. I think. Phyrne is much cooler and more daring in the books..

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  12. OK! I have some fun ideas:
    1) Character names. Plug some names into this http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/low_concept/2014/03/john_travolta_called_idina_menzel_adele_dazeem_what_s_your_travolta_name.html
    and see what you come up with. My new name is Johnnie Smoith. You can have it if you like it; otherwise, I’m going to start signing my checks this way. PS, I like the name James, and it could to go Jamie, or Seamus, or Jim.
    2) Listen to this, because you are in snow hell, and it circles back to Elphaba, and it’s just fun, and you’re celebrating getting rid of the wrong stuff. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17QQcK4l6Yw&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    Can’t wait to read more posts on this.

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  13. Forgive me if this is too much of a thread jack but I had a QUESTIONABLE QUESTION and didn’t know where else to submit it…

    So, I asked this on another thread but I dunno if it got buried by other comments or I just phrased it badly, but: how do you come up with goals for your characters in a straight contemporary romance?

    And I mean if there’s no suspense element, no capers. Can the romance itself be the goal? Or is it better to be an external goal?

    So, for example, in Bet Me is Min’s goal to have a date to her sisters wedding?
    Do the hero and heroine both need goals?
    Or do you pick one person to be the protagonist and focus on their goal to drive the story?

    Conflict starts with conflicting goals, right? Well, I’m having trouble getting my building blocks in a row. Can people please talk about how they formulate conflict and goals in their contemporary romances? Pretty please? 🙂

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    1. There is no thread hi-jacking here.
      Oh, wait, I remember this, I think. I have a backlog of questionables, but I’ll put this one up next because then people can follow that thread more easily. Going up tomorrow, I swear.

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  14. (hooray!) (said very quietly so as not to disturb Girls)

    I really like seeing how you process all this, too. After only 18 months (real work time), I have piles and piles of documents and words on my main WIP. And that doesn’t take into account the pictures on my computer and on Pinterest and the playlists on YouTube . . . . And the non-electronic pieces of paper floating around in various bags.

    I swear, I’m going to get organized one day. (It’s just that there are so many things that are more fun.)

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  15. Also, I still remember the gorgeous collage from one of the iterations of You Again. The collages always make me want to re-read the book.

    I go back at look at them all the time after I’ve re-read the book. Especially the one for Bet Me. So gorgeous.

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  16. Excellent job so far! To be able to have sorted through 1500 or so files is amazing! I’m very happy to know you’re working on this and I will trust that once you have it all sorted out, organized and set, you’ll be able to turn it into a fabulous, cohesive story that we will all enjoy reading.

    Also, keep the coke away from the computer or put it in a sippy cup. 😉

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  17. Ooh very excited for You Again! I’ve loved the snippets that you’ve posted before! Wishing you lots of luck!

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    1. Thank you. I’m trashing many of the snippets as we speak. But that might be an idea for next week’s posts, post the old first scene and the new first scene and talk about why the old first scene was chat and info dump ARGH.

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      1. I really loved the first draft of Zelda’s opening scene when you posted it last time – it was chatty but it also really hooked me in to the character – made me care about her – and I loved the sense that she was deluged with things going wrong but she kept meeting them all with a sort-of trying-really-hard-to-be-cheerful bravery! She really sparkled on the page (not in the Twilight sense!) 😉 (Not that that is probably helpful if you’re trashing lots of snippets, but hopefully it helps somehow!)

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    1. It was godawful. Truly. Everybody I ever showed it to rejected it, and when Jen bought it, she said, “You’re going to rewrite this, right?” It was that bad.

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      1. I know it’s not “good” writing but I would love to read outtakes from “Bet Me,” “Fast Women,” etc. It always seems like you know so much more about these interesting people than fits into the immediate story, and while I don’t really care about, say, the Harry Potter characters beyond what got them through their plots, I would pay to read Crusie people just talk to each other.

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        1. The characters weren’t the same. I think Lisa might have been the same, but the heroine’s name was Jane and the three women friends were college professors, and I think they were making a pornographic movie.

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  18. Relatively new lurker (drawn in by all things Arrow) here. I just wanted to say how fascinated I am by the insights into your working process.

    So what is the worst thing that could happen to partners who do cookbooks? One of them going Vegan or having to go gluten-free? 🙂 Or losing all your sales to food bloggers? Or having to judge an episode of a reality cooking show? Being a food writer seems more fun than a botanist, anyway. Unless you were planning a poisoning with a rare plant?

    I’ve read all of Georgette Heyer’s Regencies but not her mysteries. I should look into that. I know she loved writing them and was always disappointed that her readers loved the Regencies more.

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    1. She’s a herbalist, really, but she makes her living with her writing. Scylla’s the cook, but she’s an intuitive cook, so Zelda translates her recipes, and writes about the herbs she uses. Yeah, it’s still a little hazy in my mind because you really can’t make a living doing cookbooks unless you have a celebrity name attached. Her occupation doesn’t have anything to do with her conflict, so I can work it out as I go along. Her conflict happens because she’s trying to find out who her father is (mom didn’t tell her and then died), so she’s come back to the place where the house party at which she was conceived happened, in hopes somebody or something there can help her. But if it turns out her dad was an Inglethorpe, she’s in line for part of the trust fund, which many people would be unhappy about.

      I love Heyer’s mysteries. I think that’s how I found her first; I wasn’t a romance reader until I started to study them in my late thirties.

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      1. One of the books on my “grab in case of fire” bookshelf is by Juliette de Bairacli Levy. I love the idea that your heroine is an herbalist. Hope things fall into place for you – I need to read this book now.

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        1. I need to finish this book now, so our needs are aligned.
          As I remember, back when I first started this, I made her a plant person because my daughter had dual degrees in landscape architecture and horticulture. Easy research. These are things that come back to haunt us. The last time I did that was when I made Agnes a cookbook writer because my cousin Russ is a food writer and had done two books. When Bob decided he wanted his half of the equation to be a hit man, I called Russ and said, “Why would somebody put out a hit on a food critic?” He said, “Jenny, we don’t do that.” Back to square one.

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      2. Let me know if you have any questions about twisty situations in trust law, especially under Delaware law — I know someone who worked on this case:
        http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/23/us-goretex-idUSBRE84M1E220120523

        You can make a living off recipes even without being a celebrity if you are fantastically good at marketing yourself. http://smittenkitchen.com/about/
        I don’t know if “willing to answer stupid questions about why the blueberry yogurt cake didn’t bake through and thereby inspire fanatical loyalty” fits with either of your characters, though.

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        1. I hadn’t thought of the net which is dumb since the net is where I live.

          That’s excellent. Thank you!

          Trust law. Bleah. This is set in Ohio though.

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  19. Could James be English? Is that why you can’t ‘get’ him?

    Like the choice of Inglethorpe – Mystery at Styles, right? And you know that ‘thorpe’ in a name usually means it’s from Yorkshire (possible Viking links)? Although not sure if any of that helps.

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    1. Strop! How are you? The Poison Garden is in this book, so thank you again for all the info you sent.

      Nope, they’re all Americans. You may remember the last time I tried to do an Englishman, I had to send his dialogue to you to get it fixed. Inglethorpe is from The Mysterious Affair at Styles? There’s my subconscious at work.

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  20. But I’m curious as to what you attribute that to — was it sitting down to write lots of bits and pieces and finding that they didn’t fit together the way you wanted? Was it part of some earlier approach you were taking to plotting that has changed since the draft you consider godawful now? And did you fix it by tinkering with the names and biographies of the characters, then writing to match the new cast of characters, or was it something else entirely? Was it beats? Did you discover beats and then go to town?

    You are sending sparks into inquiring tinder.

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    1. Thanks for the time stamp; I had to come into the blog because I couldn’t figure out what you replying to on the dashboard. It gets chaotic in here.

      So this was what I said originally:
      “The characters weren’t the same. I think Lisa might have been the same, but the heroine’s name was Jane and the three women friends were college professors, and I think they were making a pornographic movie.”

      And your question is “How did that happen?”

      It happened because Bet Me was the second book I wrote and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Manhunting was the first one, and the editor who bought it made me cut the last eighty thousand words or so and rewrite. Bet Me was just ill-conceived from the beginning. I left it in my desk drawer because every time I went back to it, I knew more and could see even more problems in it. My agent sold it to Jen because she feels strongly that no manuscript should ever go unsold, and then I had to get serious about rewriting it. After I cut everything I hated and couldn’t fix, I had about 5000 words left. It was just really that bad. The pieces fit together, but it wasn’t plotted, it was just a lot of people being snarky in not a good way. I had structure down by the time I rewrote it, but it was so awful, I think the only thing I kept was the bet and the setting, and I should have ditched the bet because then I had to fight against that stupid trope the whole way through. You know I can’t remember that much about it now, except that the leads were Jane and Mac, it had the same setting, and it was mostly a sex farce, more like Sizzle than anything else I’ve done. I’m really very grateful everybody turned it down. It was godawful.
      Oh, and what sparked the rewrite was the idea that I was writing a fairy tale and Fate was the antagonist; that is, even if you’re fighting the idea of One True Love, the Fairy Tale will get you in the end. There’s a place in the book where Min says, “I don’t believe in the fairy tale,” and Bonnie says, “I don’t think it matters. The fairy tale believes in you.” That was the key to the rewrite.

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      1. Apropo of nothing, I loved Manhunting. I made everyone I know read the scene where Kate stabs Donald with her fork to keep him out of her mashed potatoes. AND THEN MOVES HIS HAND SO HE WON’T GET BLOOD ON THEM. I swear, every time I think of that I get the giggles.

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  21. [That was a reply to Jenny’s 2:10 comment. There has been water under the bridge since I started it…]

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  22. Chiming in as former archaeologist (and newly-minted fiction writer), the one really tricky thing about traditional archaeology; it destroys the past it is so intent on discovering. Once you’ve excavated a site, it’s gone as a cultural component. All that remains is the data and artifacts you’ve collected.
    (Not saying you’re destroying anything by going through your files, the title and subject of this post just struck me)

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    1. I thought about that because I’m throwing away 90% of what’s on my hard drive. It’s the kind of thing that drives archivists mad; there’s nothing to archive once I’ve gone through it. So I’m doing exactly what archaeologists do, I’m destroying most of the past to preserve some of it, in my case, what I can use now.

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        1. I know, but there’s no point in saving files that are just going to corrupt with age anyway. Plus I keep killing computers that have unbacked-up files on them, so I’m losing stuff right and left. I used to keep the copies with my paper edits, but I don’t have the organization or the storage space so . . .

          Really, none of it was worth keeping.

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  23. whew. I admire your fortitude and persistence. And Bet Me is my favorite, so I have high hopes for this one! Sending you good wishes for your process.

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