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Risking Emotional Suicide

It’s happened again. You’ve had another rejection, one of those awful, generic ‘editorial department’ ones we all dread: ‘Your story is well-written and plotted, but lacks the emotional depth and excitement we’re looking for.’

You probably screw up the letter and throw it somewhere. You imagine vile things happening to that rotten editor who has no idea how much emotion you poured into that story! You eat a block of two of chocolate, have a bath, maybe drink a gin or three, or at least rot your insides with too much coffee and, Bridget-Jones-like, obsess on how many calories have just spread right across your hips and dimpled your thighs.

Obviously I’ve had a few of those experiences in my writing life, too.

The thing is: do we ever discover what emotional depth is -- or at least the version of it editors want? They seem to know what it is, right? But do they tell us?

After I sold, stopped selling and then began to sell again after a 2 year hiatus, I decided to ask why I made it back to this side of the writer’s fence.

The answer took me aback. I have emotional depth.

Colour me stunned. O-kay, where did I find this elusive quality? Nobody ever explained it to me for me to ‘get it’. Did I have a lightbulb moment and, in a bout of selective amnesia, forget the event? How did I suddenly become emotionally deep (or, as my critique partners Mia and Rachel fondly call me, ‘a drama queen’)?

I began to think, to go back to when I moved through the glass ceiling from unpublished to a contract. Having gained my tenth writing contract, I figured it was time I knew how I found this miraculous quality, in case I ever lost it again. (Scary thought.)

I got the usual form rejections when I started writing ‘ and decided I was no good at this romance caper. I wrote sagas for five years while raising my babies.

Then an agent, in rejecting one of my sagas, told me about RWA/RWNZ’and in 1997 things began to change for me. This was apparently when my lightbulb moment must have occurred. I began finalling in contests, getting awards.

I had no idea why, but whatever I was doing had to be working, so I kept doing more of the same. I won the magnificent Clendon Award in 2000, and with terrific advice from Barbara and Peter, sold my book. I sold another four books in the next 2 ‘ years.

Then I stopped selling; and for two years I had no idea why. I floundered around, sending idea after idea, more chapters’nothing but rejections. I made excuses. Rotten line and editor changes. Why didn’t they tell me what they wanted from me?

Now I know what happened’not to the line, to me’and I’m sharing my story with you for a good reason.

What happened? I stopped risking emotional suicide in my books.

You see, I sell books that are not just ‘books of my heart’, but ‘books of (or close to) my experience’. I tell stories that are my life, in one way or another. Her Galahad (my first book) and Not Even Friends (working title, June 2007 US/UK) both deal with different aspects of my long-denied Aboriginal background. Outback Baby Miracle (Feb 2007 US/UK) is greatly my story, my past, the girl who refused to settle for a ‘you’re pregnant so we’d better get married to please the families’ scenario. Long-Lost Father (Oct 2006, Nov 06 down under) is a tribute to my niece’s family, and the struggle my brother and sister-in-law have in raising a multi-challenged child.

Having lived these experiences makes me feel the story in a stronger way. When I wrote those stories I gave, not from the heart, but from the soul ‘ and it hurt.

Actually, it hurts a lot. I don’t always like doing it ‘ in fact, I stopped doing it for a while when I got a bit burned out. I tried a story I had no strong emotional connection with ‘ and it was rejected. I tried to revise it. My poor former editor, doing her very best for me, still couldn’t make me understand what I was doing wrong.

Then something happened I will always be grateful for: I was asked me to join the Harlequin Romance line (Mills & Boon Tender/Sweet). I tried a few ‘traditional’ ideas for my new editor, which she rejected ‘ and when I asked what she wanted, she said to me, ‘I want you to do what you do best. I want you to take risks. Write those stories with fire and depth and passion.’

Bing-bing-bing’I gave her the idea for Long-Lost Father, and sold it soon after. After I wrote my second, a particularly difficult book to write, I asked if I could ‘goof off’ and write something softer, funnier ‘ but my editor made it clear that my readers expect emotional suicide from me, and I really shouldn’t let them down’

And even after that advice, I still didn’t get why my fortunes had turned until the last day of the RWNZ 2006 conference. In the author talk I gave, I mentioned the term ‘emotional suicide’ as a means to bringing forth life and soul into a line demanding ‘emotion, emotion, emotion’. Then I said, ‘This is what I do in every book I write.’

But then I realised I was wrong. I do this in every book I’ve sold.

Lightbulb blinking again’and I felt like an idiot. Why did I never know this about myself? I risk emotional suicide with every successful book, because I’m giving a close part of myself, my inner emotions and my life journey, to my readers.

I thought about what Paula Eykelhoff said at the RWNZ conference about Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. Did you know it’s the story of his wife’s grandparents? That short book, only 40,000 words and simply written, has touched the souls of millions of readers and movie-goers’because it’s real. He might have changed the names, but the life and love and pain and suffering is all real. He gave it right from his heart and soul.

And it worked, spectacularly.

Many of you will be shaking your heads by this point, I’m sure. ‘I could never do that. It’s too close, too personal. I don’t want to give my soul to strangers’’

But you already are. You give some of your heart and soul to every book you write ‘ but are you standing on the edge of the precipice called ‘baring your soul’ and shuddering away from taking the risk? Many people shudder away from giving their characters so much pain’and from showing strangers their lives and painful experiences. I don’t blame you if you do; it’s damned hard to write this way, over and over. But I’ve realised that it’s the key to my emotional depth ‘ to stories now being promoted as ‘Heart to Heart’, the branch of Romance called ‘weepies’. I reach deeply into parts of my life experience that have hurt me, and I give that to my stories ‘ to my readers.

I suspect many authors do the same as me ‘ because without that real depth of experience, you can’t feel the emotion to write it. Without feeling it, you can’t give it; and your wonderful story just doesn’t touch the editor’s heart.

And the form rejection comes back to haunt you.

I hope I am giving you a gift in this article ‘ it might be short, but it’s written from the deepest parts of me. I’ve bared a lot to you all in 1500 words: my heritage (and why it was hidden was bared in another book that didn’t sell ‘ yet) , my pregnancy (yes, I had a happy ending with my baby’s father ‘ the risk was worth it), my beloved, multi-challenged niece, and the wonderful parents that adopted and are raising her ‘ and my own ups and downs in a career that resurrected itself when I realized that, to succeed again, I had to dig back into my soul.

On the last day of my current deadline, I found myself shaking and crying as I revised a scene ‘ and I knew I’d done it again. In fiction, I’d almost described what happened to my beloved friend Helen ten years before ‘ but while my hero saved himself and the heroine, Helen had died. I dedicated the book to her, and to another friend, who never knew how to forgive me for a hurtful thing I did wrong, years ago: because this book is all about forgiveness setting you free.

In other words, this latest book is again hurting me, making me almost ill at times with what it puts me through.

But I feel certain my editor will love it’ and so as I begin my next journey of love and loss and pain, I will put myself through the wringer over and over again, giving from my soul (or being a drama queen J). But I will never take for granted that by some crazy miracle, I found my own version of what emotional depth means.

About Melissa James

Melissa James

Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids — even the dog sometimes!

Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists’ articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books — though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles.

Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net