Lessons Learned the Hard Way by Diana Rubino

For our 230th post, author Diana Rubino returns to Writing in the Modern Age with some very helpful wisdom for fellow writers. Let's see what she has to say...


Lessons Learned the Hard Way by Diana Rubino

Aspiring authors, take heart: it took me 18 years to get my first publishing contract. 

My story will inspire you to push on, if nothing else will—it’s unique. I wrote my first novel in 1982, and wrote four more after that before being published in 1999. 

I went to RT conferences and pitched my ideas at the editor/agent appointments. I had two agents before becoming published; one retired, the other gave up. I made my sales on my own. I now have a great agent, Donna Eastman of the Parkeast Literary Agency. 

I learned by trial and error: Character Arcs, Lessons Learned (by the characters this time), and the ‘Moral of the Story.’

A character arc is how the character grows throughout the story; each turning point in the plot corresponds to a turning point in the character's growth, (actually it's the other way around if it's a character driven story, but they happen simultaneously) and by the end, he's changed, grown, learned his lesson, had his catharsis, etc. He goes on a journey that takes him through highs and lows, but he must learn and grow, so by the end, he's a different and better person than when he started.

Carol Craig of The Editing Gallery gave me some coaching on character arcs, and I also learned that the lesson learned (not my lesson, the characters’) is part of the character arc.

To make your story really resonate with the reader, try to wrap up the inner and outer stories together. The lesson learned reveals the character arc. Try to weave the character growth in with the outer plot. At each turning point in the plot, there should be an equal turning point for the character which supplies character growth. The lesson learned needs to be there, which reveals the story premise. 

For instance, in my novel about John Wilkes Booth, the inner goal is justice, the outer goal is to kill Lincoln. It helps greatly if, before you start outlining, write out your inner and outer stories—it will make it easier to incorporate them into the outline and eventually, the story. 

Both main characters (hero and heroine in a romance) should learn the same lesson. For example: Only through healing can one find true love. It's the moral of the story and should revolve around the core issue. My core issue for Booth was justice, so he and the heroine must learn a lesson that involves justice. It must be a generic lesson for everyone, like ‘justice can only be brought about by just means’ or ‘to receive justice, one must be just.’

Every story should have a basic premise that resonates with all human beings. That’s what makes readers keep returning to your books—something about your stories strikes a chord in them.
Your theme can be whatever you’re passionate about. And if you’re passionate about your subject matter, it will shine through.

A successful story always evokes emotions in the reader: sympathy, anger, resentment, sadness, jealousy—emotions we all share. I believe if you can make your reader laugh AND cry in the same book, you’ve done a great job.

Do You Have To Be A Mind Reader?

I read somewhere that a writer is an ‘apprentice’ for the first ten years. From where I am now, that sounds just about right. Although it took me longer than that to get published, I’d have to say my first ten years were my apprenticeship. It took six novels, numerous how-to books, various crit groups and coaching from my first agent to learn my craft—and at times I still was confused as hell! Mainly because I’d get differing, and even contradictory feedback from the editors and agents I’d sent my work to. ‘The book has numerous structural problems,’ an editor told me. But he didn’t name any. I asked my fellow writers and my agent, again and again, what does this editor mean by this? They’d all say basically the same thing: "It’s your book; don’t whittle it down or take it apart and put it back together for one agent or editor."

I had the audacity to phone an editor who’d rejected my historical and ask why she’d rejected it. She said, "Medievals don’t sell well" after I’d seen several medievals by that same publisher. She also said it was too long, but was the exact same length as another book they’d just published. Go figure. 
One editor told me, ‘Your style suits our readership, but your choice of subject seems to limit its marketability.' I got up the guts to ask him to give me any ideas he had in mind that he felt I could successfully novelize. I added the encouraging, “With your inside edge on salable subject matter and my ability to turn a phrase, I know I could produce a profitable product.” This is word for word from the letter, which I wrote in 1986 and still have. Looks pretty desperate, doesn’t it? But it shows I would’ve done anything to be published, even have an editor dictate ideas to me.

A year later on my journey, I sent a query and partial to a movie producer, telling him that ‘I envision my book as a romantic adventure film. Having studied your requirements, I believe it’s found a home as a captivating half-hour feature: Rollover and Romancing the Stone with a bit of Rage of Angels all packed into one heaping scoop of entertainment.’ As the Romantic Times critic told me a few years before that, 'Let THEM decide how captivating it is.' But I pushed on.
I learned not to let the contradictory feedback confuse me. You send your book to ten editors, you’ll get eleven opinions, all different. Ditto for the how-to books. One book says that characters make the story; another says the characters aren’t as important as the plot.  

Yes, there are ‘rules’, but nothing is black and white. I found the ‘rules’ mostly apply to the technical end of writing: consistent point of view, correct grammar, making sure there’s a conflict, a beginning, a middle and an end. All the other stuff is gray matter. And opinions. And personal tastes. 

Write the book in your heart. If you hear that ‘your choice of subject seems to limit its marketability’ then wait a few years and send it out. What’s ’marketable’ comes and goes, too.

The famous saying goes, “I can’t give you the formula for success. But I can give you the formula for failure. Try to please everybody.”

Very helpful suggestions, Diana! Thank you!  :)


Guest Blogger Bio


  Diana Rubino’s passion for history and travel has taken her to every locale of her stories, set in Medieval and Renaissance England, Egypt, the Mediterranean, colonial Virginia, New England, and New York. Her urban fantasy romance, FAKIN’ IT, won a Top Pick award from Romantic Times. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Richard III Society and the Aaron Burr Association. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband Chris. In her spare time, Diana bicycles, golfs, plays her piano and devours books of any genre.  

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