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September 3rd, 2016

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To continue discussing the rejection of my novel Coming Attractions (What? You’ve got an appointment with a supermodel?) It might be a good idea if you knew what the book is about:

In the darkness of an Indiana drive-in movie theater, Maddie McKinley returns from the concession stand, climbs into the wrong van, and gets tackled by the father of the kids inside. Logan Chandler is embarrassed about roughing her up, but also intrigued by the beautiful young woman from Boston, who arrived alone at the movies wearing an expensive dress. Unfortunately, he’s the local businessman leading a battle to save the drive-in from developers--and she’s the attorney sent to make sure it’s torn down.

See, there’s your back cover blurb. Coming Attractions was actually outlined, and some of the first draft written, at the Auburn-Garrett drive-in theater. My kids and I liked to get there early to grab the best spot, and we brainstormed this book while people-watching and hitting the popcorn.

Over the years I’ve made many changes. The biggest came at the request of a major romance publisher, when the editor agreed to take another look if I made revisions. I did so, the biggest being splitting up a climactic scene and moving part of it closer to the end of the book. In the end they still rejected it, saying Maddie wasn’t a relatable heroine: They thought she came across as “very snobby and rather unlikable”. Also, the word hoity-toity was used.

In the opening scene Maddie has just finished an exhausting flight from Boston. She feels she’s been exiled to Indiana, after a very bad public breakup with her boyfriend—a partner in her firm. She’s in career purgatory, and she’s doing grunt work, and it’s the low point of her adult life. So yeah, she’s not sunshine and puppy dogs.

But it doesn’t matter what an author intends; you can’t go explaining your intentions to each individual reader. (Well, you can, but you’ve got another book to write, fella.) I thought I’d made her more sympathetic in edits, but apparently not enough.

I won’t go into detail on the second editor’s rejection letter. Much of what the editor had to say made sense, and will be addressed before I move on. But there was one thing.

Over the years the rules for romance novels have loosened quite a bit, and there’s not such a cookie cutter approach to what is and isn’t allowed. But there’s one big trope the industry as a whole sticks to: When the couple acknowledges their love for each other, the story is over.

In other words, the primary story in a romance is the romance. Not the mystery, not the adventure, not the legal thriller. No matter how many balls you have in the air, once the path to the couple’s happily ever after looks clear, the juggling is over.

No matter how much Maddie and Logan love each other, there are huge issues in the way of their happiness. For complicated reasons, it’s way more than just business for either of them. The story’s climax is a sometimes comic court battle, ending with a scene I love so much deleting it would be the very definition of the cliché “kill your darlings”.

The thing is, the only way I could have them refuse to acknowledge their feelings for each other would be if Logan blamed her personally, but that’s not who Logan is. Meanwhile, Maddie would have to keep hiding things from Logan, and she prides herself on her honesty.

So the characters talk it out. There’s still a whole battle in which they’re on opposite sides, but that doesn’t keep them from acknowledging their feelings.

I reject that a romance story has to stop the moment they say “I love you, we’ll figure it out”. I think it can go on through the figuring it out stage, and still be interesting, and romantic.

Does that make sense? ‘Cause this is getting way long.

There’s a place for stories that don’t fit the conventional outline, so I’m considering self-publishing Coming Attractions. I’d rather get a contract with one of the big publishers, to get into bookstores and not do all the work myself. (By myself, I mean my wife does a lot of the work.) I could go to small publishers too, although that doesn’t guarantee the bookstore part. But I believe in this story.

I know some people are firmly on one side or another of the self vs. traditional publishing debate, but maybe this is one of those books self-publishing was originally made for. What do you think?

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