“Nothing happens.” It’s been many years since I received that particular rejection, but I still recall my confusion. How could the editor say that nothing happened? I was writing short contemporary romances for the secular market at the time, and I thought I’d done everything right. The book was set in an exotic location and was laced with fascinating (at least to me) details of life in a place most of us only dream about seeing. My hero and heroine met, they fell in love, and after resolving a few misunderstandings, they lived happily ever after. What could be wrong? And why did the editor say that nothing happened?
When I recovered from the sting of rejection, I realized that the editor was right, although I still thought she was wrong in saying that nothing happened. What she should have said was that nothing interesting happened. I had written a story of a close-to-perfect romance, and while readers might want to live that story, they don’t want to read about it. Perfection is boring, or as Tolstoi said in his famous opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What was missing from my book was conflict.
I hate conflict. After one of those stress job interviews that used to be popular, the recruiter looked at me as if I were an unknown species. “You’d rather walk around a wall than through it,” he said. Duh! Who would willingly bang her head against a wall? There’s only one winner there, and it’s not the head. But that aversion to pain and conflict wasn’t helping my writing. If my characters weren’t willing to fight, if I wasn’t willing to put them through pain, then I was going to continue receiving rejection after rejection and hearing editors say, “Nothing happens.”
I wanted to make another sale, but I hated the idea of torturing my characters, and that’s how conflict felt to me. It seemed like an insurmountable impasse. And then I realized what I had to do. It might seem like a matter of semantics, but the technique worked for me.
I told myself that I wasn’t torturing my characters; I was healing them. And since I believe in the healing power of love – both God’s love for us and that between a man and a woman – it became easy (okay, a teeny, tiny bit easier) to create characters who were in pain. Sometimes the pain was emotional. Sometimes it was physical. Though I wept and cringed as I wrote some of the scenes, I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. No matter how dark the story was, I knew that eventually I would give my characters – and my readers – what they deserved: healing, followed by a happily-ever-after.
And now, as I give thanks for the people who’ve touched my life, I include the editor who told me, “Nothing happens.”