For a year and some change, I’ve been in steady-state revision mode.
Oh, not on the same project, and in different stages of different edits and revisions on those different projects, but in revision mode all the same. There were copy edits for my forthcoming novel AMBER & DUSK…and then more copyedits to those copy edits. Near the beginning of this year, I did put about 50K new words on my Swan Lake WIP, but it was more like a rewrite of an already existing project that I’d worked on the year before. Early this summer I revisited a trunked book to see if it could be given new life. August, I returned to my Swan Lake WIP for yet another round of edits.
You catch my drift. Or should I say draft? (Sorry! I’m so sorry.)
But last week, the shiny book idea that’s been patiently simmering in the back of my head tapped me on the shoulder. “Girl,” it whispered seductively. “You’ve already outlined me, named all my characters, and done enough world building to make my head spin. Let’s do this thing!”
So I gathered up all my notebooks, grabbed my favorite pen, opened up a blank document, and…nothing. Which was especially weird considering I’d more or less already written the opening scene in my head. Or so I’d thought.
“Type!” I hissed at my fingers, poised over the keyboard.
“We don’t remember how!” they wailed in unison.
And that’s when I considered quitting writing for the one-millionth time this year.
Listen–writing is hard. All of it. Every stage. It is a pure and exquisite expression of individual creativity, but it’s also messy. And hard. Did I mention hard? Revising and editing is hard, and rarely fun. It’s a lot of tweaking and moving around and deleting and adding and rephrasing. But here’s the thing–you’re working with something that already exists. It may be a jumbled, half-incoherent first draft full of cliches, dropped characters, and bad dialogue, but it’s words on a page. It’s something. And even with a first draft, there are probably glimmers of voice, murmurs of character development, a vague inkling of plot.
But facing the tyranny of the blank page–of staring down the barrel at 80 to 100 thousand words of unwritten story–is probably one of the hardest aspects of writing. Especially because if you don’t write the story living inside you…no one else ever will. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
So I’m shifting gears. I’m downshifting–back to first gear, where I’m building a world from scratch and filling it with complicated, obtuse characters who aren’t interested in cooperating with the plan I’ve made for them. To second gear, where motivations are finally clear and I’m consistently hitting my daily word counts. And–gods willing–third gear, where I’m up writing far past my bedtime, because I’m not longer a creator but a participant in the story hurtling toward its inevitable climax.
And then, of course…it will be time for revisions.
One of the fundamental truths of any creative endeavor is that no matter how clever the idea, someone has been there before. From Romeo & Juliet to West Side Story (forbidden love), and from Twilight to Fifty Shades (love triangle), it’s not hard to come up with a classic story trope that’s been reworked and given a fresh twist.
Most fiction, especially genre fiction, relies on tropes – those familiar plots or premises that we all recognize. In fact, one of the frequent complaints leveled at the romance genre is that it’s too dependent on standard tropes, that romances are cook-book or boilerplate stories.
I don’t agree with that criticism, and in this fantastic essay from the LA Review of Books The Consolation of Genre: On reading romance novels, Cailey Hall explains why. Ms. Hall is a PhD candidate at UCLA, and I’m going to quote her because I love the example she uses…
I like to think of romance novels as not dissimilar from sonnets. Both are constrained by certain expectations: 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a handful of possible rhyme schemes, on the one hand, and necessary plot points — the protagonists meet, their relationship develops, problems arise and are mostly resolved — on the other. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these constraints, it is still possible to produce new, exciting, and even brilliant work within them.
The idea that there’s freedom in discipline has always intrigued me, which may be one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing romance. The genre does have certain explicit expectations, so much so that if the story doesn’t have both a central love story and a happy ending, it isn’t a romance, at least according to the RWA (Romance Writers of America).
And to be honest, there are so many tropes in romance that I haven’t yet run out of stuff to play with.
One of the reasons I’ve been pondering the idea of tropes is that my current project is apparently built around one of my least favorite. I say “apparently”, because I had no idea the story was going in that particular direction until I was about 1/3 – maybe 1/2 – of the way through the rough draft. I’m typing along and suddenly realize…
Well shit. This is one of those Sneaky Hero Who’s Operating Under False Pretenses stories.
You know the kind I mean? The kind where the hero goes to a small town to shut down the hospital because it’s been bought by a Giant Evil Conglomerate, and then falls in love with the hospital’s medical director. Or thereabouts.
I hate those. The duplicity drives me nuts.
In my current project, the basic premise involves a missing magical object, one that our hero has been tasked with finding. Our other hero knows nothing about magic, let alone that his father came from a family of witches. Sneaky Hero spells his way into Naive Hero’s house, and shenanigans ensue.
I have no idea how I’m going to handle the big reveal, because I’m already mad at Sneaky, but I’m not ready to change the story, either. Maybe tropes are like kids….you like them better when they’re your own.
The other thing about tropes that makes them fun is that you can combine them endlessly. I’ve written an older woman/younger man story which is also a vacation romance (King Stud), and Irene and I took a spin through Beauty and the Beast as the basic template for Vespers, then added a splash of opposites-attract.
Between the Sheets is a fake-romance-becomes-real and a vacation romance story, and Aqua Follies is a vacation romance with a healthy dose of the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. I actually took a class on how to use tropes to build stories, and it resulted in The Secret of Obedience(twins, college angst).
pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outline
When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!
Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.
Hmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use, I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.
I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.
And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.
But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.
First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.
My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.
One of the first things on my to-do list today – well, after opening up WordPress so I could start this post – was to check my account on the Seattle Public Library website. A couple weeks ago I checked out a stack of ponderously thick books that have to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.
In the Pen to Pen post, I outlined a template for my research process. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
Step one: Locate the story on the calendar. Pick specific dates, and then study up to get a feel for what was happening at that time. The key to this is specificity. Whether your story is set in 1955 or 1455, there was more to life than the events on the page. Use what’s already there to add depth.
Step two: In broad strokes, find out what life was like during the time period. This is the bulk of the work, tbh. I look at fashion and attitudes and food and technology and population statistics and whatever I can find to ground the story in reality.
Step three: Fill in the fine details with first-person accounts. This one gets trickier, the further back in time you go, especially if you’re writing about marginalized groups – like women, or queer people, or pretty much anyone who’s not a white male. Finding first-person accounts is hard, but not impossible, and absolutely essential to bring your story to life.
Since I wrote Aqua Follies (1950s m/m rom), I’ve come across a couple more resources for first-person accounts of LGBT experience in the 20th Century. The University of Washington had a collection of oral histories, biographies and video excerpts from interviews with members of Seattle’s LGBT community – HERE – that I’m really excited to dig into.
I’ve also started reading Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men 1885 – 1967. This is an important book for me, because I don’t want to sugar-coat anyone’s experience, nor do I want to overlook the ways ordinary men and women found to cope with lifestyles that fell outside the majority.
So…yeah. If you need me, I’ll be holed up somewhere with a book in my hands. I just sent L’Ami Mysterieux off to beta readers (m/m rom set in 1920 Paris) and have about a month to do research for Havana.
If you’ve been in the publishing industry for any length of time, you’ll probably recognize the phrase critique partner. For those of you who haven’t, a critique partner (commonly abbreviate to CP) is an invaluable asset to any writer at any and every stage in their career. Usually another author or publishing professional, a CP offers up their time and expertise to critique your manuscript/story/poem/etc in exchange for your time and expertise in doing the same for them. While a CP can sometimes play the role of beta reader (an avid reader who reads your MS and tells you whether it is any good), ideally the relationship is deeper and broader.
I feel like I’m not explaining this well. Okay, how’s this? A CP is like an unholy (or maybe holy) alliance between a friend, a colleague, a work wife/husband, a therapist, a critic, and a cheerleader. Having and being a CP is messy. It’s complicated. And it is wildly, wildly important to a writer’s growth and success in this often isolating business of being an author.
This week, I experienced both ends of the CP relationship with two different CPs. First, I had the great pleasure of reading our very own Shauna’s forthcoming novel Blackbird (which will incidentally knock y’all’s socks off) and offering feedback. And second, I shared my very recently finished and terribly rough first draft of my Swan Lake retelling with a different CP. They were two very different experiences, but they both reminded me of just how important it is to not only have CPs, but to actually share work with them.
Not all CPs are created equal, but here are a few things I’d look out for when finding someone to share work with!
Someone who isn’t afraid to be honest. It’s literally right there in the name: critique partner. Not white-lie-to-guard-your-ego partner. Not even pull-their-punches partner. You know that one friend who you always take shopping because she’ll actually tell you if those pants make your butt look big? Yeah, that’s what you need from a CP. Because if they can’t be honest in their criticism, it’s not going to push you to be better, or work harder, or be honest with yourself.
One caveat: do draw the line at nasty. There’s no call to be unnecessarily harsh, that’s not useful to anyone either.
Someone who will be your cheerleader. Does this seem counter-intuitive? It’s really not. Your CPs also need to love your work kind of unconditionally, regardless off whether it’s a flaming trash pile of a first draft or a polished to near-perfect-sheen soon-to-be published work of art. The ultimate goal of a CP relationship is making each other better–if someone hates your work, what’s the point?
Someone who understands (if not shares) your genre, voice, aesthetic, etc. Similar to the above, it’s a waste of their time and yours if they don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe you write fast-paced action thrillers and they write steamy romance. That can totally work (and might honestly give you a different perspective from a CP who writes in your genre) but if their only criticism is that there aren’t enough love scenes, you might want to reconsider.
Someone who can brainstorm with you. Now, this is a big ask, and you might not find this in every CP you build a relationship with–and that’s okay! But a great CP isn’t just an editor, or even a beta reader, although it’s certainly useful if they have a decent grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and plot. Ideally, they’re also someone who you can bounce your hair-brained ideas off of, who won’t say “but,” but maybe “ooh, and–!” Someone who spitballs scenarios about your sequel not because they feel like they know better than you but because they’re just so invested in your characters. Someone who sees through the disordered jumble of your nonsense first drafts to the story you didn’t know you were trying to tell.
Now, if you’re read to find your OTCP (One (or several!) True Critique Partner), here are a few resources to set you on your way! (If you’re really at a loss, Twitter is a great place to start, as are writer blogs and genre-specific interest groups! You can never go wrong with NaNoWriMo either!)
Being self-published that means a few different things than it does for a traditionally published writer–including being able to try out a Friday release instead of the traditional Tuesday. And, as we’re all writers here, offering insight into the whole writing process, I thought I’d share a little bit of that with you guys.
The beginning is exactly the same. We all start with a spark of inspiration, then develop that into a story, then kill ourselves over the next 4 to 156 weeks trying to write the damn thing.
Then we put the book away (or at least, we should). For me, I’ll set a book aside for between 1 to 6 weeks depending on how difficult the book was to write. Then I print it out and go over it for revisions/edits/plot holes/etc. Then I put those changes into the computer. It’s at this point I awkwardly ask betas/critique partners to read it for me.
And then you wait.
Once I get it back from them I compare notes. Then it’s revision time again.
Then, on to the editor!
Some self-published writers will try to avoid this step because it is the most expensive step, but there’s a reason for that: editing is the most important thing you can do after you’ve written the book. You need an editor to rip that thing apart and fix it. I don’t care how awesome you are. I have a New York Times best selling author I used to love, but I could tell when she finally made it to the point where she could include a no-edit clause in her contracts. I don’t read her books anymore.
At this point, when the book is with my editor, I’ll start on the cover. Now, depending on the book, either I will do it myself, or I’ll hire a digital artist. I cannot stress this enough, if you are not savvy with digital art, don’t do this yourself. I will only do simple covers. If my cover is for something more magical or detailed, I hire someone experienced. And when I do it myself, I don’t just pick a stock photo and stick my title on it in a white bar in simple font. I edit and digitally paint/alter the photo to fit the mood of the book.
I pour over my title in fonts until I find the right one–just picking out the fonts can take me a few days–even if I’m having the cover commissioned, I like to pick out the fonts unless my artist has a better one in mind, which she often does. I go through photo sites for the cover for days until I find the one(s). I spend at least a week in my art program putting the cover together, usually mocking up three to choose from before I’m sure I’ve made something that fits the book and sells it. This takes a lot of time even without all the tricks my preferred cover artist does. Your cover is important. Even if you’re not going to do hard or paperbacks, the cover is still important. When someone is scrolling through the Zon or B&N or Kobo or wherever, the cover might make them stop and look at your book.
(If you’re on a tight budget, the two things I would recommend you spend your money on are an editor and a cover artist. And if you’d like to use mine, you can find my editor here and my cover artist here.)
Usually this is when I’ll set up pre-orders. Now that all the online retailers have finally allowed Self-Pubbers to set up pre-orders, we can finally get in on that action. Once I have the cover ready, I’ll write my book blurb and set it up the pre-order pages with temporary files for the manuscript (once you have the final draft, you come back and upload the final file before the publication date).
Now, once the book is edited and the ebooks are all taken care of, I’ll start on the paperback.
No, self-published writers don’t sell nearly as many physical books as traditionally published authors do. But I like to have the option. I just do paperback, mostly because I have so many titles, setting them up with hardback would be cost prohibitive for me. With Createspace I can get my paperback onto all the online retailers including libraries and BookBub.
And they have a guided, step-by-step process to help you get your book ready for publication.
You pick your book trim size and they give you a Word template to format the interior of your book. At this point, you want to make sure your line spacing, font size, page numbers, and chapter headings look good. Don’t forget your title page, your copyright page, your table of contents, dedication if you want, all before the first chapter page.
Then, once you have that sorted, you can tell the site your dimensions (book size, paper color, page length) to get a cover template. This is the file you would send to your cover artist to ask them to expand your cover to a paperback cover. Or you use it yourself to make yours.
Then, once CS approves it (or emails you and tells you you screwed up, fix it please and you do it all over again and again until you get it right), this is what it looks like.
And you can see what the inside looks like too!
You can either approve the digital proof or, and I highlyrecommend this, you order a proof copy to be printed and mailed to you so you can see if the printing is perfect or screwed up.
But, once it’s all done, and all perfect, then you can step back and admire your beautiful books on a bookshelf.
This isn’t for the impatient. I promise you. Yes, there are people who you can pay to go through all of this for you. You tell them what you want your book to look like and they’ll do all the formatting for you and just email you the files you need to upload to CS and be done with it. And if you have the budget for it, go for it. But if you don’t, with a little patience and practice, you can do this yourself, I promise.
The other day I had a guest post over at the Rainbow Romance Writers blog. As often is the case, whatever I’m struggling with in my writing ends up in a blog post. It’s like my mind needs to process through my fingers before I can move forward .
The guest post was about editing, and described some of the strategies I use when I’m moving from rough draft to polished product. I have a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo that I’d like to send to my agent, but it needs revision first. I sat down, made my plan, and sent off the post.
But I’ve spent this whole week spinning my wheels, which tells me that no matter how good my intentions, I was heading in the wrong direction.
I’m working with a rough (rough!) draft that has some good moments and characters I like, along with comments from my writing partner and alpha reader, Irene Preston. Irene and I have written two novels and two novellas together, and there’s no one on the planet who knows my writing better.
And let’s just say I’ve come up with stuff she’s liked better.
My grand plan involved writing a synopsis to help sort out the plot threads, then revising scene-by-scene based on a complicated set of steps that I won’t bore you with here. After that, I’d planned to send it out to beta readers, and with their feedback in hand, start grinding down on the words themselves, looking for repeats and crutch words and passive voice.
Yeah, you know, I’ll still probably do most of that, but the synopsis thing was tripping me up. I got talking with my friend Kelly Jensen (who’s also the blog mama for the Rainbow Romance Writers) and she suggested I use a spreadsheet, with lines for each scene and columns for plot points and other assorted details.
And you know what? That’s what I needed to unstick myself. Here’s a quick screenshot of what I have so far…
It’s not much, yet, but it’s a step in the right direction and such (SUCH!) a relief. If you’re interested, hop on over to the RRW blog for a more detailed look at my editing process. Otherwise, I’ll send you a virtual high five, and TGIF!!
Oh, and before I go, Irene and I have a new novella that’ll be available as a giveaway this Valentine’s Day! Haunted is set in our Hours of the Night world but features different characters, and a lighter paranormal tone. I’ll put the blurb & Goodreads link below, and if you’re interested, come hang out with us on our Facebook page – After Hours with Liv & Irene – because for sure you’ll get the link for the free download!
Noel Chandler had a good reason for leaving the L.A.P.D. for New Orleans, but when he walks into a burned out Garden District mansion, he discovers there are some things he can’t outrun. The spooks can find him anywhere.
As the resident historian for the cable show Haunts and Hoaxes, Professor Adam Morales keeps an open mind about the supernatural. Or that’s what he tells himself, until he meets a man who puts that principle to the test. Noel’s smart, sexy, and has killer cop instincts. One glance from his bedroom eyes has Adam ready to believe anything.