Why Choose Self-Publishing?

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People often ask me why I went the self-published route rather than traditional publishing. Sometimes, on the difficult days, I even wonder myself.

Part of it was control. I’ve heard horror stories of authors hating the covers that the publishers have given them and having no recourse to change them. Or they’ve been asked to take out some element of the book that they feel is important.

In self-publishing, I have all of the control. I also have all the risk and the burden, so it’s a trade-off. But for now it is working for me. While I am relatively unknown, there isn’t as much risk.

I also like having all the information. I can see how many sales I am having per day, and adjust accordingly. I can see what is working, and what’s not. I can see how many copies I’m selling for what price, which makes estimating the amount of money I will make in a given period a lot easier.

Another reason was the freedom. I have a hero that’s pansexual. My next heroine is demisexual. I can write about any topic I like, in any way I choose. And I don’t even have to think twice or try to second-guess a publisher as to what they might want.

Again, this is not always a good thing. Sometimes the gatekeepers are right. You need a lot of trust in yourself, your work, and your choices when you’re a self-publisher. The support system you get from publishers can also be an amazing advantage, both morally and financially.

Money is another factor. I don’t think that I’ll necessarily earn ‘more’ as a self-publisher, (despite a number of authors saying that’s why they chose self-publishing) since I’ll probably sell less than if I had been trad published. But a higher percentage of each book sold will be going to me, and that’s a nice feeling. Though there are more costs, too, so again it’s a trade-off. Maybe, if and when I get popular, I can say that it was the smarter financial move, too.

I also like the idea that I can write to my own schedule. I’ve always been a quick writer, so being able to put out as many new releases as I like and only be dependent on how fast I can get the words down is a big bonus. They say that success in self-publishing is quite dependent on regular releasing, so I knew that I had that on my side when I made the decision.

I also figured that I’m smart. I learn quickly. I could make this self-publishing thing work for me. I spent a lot of time researching the best way to do things before jumping in. That’s not to say that I haven’t made mistakes. I have, and will continue to do so. But I had confidence that I could make a success of it.

Whether this is true is yet to be seen. Maybe eventually I’ll go hybrid. It does seem to be a popular option. But for now I am happy with self-publishing. I think I made the right choice.

Networking for Indie Authors

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If there was ever such a halcyon time when an Indie Author could just hit publish on a book and then watch the sales come in, that time is long over.

Now, discoverability is a real issue, and many authors are feeling alone and disheartened, and struggling to find sales. I’m certainly not an expert on getting sales, (or on not feeling alone, for that matter!) but I have a steady amount of books sold each day. I can attribute my modest success to one thing: networking.

There are a number of different forms of networking.

  • In person
  • Online (Readers)
  • Online (Other writers)
  • Online (Bloggers and reviewers)

The first time I saw a bump in my sales (after the initial release) was when I attended the Romance Writers of Australia conference last year. There, I met a lot of lovely, like-minded people that loved the same genre I do, both as readers and writers. I didn’t spend any of my time pimping my books to people there (unless they asked!), but I did build connections, ones that I’ve continued since. And many of those people have been supportive of my writing in subsequent months.

So, in person networking is not about selling your books, necessarily, it’s about selling yourself as a person and making friends.

I also have seen an uptick in my sale since I joined a number of online groups for writers. Not critique groups, but more communities, many of which are on Goodreads and Facebook. Again, I didn’t use these groups to spam people with my books, but I try to be a helpful, active member. I answer people’s questions as best I can, I offer opinions when they’re asked for, and I cheer people on when they need it. And they do the same for me! I don’t go in with the intention of any mercenary gain, but I think in many ways these groups have contributed to me finding a readership.

This, for me, was about having a support network of other people that understand the writing process. Some of them bought my book! But that isn’t the point of the connection. Rather, they make me feel less alone in the writing and publishing world, and these groups are a place to pool our knowledge for the betterment of all of us. However, like with the in-person networking, it helps to make friends and be supportive of other people, because they’ll probably be supportive back.

Bloggers and reviewers are the group I’ve had the least success networking with. I’ve tried! But I’m probably doing something wrong. However, I’ll keep persisting because there is a wealth of evidence out there that bloggers and reviewers will be your biggest supporters down the line. They are the ones that get readers to hear about your book, and get them hyped for releases. It will definitely be a challenge worth pursuing to build those relationships!

And, now, to readers. There are a number of ways to meet and communicate with readers. In person you have book launches, conferences, conventions, and things like that. Online, you have social media, groups, forums, etc. If you can build a relationship with readers, then I’ll wager that will be your most financially successful form of networking. Part of this comes through your author branding (something I’m still working on) – readers want to know who you are. Other times it’s just interacting with them in appropriate places.

 

Networking is essential for building not just a readership, but a community around you. This isn’t (just) for financial reasons. Indie authors don’t have to take this journey alone – and they shouldn’t. Find opportunities to build relationships, and be receptive to those that come your way. It’ll make a massive difference!

How NOT to Begin a Book

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Last week I wrote about the various things a first chapter(s) needs to achieve for a book’s narrative. This week, I am going to give some examples of what NOT to do, inspired by some recent reading experiences of mine.

You know the writing advice you hear constantly: “cut the backstory”? Well, this first book is a perfect example of why.

In the first 4 chapters, at least 50% of the page space was taken up with flashbacks or musings on past events. So little happened in the present day part of the story – it was just pages after pages of what had happened 14 years ago. And my God it was boring. Any time something began to happen in the present day, the character would stop to ruminate on the past events that got them there.

I got the purpose – there was a major night in the character’s past that was effecting present day. But there would have been a much more interesting way of introducing that to the audience.

Rather than have the hero and heroine finally meet 25% into the story (again, boring for a romance) they should have met on page one. By necessity, it would have been a fraught reunion. They both loved and hated each other, for completely valid reasons. And it would have been interesting. Then, over time, the reader could learn why there was so much tension between them.

But, alas, this was not what we got. And I lost interest pretty quick.

So, start with something interesting, and intrigue the reader with what events lead to the characters being in that situation. Or, if the backstory truly is the most interesting part of your story, then start the book there. Nora Roberts has started doing this a lot—having the first third or so of the book be an extended prologue—and I find it perfectly interesting.

The other sin that I read recently was a book that introduced what felt like 3,000 characters in the first two chapters.

In this particular book, by the time I was halfway through chapter 2, I had met at least eight—count ‘em eight—important secondary characters. This doesn’t even include the Hero and Heroine. Talk about overwhelming!

The fact that I was supposed to remember all of these people, their names, and their relationships with each other was mind boggling.

It is important to give the reader time to breathe between each character introduction, or piece of important information. This is particularly essential in a romance. The writer must give priority to developing the two main characters and their interaction. If you want to use the book to set up future romances, fine, but it should never be at the expense of the main relationship.

I will say that how your main character interacts with other people can be very revealing for their personality, so I’m certainly not saying you can’t feature any other characters in your opening chapter.

But just think about how many of those people need to be there. I could have culled about five of those eight with no trouble, and the book would have made a hell of a lot more sense.

Personally, I try to only introduce one or two secondary characters at a time. Each of them leaves the page while I let the main characters recharge, and then I might introduce another character down the track. This keeps the focus on the hero and heroine, and doesn’t confuse the reader.

So, my takeaways. a) keep backstory to the bare minimum until you’ve got the reader hooked, (even then, use it sparingly) and b) don’t overwhelm the reader upfront with too many characters. Keep it simple and streamlined where possible, or you’ll end up with a bloated, boring mess.

What are your pet hates in the beginning of a book? Do you have any writing issues that would immediately make you put the book down?

How To Begin A Book

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I’ve been thinking a lot about opening chapters recently – my own and others. Inspired by the fact that I have been (re)writing an opening chapter myself, and two books I’ve tried to read lately had boring or confusing openings.

A first chapter has to do a hell of a lot of heavy lifting in your book. A reader won’t read chapter 2 if chapter 1 isn’t good. They might forgive a dodgy chapter 10 (though I wouldn’t recommend trying it!), but not a bad beginning.

Which means that, first and foremost, chapter 1 has to be interesting and exciting, quite apart from all the narrative requirements it must fulfil.

So, what does chapter 1 have to achieve? It has to set up the following:

  1. The world
  2. The characters
  3. (In a romance) Their relationship
  4. The conflict (Interpersonal, and external)

Now there are a number of ways to do this. Occasionally, you might have to cheat, and set up 3 of the 4 in chapter one, and the fourth in chapter 2. I did this for Guarding Sierra. The first chapter set up the world, the danger to Sierra, who she was and how she reacted to the situation, and how she intended to deal with it. What it didn’t do was introduce Blake, and his relationship with Sierra – and one of the first comments I got on the chapter after release was “where’s the hero?”

Hot tip: romance readers like their hero and heroine to meet almost immediately.

It’s a fair point, and definitely something to consider.

Anyway, let me expand on those 4 points above.

THE WORLD: My books are romantic suspense. That means that in my opening chapter, I have to let the reader know what they are in for, just in case the blurb and/or cover didn’t clue them in. You have to set up their expectations of what’s to come, and then proceed to meet those expectations.

So, for me, that means that I have to set up a suspense element in the opening chapter. Sometimes I do this immediately, by throwing the heroine into peril in the first few lines. Once the immediate danger has passed, I’ll slow down and build the relationships between the characters.

Other times, like with Christmas Tango, I’ll use the majority of the chapter to focus on the relationship between the two main characters, and wait until the end of the chapter to drop in the suspense element. If this is the case, I will try to come up with an opening line that gives the impression of danger—even if it is a misdirect. The opening line of Christmas Tango is: ‘Duncan tugged at the unfamiliar noose around his throat—also known as a bow tie.’ You can see how I tried to clue the reader in to the type of book it was, even though Duncan wasn’t in any immediate danger.

Additionally, each book is designed to stand alone, which means that I have to reintroduce Soldiering On and what they do very early on in each book.

So, basically an opening chapter is about setting up the genre expectations, setting, etc.

THE CHARACTERS: This means setting up the characters individually. Their goals, motivations, personalities, etc.

Now, in a romance, you usually have 2 dual protagonists. You most likely won’t get both of their POVs in the first chapter. It is essential that you get at least one of their POVs. And, if they meet, you can give hints as to what the other person is like, too.

The best ways to reveal character are

  1. Have the character talk to someone else
  2. Have them react to a situation
  3. Have them make a decision.

All of these things are excellent at showing who a character is, and can even be used in conjunction with each other! This doesn’t just apply to opening chapters, but throughout your book. If you want to reveal a new layer of a character, then these are some of the best ways to do it.

THE RELATIONSHIP: So, if the characters meet in the opening chapter (which, if you can manage, I would recommend) then you need to set up their future interactions, and their conflict.

Whatever it is that keeps them from their HEA until page 300, will have to be introduced the moment they meet. Or, at least, the seeds of it.

In the first chapter of Soldiering On, Duncan and Mandy meet briefly. She says something innocuous, and he interprets it the wrong way due to his own issues. He gets annoyed—at both her and himself—and is rude to her. This proceeds to happen a lot over the next few books. That opening moment set up their relationship, and the tone of their interactions ever after. Every time they’ve interacted after that moment has been informed by those first seconds. They have grown and evolved—and will continue to do so—but that first moment can never be undone.

THE CONFLICT: I’ve already kind of covered this, but it’s very important that there is conflict in your opening chapter. This can be internal—a character’s inner conflict, or a relationship conflict between the two leads—or external. External conflict is, of course, external forces at work on the characters.

You can have more than one kind of conflict. In fact, it might be best if you do. That’s what keeps the readers invested!

 

So, that’s all the elements you need to think about when writing (or editing) your opening chapter. I hope it helps! Next time, I think I’ll do a ‘what not to do’ post.

Just for fun, drop a comment below as to your favourite opening chapters you’ve read. What did they do right? I could use a good recommendation!

Knowing When To Cut

With bonus deleted scenes from Guarding Sierra!

 

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The decision to cut a scene from a book is one of the hardest a writer will make—surpassed only by the agonising decision to scrap everything when you realise it just isn’t working.

I had to do both in the process of bringing Guarding Sierra into existence. I originally started the novel in a very different place. When I realised it was completely the wrong beginning, I was so annoyed with myself for the time wasted. But I accepted it, started again, and the book is much better for it.

I also deleted and changed a number of scenes. Sometimes it can take a while to realise that it’s the right decision to delete—and longer still to work up the nerve to actually do it. To help me feel like I haven’t wasted my time, before I cut a scene I copy it into a document I label ‘Spares’. Then, I can come back to it later if I really need to. Sometimes I end up mining it for content—a descriptor or character beat—but generally I don’t, and the decision to cut is the right one.

When editing Guarding Sierra, there was a small scene that lasted through a few drafts. I didn’t want to cut it—it was a good character moment for Sierra, if a little heavy-handed. The problem was, it sped up her character development too much, leaving the last 1/3 of the book with nowhere for her to grow. Her realisation that she’d misjudged Blake happened too soon in the arc of the story, and it made her bland as a result.

The progression of her character development is much smoother now that the moment is gone, but I really liked the conversation between her and Blake. It hints at some of the bigotry that Blake has experienced because of his sexuality, and it forced Sierra to confront some of her own preconceptions about him. Part of me regrets not being able to find a place for it later on in the book, but by the time it would have been appropriate for them to have the conversation, the tension was ramping up and it would have slowed down the pace.

I just like to imagine it happening off-screen. J

But, now I can share it with you guys! It’s rough, since it never went through the final drafting/editing stages. But it gives you an idea of what I was trying to achieve. (Context for those that haven’t read Guarding Sierra: They’ve recently slept together, and Blake has told Sierra it can’t happen again. She’s pissed off, with both him and herself, because she figured him for a player and slept with him anyway. She feels she should have known better. For those that have read it: This originally appeared in the kitchen scene, before Duncan shows up to give Blake a talking to.)

Blake stared down at his sandwich, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

“Here’s the thing,” he began, then glanced up at her. “I have a habit of doing this.”

“Yeah, I figured you for a bit of a player,” Sierra interrupted. Nausea rolled in her gut. At least she could take comfort in the fact that his inability to stay faithful most likely didn’t stem from sexism, since it sounded like he treated his male lovers the same. She would lose even more respect for herself if it turned out she’d slept with a misogynist.

A frown tugged at his brow. “That’s not what I meant. I don’t sleep around, I prefer to be in relationships.” He paused. “Though it is a common stereotype that bi- and pan- people are incapable of being in a committed relationship.” His look was reproachful.

Her cheeks heated with shame, but she didn’t back down quite yet. “To be fair, I thought you were a player before I knew you were Pan.”

“You aren’t helping your case.” He seemed amused by her defence.

“You are an incorrigible flirt. Most people would think the same about you as I did.” She had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth now. Though whether he would lie to make her feel better or for some reason she didn’t understand, Sierra couldn’t be sure.

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Sierra clammed her mouth shut, frustrated with both him and herself. Blake obviously chose not to continue down that conversation topic, but whether out of pity for her or not, she couldn’t tell.

As you can see, it was quite heavy-handed. That could have been smoothed out later if I’d kept the scene in. However, having Sierra confront her own assumptions about Blake made her reassess her opinion of him far too soon. It threw the rest of her character development off balance. Once it was cut, I tweaked what came after, and I think the book is stronger for it.

 

Now, something a little more fun:

This is an alternate version of the scene where Sierra calls Mandy after having spent the night with Blake. I changed it because it didn’t fit the tone I needed in the scene, but it was an enjoyable little exchange.

“No wonder you’re cranky. I don’t think this is the disaster you’re claiming it is,” Mandy told her.

“Hey, you’re meant to be on my side here!”

Mandy chuckled, unrepentant. “I am on your side. The serial killer aspect is admittedly worrying, but I trust Blake to keep you safe. Even if he can’t seem to keep his pants on.”

Sierra sighed. “I’m at least equally responsible for that part.”

Mandy snorted, then grew serious. “If you’re really worried, you should get out of the city. Have a vacation, and hide away.”

“No way. I can’t leave work now. And being away somewhere with Blake sounds like a terrible idea.”

“Afraid he’ll come onto you again?”

“No, I’m afraid I’ll come on to him.” She ploughed on without giving Mandy a chance to reply. “So, does this raise any ethical issues for you? Or the company? I can definitely promise it won’t happen again.”

Mandy hummed in thought. “I mean, it isn’t generally something we would encourage, but I don’t really think punishing you would help. You’ve been through enough already and frankly, I just don’t want to. I’m glad you let loose for a little while, even if it was only for a night.”

“Blake seemed to think he’d get in trouble.”

“Well,” she replied. “I never said anything about not punishing him.”

I like writing friendships between women, so this was a fun scene. It was just totally wrong for what the moment needed, particularly once I realised that Sierra had to hold her grudge against Blake for a bit longer.

 

So, the moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to cut! Just because you put a lot of time into something doesn’t mean it is right. Be honest with yourself about what your story needs. Trust your instincts. Get feedback from others if you have to.

Ultimately, you have to do what the story needs.

If you want to find out what the final (and better!) versions of these scenes looked like, Guarding Sierra is available to purchase below:

Amazon (US)

Amazon (UK)

Amazon (AU)

Amazon (CA)

Kobo

Barnes and Noble

Why Is Happiness Considered “Unrealistic”?

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When I talk about why I love romance – and happy endings – people often say “but they are so unrealistic!”

When this happens, the general response from romance advocates I hear in return is “It’s just a fantasy, like a crime novel!” But…why? Why are romance novels considered fantasies? I don’t really think they are. A heightened version of life, yeah, sure. And obviously the more fantastical romances are fantasies in that sense. But is the Happily Ever After really such an unattainable thing?

Let’s do an experiment, shall we?

Close your eyes, and picture all the people you know well. Friends, family, coworkers, the over-sharing guy that runs the corner store. You got them all? Right. Now, how many of those people would consider themselves happy, or even just content. A decent number, right?

I have friends and family going through tough times, but I also know a lot of people that are really happy with where their lives are. Some are married, or with partners. Some are single. Happiness is across all range of jobs, lives, circumstances. That doesn’t mean there is no conflict in their lives, that’s ridiculous. But these people are satisfied with where they have found themselves. Even the ones that aren’t happy now definitely will be one day – life is a series of ups and downs, but there are always ups.

So, let’s apply this logic to fiction, shall we?

The general progression of a Romance novel is two people go through some conflict, and end up falling in love. It’s a very simplified version, of course, but that’s the basic premise.

Falling in love is something that people do every day. I know many people in love right now. Married people. People in committed relationships. Sometimes other, more complicated scenarios. But it is still all love.

So why, when this is applied to fiction, is it suddenly “fantasy”?

Quite apart from the fact that romance novels are rarely just about that. Most are about conquering the bad stuff in life and triumphing. People I know do that all the time, too! They move away from the bad things in their life to get to a better place. It’s human nature.

So, again, why is this considered unrealistic?

I think we are doing a disservice to ourselves and our genre to say that getting to a good place in life and falling in love is unrealistic. It’s like saying that people will be miserable and never fall in love, ever, because that’s not a thing that happens in real life. But for romance writers and readers, HEAs don’t imply that our main characters will now and forever lead a conflict-free existence. They just say that these people are in love and are going to make a good go at a life together. And, if it’s done right, the author will have convinced us that they’ve got a good shot of making it work.

Frankly, based on my own experience, misery isn’t any more realistic than happiness, despite what people say. When people are faced with disappointments, they usually move on, grow, and find something new. Something good. And it is up to the author to decide where in this process they want to tell the character’s story – on the up- or the down-swing of a character’s life.

Romance novelists choose the up-swing. Other authors sometimes choose the down-swing. And that’s fine. There is room for all kinds of stories in this world.

But we shouldn’t be mocked or derided or considered “unrealistic” because we choose to end our books with the characters happy and in love. It’s such an everyday occurrence. (As are orgasms, FYI, so they aren’t unrealistic, either).

So, next time someone tells you that Romance novels are unrealistic, ask them whether they are happy.

Because surely, surely, only a miserable bastard would be rude enough to expend effort mocking people’s reading tastes. And that’s a sad life.

The Ideas Factory

It’s a common thing for non-writers to ask authors (and fanfic writers!) ‘where do you get your ideas?!’

Sometimes, a non-writer will say something along the lines of ‘hey, I have this great idea! You should write it, and we can split the profits!’ What non-writers don’t understand is that ideas are not precious. Writers get them all the time. We call them plotbunnies. The hard part is picking which ones you want to pursue into a full novel, because it is the writing that is the hard part. The daily slog of putting words on the page.

So, I’ve decided to share what it’s like being a writer, with the constant bombardment of ideas for things you might want to write. I kept notes every time I got an idea for a story throughout the day today. (It’s a Saturday, so no work!) This is the result:

BEFORE BREAKFAST

I browsed Facebook before breakfast and I already had two story ideas before 9am.

The first was this article, about a teen who stood in for a girl’s deployed father. There are two ways of writing this story. First, is that you age up the characters and have a similar moment – I think it could still work in a YA novel, maybe. It would obviously be the start of a sweet romance between them. The second is that you have this moment in the backstory of the characters – the girl would develop a serious case of hero worship of this young man that would stick with her throughout her life. What would happen if they then met again as adults, and he realised he was attracted to her, too?

Now, I think either of these stories could work, but they aren’t ideas I would be likely to pursue. I don’t tend to like the heroine of my story pining over the hero; particularly not for a long period of time. (Mutual pining, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine).

The next idea I had was based on this video someone posted, and the comment below.

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This made me consider a heroine that opened up a lingerie shop to help women with bigger breasts. Since there is a lot of great, sexy bras in her shop, people (and maybe the hero) get the wrong idea about her. In reality she’s very shy! I would also consider making her plus sized, since I think that would really work.

AFTER BREAKFAST

I came across this gifset on Tumblr and decided it needed to be a children’s book. A dog and a rat being best friends is the cutest thing you’ll see all day.

LUNCH

I went to lunch with someone who isn’t well – very not well – and then watched them lie to someone they knew about the illness. It made me think that there might be a story in that. Someone comes back to their home town, and won’t tell anyone why they are there, and refuses to get close to anyone. Turns out they have an illness that might very well be fatal. Depressing and angsty, but it could work, particularly if they manage to have the life-saving operation they need in the end. (I always need my happy ending!)

That same person and I were later discussing drunk shopping, as we picked up a package they didn’t remember ordering. There wasn’t an immediate story there, but I couldn’t help but think that you could have some fun with it. Maybe someone accidentally drunk-orders something a little bit naughty to their hot next door neighbour? That could result in some amusing and sexy shenanigans.

I saw the words ‘Royal Bakery’ and that sparked something. Maybe a princess running from an arranged marriage gets a job in a cupcake bakery in small town America, and falls in love with the local handyman/sheriff/mayor/whatever.

After reading this film review, I wondered if I could do a non-religious version of this story (typical though it is). I decided it was an immediate no because I don’t like to write about exploited women.

DINNER

I was on my way to dinner with a friend and I saw three classic cars sitting next to each other in someone’s garage. I immediately thought of a hero that collects classic cars. But I realised that was stereotypical, and it would be more interesting if it was the heroine that was obsessed with old cars. She could be a mechanic, maybe. I’m not sure who her romantic counterpart would be, yet, but I can picture her as a character.

The architecture of Doha (where I live) can be very unusual, so as I was getting closer to the restaurant, I was contemplating rival architects. One would be a traditionalist—probably a conservation architect—and the other would design crazy modern things. I think the modernist would be the man, and the conservation architect would be a woman. They would be competing for a big contract, both with very different ideas about what this new building requires. (The big contract might even be with her father?) Lots of opportunity for snarky competitiveness.

So, I was waiting for my friend at the restaurant and two women walked by pushing strollers. I mused on the scenario of what if they were two recently divorced women that meet in a mother’s group, and end up falling in love with each other? Could be a cute story.

Over dinner, my friend told me a story about an old man in salmon suit at the symphony orchestra she used to see all the time. He would make a great character in something. I can picture him being a secondary character in a fun contemporary romance.

AFTER DINNER

“I just think goodness is more interesting. Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.”

I saw this Toni Morrison quote when I got home and it inspired some thoughts. I’d like to explore this idea in a book. Probably a dystopian sci fi novel. I’m not sure exactly how I’d do it, and what sort of world I’d have to build to make that the central theme. It would take more pondering.

And now it’s bed time and who knows how many more ideas I’ll get as I fall asleep. I don’t know if all writers have days like this, but it’s pretty common for me! I hope it gives non-writers more of an idea about what it can be like being a writer.

Write First, Make It Good Later

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Lately, I have heard a number of people saying that they are trying to get started on their book. They have done all the research, attended workshops, read writing books and how-tos, and basically just focused on their craft.

But, now, they are stuck. They can’t actually write.

Obviously, the goal here is to get those words down on the page. So what’s going wrong?

The problem is that they are trying to write well.

What do I mean? Well, if you are anything like me, your brain is usually working a few sentences or scenes ahead from what you are actually writing. So, while I am writing sentence one, my brain is already on sentence four. This works out well, because it means that as long as I stay focused, I write quickly. (Whether I do always stay focused is an issue for another time…)

But, if I am writing sentence one, and I don’t like it, I move on. I just keep writing. Maybe sometimes I’ll make a note to change it later, but usually I assume that Future Aislinn will have the same issue with the line that Present Aislinn does. (Aka it’s Future Aislinn’s problem).

If I don’t do this, if I get caught up in crafting a perfect sentence/scene/character/whatever, then my brain screeches to a halt. It will no longer be on sentence four, or scene four. It will be at sentence one. And that will then just slow everything to a stop.

If I am too concerned with creating a perfect sentence or perfect scene, I never get anything done. Because nothing is perfect the first time out. So if you go over and over something a million times on the first try, you lose all your momentum and just get stuck.

My motto for this situation is this: give yourself permission to be crap.

Yes, that scene may not be all it could be on the first try, but that’s fine. Until you see how it fits into the story as a whole, you probably won’t see its full potential anyway.

Maybe that piece of dialogue doesn’t convey all the nuance you want it to. But it can be fixed later.

Maybe the character’s arc is not as strong as you want it to be; their Goal/Motivation/Conflict is not up to scratch, or the mask vs essence is not where you want it to be. Whatever writing theory you are using at the time, just know this: you don’t have to get it right the first time.

Seriously, editing is a giant pain in the arse, but it is rather wonderful once you’ve turned your first draft into a good book.

Once you get those words on the page, then you can make them good. Don’t expect perfection on the first try.

And the good news is, that doing this will be your practice. The more you write and edit, the more your first tries are going to be good, and the less you’ll have to edit in your later manuscripts. But you won’t improve until you write, and write a lot.

So, remember two things: getting the words down on the page is the goal, and give yourself permission to be crap.

Tropes Are Not A Substitute For Substance

(This post was inspired by the comments on a recent Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review)

I’m sorry this is late. I had a crisis of confidence last week. But now I’m back!

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I recently talked about the good side of tropes, and how they can be a positive tool to set expectations with the reader, and help people find stories that they like.

There is another side of this. Tropes are not always used for good.

Some writers use tropes in place of character and plot. These are not the same thing at all, but it can be easy to get confused sometimes.

A character archetype is a good place to start when building a character, because it helps to clarify the function of the character in your narrative. But it is not the whole character. You have to build facets and layers onto the archetype, to make them unique and fully-rounded. And it is an approach of building together the correct elements, like with cooking, not just mixing random things together and hoping it’ll come out amazing.

For example, you want to make a pasta. (In this example, let’s just say that pasta = wounded hero). Now, there are a lot of difference sauces that you can put on a pasta (and, therefore, many different types of wounded hero), with elements that you can shift and adjust as required. But using the right elements in the right amount is what gets you a well-made Carbonara, as opposed to a pickle and seaweed sauce. At that point, it won’t matter how well the pasta is cooked, no one will enjoy it. And if you only have one element to your character (aka the Original Trope) it doesn’t make for a very interesting character. No one eats pasta without the sauce; it’s too bland.

Plus, all the flavours/character elements have to match. You have to think about how all these pieces will taste/work together. And how the flavours will develop together when you cook them. One wrong element can spoil a dish, as much as any random collection of character tropes can’t make a character.

While a stripped back, simple character is not a bad thing, they still need room to develop and grow. The elements of the sauce can be added in stages. Or, your pasta can turn into a pasta bake, or a pasta salad! The character trope you use is only a base—a beginning. Not a whole meal.

Now, sometimes you don’t get it right the first time. Sometimes (during edits) you have to make the recipe again, adding or removing things as is appropriate. This is normal! But if you get it at least close to right the first time, it’ll be a lot less work for you later down the line.

Everything I’ve said here can also apply to plot, too. Everything must work together as a cohesive whole.

 

I hope this helps.

And now I’m craving pasta.

How NOT to Introduce Your Character

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I watched the first episode of an older show last night: Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. The premise was intriguing: a deaf woman begins working at the FBI, helping them using her lip-reading skills to catch bad guys. It’s based on the life of a real woman. The show stars an actual hearing-impaired woman as Sue (Deanne Bray), and co-stars the dishy Yannick Bisson from Murdoch Mysteries.

Despite having all that going for it, the first episode of the show was dreadful. And I’m going to talk about it a little bit because it perfectly illustrates a lot of writing ‘no-nos’ that some people get confused by.

 

Mistake 1: It doesn’t start in an interesting way.

The show starts with the protagonist, Sue, loading up her car with her parents’ help. There is a lot of clunky dialogue between them, but no real information is shared. For example, we know she is moving somewhere, but not where or why. We know she has never lived out of home before, but she must be thirty or so. We know she is going to pick up a “Levi” but not who that is.

This goes on for a full minute and a half.

So, in other words, this show that is about a deaf woman in the FBI shows nothing about her deafness, or the FBI, in the set up. I’m not sure if the writers wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’ moment or what, but nothing we find out about our lead character in that opening moment makes us invest in her or her story.

When writing a story, something needs to happen in the opening scene to hook the reader in. For me, this comes in two forms:

  1. Something happens to the character that changes the direction of their life
  2. They make a big decision

For both Station Alpha and Guarding Sierra, I went with option one. It’s an exciting way to start a book, particularly a book with lots of action in it. But it doesn’t have to be a life-threatening thing. The character may get dumped, or lose their job. They might get hit by a bus, or travel in time. It can be anything! As long it is a big external force acting on the protagonist.

This is a way to make the reader invest in the character. The reader gets swept up with the character, and carried away with their story.

 

Mistake two: Info-dumps galore!

If you ever want an example of why flashbacks are so maligned in writing, watch this episode. After that first scene (and another where she picks up Levi – her service dog) we are treated to multiple flashbacks about everything from how the character became deaf, to doctors visits, to how she was taught to talk, her time in school…There might have been more, but I feel asleep. Holy shit it was boring.

From when she left her house, to when she arrives at her destination, more than twelve minutes of screen time have happened, the majority of which are flashbacks. And the FBI still hasn’t been mentioned.

In those twelve minutes, the only thing that happens is she gets pulled over by a cop. This scene serves no purpose, since we already know that she’s deaf by this point. We found this out in one of the flashbacks. (Side note – if the writers had wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’, they failed at that. Plus, it’s kinda gross to treat a character’s disability that way.)

This means that nothing of interest has happened to the character for nearly fourteen minutes of screen time, nor has she made any on screen decisions. I would have turned the TV off by this point, but I hadn’t seen Yannick Bisson yet, so I stuck with it.

Please, I beg of you, don’t info dump your character’s back story like this. You know in Shrek, when donkey talks about the layers of the onion? That’s how backstory should be introduced. It should be sprinkled into the narrative at relevant moments, with the layers of the onion being peeled back as each new facet of them is introduced. It’s definitely okay to hint that there is more to your character than a reader might initially see, but none of what we found out during the flashbacks in this show was relevant to her current situation. We didn’t need to see how she became the person she was, because we hadn’t invested yet in present day Sue. They could have all been cut, and the only changes it would have made to the narrative would be for the better. Not only would that have made the beginning of the show more interesting, but it would have made us more intrigued about the character, too. We would have kept watching to find out all those defining moments in her life as they impacted her present life.

Additionally, the person she was telling the flashbacks to was Levi, her dog. Now, I love dogs, but this is a real missed opportunity. I like introducing elements of a character’s backstory by having them tell it to other people. In Romance, this is generally the character’s love interest. The reason to do it this way (as opposed to through an introspective moment), is that you can use it to build and strengthen the relationship between the two characters. Telling elements of your past to someone shows trust, and builds a level of intimacy between two people. It’s a valuable tool when writing romance.

 

Mistake 3: Repeating information we already know

So, we find out she’s deaf in the flashback. This is then elaborated on in the scene with the cop. After that, she’s finally arrived in Washington D.C. and we think something interesting and FBI-related might be finally about to happen.

But, alas, no.

Her car breaks down, and she goes to a nearby mechanic. We are then treated to another scene where she explains her deafness. Like, we know. If you are going to have her tell it to the mechanic, why tell it to the cop? Or in the flashback? We don’t need to hear it more than once.

I get that this is their way of introducing the mechanic character (because he shows up again), so cut the scene with the cop (who doesn’t show up again), or find another way of introducing the mechanic. Don’t tell your readers the same information twice.

(It is okay to remind them of things, and give clues to jog their memories, particularly later in the book. But having two scenes right after the other with the same information in it is pointless.)

 

Side note: at about 18 minutes, we finally get her first day at the FBI.

 

Mistake 4: Bad structure

Sue’s first day working for the FBI is pretty dull, for her and the watcher, but that would have been fine if everything else up until that point hadn’t also been boring. But it makes sense that not everything is going to go well on her journey.

Things start picking up once she meets Yannick Bisson (for me, too. That man is fine.) She gets involved in a case for him reading the lips of some bad guys on a surveillance video, and testifies at a trial about it. It goes well. The end.

Well, it was the end of the first part of the pilot.

She isn’t introduced to this case until 33 minutes into the pilot. Which means that this plot is introduced, worked through, and resolved in less than ten minutes of screen time.

When you write Romantic Suspense like I do, you have to be very careful to have the plot, the characters, and their relationship, all develop at the same pace. You introduce the characters and plot close together, and you resolve their character arcs, their relationship, and the plot close together, and every step that happens in between must progress at a similar pace.

That did not happen in this show. The ‘character development’/introduction happened for the first 30 minutes, and the plot happened for the last 10. It’s just bad writing.

 

I had a lot more issues with the episode going into the second half of it, but honestly I don’t want to rewatch it to pick out specific moments. I do remember thinking that Sue’s character was a bit uneven, but it was a pilot. I can forgive that.

I did watch the next episode of the show after the two-part pilot, and you know what? It improves a little. I might keep watching.

 

I hope some of this is useful. I know sometimes I learn better with clear, concrete examples of what to do or what not to do. I won’t link to an episode, but there are streams of the show available online (or DVDs from the official site if that’s more your speed).