Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 3

Missed Part Two of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.

  • No Place For Wimps:

Blatantly obvious when it comes to the hero of a romance novel, but there’s more to it than that. On the subject of wimps The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says;

“You know what a wimp is.

He’s the one who wouldn’t fight under any circumstances.

Ask him what he wants and he just sighs.

Poke him, and he just flinches – and retreats.

Confront him with a big problem, and he fumes and fusses and can’t make a decision.”

Basically it tells us that real life is full of wimps. We can all be guilty of it at some time or another. Sometimes we sit around and wait for things to happen, sometimes things happen by accident, sometimes we spend time wallowing or bemoaning our circumstances or simply waiting for it to ‘go away’. All of these things are static in writing terms. They don’t move the story forwards. They interrupt the action that makes the reader continue turning the page. But as the book says, this isn’t real life – this is fiction - and in the fictional world there’s no room for ‘wimps’. Especially in a work of romantic fiction that only has 50,000 words and focusses on the characters as much as we do.

The book goes on to say; Good fiction characters are fighters. They know what they want, they encounter trouble, and they struggle. They don’t give up and they don’t retire from the action. They don’t wait for fate to set
tle issue. In good fiction, the story people determine the outcome. Not fate. This is just another of the many ways in which fiction surpasses life and is better than real life.

Look at it this way: A good story is the record of movement. A good story is movement. Someone pushes; someone else pushes back.

At some level, therefore, a story is the record of the fight.”

In a romance it’s all about moving the EMOTIONAL story forward, regardless of what's happening around the characters. The characters are pro-active. They’re not passive. So if something happens they react to it and the story moves forwards. Now I have to confess I’ve always done this. I call it action and reaction (as many do). A lot of the time where I end one chapter in one characters POV will automatically lead to the reaction in the other characters POV in the following chapter. The second character then does something about it – forwarding the action – and the focus turns to the first characters reaction to the new development. It’s a push/pull of emotions, a back and forth, but one that shouldn’t be confused with the antagonistic back and forth of an argument. Something I always have to be wary of to be honest.

In Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal for instance, the story begins with Quinn’s sudden realization that his friend and personal assistant Clare is thinking about making changes in her life: Changes that would involve her leaving work and quite possibly moving out of the basement flat she rents in his house. He’s faced with the prospect of losing her from large portions of his life, which makes him realize he doesn’t like that idea (this is the threat from his POV). So, as he’s not a wimp, he’s pro-active and comes up with a way of stalling her. What he does then leads to Clare starting to realize she’s attracted to him and her fighting it because she doesn’t believe he’s the right guy for her (the threat from her POV). She then works twice as hard to prove to him that a/he’s her best friend and b/she can find him someone he can settle down with (which he has bet her she can’t do). That means Clare’s reaction to what Quinn has done is pro-active too, and so it continues…

Whatever the characters do has to move the story forwards, which means they can’t be wimps, they can’t sit still, they have to do something. They can think about it and consider the consequences but they can’t do it for long. Sometimes their reaction will be knee-jerk, sometimes it will be more RE-active than PRO-active . But whatever it is and whatever they do, it should not only make sense on the page so we understand their motivation, it should also move us on to the next reaction and the next and the next; forcing our characters together and making them face up to their changing emotions until everything falls into place and we have the resolution and our HEA. Not being a wimp doesn’t mean they can’t be fearful or wary or cautious, it just means they won’t sit still and ‘let’ things happen to them. Because that stalls the story and gives our reader an excuse to set the book down (which is bad).

So think about the goals of your characters before you start. If you’ve already started or completed a manuscript think about why they do the things they do. Does their reaction move the story forwards or stall it? If you’ve hit a scene where you’ve got stuck this can be a terrific way of getting going again. Characters in fiction tend to have a quest. A goal. Ultimately in a romance novel that goal is requited love and a Happily Ever After. The road to that may be bumpy and take several turns, but whatever happens, even if a character takes a step to the side and actively does something to push the other away, they will still have done something.

As the book says; “Any time a character forms a goal-orientated intention in fiction, the reader will turn the goal statement around and make it into a story question – and then begin worrying about it! This is an activity at which the reader is wonderfully adept.”

Initially in a romance novel the main question would be will these two people get together in the end? The answer to which is plainly obvious, because they all do. We know that. The reader knows that. So how do we add to the suspense? First we make the reader care about them by making them as real as possible. Then we throw obstacles in the way that makes a part of the readers mind doubt the outcome. There should always be a little hope in there, so no obstacle should be so great that it can’t be overcome. But there should be doubts and fears and obstacles along the way to balance up the happier or lighter times (the EMOTIONAL ROLLER-COASTER). It’s how the characters get past these that gives us their EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. But in order to take that journey, they’ve got to do something about the things that are happening to them and the emotions they feel as a result.

Task Six: Take a look at what the author did in a book from the line/category you’re aiming for. Did the characters sit still at any point or did they react to what had happened, moving the story forwards? Do the same thing with your own manuscript at the editing stage (or when you get stuck). Ask yourself the same questions…

  • Avoiding Trouble:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes starts this chapter by saying; “In fiction, the best times for the writer – and reader – are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up – along with your readers interest.”

The danger with this in Romance writing terms is that we can drop our characters into a pit of despair. But the bolded part is all too true. In the same way that having your characters slip into the pit of despair for too long is a bad idea, so is having them too happy for too long. Because the minute they’re happy and content, the story stalls. You lose momentum. Your story has lost PACING. So what this chapter in the book is saying, is we should continue throwing obstacles in the way that will make the reader doubt the Happily Ever After. This is known in the romance writing world, as it is everywhere else in the world of fiction, as CONFLICT. What we have to be careful with in a romance is that the conflict isn’t external. The book calls internal conflict; CONFLICT and external conflict; fate or adversity. It says;

“You know what conflict is. It’s the active give-and-take, a struggle between story people with opposing goals.

It is not, please note, bad luck or adversity. It isn’t fate. It’s a fight of some kind between story people with opposing goals.

Fate, bad luck or whatever you choose to call it may play a part in your fiction too. Adversity – that snowstorm that keeps your character from having an easy drive to the mountain cabin, for example, or the suspicious nature of the townspeople that complicates your detective’s investigation – is nice, too. But these problems are blind; they are forces of some kind that operate willy-nilly, without much reason – and so are things that your character can’t confront and grapple with.

…… Adversity in all it’s forms may create some sympathy for your character. But your character can’t reasonably try to understand it, plot against it, or even confront it in a dramatic way.”

Let’s have a look at this one, shall we? Say in a romance novel the characters get stranded in a cabin together during that snowstorm. That’s not conflict. That’s circumstance. But say those two characters are on the verge of getting a divorce, or are two work-mates fighting a physical attraction, and then we have fodder for the INTERNAL CONFLICT we need. They have to face up to their feelings, react to them and take action, which moves our story forwards. The trap in romance writing is when we use a circumstance to up the conflict. It then becomes an EXTERNAL CONFLICT.

So let’s say your heroine is about to lose her home. She has to fight and do something to save it. That’s conflict isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s a circumstance first. Something external has led to the danger of her losing her home. It’s adversity. Something that may lead to our heroine being homeless. So where does the internal conflict we need in a romance novel come from? We make it that the only way she can save her home is to deal with the hero - possibly a man she had an affair with in the past, or one who broke her heart, or is the last man on the planet she could ever see herself ending up with - moving our story forwards and putting them both in the position where they have to begin an emotional journey. What fate or bad luck can add to a story in general fiction, it can also add to a romance novel; the difference is it absolutely MUST lead the characters into an INTERNAL CONFLICT of some kind or it’s pointless. It becomes EXTERNAL CONFLICT. It doesn’t add to the EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So it shouldn’t be there. There isn’t room for it. Conflict adds to the story, conflict moves the story forwards. EXTERNAL CONFLICT should have an effect on the INTERNAL CONFLICT and we should see that and understand it when we read it on the page. And this is where the book I’m’ translating’ started to need interpretation from my point of view. Because the book then goes on to say:

“Please note that conflict does not necessarily mean an actual physical fight, although sometimes it certainly may be exactly that. Conflict may be any of the following examples;

• Two men argue in a board meeting, each intent on convincing the members of the board that he should be named president of the firm.

• A young woman pleads with her father to accept into the family he man she loves.

• Two cars race along a highway, the driver of one intent on forcing the other off the road.

• A detective persistently questions an uncooperative witness, trying to dig out information that would help solve a murder.

• A man manoeuvres in a dark alley, trying to slip away from an armed pursuer whose occasional small sounds give away his position.

• Lovers quarrel.

• A man and a woman discuss whether to buy a new car. He wants it; she doesn’t.

• A woman reporter tries to get information for a story from a derelict in skid row, but he keeps slipping away from the subject, into reminiscences.

• Daniel Boone fights a bear.”

Now there’s no doubting all those things create conflict. So what differentiates them from the INTERNAL CONFLICT we need in a romance? What could turn them into INTERNAL CONFLICT and therefore move us forwards on our EMOTIONAL JOURNEY? It's part of your next task so have a little think about that one...

The book is on the money when it says in order to create conflict; “You make sure two characters are involved.

You give them opposing goals.

You put them onstage now.

You make sure both are motivated to struggle now.”

I would add that, in a romance novel, you make sure that conflict always has an emotional impact. The characters have to struggle and fight and overcome obstacles to get to their Happily Ever After, because if they do, we cheer them on and keep turning the page to see what happens to get them there. We love them MORE for the fact they struggled and fought and overcame those obstacles; a common trait in fiction terms. It somehow makes them more deserving, doesn’t it? So don’t be afraid to give them trouble along the way. Every hero has to overcome adversity. The difference between a romance novel and real life is that the characters will always react to the adversities because they feel they’re in control of their own destinies. They can choose. They can fight for it or fight against it. In real life we tend to chalk some things down to fate or shrug our shoulders and let it go, or sit still and wallow for a while (in my case with cake). Fictional characters never do any of those things - at least not for more than a line or two AT MOST.

Task Seven: Look at the list above and think about what could be added to turn the external conflict into internal conflict. Then have a look at the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see how the author dealt with this same problem. Did the external conflict have an impact on the characters emotionally? Did it make them think? Change their opinions? Come to a realization? Did it give them something to overcome and reveal things not only about themselves but about each other? Did it move the story forwards? Then look at your manuscript at the editing point or when you get stuck and ask yourself the same questions. Ask yourself where they may look content and safe for too long, or too depressed and sad for too long. Ask what could happen to up the conflict and move the story forwards…

  • Everything Happens For A Reason:

An adage I live by in real life by the way. This follows on from the point about things making sense. That the reader has a path of logic to follow they can understand. It’s CHARACTER CONTINUITY.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed. In real life, things may occur for no apparent reason. But in fiction you the writer simply cannot ever afford to lose sight of logic and let things happen for no apparent reason.

To make your stories logical, and therefore believable, you work always to make sure there is always a reason for what happens.

For one thing, you always provide characters with the right back-ground – upbringing, experience, information – to motivate them generally in the direction of the action you want to show them taking.”

This is why, before ever putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you’ve got to really know the characters whose story you're telling. Why do they do the things they do? What happened to them in the past to make them the way they are? In real life we can look back on our lives and follow a path to where we are now. We understand why we do the things we do. But what can also happen is we can suddenly change our minds or decide to make changes; at the drop of a hat – with no explanation. In a romance novel, as in all fiction, we have to show why that decision is made. There has to be an explanation. A MOTIVATION. In fiction characters don’t just change their mind at the drop of a hat. They don’t do anything OUT OF CHARACTER. And even if they do, the other character will be suspicious, want to know why, and at some point it should be explained to both them and the reader in a way that makes sense. People in real life may be an enigma or hard to understand, but they’re not in the world of fiction. But there’s an art to this too, because in a romance novel we don’t want to understand everything straight away. There has to be a middle ground between things happening for a reason, warming our engines and describing sunsets. Although everything has to make sense (and happen for a reason), by explaining and describing all the background that led to that point we not only stall the story, but we can run the risk of giving away too much too soon, which lessens the conflict and therefore effects the pacing of our story. For me this is less a case of ‘sprinkling’ information as it is ‘drip feeding’ as the story progresses. Keeping in mind what your characters say and do from the beginning of the story to the end has to make sense and follow a logical path, we then have to ask ourselves WHY they followed that logical path and reacted the way they did. Generally, it's part of the back-story and, therefore, is revealed gradually so that when the reader gets to the end of the story it should all make complete and utter sense. There's a RESOLUTION. They can look back on the story and understand what it took to get there and how it happened. They can see the logical path to the Happily Ever After.

The book goes on to say; Your readers will also want to know the more recent event or events that have given your character the motivation to do what she is doing right now.

This is the one and only time anything resembling back-story could appear in your first chapter. Even then it’s going to be sparingly, and we’re not going to call it back-story; we’re going to call it the SET UP. When your story starts we need to have an explanation for what brought these two people here at the exact time and place the story begins (the
CATALYST), how they’ve met and their initial reactions to each other (the MEET). How and why they meet leads to how they react to each other and the thing that has thrown them together. There's a logical path from the get-go. Plainly put; it’s the beginning. We've hit the ground running and placed the reader directly in the action without needing pages of back-story dump to lead in to the SET UP. The reader has to understand the basic; who, what, where, when, why of it all as they enter the action. As the story continues we continue making sense of it all without the need for a re-cap at the beginning of each chapter (which is basically what a back-story dump is in the first chapter: A re-cap of what happened before the story began). What happens chapter by chapter creates the motivation for your characters. The motivation leads to the action, the action leads to reaction and so the story continues. It’s only at the very beginning the reader won’t understand what’s going on unless it’s set up for them. After that everything should follow on in a logical manner.

Then the book says; “But problems with logic in your fiction don’t end with background motivation. Another kind of error that can destroy the evident logic of a story is the use of excessive luck or coincidence.

In real life, coincidence happens all the time. But in fiction – especially when the coincidence helps the characters be at the right place at the right time, or overhear the crucial telephone conversation, or something similar – coincidence is deadly. Your readers will refuse to believe it. And you can’t afford to let your readers stop believing.”

What it again means by this, is that there has to be a logical pattern for each thing that happens in your story. A lot of this will come from the fact your characters aren’t wimps. Remember they’re reactive and pro-active, they’re not passive. They don’t wait for things to happen, so there’s no need to throw in something random to move the plot forwards. Now in fairness, in a romance we will allow the odd coincidence to happen; a ‘same place, same time’ kind of thing. But we get away with it more than a mainstream fiction writer. Why do we? Well I’ve had a think about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that it probably stems back to that whole ‘fate’ or ‘meant to be’ idea associated with love stories. We want to believe these two people were always meant to meet and that they’re the mythical ‘right one’ for each other, so we will allow the odd coincidence and mentally chalk it up to an intervention of fate. But the whole story can’t be made up of these fateful coincidences, nor can it rely on them to get our characters together on the page the way we need them to.
Everything has to happen for a logical reason and because your characters have done something to make it happen.

Task Eight: Have a look at the reasons why your characters do the things they do and the things that put them where they are. Do their reactions make sense? Are they together on the page because of a coincidence? Do a timeline for your characters prior to when they first met - if the story begins with a reunion remember to include the time between when they parted and met at the start of the story. Ask yourself what happened to them to make them the people they are and how it effects their reactions during the story. Would the reader empathize with their reactions and find them understandable?

I know I'll keep repeating myself about simply telling the story at the writing stage, but if you look for all these things and edit every single word as you go along during that creative phase, the chances are that not only will you have a very low output word-count wise, but you may well give yourself such a headache that you'll never finish the darn thing! Knowing your characters before you start is VITAL. It's only when their story is told you get to leave it to one side for a few days and come back with a more critical eye. A more critical eye will be more likely to read a scene and think well, it got me where I needed to go, but it could be better or it’s a coincidence they’re there, or that part doesn’t make sense. Then your internal editor can start work...

  • CHECK BACK LATER TODAY for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to today's posts! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Four of this Mini-Workshop here.)


Joining in the socializing and sharing of information we have first time Blogger Sally, talking about Things She's Learned Along The Way here. Pop over, welcome her to the Blogaverse and share the things YOU'VE learned along the way! Thanks Sally!!!


And that reminds me. For anyone Blogging or thinking about taking up Blogging, there's a great post over at Romancing The Blog from Harlequin's Malle Vallik,Blogging Tips.


emember you can still join in with the Romance Divas Not Going To Conference, Conference here.


nd catch up on what's happening at the RWA Nationalshere.

(I'll add a list of links to the sidebar later this afternoon...)

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