Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 9.


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

  • Characters Thoughts:

This is something I think romance writers are extremely good at, because we deal with an emotional journey we have to delve beneath the surface and show how our characters feel and what they think. It’s a massive part of the story. But it’s worth remembering why we do it…

Remember when we talked about scene structure and goals and ‘disasters’ that can up the ante? Well The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes talks about ‘thinking time’ for your characters as ‘sequels’. We in the romance writing world refer to it as INNER POV. As we’ve said before, it’s here that the reader learns those little secrets the characters aren't revealing to each other. This is how a reader becomes aware of the battle going on between what screenwriter Michael Hauge refers to as OUTER PERSONA (what the other character can see and hear) and INNER ESSENCE (who they are inside). It’s only when you’ve known someone for decades that you can claim to really know them. So when we meet someone for the first time we have to go on first
impressions; on what we see and hear them say and the tone of their voice. It’s only over time – in the same way it is in any love story – that we get to the core of who they are inside. But we have to remember in real life the only way that can happen is if people choose to reveal some of their inner thoughts and secrets or inadvertently let something slip in a moment of weakness. As we all know from personal experience; if you’re not completely comfortable with someone or you don’t trust them, you’re less likely to reveal those secrets.

In a romance novel, the reader gets to step inside the characters head where their thoughts, feelings and reactions are revealed. The reader then knows something the other character doesn’t. Ever read a book where you wanted to knock the hero and heroine’s heads together? Think about why you felt that way: Did you know something they didn’t? How did you know? More than likely, it was because the writer had let you in on a few little secrets…

Keeping in mind The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes refers to this thinking time as a ‘sequel’ the book says; “Think for a moment about times in your own life when something really bad – some disaster – befell you. What was the pattern of your response?

If it really was
a disaster, the first thing you felt, perhaps only for an instant, perhaps for months, was emotion. At some point, however, you stopped feeling blind emotion, and began the process of thought. And at some point you told yourself, in effect, ‘I’ve got to get going again… I’ve got to make some decision.’ This pattern, emotion-thought-decision, is the kernel of the structure of the sequel.

In planning your story’s next development after a scene-ending disaster, you must put yourself in the mind and heart of your viewpoint character: Imagine her feelings, in all their shadings and ramifications; then go through with her the painful transition into thought, the wondering ‘What shall I do next?’; finally, imagine with and for her what that new, goal-motivated decision ought to be.

Having done this, you will have planned her sequel.”


What does this describe my friends? Yes, it’s ACTION and REACTION again. Only this time it’s not just what they ‘do’ in reaction, it’s about really delving deep into their INNER reaction and showing the reader how and why they form the question that will drive the next scene forward. Let’s think again about that hero who had made assumptions about the heroine. Let’s say his initial question was; How will I get my revenge/punish her? He may come up with a plan to blackmail her into doing what he wants. But what happens if he then starts to doubt his initial
assumption as he gets to know her better? He will probably take a moment to ‘regroup’. We’ll have INNER POV that will show us his thought process. By the end of that short process, he may have come up with another question; Is she/isn’t she who/what I thought she was? That question will drive the next scene. Say by the end of that scene he discovers she isn’t what he thought she was – it’s a ‘disaster’ from his POV. Because, as we've said, now he not only has to face up to what he’s done on the basis of an incorrect assumption – he also has to allow himself to really look at how he feels without the ‘shield’ he’d created around his emotions. Again we’ll have his INNER POV on it; we’ll be shown his emotions and his thought process. By the end of that he may have a new question: How can I make amends and show her how I really feel? This then drives the next scene…

It’s still ACTION and REACTION. Except by using the inner conflict to pose the question and then showing the reader the inner emotions/thought process that leads logically to the next question we have both shown ACTION and REACTION, the EMOTIONAL CONFLICT and added to the EMOTIONAL JOURNEY at the same time. Everything in a romance novel comes from and has an effect on the CHARACTERS. They are literally at the heart of the story and are front and centre throughout. From this point of view I’m afraid there IS a formula to romance writing, just as the critics say there is - unfortunately it's not quite the formula they had in mind. The formula comes down to the simple fact that every romance novel has two characters (or in the case of erotica sometimes
three or four characters) who by the end of the story are in love and have a HEA. It's that simple, and that complicated. How much of the story is told in one POV more than another is led by those characters, how much gets in the way of the HEA will come down to the characters INNER CONFLICT, how much they learn about each other and themselves along the way through varying ups and downs becomes the EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER and how much they have changed by the end is the result of their EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. ALL character driven. So, just as I've said, the work you put into the characters and their personalities and conflicts before you begin is a HUGE part of the work in writing a story.

Here’s where our genre gets a very brief shout out in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes; “In a romance, your written delineation of her emotional response may take pages; in an action story, you may have such plot pressure on her that she must respond in some new action almost at once, without the luxury of taking time for much feeling; with a sensitive heroine you may have to devote pages to her feelings, while with a gruff woman of the world, it may be more realistic if she shrugs off the hurt almost at
once, and gets on with business.

The same is true in terms of how much page space you will give to the thinking portion of the sequel. A college profe
ssor may take many pages to think logically about what to do or where to go next; another kind of character may make an impetuous decision almost at once.”

The CHARACTERS drive the story. The kind of people they are will effect the length of time they take to examine their emotions, think things through, and make a decision they can act on…

It then says: “As you take your character through these parts of her sequel, you may often be inside her head, with no-one else around. Or she may talk to a friend or confidante, and ‘talk out’ most of her sequel. In either case, since this is the feeling-thinking part of the story, and not so exciting as the scenes, you are allowed to summarize. Thus your character may look back on earlier parts of the story, or of her life. You may have a sentence such as ‘She worried about it for four days, and then on Thursday…’ As you work through your characters reactions and planning almost anything goes in terms of timing.”

This brings us back to things like LAYERING/threading details throughout the story, SECONDAR
Y CHARACTERS and long passages of information. If you do the feeling-thinking part solely with INNER POV then you can’t do it for page upon page in a short romance. So what do we do? We layer it with action and movement and maybe dialogue with a secondary character to keep things moving and to avoid stalling the story. I would however, debate whether the thinking-feeling parts of the story are as exciting in a romance novel as the ‘disasters’ at the end of a scene can be. Sometimes the emotions and thoughts of a character in a romance novel can lead the characters to make decisions or assumptions that can literally make the reader gasp; particularly if they know the conclusion to that process is way off the mark. And this is where having more than one POV or ‘hero’ to the story can add to the complexity of the conflict. Because we know both characters will be hiding something from each other, but at the same time we, as readers, know what those secrets are. The romance writer will play on this. She will show the reader what a character is feeling and thinking so they know the truth. Then she will show what the other character is feeling and thinking and a conclusion they come to that is, in fact, completely wrong or close enough to the truth to make things very exciting. So this switching of INNER POV can in fact add a great deal to the page turning quality of a romance novel. However, I do agree that at times it can be summarized, or be a couple of lines or a short paragraph in the middle of the action. I also agree that thinking or talking about earlier parts of the story or the characters personal history (back-story) should most definitely be summarized or short or peppered into the story the way we discussed earlier. And obviously I agree with the ‘four days earlier’ school of thought – one example being in His Mistress, His Terms when in Alex’s INNER POV he tells the reader about how Merrow put him through days of hell without talking to him before we get an insight into how that has made him feel and what he’s going to do about it. So as the book said; “…almost anything goes in terms of timing.”

The commonality every single time will be, as the book says; At some point, however – perhaps sooner, perhaps later – your character must make some new decision in order to get the plot moving forward again. So you move your character to her next decision, her next goal.


And what is that new goal? It’s the goal she carries into her next scene!”


In romance writing, as in many other forms of fiction writing, we’ll talk about GMC; Goal – Motivation – Conflict. I would tend to mix that up some. Remember everything comes from your characters. Your characters background/back-story and personality will give us their INNER CONFLICTS when they meet at the beginning of the story. From those inner conflicts will come their MOTIVATION and from those motivations they will form GOALS. Those goals then translate as a question in a scene that drives the ACTION. By the end of the scene there will be an answer to that question that may or may not be considered a ‘disaster’ by one or the other, or both, of your characters. This result will then lead to a REACTION that we are literally walked through via the INNER POV of the characters, showing us their feelings and thoughts until they make a decision. That decision leads to another goal that will form a question the next scene will ask through the action, and so the process begins again until we get to the BLACK MOMENT – the LEAP OF FAITH and the RESOLUTION that ends with a HEA. Look at it as a chain of events or falling dominoes. Each scene will flow from the one before. Each scene will tell us something about the characters we didn’t know before, or add something to their journey, and it will follow a logical path the reader can follow backwards as well as forwards. It will MAKE SENSE. It’s CHARACTER DRIVEN. Without giving the characters time to think and react, we’re removing a link from that chain or a domino from the l
ine.

Task Twenty-Seven: Take a look at a romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and study the way the author uses INNER POV or ‘thinking time’. Does the characters reaction follow logically from what has just happened? Does it lead to some sort of conclusion that allows the next scene to move forwards in a logical path? Did you as a reader learn something about the character? Has their perspective changed in some way or are they even more determined than they were before? How does their thought process effect what they do next?

Again this is something you can look at when you’re stuck. Quite often we’ll get bogged down, particularly in the middle of a book, and will feel like the story isn’t going anywhere. By looking at the path that took us to the middle of the story and by thinking about where we want to end up, we can see the links in the chain of events and think about how to ‘join them up’. It’s often the middle of a book that loses momentum. So by stopping what you’re doing for a minute and thinking about your characters reactions to what has gone before, or even by jumping forwards a couple of scenes so you can see the links you need to create to get there, you can more often than not jump start the scene you’re stuck on by having one of the characters pose a question based on their past and future reactions. And again this is something you can be looking for at the EDITING stage of your story. Does each scene follow on from the one before? Did it lead to some sort of conclusion on the part of your characters that allowed the next scene to move forward in a logical
path? Do we learn something about the character whose POV you’re in? Has their perspective changed in some way or are they even more determined than they were before? How did their thought process effect what they did next?

  • Wandering Around In A Fog:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes starts this subject with; “Wait a minute; I don’t know what’s going on here.”

If a reader is saying this, we’re in trouble.

The book goes on to say; “It’s a pretty bad feeling when it comes during a story you’re reading. But it’s far worse when it happens during your writing of a story. In that case, it probably signals potential disaster.

Of course all of us experience times during the first draft when things do not seem to be going well – when all our careful planning seems to have failed us, and the plot no longer seems to work. Sometimes we can muddle through and fix things later. But even if we make a good fix and later sell the story or boo
k, it’s not fun to go through.”

Now some of this is going to come down to whether or not you’re what we in the romance writing business refer to as a PLOTTER or a PANTSTER. But honestly? Speaking as a pantster, I can tell you even those of us who prefer to fly by the seat of our pants and let the story take us where it will (sometimes with surprising results!), still do some kind of plotting. For me, that plotting is thinking time about my characters. I do character outlines, personality profiles, I have collages and pictures that inspire scene ideas in my head, I thoroughly research anything and everything I might need to know in the new world I'm about to enter. To me, the difference between a pantster and a plotter is that a plotter outlines the entire story before they begin. They know each and every scene before they begin and have it outlined chapter by chapter; they may even have done a very long and detailed proposal summarizing the entire story all the way through to the HEA. It all comes down to personality type and knowing yourself. I know, for me, since I follow the adage of writing each and every story for myself as if it’s a book I would like to read or a film I would watch, by knowing every single scene and the ending before I start I don’t feel the need to ‘read’ or ‘watch’ so it stifles the impetus to tell the story. Technically I’ve already told myself the story. There’s no excitement to it for me, there are no surprises – I get bored before I even start. I prefer to take the journey with my characters, so the characters reactions to things that happen tend to be me putting myself in their shoes and reacting on their behalf; in the moment, as it happens. It’s why my first draft can be as
fast as three or four weeks from start to finish (I only wish they were ALL that fast!). It’s why, when I’m on a roll, I can write anything up to 5k in one session (I only wish it was ALWAYS that fast!). When the words are there and I can keep my eyes open I will keep going and I always, always leave it at a point where I can pick up with a reaction to something that has just happened, with a single line or a few words to draw me into it. It’s one of the reasons why, in all my books, you’ll find a great many chapters tend to end with the POV of one character and pick up in the next with the reaction of the other character. Like I've said: Each to his own. It all comes down to what works for YOU. In my case, it means sometimes I will need to read back over the chapter/scene I ended on before I pick up where I left off. That way, theoretically, I shouldn’t get ‘lost’ – and neither should my reader. I will, however, confess that I do have a problem sometimes with my tendency to write quick-fire dialogue. We all have something we have to work on, right? I've had readers comment on this in reviews where they've said they had to re-read a particular passage of dialogue a couple of times to sort out who said what. Thankfully, they tend to say that it didn’t detract from the story – so that’s something – but it is something I have to be aware of. (I also have a horrible tendency to straighten pictures on walls in people’s houses or public places. I’m borderline eye-twitch material when I try to resist. So we all have our faults, it's just a case of recognizing them…)

Since I started studying writing methods more closely in the last couple of years (sometimes to the detriment of my writing I might add), I’ve come across varying suggestions for trying to keep your mind focussed on the story you’re trying to tell. Some people will suggest writing out a short ‘elevator type pitch’ for your story, some - like Blake Snyder - will suggest you come up with a ‘log-line’ similar to what you would fin
d on a Movie poster. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Whatever the individual procedure may be, however, there is a central idea in such planning: Be sure you know what your story is about before you start.”

It then goes on to say; “I urge you to avoid the fog by producing a story statement.

How long should it be? Absolutely no more than 150 words, and preferably shorter. What should it have in it? The following:

1. The basic plot situation in which the story is to play.

2. The name and identity of the main viewpoint character.

3. The character’s story goal.

4. The name of the primary opposition character.


5. What this ‘villain’ wants, and how he opposes the main character.”

It’s not dissimilar to the ideas of an elevator-type pitch or a log-line, but know what it looks like to me? The basic ingredients for a back-blurb. And to prove my point, let’s look at the back-blurb for Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal:

“His fairytale in New York…

Manhattan boss Quinn doesn’t believe in love. He’s the kind of man a girl’s mother warns her about - the devil in disguise!

But since Quinn hired Clare O’Connor, the funniest thing has happened. He has less control over his heart. She’s become more than just his beautiful, ultra efficient secretary – Clare’s rocked him to the core.

The billionaire playboy is in a fix. His route to romance has always been easy. But now a real gem is involved. He has to tread softly. And if he does, the way will be paved with diamonds…”


89 words. Basic plot. Name and identity of the main viewpoint character – in this case Quinn. Characters story goal. Name of primary ‘opposition’ character – Clare O’Connor. How she opposes the main character? Well it’s told us he’s a playboy who doesn’t believe in love and at the same time it’s told us because of Clare, he has less control over his heart and she’s rocked him to the core. The back blurb has done everything the book wanted us to do before we started writing. But a back-blurb is a marketing tool, it’s not an aid to help the author write the book. So what would I have done differently? Well let’s see…

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

Manhattan boss Quinn doesn’t believe in love. He’s the kind of man a girl’s mother warns her about – the devil in disguise!

But since Quinn hired Clare O’Connor as his ultra-efficient P.A. and she moved into the basement apartment of his brownstone, she’s become entangled in his life. It’s not until she announces she’s planning on making changes that he realizes what he might be losing.
The billionaire playboy has to act fast. His route to romance has always been easy. But now his heart is on the line. He has to make a decision. Risk losing her by not telling her how he feels. Or risk losing her by telling her everything…”

122 words. Basic plot. Name and identity of the main viewpoint character. Characters story goal. Name of primary ‘opposition’ character. How she opposes the main character? Well, it’s still told us he’s a playboy who doesn’t believe in love and at the same time it’s told us he’s fallen in love with Clare and there’s a very real chance no matter what he does, he’s going to lose her. That’s Quinn and Clare’s story in a nutshell from Quinn’s POV. It’s not until Clare tells him she’s planning on making changes that would ultimately lead to her quitting working for him and moving out of the apartment below his house that Quinn is forced to examine how he feels about losing her from those corners of his life. At first he fights his feelings. Then as the story progresses he has no choice but to face up to those feelings. Once he does, he has to think about how the decisions he made in the past will effect their new relationship. He has decide whether or not he should risk it all and put his heart on the line for the first time in his life. The entire story from Quinn’s POV is motivated by his internal conflicts. His reactions, his feelings, thoughts and the decisions he makes are all results of what happens on the page. There’s a chain of events the reader can follow which makes even more sense as the story rolls along and more is revealed. At the same time, Clare is taking an emotional journey of her own. She was jilted at the altar by one of Quinn’s best friends after she’d followed him across the Atlantic leaving friends and family behind. Quinn gave her a job and a place to live when she needed them most. Over time they’ve become friends. But now she has a fledgling match-making business that’s doing well and she’s thinking about standing on her own two feet. When he belittles her business idea and challenges her to find a match for him, she starts to see him differently and realizes she’s attracted to him. The fact he’s her best friend and her boss and never lasts beyond six weeks in a relationship with a woman makes her believe falling for him would be a bad idea. So she fights her feelings. Then as the story progresses she has no choice but to face up to those feelings. When she does, she’s uncertain he feels the same way, so she hides them. When he pushes, she takes a chance, not realizing the impact he had on her past. The entire story from Clare’s POV is motivated by her internal conflicts. Her reactions, her feelings, thoughts and the decisions she makes are all results of what happens on the page. There’s a chain of events the reader can follow. Since I have two 'heroes', I could probably do a back-blurb for each to help me stay focussed, but I knew a lot of this stuff before I started from the character profiles and the brief outline I had. I had the skeleton of the story in my mind and knew my characters as well as if they were real people. Then I added the flesh to the story by telling it using action and reaction. I told the story without worrying too much about editing as I went along. If I got stuck, I went back to the characters and took a break from the keyboard while I thought about their reactions to what had already happened and formed the next scene in my head. And once I’d TOLD THE STORY I went right back to the start and read it with a more critical eye.

Task Twenty-Eight: Make up a short back-blurb, elevator-type pitch or log-line for your story.

BUT if you do get stuck or lost, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says: “You are in control. It’s your story. When things seem to go wrong, or you feel lost, careful analysis of your planning and the copy you’ve written to date, along with review of basic techniques, will show you what really has gone wrong. Then you can fix the problem.

There’s nothing mysterious in the process. Always remember that.”

And again, remember everything comes from your characters. It's worth going over it again, so here goes: Your characters background/back-story and personality will give us their INNER CONFLICTS when they meet at the beginning of the story. From those inner conflicts will come their MOTIVATIONS and from those motivations they will form GOALS. Those goals then translate as a question in a scene that drives the ACTION. By the end of the scene there will be an answer to that question that may/may not be considered a ‘disaster’ by one or the other or both of your characters. This result will then lead to a REACTION that we are literally walked through via the INNER POV of the characters, showing us their feelings and thoughts until they make a decision. That decision leads to another goal that will form a question the next scene will ask through the action. And so the process begins again until we get to the BLACK MOMENT – the LEAP OF FAITH and the RESOLUTION that ends with a HEA

  • CHECK BACK LATER 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 the sidebar! Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Ten of this Mini-Workshop here.)

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