Missed Part Thirteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here
- Wasted Plots:
This part of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes didn't mean what I thought it was going to mean. To me, this subject has more to do with those stories in an authors head that battle hard for attention, even though you're currently working on something else. For the beginner writer, it can prove a form of procrastination, or worse still; a reason to leave one story unfinished in order to start what seems like a much better idea. The first stepping stone to becoming a published author is the ability to actually FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT. Many people can't. When you do sell, you'll be expected to produce a minimum of two full manuscripts a year (depending on your publisher). So again this is an example of using your time as a pre-published author to hone your professional skills. Put it this way; even if you finish a story and decide NOT to submit it, the lessons you learn while writing it and the difficulties you overcome ADD to your LEARNING CURVE.
What do we do with those stories in our head that won't go away? We OPEN A FILE IN OUR COMPUTER and we SUMMARIZE THEM for FUTURE REFERENCE. I have literally dozens. I have files where I jot down lines or phrases I find inspiring or links to articles that might one day launch a plot. I never delete a rejected proposal, because who knows? Maybe one day I'll get to write it. I have a photo file for potential hero inspiration, one for heroines, and one for pictures of settings I trip across when I'm doing something else. I then FORGET ABOUT THEM until I finish the book I'm working on, because until that book is finished I don't want to be distracted from the story, the characters, or the fictional world my imagination is inhabiting. Even the manuscripts you finish but don't submit, or submit and have rejected, could one day be dug out and looked at with more educated eyes, revised, and turned into something saleable. I know people who have done it. You just never know. But TELLING THE STORY and FINISHING THE MANUSCRIPT is a step you simple CAN'T SKIP on the ladder to success. The only time you should EVER set a manuscript to one side and move on to another is when you have REVISIONS on another manuscript you have submitted or when an EDITOR tells you to set it to one side or rejects the proposal that goes with it. It's why, in my opinion, it's always better to get the go ahead from your editor before you start working on a new story. I know people who are published who have had books rejected three or four books in because they didn't wait for that approval. When you're a published author, time is money, and it makes more sense to spend your writing time working on a manuscript that will SELL than it is to work on one that might not. That's not to say there aren't plenty of published authors around the globe who will work on manuscripts between deadlines or contracts for other books, but those authors will set that manuscript to one side when they have a deadline for a contracted book, and they'll come back to it when the job is done.
Now at this point I can hear the cries for mercy from writers who have abandoned fledgling manuscripts because they'd dug too deep a hole to climb out of, or because it sucked nine year old lemons, or they'd suddenly had an epiphany and realized everything they were doing wrong and felt starting afresh was the better option (add your own reason here at will). My question will then be, have you finished a manuscript? If the answer is yes, then I can forgive you a few stalls in the early days. If your answer is no, then I'm going to ask just how many of those fledgling manuscripts you've left languishing n your hard drive. One or two I can forgive IF you promise me you're going to finish the one you're working on now. If the answer is four, five, six or in to double figures we have a problem. Even if your finished manuscript DOES suck nine year old lemons, the important thing is you FINISHED IT. You get to reward yourself for that regardless of the somewhat rancid, vaguely citrus smell that surrounds you. Chalk the end result down to experience. Have a ceremonial burning in the back yard if it's cathartic or shove it in a drawer to cringe over for old times sake when you're published and famous and need something to remind you of how far you've come. The most important thing is the completion. That tells you, you're capable of telling a story from start to finish. Then you remember the mistakes you made, you store them in your memory, and you dig them back out at the EDITING STAGE of your NEXT completed manuscript once you've TOLD THE STORY. Don't add 'this one sucks nine year old lemons so I'll forget it and start something new' to the list of excuses that hold you back from your dream of being published!
So if The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes wasn't talking about the new stories that are vying for attention, what was it talking about, I can hear you ask. It IS still talking about wasted plot ideas, however it's more about the plot points within a story; which leads us to THREADS and SECONDARY CHARACTERS (again). It starts by saying; “If you've never written a book-length story before, one of the many interesting (and possibly dismaying) things you'll learn during construction of the first draft is simply how many incidents and events you have to dream up in order to 'make length'. It's possible to write a one-idea short story. But even the shortest novel contains dozens of plot ideas, sub-plots, minor incidents, and significant events.”
This is where PLOTTERS will have the edge over PANTSTERS. A PLOTTER will have all of those points planned out in advance and will stick to them, a PANTSTER runs the risk of hitting a point in the story where they really don't know what to do next, have several different directions to choose from, or head off in a direction that eventually leads to a brick wall. Speaking as a PANSTER I know that's one of the risks I take, so I completely get what the book is saying here. Having said that, for me, it's one of the things that opens me up to new directions I might not have explored if I'd had scene after scene set in stone before I started. But for the beginner writer, even the short format of a 50, 000 word romance can seem like a daunting task and filling those 50,000 words can feel like climbing Mount Everest. They can spend weeks on end thinking up scene after scene after scene for their story. The problem with this is that sometimes they lose sight of the fact those 'plot ideas' are dictated by what precedes and follows each scene in a logical chain of events driven by the CHARACTERS and their REACTIONS to the things that happen. That's not to say there aren't writers out there who can put together a story in a similar way to slotting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The difference is, those authors will have a sharp focus on the story they are telling, they'll be able to bridge any 'gaps' without the reader noticing the seams in the finished product and when they go back to EDIT the manuscript they'll be able to see the threads of the story clearly and where some of them may have unravelled. It's not something I'd recommend for the beginner writer working on their first manuscript and there's most definitely an art to it, but it's not IMPOSSIBLE. The main thing to remember is: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. (I know you know this, because you wrote it on a post-it note, didn't you?)
Keeping that in mind, every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident or significant event must drive the story forwards and ADD to the story. There's no room for the superfluous. Running on the assumption that we now know every plot point will add something to the story, we'll move on to sub-plots: Sometimes there simply isn't room for a sub-plot in a short format romance. Or IS there? Let's look at that a little closer. The main plot is the LOVE STORY between the hero and the heroine and their EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. The sub-plot could therefore be considered the events surrounding them. Let's say we have that heroine who is fighting to save the home it looks like she's going to lose. The sub-plot would be how she saves it or how losing it effects her life and how she deals with the loss and moves on with her life; letting go of the past. It therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. If the hero supplies the solution to her problem then he is also tied to the sub-plot, and it adds to the main plot by throwing them together so they have to deal with their attraction and emotions. Which therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. Ordinarily a sub-plot in fiction is considered to be a secondary storyline or plot strand, but in a short format romance there isn't room in the word-count, so it has to be tied to the main plot. It can't run independently. Obviously this is different in a longer book, where it's usual for there to be sub-plots and secondary characters with a plot strand of their own. Independent from the main storyline. There may be times when the 50, 000 word count feels like Mount Everest, but EVERY WORD COUNTS when it comes to the LOVE STORY. That means EVERYTHING in the book must be inextricably linked to that EMOTIONAL JOURNEY and ADD something to it. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there, and that's something we need to remember at the EDITING stage of our manuscript...
Then we move on to minor incidents. The trick with minor incidents is they may SEEM minor at the time, but at some point later on in the story, they will link up with other seemingly minor incidents to form a THREAD in the story that adds to the main storyline. This is often where SECONDARY CHARACTERS will briefly appear to supply information that may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but will later be expanded to peel away another layer of that onion I likened to the main characters personalities. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, the author refers to a doorman who has appeared in a storyline to supply information to the main protagonist. This doorman shouldn't make a one-off appearance the book says. It says the reader will be left asking questions about what else he knows, what he held back, what could be learned from him if he appeared again. The problem with those kinds of questions in a short format romance is that in order to answer them, the secondary character has to make another appearance. And then possibly another one. Then maybe one more because the author suddenly thought of something else he could add to the story. That then leads to the secondary character taking up more and more of the word-count with each appearance. Something we can't afford to lose. So in a short format romance the secondary character has to reveal something about the hero or heroine during their brief appearance, then, later on in the story, that THREAD is picked up again to justify his consumption of our precious words.
An example of this would be secondary characters in The Millionaire's Proposal. As it's a round-the-world story, the main characters move from one setting to another; making it difficult for the introduction of a secondary character to reveal something and then come back later in the story to expand on it. The solution to this was to have small appearances by different secondary characters who added to the THREAD in the story. The information revealed by one secondary character, although seemingly 'minor', was later picked up by another secondary character who added another seemingly minor detail, which was then picked up later in the story when the THREAD led to an emotional reveal from the hero (to the reader). That THREAD was crucial to the INTERNAL CONFLICT because it was the reason the hero was unable to surrender himself emotionally to the heroine. It could be argued that every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident and significant event is a THREAD, and I'd agree with that. The difference in a romance is that all THREADS – like roads – lead back to the main characters in some form or another, because the hero and heroine are the focal point of the story. Ronan, the hero in The Millionaire's Proposal, was losing his sight. You might think that adding hints of how that effects him to the story in a THREAD is anything but a 'minor incident'. But look at it this way: Does Ronan losing his sight effect his ability to fall in love? No, it doesn't. The heart doesn't have boundaries; the head supplies those. The INTERNAL CONFLICT stems from the inner battle. Technically that would make losing his sight an EXTERNAL CONFLICT in the love story and a PLOT DEVICE. What makes it a THREAD that links to and adds to the love story is the INTERNAL CONFLICT it causes for Ronan when the reader understands how losing his sight effects him EMOTIONALLY. How he dealt with the INTERNAL CONFLICT caused by losing his sight (and the restrictions that would come with it) versus falling in love with a woman who was just beginning to spread her wings gave us a huge part of his EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So the story had two secondary characters who made brief appearances to set up the scene where Ronan reveals the true depth of his feelings about losing his sight.
The first secondary character appeared early on in the story and had a conversation with Ronan. From the dialogue alone we got;
“'I'm assuming from the fact we're avoiding talking about it that your appointment didn't go so well.'
'We're still not talking about it.'
'Looking to help me drown my sorrows? 'Cos I should warn you I have a curfew these days – so if we're heading out on a pub crawl, we need to get started sooner rather than later.'
'How can you make with the funnies?'
'How can I not? I'm Irish, Al – you take away my sense of humour, you may as well put me in a box and dig a hole.'
'You're barely thirty-two, Ronan.'
'And I've had my whole life to prepare for this so it's not like it's that big a shock. My uncle has lived with it since he was a kid – so I'm the lucky one.'
'You can't take this trip on your own – not this time.'
'Watch me try.'”
Keeping in mind that there were additional LAYERS of INNER POV, movement and description of the setting around the dialogue, hopefully you can see it's the DIALOGUE in this scene that has set up a THREAD which can be followed throughout the story. What did we learn about the HERO? We learned he'd had an appointment that didn't go well, which led to the reveal that whatever was wrong with him meant he now had a 'curfew', which led to the seemingly minor detail of his age and how it was young for whatever was wrong with him, which led to the reveal that whatever it is it's hereditary, which then led to the statement that Ronan couldn't make his trip alone (which Ronan disputed). The scene gave the general impression that Ronan was coping just fine with his problem. But was he? He could have 'tried' to make that trip alone, but instead he took the heroine with him. During that trip, the story eventually brought us to another secondary character who had another conversation with Ronan;
“'How are you managing to hide it?'
Actually it had taken some pretty intensive forward planning, which could only be a good thing in the long run, he felt – a practice run of sorts. He'd learned how to use his vast knowledge of their destinations to makes sure he always have her plenty to look at so she wouldn't focus too much on him – and so far so good. All he had to do was maintain the deception all the way back to the Emerald Isle and he'd be grand. She's never have to know and he'd never have to see pity in her eyes.
He opened his mouth to voice the one concern he's had about bringing her here, 'I might need you and Frank to help me some later. You still eat in the dark by hurricane lamp, right?'
He knew she knew what he was aiming at when her hand reached across and squeezed his, her voice threaded thick with emotion. 'Already?'
'Just don't let me go making a fool of myself.'”
Picking up on what we'd learned earlier in the story, and following the hints to this thread sprinkled throughout, we can see how much effort it's taking for Ronan to hide his secret from the heroine. We also know he has problems with the dark (his condition made him night blind, with tunnel vision during the day before it progressed to total blindness) and that he isn't dealing with his condition as well as he seemed to be in the earlier scene. What then happened was those 'minor details' or 'hints' in a continuous THREAD through the story eventually led us to a scene where Ronan made a strategic mistake and found himself outside, in the dark, totally blind and helpless, and (crucially) alone with the heroine; who he had fallen in love with (even if he still hadn't admitted it to himself) and was still hiding his condition from. In that scene his emotions were fully revealed to the reader with INNER POV. And if you look carefully, you can see how the scenes were layered on top of each other in a series of stepping stones that peeled away the layers and finally revealed the deeply felt emotions that were a HUGE part of his INTERNAL CONFLICT. The first scene I've used as an example revealed the details through DIALOGUE (hence why I was able to cut everything else out to make my point), the second scene had more INNER POV than dialogue, and the scene that had the big emotional reveal for the reader did it all in INNER POV because the heroine was the only other character there and the hero didn't want her to know...
Hopefully what this demonstrates is not only how 'minor incidents' can be threaded together to add to the main story, but that sprinkling details throughout the story can gradually build a picture without giving everything away all at once or in a long diatribe; thus adding to the pacing, allowing the reader to follow a chain of events that make sense, and doubling the emotional impact of the reveal. Things aren't always what they initially seem to be in a romance novel. Ronan wasn't dealing with his condition. The fact he wasn't led to denial. Falling in love with the heroine made him face up to what he was losing and the loss of something he hadn't expected to find; making the loss of his sight even harder to take than it already was. From that point of view, falling for the heroine was a 'disaster'. The emotional reveal to the reader (hopefully) made it clear how big a disaster it was from Ronan's POV. That disaster then led to the goal of gradually distancing himself from her despite their growing closeness, which then led to the BLACK MOMENT, the RESOLUTION and the HEA.
Which brings us neatly to the topic of 'significant events'. I think it's safe to say the emotional reveal I just used as an example was a significant event in The Millionaire's Proposal. Significant events are the moments where something major happens: ACTION. That leads to the hero or heroine being forced to re-evaluate and form a new GOAL; REACTION. The most common mistakes here are when the 'significant event' comes out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, and without any set up or hint it was going to happen. In other words when it doesn't MAKE SENSE and is thrown in for the sake of 'conflict'. But as we know by now, CONFLICT is a result of the characters EMOTIONAL RESPONSE to something that has happened. A 'significant event' is therefore not an earthquake or a car crash or an alligator landing in the room. It's a significant step forwards or backwards on the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. It's something the main characters perceive as a 'disaster'.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes then says; “Professional novelists recognize that it's sometimes a problem, coming up with enough events and incidents in the first place. For that reason, they always think... (of) looking for ways to make maximum use of everything they invent. The grand by-product of such thinking is that more and more characters and events take on significance; various scenes and plot lines begin to link more tightly together, making the novel tighter, and more logical: and the reader tends to read with more attention and pleasure because every page is sure to be important not only for itself but in terms of later development.”
When writers talk about tightening up a manuscript at the revisions stage, this is EXACTLY what they're referring to...
Task Thirty-Five: Pick a random page/scene at the beginning of the romance novel from the line/category you're aiming for, and make a list of everything you have learned about the characters in that one page. Then pick another random page/scene from the middle of the novel and near the end and do the same thing. Have the characters changed between scenes? What is different? What might have happened to bring about that change?
By taking random pages/scenes from a book and imagining scenarios that could have been a catalyst for change in the characters, you are flexing your creative muscles and thinking in terms of a chain of events that follow a logical path from beginning to HEA. This is the exact same method you will use at the creative stage of your manuscript when you are TELLING THE STORY. Ask yourself if the scenarios you have created add something to the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. Do those scenarios lead the characters to some form of 'disaster' that leads to them forming a new GOAL? Always keep in mind that every scenario or plot point you come up with must ADD to the story and will be CHARACTER DRIVEN.
Task Thirty-Six: At the EDITING stage of your manuscript, think again about the SECONDARY CHARACTERS you have in your story. Was the information learned about the hero and heroine through the secondary characters part of a thread that adds to the main love story? Were there any questions left from the scene/s with the secondary character/s? Make a list of the number of secondary characters you have in your story. Could one secondary character do the same job as several? Think about the THREADS that run through your story. Have they all had a purpose? Were they all tied up at the end of the book or were some left hanging?
Remember when a secondary character is starting to take over a large chunk of the word-count, it's time to rein them back and open a file where you can add notes with a linked story in mind. Some secondary characters will call out for a story of their own louder than others in the portion of your brain where new stories are born. But no matter how loudly they call, the story they appear in as secondary characters does NOT belong to them. One line may be enough to seed an entirely new story. I know that was the case with Adam in Her Real-Life Hero. He asked the hero if the heroine was the right age. The hero asked what that meant. His reply; “Not so young you could be prosecuted; not so old you'd be embarrassed to take her out in public.” That man had a whoop ass dose of Karma headed his way! The result was the linked book, Her Unexpected Baby. And readers love linked stories. I can't tell you the number of emails I've had asking about secondary characters having their own story at some point. Never say never I say...
- CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)