Notes From A Debut Author
Completing my debut novel was a wild journey. Seven months to write it. Two months to edit. Two months to secure a publishing contract. If you’re just starting out, I hope to make your trip a little less rocky by sharing some highlights of my experience with you. This series of posts starts at the beginning, and ends… well, we’ll just have to see what happens.
THE BEGINNING …
In the space of one month, I closed my thriving business, sold my apartment, packed up my life, and moved to the beach. I was going to be a writer. I didn’t really think it through. In a moment of madness, I reached for happiness and decided to have faith in my dream. For the first time in my life, I was going to follow my heart and not my head. Sounds so romantic! And it was, until I sat down to write my novel. I had never tried to write a book or even a short story. The last time I wrote a creative essay I was a schoolgirl. As a TV Producer, I’ve written a ton of creative proposals, but it isn’t the same as writing fiction.
What do I do? Where do I start? Daunting doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer panic that turned my brain to mush. As I trawled through blogs and websites, I broke out into a cold sweat. So much to read. So much I don’t know. I began to hyperventilate. What have I done?!
I shut my laptop and hit the beach. After walking in a daze for over an hour, I found a perfect pansy shell. It was just lying there in front of my feet, like a gift from the sea. Slowly, my breathing returned to normal, and faith magically warmed my heart. It was obvious. The place to start, of course, is at THE BEGINNING.
KNOW YOUR GENRE
It starts before you sit down to write. Romance readers know their stuff. I should know because I am one. We can smell a fake from the first page. If you don’t like romance, don’t write it. If you don’t read romance, don’t write it. You don’t have to believe in the reality of HEA (Happily Ever After), soul-mates and ‘the special one’, but you should believe in the idea of them, and the infinite hope and pleasure we get from reading these heartfelt stories.
Being a fan of romance, I was able to mostly skip this section, but I did take the time to fine-tune my understanding of types of romance, categories, self-standing series, cliffhangers, the difference between erotica and erotic romance, varied heat levels. The list is endless, but I did my best to educate myself. I wanted to understand what I was writing and who my target audience was. After tons of research, I came to a simple conclusion—it is impossible to please everybody. Like porn, in romance everybody’s tastes differ. Historical, Western, Sweet Romance, Paranormal, Suspense, Spicy, Erotic…again, the list is endless.
My decision? I was going to write what I like to read. I was going to write a book I would buy for myself. That meant I had to do my homework, because like all readers, I hate to be disappointed. There’s nothing worse than a brand new book falling short of your expectations!
What do I like? Contemporary Romance. Hot alpha heroes with some damage. Smart sassy heroines, also with some damage. Burning chemistry that dictates lots of conflict, and even more heat. Support characters that are in the background, but strong enough that they hint at their own story. Everything else must be background. For me, what’s happening between the leading couple takes precedence over story and suspense. I hate being bogged down in irritating distractions.
PANTSER OR PLOTTER
The first thing I learned was the difference between a pantser and a plotter. These are two divergent approaches to writing. A pantser literally means to write by the seat of your pants. I get goosebumps even thinking about it. Pantsers prefer to write organically. For them, detailed plot outlines slow them down and stunt their creativity. I have huge respect for pantsers, and I even admit to a little jealousy. That being said, I am definitely not a pantser. I’m a plotter, a planner. I like to work out my plot from beginning to end. This includes my character arcs. If I even think to begin writing without a coherent road map, my creative brain shuts down.
The realization I was an obsessive planner, led naturally to me finding a suitable structure or outline to work with.
OUTLINING MY NOVEL
I started by surfing romance writing websites. Then I purchased recommended help books. It took patience, and lots of coffee and red wine. There is so much information available it can be overwhelming. But I took the time because the more I read, the more I connected with particular lines of thought. By filtering these down, I was able to create a hybrid outline plan that made sense to me. It was an intensely personal experience, because as a debut author it helped structure my approach to storytelling, and enrich my characters and plot.
As I outlined my novel in detail, I was able to add and delete scenes, try out left-field plot twists, and continually tighten the flow of my story structure. Following outline pointers, I inserted small scenes and interesting conflict I never thought of previously. This brought vital contrasting light and shadow to my novel. The process was intensely creative. As my story developed, my characters came to life and started to talk. I didn’t let this interfere with my outlining process. I just paused and wrote up the dialogue as it popped into my mind. Then I placed it in a scene where I thought it belonged. If I didn’t have a scene to place it in, I stored it. (More about this later when I discuss Scenes, Character Development and Dialogue.) I honed my outline until my story sang to me. It took me three months but by the time I finished, I had written over twenty thousand words. When I sat down to really write—as in start my first draft—I knew what was coming next. I was able to focus on my writing without fear of writer’s block or not knowing if my storyline would take me down a rabbit hole.
Being a new writer, I’m a bit of a snail. (I get hives when I see how prolific some best-selling authors are.) The thought of writing whole chapters that end up being chopped because they don’t contribute to my story, or they go in the complete wrong direction, sends icy shivers rippling down my spine.
In Gray’s Promise, my new WIP (work in progress,) I have written over thirty thousand words in my outline. Most of my core dialogue got written as part of the outlining process. This has become an increasingly organic process for me, so now I think my approach is a weird mix of pantser and plotter. (Or maybe that’s just dreaming!) I’ve tweaked the process and structure—I’m sure I will continue to do so with each new book—but my Outline Plan remains the key guide to my writing.
Was my creativity stunted?
Nope! The most exciting aspect that came out of plotting and planning was how organic the actual writing process remained. Even with my detailed outline, my creative process of writing would often take me in a slight new direction, or would dictate a scene must end before I had planned for it to end. This was okay. And exciting. After all, I had a plan. All I needed to do was make adjustments to my structure and carry on. If my outline included a particular interaction, a piece of dialogue or a conflict, but it got booted, I would find somewhere else to insert it. Thank goodness for Cut and Paste. And hats off to those authors who had to type out their novels and use Tipex to fix their errors. Or even more of a horror, write their books in long-hand!
I thought about posting my outline, but then decided you might miss out on finding the perfect outline that works for you. However, I would like to share some of the websites, and books that helped guide me.
- Outlining Your Novel: Map Your way to Success by K.M. Weiland
- On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels
- Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant by Larry Brooks
Websites & Facebook Groups
- Writer’s Digest offers a wealth of helpful articles. http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles
- Writers Helping Writers is one of the richest websites for new and experienced writers. (Their Emotion Thesaurus is one of my best friends, but more about this later.) http://writershelpingwriters.net/
- Jennifer Blanchard – Write Better Stories. http://jenniferblanchard.net/blog/ Jennifer is obsessed with story structure. She works closely with Larry Brooks who wrote Story Fix.)
- The 1% Writer’s Club. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EmergingAuthorIncubator/ Jennifer Blanchard also started this Facebook Group. Its goal is to support emerging self-published authors. I’m not self-published, but I have found a lot of motivation and support from belonging to this group.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
You get that I’m an organizer, so my next step after I had an Outline Plan, was to find a software program to write in. I wanted something easy to navigate. And being an ex-film editor, I also wanted something similar to a film-editing package. Only it needed to work for words. Being able to cut and paste, edit and insert, see everything at a glance, was essential. My book-editing friend, Sarah, suggested I look at Scrivener. I researched it, and an hour later downloaded it…and never looked back. Scrivener is easy to use, and keeps your chapters and scenes organized and easy to move around. You can also file all your research, character profiles, location images, and so much more—all on the same layout page. And, it is stupid easy to compile your book into any format for your beta readers, from pdf to mobi, and anything else.
Blank Category Cards & Flip Charts
Scrivener wasn’t enough. During the outline process, I needed another creative outlet. I wanted to write—by hand! On the beach, in restaurants, lying on my bed, ideas would flow and I needed to write them down. I purchased a pack of blank category (or library) cards and carried them everywhere with me. I discovered an interesting contrast between typing on my laptop and writing freehand. It seemed to open a different creative outlet. Try it!
And when my story plotting got stuck, I turned to my trusty flipchart. Using different color pens, I wrote up plot development, character arcs, personality traits—the lists were endless. Strangely, once they were written I rarely referred back to them. I realized it was a personal brainstorming session for me—only instead of a live person, my partner was Mr Flipchart. Try this as well. Would love to hear some feedback if you find this works out for you too …
NEXT UP—BASIC ELEMENTS to ROMANCE WRITING
To help me understand how to write Romance, I purchased books, and read a ton of information on the internet. I started making copious notes from my first day of reading. My plan was to learn first, write second. That didn’t happen. Right from the start, everything I read set off triggers for my story. So I changed my plan and made sure I had a notebook at hand. Or a library card! When I got a creative trigger, I wrote it down. Learning and writing. Right and left brain. Two birds, one stone …… you get it! Eventually I deduced there are three basic elements to writing a romance—or so I believe. The Hero and Heroine (and their fated love of course). The Conflict. The Resolution to achieve a HEA.
Come back next week, and I’ll explain my approach to these pivotal elements. I would love to read your thoughts or comments below, or send me a personal email.