Notes From A Debut Author

The Beginning

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?!

pansy-shell-on-beach-webI 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.

 

Books

  • 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

book-outlining-your-novel   book-on-writing-romance   book-story-fix

 

Websites & Facebook Groups

 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Scrivener scrivener-logo

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

flip-chartScrivener 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.

 

Happy writing.

 

 

28 replies
  1. Lori Sizemore
    Lori Sizemore says:

    You’re journey and creative process sounds so similar to my own. I’m debuting this year as well.

    I’m going to read your book ASAP. Best wishes on sales and more writing!

    Reply
  2. Amanda Uhl
    Amanda Uhl says:

    Hi Anni! I read your blog with interest. Mostly because your approach is opposite my “just wing it one.” I am working hard to do more plotting, as I think it adds so much to the writing process, but it does not come easily for me. Congratulations on your coming book!

    Reply
  3. Mary Morgan
    Mary Morgan says:

    I absolutely loved reading about your journey, Anni! We all have our own unique way of writing. I’m more a mix of pantser and plotter. Plotter in the beginning to a quarter into my story and from there–pantser all the way home! I’ve also found (six books later) that I’m great at writing the beginning and the ending. Yet, the middle? Yikes. The “guts” (my term) of a story come slowly. Each story is different. I was writing two stories at once earlier this year, along with edits on another. Insane! However, I feel so blessed to love what I’m doing and still manage to find the balance between marketing/promoting and writing. Wishing you all the best with your debut novel! So happy for you!

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Thank you so much, Mary. I do agree, it’s a challenge to move from a WIP to editing your current book, and then switch again to publishing. I’m sure it comes with practice, and I’m working hard to switch from left to right brain and back again. LOL. Thanks huge for all your support. Anni xx

      Reply
  4. Sandra Dailey
    Sandra Dailey says:

    I’m a plotter too. I have to have that full outline. There’s nothing worse then getting 30,000 words in and the story fizzles out. I noticed that you’ve found the most useful tools for every good writer – coffee and wine.
    Good luck and great sales for your soon-to-be release.

    Reply
  5. Becky Lower
    Becky Lower says:

    Nice roundup of the process, Anni. I’m a hybrid in every sense of the word. I write a rough outline so I know where the story is headed, just dealing with the beats. Then, I start writing from the beginning, and let it flow. Every night, I stop and think about the next scene and how it will unfold. I admire people who can write out of sequence and the make everything fit. If I had loose dialogue laying around, it would freak me out. But each writer has to experiment and find what works best for them.

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Absolutely, Becky. I think as our confidence grows, we find a way that works organically for us. I’m happy with how things are progressing with my 2nd novel, the writing process continually excites me. xx

      Reply
  6. Sorchia Dubois
    Sorchia Dubois says:

    Excellent overview of your journey. And I love the pansy shell story–answers come in the most unexpected ways, don’t they? I’ve found that I like structure at the beginning of a project, but a time will come during the process when I go off the reservation and maraud at will. Somehow it all comes back together by the time the book is finished. Nicely written post!

    Reply
  7. Mary Gillgannon
    Mary Gillgannon says:

    We couldn’t be more different, Anni. I start with nothing but an idea and just start writing. If I tried (and I have) to do what you do, it would just totally kill all my interest in the writing and the story. But I think your approach does speed up the process and keep you from making mistakes and a lot of rewriting, so on that basis, as a panster, I envy YOU. Congratulations and best wishes on your book!

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Love your books, Mary. And we’ll just have to agree to envy each other. With all my planning, I do have days when I wish I could just write by the seat of my pants. I feed this wish, with writing streams of dialogue. But the rest, I have to plan. Thanks so much for your support. xx

      Reply
  8. Angela Hayes
    Angela Hayes says:

    Awesome post, Anni. Love your organized brain. While I don’t use Scrivener (which I need to look into), I do use a tri-fold poster, like your flip chart, to keep track of my book’s outline, in addition to a binder and lots and lots of index cards. Best wishes.

    Reply
  9. K.J. Pierce
    K.J. Pierce says:

    This is fantastic! I love that you come from a TV background – I learned to write scripts (not professionally) well before I tried my hand at fiction, and the learning curve has been something else. Look forward to reading more!

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Hey KJ. Were you also in TV? I’ve found it to be a fantastic foundation to writing. When you read how I approach locations and settings, you’ll fall down laughing. I think it through like I’m setting up a film shoot: location…set…set-dressing, etc. Hilarious, but the familiarity of this approach keeps my writing organized and me calm. Thanks for popping in. xx

      Reply
      • K.J. Pierce
        K.J. Pierce says:

        I wasn’t, no. I focused on scriptwriting (play, film, and tv) in college, and skipped all the fiction writing stuff. 🙂 I can’t wait to read how you approach locations and settings – I’m sure it’ll be stellar! Will definitely be tuning in for more… xo

        Reply
  10. Barbara Bettis
    Barbara Bettis says:

    Loved the post, Anni. I’m a mix of plotter and pantser, like many others. But I’m a pantser at the beginning, looking for more structure as the story unfurls. I usually do a rough synopsis at the beginning of the process (after the first few pages are finished) so at least I have an idea of where the story is going. But the process from there is fluid with, as I said, some plot points as it develops.. I’ve often wished I could be more structured as you are. I’ve tried, but if I plot completely at the start, I’ve found that I lose spark once I begin writing. Good luck on your journey and Congratulations on your debut!

    Reply
  11. Lida Sideris
    Lida Sideris says:

    What a wonderful post, Anni! I have to find me a Mr. Flipchart. 😉 I’ve been thinking about getting one, now I realize I have to! My debut novel was released one year ago and what a fantastic ride it’s been! Congratulations and wishing you great success!

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Yes, I’m thinking that we only get one Debut ride, and we need to hang on with our fingertips, scream out loud, and enjoy the ride. Thanks for your visit, Lida, and good luck with your writing. xx

      Reply
  12. Tena
    Tena says:

    Excellent post. I enjoyed reading it. I am a panster all the way. Tried plotting and my characters scoffed at me and took off in a different direction. LOL. I do start with a 5 page character worksheet for each character when I start a new story. Good luck.

    Reply

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