Every step of the way, whether novice or seasoned author, whether this is a hobby or career, we all have those roadblocks that drag their concrete asses over and plop themselves right in front of our creative highway.
The ones I had in the beginning are far different than the ones I have now.
You might see a bit of you in what’s to come…
You might be sitting in the center of what I’m about to describe…
You’re a new writer. You’ve been an avid reader for years. Essentially, through the process of devouring books, deep in that voracious brain of yours, you already know everything you need to in order to write your own book. No, it won’t be pretty. It will need heavy editing. But the pieces are essentially there in your mind just waiting for you to use them if you wish.
So, one day you sit down at the computer. You start paying attention to your favorites, what they do, what they talk about, events they travel to. You start to piece together the nuts and bolts of an author’s life beyond the final product that hits your kindle on release day. You see they’re going to RWA Nationals, or other small conferences. You see them talking about filling up their creative well.
So you start joining writer groups. You take some online classes. You one click thirty million books about saving cats, hooks, and writer tool kits.
You are pummeled by information about the “right way” to write.
The writer word starts screaming at you, sometime their advice solicited…often their advice unsolicited…
Other writer 1: “You have to outline.”
Other writer 2: “If you pants it you’ll never finish.”
Other writer 3: “First kiss by the 25% mark, sex by the 50% mark, black moment/climax at 75%.”
Other writer 4: “This trope is overdone.”
Other writer 4 (That chatty shit): “That trope is overdone, too.”
Other writer 6: “Write to market.”
Other writer 2 (Yeah, that asshole is back): “Incorporate high concept.”
You: Wait, what? What the hell is high concept?
Other writer 7: “Write what you know.”
Other writer 7 again after you show him/her your idea: “Wait—not that. Write something else you know.”
Other writer 3 again (The one writing formula romance only): “Oh, that’s not allowed.”
Other writer 8: “Don’t make it too gritty.”
Other writer 8 again driving his/her point home: “That’s not safe.”
Other writer 9 who is in the same writing group as other writer 8 and often wants to smack that uppity ass upside her bland head: “Don’t make it too sterile.”
Other writer 10 (This one is likely traditionally published and will offer to read your first 50 pages for you): “Don’t make your conflict a simple misunderstanding solved by a conversation.”
Blah, blah, blah, freaking blah.
See that utter bullshit up there? That’s what a beginner writer’s problem is.
Right. Freaking. There.
You’ve decided to write a book. Your family is patting you on the head and saying, “Oh, hey, that’s great” and rolling their eyes the minute you’re not looking. Classes are introducing aspects of writing you’ve never thought about. You’ve always loved the sausage, you understand it’s not just pork, but this is the first time you’re seeing the recipe to make the sausage. You are seeking information and getting bombarded with a bunch of unsolicited advice. You’ve convinced yourself that what you write has to be perfect before anyone can see it.
And you’re letting a writing world, one with old school veterans and breakout indies tell you there is a certain way to do it that’s the only right way.
I’m here to tell you, that’s utter bullshit.
When I started, conflict was a big deal. Conflict had to be strong. Now that our real life climate has become so divisive, romance is changing and becoming conflict light. As for that conflict that other writers might dismiss as not strong enough since it can be cleared up by a simple conversation…you have to ask yourself why the characters don’t have that conversation. If your characters are closed off, avoid confrontation, or maybe are young enough that they aren’t that forward yet, it’s understandable that the conversation would not unfold. A young adult is going to be less likely to lay it all on the line than an experience adult who has a serious relationship or two in their history.
Rules change all the time. They evolve. Traditional publishing is careful about what they publish. They take less risks. Indies are all risk. They don’t conform. They are the divergents of the writer world.
As a new writer, you’re worrying about being perfect, about following formula while finding your voice…about being accepted. Not just by readers, but by fellow writers. That’s the pressure that sits on the chest of a new writer.
Once you shed those confines, make connections, build confidence, you start to shed those roadblocks.
Which opens up room for roadblocks of a whole different variety…but more about that another day!
Write fearlessly. Right now that story belongs to you. Make it larger than life. Write something that makes you laugh, get mad, and cry. Even better, write something that makes you do all three at once.
Worry about the rest later.
I hate blurbs.
I hate them with the searing heat of a thousand suns.
When I started writing, there was a rigid notion that blurbs should be no longer than 150 words, if you were a rebel and willing to push it, 200, and they had to conform to a three paragraph format. Her, him, them. Or Him, her, them…whichever worked. Quite literally the only real freedom was in whether or not to feature the hero or heroine first.
Then, as I tore my hair out while trying to conform to that style, I noticed an up-rise of fearless indies throwing caution to the wind and flipping their figurative middle fingers to the accepted conventions and going for it.
Suddenly dynamic blurbs of all varieties inundated the book world. We had short blurbs, long blurbs, fragments, first person, third person, one word declarations…wow!
It was literally the one stop candy shop of blurbs. It didn’t matter what your taste was, there was something out there for you from bitter dark chocolate to tart sour patch candies and everything in between.
I tried to break out of the mold. Dammit, I wanted longer blurbs, but everyone in my author groups, my tight circle of friends, those who had traditionally published or were currently traditionally published gasped at the idea. “You can’t do that!” they said.
Well, why the hell not?
I thumbed my nose at anyone who told me I can’t and instead did what I wanted. And it was incredibly freeing.
You know, as long as I could write them AFTER I wrote the story.
And then I was writing so fast I needed to have blurbs ready before the story was finished.
What do you mean I need to have them first? I’m a pantser. I don’t even know how it ends, hell, I’ve written stories where I’ve forgotten to give my hero and heroine last names until the very end. Now you want me to wrap up the basics of their story in a neat little bow?
*Stomps foot—flips the bird*
It’s just not the way my brain works. Oh, I can write the blurb first, but it’s going to be a steaming pile of poo and my story is going to go on so many different tangents that the underlying premise no longer resembles what I’ve been forced to put down on paper.
This goes back to my having the perfect first chapter. Look, logically I know I can go back and edit the first chapter. But it’s my framework. And the thought of building something on a foundation that’s not set, with rotting boards, rusted nails, and leaking windows is enough to set my heart racing while panic floods me from head to toe.
Since I don’t know my story, even condensing a story idea in 250 words is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to plot a whole book in a just a few words when I still don’t know my characters. I get to know them as I write. I start to think about their life situations and put together how based on who they were raised to be and who they choose to be influence the here and now.
I sometimes don’t know a whole lot about my characters until I’m a chapter or two in. I work them out on paper. Here’s an example:
“Well, well, well, now who is that?” Lavinia asked, an appreciative grin forming on her 1980’s red lips.
Blair followed her gaze, and her lungs seized on a gulp. “What’s he doing here?”
Lavinia’s drawn-on eyebrows disappeared under a poof of bleach-blond hair dropping low over her forehead. “You know him?”
He pushed away from the hood of his sleek, black, luxury whatever the heck it was car that might actually be just as mysterious and exotic as the man now walking toward her.
And so far out of her price range, it made her heart pinch.
“I’m not sure anyone really knows Evan,” she murmured as her mouth ran dry at the sight of him.
Black dress pants, probably designer from the sheen and quality cut, hugged his thighs as he strode toward her with one hand in his pocket and the other flexing at his side.
Tension radiated from him, but Lord help her, she didn’t care. She’d known from the first moment they’d met when she’d spilled her cup of spiced tea at her favorite coffee shop that he was something different.
He’d been polite, with those Clark Kent, square-jawed looks and dark-framed glasses designed to make the wearer look scholarly, but in his case, they only made her fingers itch to slip them from his face so she could get lost in the warm, amber depths behind them.
Fire and ice.
Cool and detached on the outside, but those eyes—God, those eyes told a whole different story.
An elusive tale likely no one would get to the bottom of.
This is chapter 2, page 17. Chapter 1 was in his POV and still I didn’t know who he was. Evan had already been in three other novellas as a side character. When the time came to write him, I hadn’t a clue who he really was, or what made him tick. I knew with all of the others even when they were still secondary characters.
The scene above was my “aha” moment. The reason I didn’t know who he was went right to the basis of who he was as a character so his being a mystery, even to me, worked!
So, how on earth am I supposed to write a blurb before I do the above?
Wanna see what happens when I try?
See…a hot mess! It’s okay, you can agree with me. I already know.
I struggle to narrow it all down. I find halfway through writing the actual book that my characters do not look anything like what I’ve outlined in my blurb. And worst of all, as a pantser, I find I’ve boxed myself into conformity and I struggle to let my characters drive the story because I’ve already committed them to a certain reality.
What I have learned, if I figure out how to do a rough outline, I might have a chance…but who are we kidding? I’m probably not going to learn hot to do a rough outline.
Because I’m stubborn.
First off…good morning everyone. I’m sitting in Jen’s kitchen in her slammin’ condo in Jupiter Florida alternating between blissful contentment because I’m here writing all the words and flashbacks from living in the oppressive heat and humidity of my Florida years I couldn’t wait to leave behind when I moved in 2009.
I know, I know, palm trees, warmth, and the ocean nearby. I should love it.
Here’s some of the tropical pretty I’m sitting in the middle of…
But I’m a northern girl. I grew up in Vermont. I live in Maine. There are four seasons there… instead of hot and hotter like they have here. I live just off the ocean now…but I don’t melt sitting on the sand. The water is so cold that you don’t get used to it, you just go numb after five minutes so you don’t mind the cold anymore and your nipples are so freaking hard they can cut glass.
So…I’m tolerating the heat and trying to keep my bitching to a minimum while I finally get some words down.
These ladies are helping…Stacey Wilk, Jen Talty, and Chelle Olson!
Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of today’s subject.
First chapters…the bane of my existence.
The reason I lie awake at night.
The thing that makes me flip my computer the bird, adopt semi-permanent resting bitch face, growl at the keyboard, pace on my postage-stamp size section of floor behind my desk, find all kinds of boring shit on Facebook utterly fascinating that I have to explore even if it means I lose hours, and finally, what makes me want to avoid my crit partner like the damn plague.
Yes, I have to fight my urge to avoid Jen.
Why you ask?
Because every time she talks to me she says, “Okay, love you, gotta go, and hey, send me shit.”
Send. Me. Shit.
Nope. I can’t send you shit.
Now I know she doesn’t mean shit literally. She’s not calling my first draft shit, but in my head, despite not being written, it’s shit.
My first resistance is the rush of my insecurities as a writer coming to the forefront and kicking me in the figurative teeth. It’s the fact that I’m a pantser for the most part writing on a deadline. It’s my needing to at least know the bare minimum about my chapters and characters, but having nothing but a dark, looming void before me. It’s about me forcing myself to write linearly when I’m not a linear writer. Because when I’m writing novellas, writing out of order is not nearly as effective.
I started out writing long books. And I have every intention of getting back to those books, but for now, I’m writing shorter works. These shorter works are so much harder. And that’s where I have a horrid problem with first chapters.
I want perfection in the first chapter before I send it to Jen.
Okay, so I know it’s just me. I know I’m picky. I can go back and rewrite, add in the nuggets I didn’t get in the first time, but I just don’t wanna.
I reread that chapter at least fifty times before Jen ever sees it.
My first chapters have to have all the elements to set up the other 8-10 chapters to come. They are the foundation by which the story stands. I’m totally fine with letting my ugly hang out in every chapter after. I’ll let my freak flag fly, but never in chapter one.
Of course, this also means that when I send that chapter one to Jen, I’m convinced it’s the best thing ever written. There couldn’t possibly be a typo. No missing words. My characters have been set up just right and there’s no annoying back story or info dumps.
Then she sends it back with fifty or so track changes.
Aaaannnnnnd I’m back to flipping off my computer screen.
So that’s my first problem with the first chapter.
The duh factor.
If you see Casey writing, you can practically hear it. The “duh” of a woman looking at the blank screen and saying, “What do you mean I need to just make shit up? There has to be more to that. It can’t be that easy.”
It is that easy.
And it’s that hard.
Anything that involves any sort of world building like creatures or lore in paranormal/fantasy or even if it’s contemporary/suspense and I’m coming up with an agency/company/network/business, I stall.
I mean, I stall like a middle-aged woman’s metabolism as she suffers from menopause, scorching hot flashes, and a thyroid disorder.
Jen, well, she’s a whole different animal. She’s a ball of wild abandon and just makes shit up. She’s confident in her ability to just put the right terms together and create something all hers.
I love that about her. I hate that I can’t. I hate that I examine everything to death. When I found the name for Aegis, I researched words that had to do with protection and shields. I toyed with the idea of putting two words together, but nothing ever sounded just right.
In other words, I wasn’t confident in any of it.
The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
Hi, I’m Casey. First chapters, invented terms/names are my weaknesses. I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of my own head long enough to get better at them. And that’s okay.
Pssst! You know why it’s okay?
Because I rock the boom-boom.
All. The. Sex.
Yup, I’m not afraid to admit it. My chapter one tells me at least 75% of what kind of sex my characters will have at the 50-75% mark of my book.
Because I’ve agonized over that first chapter, I know what my characters weaknesses are, I know what’s holding them back, and I know how those qualities have to play into how they come together.
I don’t have words that I won’t use. If clit, cock, or cunt fit (Jen’s three C’s), I use them. Even if the words are something I don’t use in real life, it doesn’t matter. I have to ask myself what the people I’ve created would use. I let my characters weaknesses and their POV’s drive the language. I’m a voyeur, in a non-perverted way of course, playing out their growth in the most intimate of ways. In this I need to do them justice, but they lay it all out for me. It’s less about my head and more about what my characters want me to see.
I remember to weave the transformation of emotion and the bond building through the words so the scene doesn’t turn into a mechanical sex pamphlet.
In order to do this, I throw away any ideas I’ve been harboring of hot sex. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met that have this idea in their head of a hot sex scene that they want to write, so they do, and it never quite sounds right.
It’s because it’s not right…for those particular characters.
You can’t force it.
Some writers will try to force it to work because they don’t want to let the idea go.
Well, technically, I can put a pair of size five undies on my ample ass, but it’s going to look like I tried to squeeze twenty-five pounds of shit in a five pound bag.
And the fact that I did will show.
The key to writing stellar sex is that it’s not personal preference. It’s what will be the hottest sex for your characters dependent on their wounds, emotions, what’s happening around them, and how they connect with one another. The minute you’ve accepted that, you’re halfway there!
Join us Monday where Jen will give us her wisdom on first chapters and the boom-boom and she’ll do it all from sunny, hotter-than-hell Florida!
Jen is my current critique partner.
That sounds like I plan on replacing her, doesn’t it?
So why do I call her my “current” critique partner?
Because nothing lasts forever if you don’t take care of it and when I call her my current critique partner, it serves as a constant reminder to take care of what I have because I could lose it if I don’t.
Critique relationships start out like dating…
You come at each other at first showing the other person your absolute best. You’re still feeling them out to learn how they’ll react to you, to life, to the world around you. When you’re getting ready to go out you scrutinize your hair, makeup, and clothing. Everything has to be in place and perfect.
Then you start to show them bits and pieces of what they’re really in for…
It’s the fourth or fifth date, and you answer the door in yoga pants and your threadbare Rolling Stones T-shirt with the bleach mark on the front because you haven’t put on your date clothes yet, but your hair and makeup…they’re spot on.
Then you get comfortable…
A few months in, they’ve spent the night and they’ve seen your bed head and smelled your morning breath. You’ve stopped humming in the bathroom so they can’t hear you pee. The fear of having to poop while they’re around doesn’t make you so nervous that your stomach cramps and then you end up in the bathroom, the very place you didn’t want to be, praying the bathroom fan is loud enough to disguise your body’s revolt.
You’re critique relationship grows and changes just like any relationship. You start to recognize patterns and bad habits. Sometimes even the patterns in their bad habits. And you start to understand why, despite repeatedly mentioning those habits, they continue to do them. This is when you’ve reached the point of understanding your critique partner’s voice in draft mode. You recognize how they work. And it gives you a glimpse into a few of the things you’ll forever need to look for.
It’s also a warning sign for what you need to make sure you don’t start to glaze over and miss.
The most common issue I see in Jen’s writing is the sections that make me say, “So what?”
She quite literally has given me nothing about her character (usually the heroine) to care about. She’s put her on the page, but she hasn’t given her much for emotion and instead has propelled into the action. I’ve noticed when this happens she usually makes a lot of other minor mistakes with telling and passive voice, and mistakes with homonyms. These areas are also usually heavy in dialogue and often after a few sentences, I have to wonder what her characters are doing, their expressions, and how they’re moving in relation to each other. I basically get a whole lot of talking heads…and as a reader, I feel cheated.
In Jen’s case, I suspect this has a lot to do with the story moving so fast in her head, she’s trying to race to get it all down. We’ve all been there. No matter how fast we type, it’s two against one in there with our hero and heroine battling it out at a rapid pace while we’re trying to build the picture for the reader before parts of it disappear.
When I start to see these patterns, it’s because I’ve learned her voice in draft mode, I know I’ll always have to look for these sections.
Nope, the problem with a habit like this is it’s easy to gloss over them as her crit partner because I get used to seeing them. Think about your own writing. We all have missing words or maybe the wrong verb tense and what happens when we read it back?
Our brain fixes it before we even realize it’s there and we miss it again.
Bad habits can become ingrained just as good habits can.
Think about that relationship I spoke about above…think about when relationships slip into comfort mode.
It’s a risk a critique partner runs when they get used to another writer’s work. I’ve almost fallen into the pattern myself of glossing over those parts of her draft, assuming that after all this time she would go back and layer in details to give them more depth. The minute I let myself slide, I become an ineffective critique partner.
And that’s why it’s especially important to have that list of things to look for, habits that occur in draft mode specific to your critique partner so you won’t become complacent when reading their work.
- Make sure that although you’ve seen your critique partner at her worst and she’s breathed that morning dragon breath on you that you continue to be careful to pick apart her work so she’s always presenting her first-date-self to the reader world.
- Learn her voice in draft mode and make note of the reoccurring mistakes that won’t go away so you don’t become complacent and start missing them, too.
- Make sure you reevaluate your critique relationship, just like you would a marriage, and make sure it’s working for both sides. Modify where you need to. Be honest in those discussions.
Check in Monday where Jen is going to tell you a little bit about my bad habits in draft mode!