I hesitated. Did I really need yet another course, book — or even another article — about plotting?
I already knew about the W template for plotting. (I thought I did, anyway.) Also, between Martell’s books and James Scott Bell’s Super Structure, I figured I had 90% of what I needed.
Maybe my current ennui — my “gut feeling” — was actually nerves. Plain ol’ cold feet.
But what if it wasn’t? (I spent a lot of time talking to myself about Lynn’s course. It wasn’t just the $27, but the time it would take to watch her videos and then use her worksheets. As Mur Lafferty has reminded me, I should be writing.)
Then, I decided to go for it. I bought Lynn’s course.
Best. Decision. Ever. (Okay, more likely “best decision this month,” but — a year from now — I might decide it’s a “best ever,” after all.)
In Lynn’s first video, I saw my problem. It was kind of massive, and would have sabotaged this book. Again. * facepalm *
Seriously, I can make anything complex. And then I analyze all the little complexities, and fine-tune them so each is a work of art… and totally miss the Big Picture.
Yes, the current book had a fine, workable plot, but the initial trigger — the event that was about to change everything in my heroine’s life — it wasn’t powerful enough. Not even close.
It didn’t have enough momentum to carry the story to its conclusion.
Oh, I had all the scenes figured out. My heroine (and her romantic interest) had plenty of things to do. Things that could be complete scenes. Things with some opposition, to give the plot a little energy. (Emphasis on “little,” now that I reflect on this.)
It just wasn’t a compelling story.
Lynn’s explanation of the W plot showed me exactly where the weakest link was.
(She also showed me that most people — including me — don’t get how the W plot actually works. And how great it is for novellas and short stories, as well as full-length books.)
Wow. Through Lynn’s eyes, I saw the W plot in an entirely different light. A useful one. An important one.
Before I went to bed last night, I’d brainstormed a full, handwritten page of story notes for this rewrite. Mostly, they’re backstory, but they also super-charge the current plot.
This morning, I wrote another full page of notes. Those notes are about the Big Bad and his minions (yes, it’s that kind of story) plus his strengths as well as his Achilles heel.
Next, I reworked the opening scene of my book, plus some key points in the climax. Now, both are far more compelling.
So, I’m writing again and feel really good about this book.
Yes, I still need to finish watching Lynn’s videos, but even this tweak has added tremendous power to this story.
What I learned is: Sometimes, I need to step back and get out of my own way. I need to take a look at the Big Picture, and simplify the plotting process. (I’m sure that applies to other areas of my writing, as well.)
Thanks to Lynn’s course, my story premise is more powerful and I’m not looking for excuses to avoid writing.
In fact, I’ve written this post, stream-of-consciousness. This course has helped me so much, I wanted you to know about it, right away. (Pardon any typos. I rushed through this.)
Mostly, I hope this conveys the importance of Lynn’s The W-Plot, if — like me — you tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.
And now, I’ll go back to my book. And feel good about it.
The past couple of months have included a steep learning curve.
Oh, it’s been a great experience… but challenging. Sometimes, even frustrating.
When I write “fast books” (mostly nonfiction), I seize a fun idea. Then, I spend a few days collecting all kinds of information and trivia. After that, I throw the book together and hit the Publish button.
Within a month (or so), that book usually earns four figures, and continues to sell well for weeks. A few of those books have continued selling for years, long after the topic left the headlines. (Earning five figures from a book that took me about two weeks to research & write…? Yes, I’m okay with that.)
But, I’ve wanted to get back to writing fiction. Over a decade ago, working with traditional publishers, fiction was fun.
I liked “living in” a world I’ve created in my mind. I enjoyed crafting plots that were whimsical and intriguing.
But then, indie publishing became easier and faster. It certainly pays much better, as well.
I tried it and liked it.
Soon, I switched to nonfiction after a couple of my “fast” books sold like hotcakes.
But, a few years later… I miss fiction. And, long-term, fiction is probably a better income path for me.
So, I’ve been re-learning how to write fiction. This involves catching up on a wealth of fiction-writing resources. (When I wrote fiction, years ago, even the “Hero’s Journey” concept was new.)
Now my biggest struggle is getting used to the pace of writing fiction. That process is almost 180-degrees different from how I build & write my “fast”nonfiction books.
After lots of trial-and-error testing, I’m finally finding my creative path to good fiction.
I start with an idea for a story. (I have no shortage of ideas.)
Then, I go straight to research. I look for credible locations, names for my characters, and authentic lifestyle elements that fit the sub-genre.
After that, I think for a few days. Maybe weeks.
That “thinking” part seems to involve letting my creative mind run in the background, while I’m reading books, going for walks, visiting Disney World (see my photo, above), cooking in the kitchen, or watching TV.
Usually, I seem to do best with mindless TV that has little or nothing to do with the fiction I’m planning. This week, it’s included the new Dirk Gently series (BBC America & Hulu), and the new Midnight, TX series (just started on NBC & Hulu).
Those choices are odd. I’m radically revising a book that’s YA romantic suspense, and plotting a light, sweet Regency romance.
But… both the Gently series and the Midnight series are weird and dark. There are no dots to connect, between what I’m watching and what I’m writing.
So, yes, I’ll admit it: All this “what does this have to do with writing?” stuff… it’s been frustrating. I feel like I’m not working. Not making progress. Being a slacker.
I get to the end of the day (or week) and feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I should be doing things… right?
But then, like yesterday morning, I wake up with half the plot (and all of the worldbuilding) in my head. I grab a pen and scribble it onto the yellow, lined pad of paper I keep next to the bed.
Four pages of notes. Lots of arrows connecting one concept to another, indicating things that will repeat and give the story rhythm & resonance.
Wow. It’s perfect. Even I am impressed by the originality and depth. This is a story I’d read and enjoy.
And then, last night, after another day of cooking, reading, going for walks, and watching more oh-dear-heaven TV shows… I grabbed my pen & paper, again.
Suddenly, spilling out of my mind, I had the rest of the plot, plus some character nuances, and a few worldbuilding embellishments.
Already, I love this book! I keep looking at my notes and thinking, “Wow, did I actually come up with those ideas, myself?” * blink, blink *
Well, yes, I did.
But here’s the weird part: I’m not sure I could have “worked” my way to this plot, world, and characters.
This level of freshness and whimsy (plus an engaging, original plot) seems to happen when I’m deliberately not working.
This process is more relaxed and intuitive than I’d expected.
So, that’s been my latest discovery. I’m sharing it in case it’s helpful to you, too.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve realized that I’m kind of terrible when it comes to crafting characters.
Sure, for walk-on characters that may not even have a name, the charts at 350 Character Traits can be useful.
But, ask me to craft a character that’s truly authentic…? Err. Umm. It’s been a struggle.
Oh, I own some great books about characters. I should read these (and then use them) more often.
On My Bookshelf
45 Master Characters is a good, all-purpose reference for pre-constructed characters. They’re based on classic and mythic archetypes. (Athena is subtitled: The Father’s Daughter and the Backstabber. It fits.) Everything is explained, nicely. This book is especially good for “red shirts.”
One reason you’ll rarely see inexpensive used copies of this book at Amazon, is because anyone who owns this book is likely to hold onto it, forever.
I had to buy a copy because I’m utterly worthless when it comes to staring evil in the face… and turning it into a character I’ll have to live with (in my head) for any length of time.
I’m so uncomfortable making a character evil, I either make them “too nice” to seem like genuine villains, or I refuse to think about them much, and write them as two-dimensional stereotypes. Either way, they’re boring and not-very-credible.
This book not only describes each kind of villain (or monster), it also explains what motivates most in that category, how to write them, and a lot more.
I have no idea why this book is available, used, for under $2 (as I’m writing this), because I think it’s a great book.
Writer’s Guide to Character Traits is strictly for people who want to delve into the clinical, psychological aspects of good guys, bad guys, and everyone in-between. If you’re going to have to be “in the mind” of your character and don’t know exactly how to write him (or her), convincingly, this book might be helpful.
(I rarely use it, but keep it on my bookshelf anyway. At some point, I expect that I’ll be glad I did. Meanwhile, I default to Angela Ackerman’s Negative Trait Thesaurus. I own all of her thesauruses — or is that thesauri? — as printed books, and keep them within arm’s reach of my keyboard.)
Less often, I refer to What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. If you’re writing mysteries or thrillers, and your protagonist needs to evaluate people, visually, this book provides good insights. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the photos in it, and tend to flip through the book when I need a quick, revealing gesture, movement, or pose.
Fiction is Folks (published in 1983) is kind of fun if you like old-school approaches to writing, or if you’re writing something with a strong “literature” style. I read this book for entertainment, because the author (Robert Newton Peck, perhaps best known for A Day No Pigs Would Die) really gets YA characters, and he also throws in some juicy writing advice.
One word can save a sentence.
The sentence you just read, obviously, has not been saved at all. It is boring and dies a horrible death at the hands of this writer. It’s dull. But let’s give it another go.
One word can gussy up a sentence.
Sometimes, all a sentence needs to brighten it is just one little buzz word. That one unexpected blast is the pothole in fiction’s road. An awkward word to hopscotch a reader’s eye. And thus, tickle a fancy.
A buzz word is matter out of place. It doesn’t belong there. Yet, without it, the entire sentence is about as exciting as opening night at the You-Scrub-It Car Wash.
(After that, he goes on to explain how to come up with buzz words that will make your sentences interesting, and hold your readers’ interest.)
While you can still find a used copy of this book for under $20, I recommend it. If you’re planning a writing career, it’ll come in handy at some point.
Don’t be deceived. Take a second look. It might change your mind, and — if you’re like me — be a very worthy use of your time.
(Also, I’m saying “report” because I think I bought it for $7, when it was just a 20-something page report. Now, it’s around $10 and includes a video and audio that I haven’t seen. They may give even more important, extra depths to the course.)
It’s true: Initially, I wasn’t impressed by this report. The letters-of-the-alphabet approach seemed like a gimmick. Also, I’ve read much of this before, in other courses and reports.
I kept reading it, anyway. (Okay, being honest: I just skimmed it.)
Then… I’m not sure how much was that quirky letters-of-the-alphabet thing, or his actual information, but — suddenly — I saw what I’d been overlooking in my characters (and character interviews).
That was a major discovery.
Very simply, I didn’t take them deep enough.
Sure, I knew my character’s name. The name even felt like the character.
If I name a character “Greg,” he has medium-brown hair, his gaze is clear and intense when he actually looks at you, and he probably has slightly flat feet. He also likes mac & cheese for lunch, and whistles when he works.
Yes, for me, that’s a “Greg.” (It’s not all people named Greg. It’s just what my “Greg” would be, in my story… at this very moment. Next week, he might be tall, blond, and gorgeous, with a smile that’d take your breath away.)
Most often, I choose names that will seem “right” (familiar) to my target audience. (For that, I select the decade-or-so when they were born, and choose a moderately popular name from that era. For the US — which is home to about 50% of my readers — I use Top 5 Names…)
Sometimes, I know the meaning of the person’s name. (I use Behind the Name for the name’s roots, though Meaning-of-Names can be better for actual meanings.)
But a dimensional character my readers will care about…? Something just didn’t click with how I think… until I read The A-Z report.
A Rose By Any Other Name…? No, A Name Can Be A Door
Suddenly, reading just one part of this report, some essential mental lights turned on. At that moment, I realized: The character’s name can be a key to understanding far more about her (or him).
That tip in that report — one of many useful ideas — asked why her parents named her that.
What did it mean about her parents?
Who was she named after?
If it was an ancestor, what was that person like?
Did my character’s parents hope she’d have similar qualities, and how did that affect her upbringing?
In other words, the name led me to a better understanding of where my character came from, her family’s traditions (good or bad), their values, and how her parents’ expectations (and hopes) may have affected her.
For me, it was kind of a door to realizing, “Ah-HA! This is how to craft characters!”
Will I do that with every character’s name…? Maybe, but probably not.
And, that’s just one of several useful ideas in this report — yes, it contains one idea for every letter of the alphabet — that made a significant difference to how I’m writing and editing my books.
If characters aren’t your strong suit, and that kind of tip intrigues you, this course might be a big time-saver when you’re writing future books. (If you’re disappointed by it, he offers a 30-day money back guarantee.)
The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters* may not be pure gold from start to finish, but — for the price (under $10) — it was a worthwhile purchase for me. All I needed was one good spark to get me un-stuck with my characters This report delivered much more than that.
So, if you’re struggling with characters and the usual advice isn’t working, I recommend this course. It’s not just what Barry McDonald says in it, but how he presents it. For me, that’s where the magic is: Something in how he explained the character crafting process… it made more sense to me than all the previous resources I’d used, put together. (And made the latter more useful, as well.)
[As usual: If you’re not actually working on a book, do not collect yet another “ooh, shiny!” object. Place your posterior in the chair and write! <– Advice I need to follow more, myself. LOL]
*If you’re new to my reviews, the only affiliate links at this site are my Amazon links. In other words, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this course… or any other course I recommend. The only reason I write these reviews is to be helpful to other writers.
Before I talk about the creative side of writing — especially creating believable characters — I want to explain my writing process. It might be your process, as well.
Usually, I default to (admittedly archaic) terms like “right brain” for the creative side of thinking, and “left brain” for the analytical, tidy process. But, you could call it yin and yang. Or Bert (analytical) and Ernie (creative), I suppose.
While some aspects of writing come straight out of my creative side (yin), other writing tasks are definitely analytical (yang).
So, here’s how I’d describe writing my writing process:
The spark or idea that leads to a book: it’s from the creative side.
If I’m working on fiction, the brainstorming as I build my story… those ideas are from the creative side, too. So far, for my current book, I’ve scribbled seven full pages of notes on yellow, lined paper. (If I’m working on nonfiction, the brainstorming is still creative, but more of a connect-the-dots exercise. More of a “what are the questions, and what are the answers?” approach.)
For me, especially when I write nonfiction, the next step is a mindmap to create a tidy, organized plan for my chapters. Clearly, that’s from my analytical side. (If it’s fiction, I might create a flowchart for each main character. Things like, “When she faces the dragon, does she take out a sword? And, if so, what are the possible outcomes, and which fits best with my story?”)
Then, I finalize my formal book outline. That’s definitely an analytical process.
When I write my first draft…? It creative. And sometimes messy, or even really really bad. I’ve learned to throw that together as quickly as possible. No tweaks. No edits. No proofreading, either. I spill the words onto the page, and hope they make sense to me, later.
Editing follows. That should be analytical, and somewhat merciless. Several best-selling authors have recommended a book I own but haven’t read yet: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. (If you can’t be objective about your writing, hire an editor. Or swap manuscripts with another writer, so you edit each other’s books.)
Rewrites are the next step. They’re creative.
Steps 6 & 7 can be repeated, multiple times. Beta readers may be involved, as well.
Whether or not this is your writing process, too, it’s important to let your analytical side have the last word.
When your analytical side says your book is “good enough,” PUBLISH IT.
Do not let your vulnerable, creative side insist, “No, it’s not perfect yet! Let’s give this one more tweak!”
Likewise, never end your writing process with words that landed on the page while your creative side was still steering the ship.
Editing must always be the final step before publishing.
(That’s “do as I say, not as I do” advice. Every time I’ve rushed to publish a book, thinking my latest creative additions were superb and needed no further editing, I’ve regretted it.)
Why I’m Telling You This
Right now, I’m going through nearly a dozen past books. I wrote some of them over a decade ago. Others are more recent. All of them desperately need improvements, but — until recently — I hadn’t a clue how to fix them.
Thank heavens for a recent “ah-HA!” moment, when I read William Martell’s book, Act Two Secrets. It’s brilliant, and identified a big Achilles heel in my writing.
I’ll talk about the Horwitz book in a future article. Meanwhile, though I think his concepts are brilliant and they’ve helped me a lot… his writing books swing between boring and so zany I’m not always sure what his point is.
If you’re determined to see what I mean, immediately, start with Finish Your Book…, preferably in print. If you get to the last page and wonder what in Hades you just read, get Blueprint Your Bestseller. The latter will be repetitive and boring, but it explains several points more clearly. Maybe.
If you can get past the boring & zany stuff, I think his approach is pure genius. (And, as I said, I’ll talk about it in a future article.)
About a week ago, I realized why my characters are generally flat and uninteresting. Maybe even unbelievable.
I’d been trying to construct them analytically, with endless “character interview” forms, etc.
That hasn’t worked.
Usually, all of my heroic characters sound like me, and all of my villains sound like Miss Smith, the seventh-grade English teacher who told me (often, and usually in front of the entire class) that I’d never be a writer.
By mid-book, even I am bored with my characters. They’re flat. Often, they’re far too predictable.
But, so far, character interviews have not sparked my creativity. Deciding that my character’s favorite color is blue, and she thinks ketchup is an abomination… that provides quirks but not character.
What ILearned Reading… The Partridge Method, Britt Malka’s course about writing romantic Christmas novellas in 12 days.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about Christmas romances: Readers buy them all year ’round.
I’m not kidding.
Of course, Christmas romance novellas are most popular from early November through mid-January. (K-Lytics analyses suggest a sales bonanza that’s worth noting. The rest of the year… your numbers may not be so great.)
As usual, I was impressed by the amount of information Britt included in this course. It’s a 68-page course, plus a 28-page worksheet for plotting your Christmas novellas.
As usual, she takes what could be a complex topic, and simplifies it.
(I don’t know about you, but it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in unimportant details, wanting everything to be “just so” in my books. And, in the process, I become overwhelmed and my first draft stalls. Or I never even complete the outline.)
Oh, do not think this is a “Cliffs Notes” version of writing romances.
Yes, to get the most from this report, you should probably know the main romance tropes — and typical story beats — in general.
For romance novel tropes, check the TVTropes.org list. (Warning: that website can devour your entire day. It’s that fascinating.)
Yes, some of TV Tropes’ descriptions are snarky, and a few are NSFW. You may be happier with Mindy Klasky’s list, and Lime Cello’s article (including her blunt opinions) goes into more detail about a few of those tropes.
But, in this course, Britt doesn’t leave out anything important. She includes all kinds of details… many of them make-or-break points that few writers might think of, on their own.
What I Learned from The Partridge Method
One point that surprised me is how Britt built a romance story from the traditional, Christian story of Mary and Joseph. And, she did it in a way that wasn’t the cliché of “pregnant, single mother meets generous man, and he falls in love with her anyway.”
Seeing Britt craft a truly fresh story to fit traditional romance “story beats” was impressive.
Also, her romance included religious themes without being preachy. I like that. Non-Christians could enjoy this kind of story, too.
That concept hadn’t crossed my mind.
But then, Britt used the exact same kind of story structure to outline a second story. It’s a secular Christmas romance. A story like this can capture all of the wonder and magic of the holidays, without specific religious references.
So, Britt’s course expanded how I think about Christmas romance stories.
At the moment, I’m writing some Halloween-themed books. But, thanks to Britt’s suggestions, I’m already brainstorming some Christmas “short reads.”
Britt also offers upsells, which costs significantly more. One includes step-by-step videos to show you exactly how she writes books like these.
Those videos are like having Britt at your side, making each step crystal clear. And, her videos show you how to construct & write Christian/religious Christmas stories and secular Christmas season stories, each demonstrated separately and very clearly.
So, I didn’t have moments of muttering, “Wait. What do I write in this chapter of this kind of story…?”
But, Britt’s basic course provides everything most writers will need. (And, if your budget is limited, don’t feel like you have to buy the upsells. They can be tremendously helpful. They’re not essential.)
A Slightly Different Approach to Plotting
Something else I learned from Britt’s course: She combined Rob Parnell‘s chapter structure with Steve Alcorn‘s version of scene-and-sequel.
The result is interesting. I’d tweak it, of course, not using every part of the structure for every scene.
However, Britt’s 28-page worksheet (included with The Partridge Method course) practically jump-starts your story outline. And, it does that better than most story beats worksheets I’ve seen.
What surprised me most was the flexibility of Britt’s worksheet. This is a system you can use to outline almost any kind of romance, not just Christmas stories.
Note: Britt’s plan is based on 12-chapter books. If you’re writing very short Christmas romances, you may need to modify her outline, condensing some of the action.
For example, you might combine chapters seven and eight. You might make your protagonist’s steep challenges into something so dramatic, she’s plunged into a truly dark moment. At that point, no “happy ending” seems possible.
You might also merge that with the transformational chapter (chapter nine), where she realizes what she has to overcome, personally, to achieve her goal… and she starts on the path back to HEA (Happily Ever After).
Otherwise, if you use the traditional guideline of 1,500 words per scene/chapter, you’ll write an 18,000-word book. That’s close to Amazon’s upper limit (of around 20k words) for any book you’d like them to promote in their “Short Reads” category.
Keep in mind: The 1,500 words/chapter is one of those long-standing standards. In my opinion, it has no credible basis in fact, and it’s not a rule. You can have a 500-word chapter. Or one that’s 250 words long.
And, I know one group of writers who’ve found success with 750-word chapters. (12 chapters x 750 words, each = 9,000 words.)
That’s well within Amazon’s Short Reads limits. If Amazon count an average of 250 words/page, a 9k-word book is 36 pages… but your mileage may vary. I’ve seen some Kindle books figured at over 350 words/page, and others at around 220 words/page.)
Or, at the other extreme, you could write 2500-word scenes. That’s what the Snowflake Guy uses in his books. (But, unless you’re a prolific author, a book with 2500-word scenes will probably require more than 12 days to complete.)
My point is: Don’t let traditional word counts stand in your way. And don’t make Britt’s course a constraint. Use it to make writing — and completing books — easier.
Option: One Chapter at a Time
Britt outlines as she goes along. That is, she outlines one chapter, and then she writes it.
Then she outlines the second chapter. Then she writes it.
And so on.
Thanks to her worksheets, she already knows what’s ahead… generally speaking.
Personally, I hate not maintaining a daily writing schedule. But, I’m not a “pantser.”
That is, I’m not good at making it up as I go along, writing “by the seat of my pants,” with no preparations.
For pros & cons of “pantsing” v. plotting, browse The Editor’s Blog or watch Victoria Schwab’s YouTube video about this:
Before I start writing, I generally outline my entire book, enough to keep from getting seriously sidetracked in the middle of the story.
The problem is: The outline can require weeks to tweak “just so.”
Oh, it’s fun-fun-fun at the time. Well, it usually is.
But, after that, it can take me days (or even weeks) to get back in the daily writing habit.
That part is not fun.
So, I may try Britt’s approach with my next from-scratch book. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me, before. (And, it’s a good example of how Britt often shows me that I’m making writing more difficult than it needs to be.)
Still, no matter what your balance of outlining and writing, I think Britt’s course offers a lot to anyone eager to write a short romance, and especially a Christmas romance.
I believe that — using Britt’s worksheet — most writers can probably complete a Christmas novella in 12 days, just as she says. And, I learned enough from this course to feel good about recommending it if you’re ready to write Christmas romances, especially Short Reads.
However, like any course, this is a good deal only if you’re actually going to use it. If you already have bookshelves (virtual or real-life) filled with how-to books & courses you still haven’t read (or used), work with them, first. Avoid “Ooh, shiny!” syndrome.
Overnight, I realized one way to craft emotionally scarred heroes, and bitter antagonists & villains.
The explanation — an authentic backstory — was right in front of me.
(No, I’m not talking about my husband, though he can be a curmudgeon — but a thoroughly lovable one — at times.)
Instead, it’s a cousin.
Through no fault of his own, my cousin has been rejected by his immediate family.
Now, it’s heartbreaking to watch him in free-fall. He’s changing from a thoroughly cheerful guy to a wounded man with a bitter edge.
I’ve done everything I can to intervene. Worse, it’s the second time he’s had to deal with this issue.
The first time, he understood the dynamics, and the social pressures placed on his immediate family. It was a different era.
This time…? It’s not so easy to reconcile. I’m still hoping for a happier outcome.
Meanwhile, I can see how his dilemma fits perfectly in historical fiction. In a less enlightened time, my cousin’s “sin” was enough reason to act as if he’d never been born.
I’m keeping this generic, for privacy. You can probably think of a variety of issues that fit, from “secret baby” (the person is one, or had one) to gender identification, and from learning disabilities (in a family with high academic standards) to rejection of the family’s harsh religious beliefs.
Here’s how it can work in a story:
To a stranger, the handsome young man (or woman) might seem to “have it all.”
But, he may also have a secret. The evidence is well-concealed. He doesn’t talk about it, and no one knows (or clearly remembers) his family.
His hidden anguish drives him to push people away, or even treat others cruelly.
But, to him — perhaps like the family that rejected him — it may seem like “self-preservation.”
In other words, in his (or her) mind, he’s still the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for himself, and perhaps for those around him. (His motto might be: “Life is hard. Learn that early.”)
As an author, that gives you a LOT to work with.
Today, I’m revising a romance novel that stopped making sense. One of the lead characters had devolved into a cookie-cutter “angry young man.” The more I wrote, the less I liked him.
Now, with these overnight insights, I know exactly how to give him an authentic (and perhaps poignant) backstory. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping that solves the plotting issue.
And, I’m still hoping for the best for my cousin. It’s not too late for a happy ending to that story, too.
In real life, many people want to meet someone… and it’s love at first sight. Everything is perfect, and continues so, through courtship, engagement, and marriage. And, we want to live happily ever after.
Many of us grew up believing that most romances followed that exact path. And, when ours didn’t… we turned to romance novels.
They affirm that, somehow, we too will find our “other half,” or our “split apart” person, or Prince Charming.
Or, in a not-quite-perfect relationship, romance stories help us reconnect with what charmed us when we first fell in love with the partner we’ve chosen.
And then there’s reality’s darker side. 40 to 50 percent of all American marriages end in divorce. The statistics are similar in the EU and in the UK.
Tip: If you want a long-lasting marriage, Chile may be a good destination; their divorce rate is around 3%. (The trade-off…? Chile seems to rank 47th out of 69 countries, in terms of quality of life. However, I’m not convinced that’s a reliable stat.)
So, in most of the world, romance stories, novellas, and novels have a steady, eager audience. (No matter what genre you write in, a romantic story arc can increase your book’s popularity.)
But… a story that’s just “meet > love at first sight > courtship > marriage > happily ever after” would fill about 1,000 words (or less) before it was a snooze.
One huge trick to writing successful romances is getting the story right. From the outset, readers need to feel fairly certain that everything will lead to “happily ever after” (aka, HEA) or at least “happily for now” (HFN).
They just don’t want to get there too quickly. They want to savor the delicious tension of a growing, intense romance.
And, they want a story that’s believable. If they can’t imagine themselves as half of the romantic couple… well, it’s just more of the disappointment — feeling “left out” — that they’re coping with, in real life.
Mind maps can work
You can take your hero & heroine, and mind map every possible way things can go wrong, and then go right for the HEA (or HFN).
That could be a complex mind map. Possibly the size of an entire wall, to accommodate all the lines & arrows.
And, even then, you might get lost in the details. (I know that I would. I’ve tried this and got overwhelmed in minutes.)
What most romance writers want is a good, simple plan or template they can use, over & over again. Change the hero, change the heroine, change the setting (and perhaps the time period), and follow the formula.
Result…? A story that’s fun to write, and happy readers who’ll buy every story you write. And they’ll recommend your books to their friends.
The good news is: someone has put together a series of formulas for you.
Rough Start Romance (a report)
Generally, I rave about Britt Malka’s reports for writers. She has a knack for reverse engineering stories and plot elements that work.
Britt sent me this report as a review copy. If she hadn’t, I would have bought it. It’s that good.
In Britt’s “Rough Start Romance” report, she delivers one of her best romance analyses so far.
It’s 26 pages and I think it’s close to essential reading if you’re struggling with a romance plot, or romantic elements in your suspense, cozy mystery, or other genre fiction.
She’s combed through book reviews, reader forums, and blurbs of successful romances, and she’s broken them down into readers’ likes and hates.
And then, she grouped them logically into possible story arcs. Even better, this report is loaded with details, pros and cons, and suggested ways to avoid disastrous plot elements.
For example, Britt opens by analyzing the differences between a one-sided interest and a “hate at first meet” romance.
And then, she breaks them down into how to write each kind, with lots of options. (Like: should your hero be the one who’s interested, but your heroine isn’t, or vice versa? Which is more appealing to most readers, and what are the challenges for writers?)
For one-sided interest stories, she explains a variety of ways to develop the romance, whether you’re writing sizzling and sexy stories, or light romantic comedies.
For “hate at first meet” romances, Britt has figured out several ways that premise can works well. She also explains the deal-breakers… the things that will ruin that kind of story, and result in toxic reviews.
And, throughout this report, Britt includes story ideas, side-character suggestions, body language and speech mannerisms to give your story more depth (and credibility), and a lot more.
My advice: If you want to make romance writing easier, get this report
This report isn’t inexpensive. But, in my opinion, it’s a must-own for any writer who’s struggling to create credible romance plots.
It’s especially useful for new romance authors, who hit writer’s block somewhere around the first third of the book. (Not that I speak from experience, mind you. Ahem.)
Her tips also work for “short reads” stories, as well as epic-length novels.
“Rough Start Romance” clearly explains how to keep your readers engaged (no pun intended) from the first page to the last, with no major stumbles — but lots of juicy, what-will-happen-next tension — from meet to marriage.
*In the interest of writing unbiased reviews, I don’t use affiliate links for reports and products like this. So, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this report. My review is written from the heart (no pun intended), and I truly believe this is one of Britt’s best reports, so far.
The following is edited from PMs I’d exchanged with a first-time fiction writer. Much of this probably isn’t new for anyone regularly reading my blog, but it may provide others with some fresh insights.
Here’s the backstory: Earlier this week, I’d read a friend’s wife’s historical novel. She’d published it in Kindle herself. I was impressed by her writing skills.
As we swapped messages, she asked if I write outlines for my books.
1. Use the Hemingway Editor on the first five or so pages, to make the “look inside” easier (meaning: simpler phrasing) to read.
After readers have read more of your book, and they’re used to your writing “voice,” readability and sentence lengths are less important.
However, for marketing, your text needs to be super-simple for readers to get into. Even on the Amazon sales page, you want readers to be caught up in the story from the very start.
I have the Hemingway Editor on my desktop, but you can use it, free, at the website. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ <— Just highlight their sample text, remove it, and paste in part of your opening. (The software was originally called the “Hemingway App,” and a lot of long-time writers — including me — still call it that.)
2. [She had published using her real name.] Add a co-author name — one you make up — that will be your future pen name, and republish your book.
So, at Amazon (etc.), the authors (two names on the cover) will be your real name, with a second, co-author name you choose, as well.
(I like to find interesting names in my family tree, from the era I’m writing in, and select one as my pen name. Sometimes, book sales will improve with a pen name that’s related to the genre or time period you’re writing about.)
That way, people who know you (in real life) can find this book, but your fans will start following your pen name… and you keep most of your privacy.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting up boundaries, early, to protect your privacy and your family’s. Trust me on this. Please. Fans can be a little overzealous. Sometimes in scary ways.
3. Add a subtitle, saying what the book is about. Tell people the time period, and what the genre is. For example, I’m working on Regency romances right now, so my titles (with subtitles) will be something like “The Dangerous Duke – A Regency Romance.”
4. If you can, hire someone to design a professional-looking book cover. The right book cover will pay for itself, quickly.
You can hire her at the lowest price and get something pretty good, but I give her about $35 and she creates something amazing for me. In addition, I can use the cover on my Kindle (etc.) books, as well as my printed (CreateSpace) books.
And, any graphics she uses… you can be certain they’re legal to use. (I can’t say that about all Fiverr cover designers.)
Those are the basics, as far as I’m concerned. You can follow-up with more professional marketing, including help from Fiverr book marketer, bknights, and some well-targeted Facebook ads.
A good book deserves the best marketing you can give it. Of course, your marketing efforts shouldn’t compromise your time (or budget) for actually producing books.
Nevertheless, if you’re publishing books at all, they should be good books and have enough marketing to be discovered by hungry readers in your sub-genre.
It’s especially easy to find story beats if you watch movies from the late 1990s through the present day.
These are the steps I use:
I select a movie with a theme that appeals to me as a general plot premise.
If I haven’t seen the movie before, or if I haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll sit down and watch the movie from start to finish. Sometimes, I take notes about important moments in the plot, as they occur.
After that, I figure the length of the movie, in minutes. (Usually, this includes the opening titles and closing credits, but your results may vary.)
I divide that in half. That tells me — usually within two or three minutes on either side — where the story’s Midpoint is.
I divide each of those sections into three exactly equal (in minutes) parts. The first “break” in the pre-Midpoint section is the First Plot Point, and it’s usually within three minutes of that break.
At the second break, you’ll usually find the First Pinch Point. That’s the twist in the plot, and it’s followed by the Midpoint.
After that, the breaks will be at the Second Pinch Point (another twist to increase story tension) and the Second Plot Point (a somewhat dramatic change)… and then you’re at the Resolution, followed by the closing credits.
In most modern, American-made films, you can practically set your watch by those points. I’m not kidding.
However, the big variable is whether you’re counting from when the movie starts to when the screen goes dark, OR if you’re counting from when the opening titles conclude, to when the closing credits start.
From what I’ve seen so far, at least 80% of the time, you can safely measure from the moment the film starts to when the closing credits conclude.
Example: While You Were Sleeping
The movie, While You Were Sleeping, is 1:42 long, which means 102 minutes.
I’ve seen it many times in the past, so I just skipped ahead to see the story beats.
First, I fast-forwarded to the halfway point, at 51 minutes. Bingo. It’s where Jack & Lucy slip on the ice and nearly kiss. That’s the Midpoint. No doubt about it.
Going back to find the First Plot Point, I can argue that the First Plot Point is at the 14-minutes point, where Elsie needs her nitroglycerin and Lucy finds out she “saved the whole family.” (No pressure, right…?)
However, the First Plot Point is probably right where it should be, around the 17-minutes mark, where Lucy can’t sleep and confesses everything to Peter (in a coma), and Saul overhears her. A lot of the remaining plot is based on Lucy’s assumption that Saul will tell the family the truth.
At the 34-minutes mark…? Joe Jr. tells Jack that he’s “dating” Lucy (with a rude gesture to make his point clear), and Jack really starts suspecting that Lucy is conning everyone.
After that, I already know the Midpoint is at the 51-minutes mark, so I keep fast-forwarding.
At the 68-minutes mark, Peter wakes up and doesn’t recognize Lucy. (Ouch!) That’s the Second Pinch Point.
And then, at the 86-minutes mark, Peter proposes to Lucy and she accepts. That’s the final big change (Second Plot Point) before the Resolution.
Except that the proposal is about a minute late (which I can forgive), this is a movie that fits the pattern, perfectly.
I haven’t built a generic plot from this, yet. Nevertheless, I used some of those beats in a recent story. They were heavily mixed with beats from another film, and from a TV series.
That’s because I rarely use a single generic plot (based on a recent movie) for my stories.
… And that leads us to the topic of originality.
Copyrights, Intellectual Property (IP), and Story Beats
First of all, the disclaimer: though my MIT years involved lots of legal work involving copyright and plagiarism, and weekly consultations with copyright lawyers (to be sure I was getting everything right), I’m an editor and writer, not an attorney.
So, the following is not legal advice; it’s just my understanding of it. Double-check everything, if you have any questions at all.
With that in mind, I think the most important point is: No one can copyright an idea. If someone’s general (not specific) idea seems like a great premise — a brilliant start to a story concept — you may be able to use it in your own, very different story context.
(Keep reading. I’ll explain.)
Copyright law falls within the larger topic of intellectual property. However, when writers talk about “intellectual property” (aka, IP), we usually mean property (an actual thing, like a book or a movie or a game) that results from original creative thought.
(Tip: Don’t think about blatantly copying anything from Harry Potter books. However, you may find a different popular “world” you can safely write about, at Kindle Worlds.)
Of course, public domain movies and stories are fair game. Just be certain they’re actually in the public domain. (For example, some rights to Peter Pan are still protected in the United States and some other countries.)
From Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, to TV series like Once Upon a Time to Grimm, old stories and tropes can be revised for success. (Even Disney’s hit, Frozen, was based on one of The Snow Queen stories.)
And then there are mashups, like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
However, I don’t advocate closely copying any existing story or film plot. Not unless you want your readers to get to page three and say, “Wait. I already know how this will end. It’s the same as the [fill in the blank] story.”
Morphing Generic Story Beats
For fun (and possibly profit), I like to take story beats, like those in America’s Sweethearts, and distill them down to a series of plot points that are plain-vanilla and very generic. In many cases, those general plots could match any of a dozen films, and perhaps more.
Then, I make some changes… big changes. They could be shifting the time period. Or, I might switch genders, so the female role in the film is the male in my story, and vice versa.
Or, more often, I do a mashup of my generic story beats.
I’m not unique. For example, I can see a mix of The Ugly Duckling and (even more obvious) Cinderella in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There are even quizzes that mashup movie plots.
My point is: If you’re going to use this movie approach to plotting, it’s a good idea to start with the most generic story beats possible. Make sure you’re using conceptual points, not anything that points to one — and only one — movie. Then mix two or three sets of them.
Use the general premise from one, the First Plot Point from another, and a twist (Second Pinch Point) from a third.
(If you’re writing genre romance, the Midpoint is often the kiss or near-kiss, so you don’t need to “borrow” that from anything. It’s a classic romance trope.)
This can save a lot of time, and result in a great, timeless plot that you can use over and over again, in several different novels.
I hope that’s helpful. And, if you don’t want to sit through a bunch of movies with a calculator, pen, and pad of paper, remember that you can get story beats — as “beat sheets” — from Blake Snyder’s site.
If you have any questions, let me know. I can’t give legal advice, but I’m happy to explain how I work with story beats in my own books.
I’m working with a premise that’s very loosely based on the 2001 movie, “America’s Sweethearts.” To simplify the plotting, I created a quick story beats summary, I took the key transitional moments (as I saw them) in the movie… and then I made them generic.
I’m sure I’ll use this as a template for several books.
Please don’t share these links. (And, I may delete this article in a few days.) I’d rather not see a bazillion books that are more-or-less the same story, over & over again.
(Yes, many successful genre fiction stories are the same few stories, told different ways. I just don’t want this particular story/theme to show up in a dozen-or-so books in the same sub-genre I’m writing in, all at the same time.)
Also, if you haven’t seen the movie (which I recommend to romance writers), my PDFs contain spoilers. The film is on Netflix right now, so you may want to watch it, first. It’s a romantic comedy with some suggestive jokes, but no nudity.
P.S. Some of these plot points are similar to story elements in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Mary Crawford is a lot like “Mary” in my 2nd PDF. I didn’t realize that until I re-read the PDF.