Friday, July 21, 2006

Who Are These People in My Head and When Will They Shut Up?

When writers (both published and unpublished) talk about their approaches to writing, you tend to find there are two distinct groups:
  • Plotters, who must have their characters and story lines fully developed before they can put pen to paper (or, in the modern era, keyboard to computer screen).
  • Pantsers, who as the name implies write pretty much by the seat of their pants from the beginning.

I hereby admit to being very much a pantser. And that's because my characters often force me to take the story in directions I never dreamed of. When I started Living In Sin, I had exactly two characters in my head: the hero and the heroine. I didn't sit down and write character maps or life histories or anything like that for them, either. They just seemed to spring into my head, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Because the hero is a commoner (as well as Irish) and the heroine is the daughter of a duke, I had to come up with a plot device to allow them to meet, spend a great deal of time together, and fall in love. I knew the characters internal conflicts, but the plot (or external conflict) wasn't all that clear. I had an idea of where I was going to take it, and even wrote some stuff for the end of the book that I'm now forced to throw out. And that's because these people I invented are now in my head and they have thoughts, feelings, and opinions about what they will and won't do, and they are not at all shy about letting me know when I'm trying to make them do something that's not in character. Hence, the title of this post.

I suppose non-writers often wonder where writers get their ideas from. For me, the answer is: my characters tell me. But my characters are not me. And that's what's so fascinating about the whole process to me. You see, I started with two characters, but their universe quickly populated itself with a whole bunch of subordinate characters: the tavern wench and the carpenter who loves her, the neighboring viscountess who becomes the heroine's best friend, the hero's best friend from their college days in Dublin, the villain, and the villainess. And all of them are very much like real people to me. They just happen to be real people who live in my head instead of in the world.

And my characters know where the plot should go because they tell me the story as I write it. Sometimes, it feels a little more like taking dictation than anything else.

Now, if this all seems a little weird and like maybe I am suffering from a strange form of multiple personality disorder, let me assure you:

  1. It is weird, and
  2. Many other writers suffer the same condition, or at least they tell me they do

All of this said, I finally had to force myself to sit down and write a complete, detailed synopsis for my story. It required all of my willpower, but you see, I realized if I didn't actually plot the thing out from its current point (70,000+ words and fifteen chapters) through to the end, it was going to take me another 70,000+ words and fifteen chapters to tie up all my subplots. I needed a road map and I needed it fast, because otherwise, I was going to wander around early Victorian Berkshire forever trying to find the way out. I think it's entirely possible that I could write "the middle" of any story nearly forever. And I have to say, I'm very pleased with the way the characters worked out their internal conflicts to reach their Happily Ever After (or HEA in romance novelist lingo) and the way all the subplots tie up neatly at the end. And I managed to do it in nine chapters plus an epilogue. Not bad.

There's only one problem. See, there's this leeeeetle love scene in Chapter 19 that's crucial to the plot line. I mean, crucial. And my hero doesn't think he'd do what I'm telling him he has to do.

Now you see why I ask when these people in my head are going to shut up!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Getting Serious About This Whole Writing Business

When I started writing this book last February, I didn't think it would be any different than the tens (maybe even hundreds) of other novels I've started writing in my life but never finished. I did it purely for my own amusement, not because I had any aspiration to or expectation of publication.

But then the darn thing went and took on a life of its own. A month after I'd begun, I'd written somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 words and started thinking not only that I might actually finish the darn thing, but that it might be pretty good. And writing it was becoming like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I thought maybe I'd better try to find out whether it was worth it to keep devoting so much of my time to writing. I needed some honest people to tell me whether my story was any good at all or whether I was just wasting my time.

That's where the Internet in all its glory came into the picture. I started looking for other aspiring writers to commune with. I found and joined a Yahoo group called Aspiring_Romance_Writers. Many of the posters there read my work and their comments were encouraging. It seemed like maybe I had some talent and wasn't just engaging in an act of pure mental masturbation.

So I got more serious. I started exchanging chapters regularly with Lacey Kaye, who became my first and most indispensible critique partner. (To this day, I send her every chapter as soon as it is written and she always gives me fantabulous feedback.) I learned from the ARW folks about Romance Writers of America (RWA). After dithering for a month, I found a contest I wanted to enter (the Seattle Chapter's Emerald City Opener) and decided to fork over my $100 for membership. That proved to be a good decision, however the contest turns out (I believe results are supposed to come out in August) because through RWA, I found my other critique partners and they are all terrific (you know who you are and if you want me to publish your name and website here, just e-mail me!).

As of last week, I finished my 15th chapter and have a whopping 70,000 words written of an expected 100,000. Looking at my plot line, I think it'll actually wind up more like 110,000 to 120,000 words when I finish the first draft, but I know there's stuff I can go back and remove to get it back down to the 100,000 mark.

And reaching that milestone has made me even more serious. I've chosen a pen name (a riff on my real first name and my maiden name that I came up with when I was 16) and am setting up a website (not that there's anything there yet) and this blog. I've tasked myself with completing my first draft by September 30th and hope to have all the critiques incorporated by October 31st. With any luck, I'll start sending out query letters on the first November.

Whether or not I ever succeed in getting anything I write published (I already have characters and plots for two follow-ups to my current book), I've learned a lot in this process. I've learned that I'm brave enough to let other people read my work (for years, I couldn't bear the idea). I've learned things about writing a romance I never even dreamed of (e.g. internal vs. external GMC). I've learned how to put my ego in the box I keep next to computer when I read a critical comment on what I've written rather than just getting my feelings hurt. And I've learned that there's a whole world of other people out there aspiring to write and publish their own novels, but that rather than viewing them as competitors, I can view them as friends and compatriots. We're all in the same boat, so to speak.

Finally, I've learned that writing is a business. It's not just a matter of writing the best romance novel evah. Because you could write the best romance novel ever and never get it published if you don't also write a great query letter, a great synopsis, and, most importantly, get yourself out there. There's no substitute for self-promotion in this industry; no one else is going to do your work for you.