Yesterday, I had a talk with one of my coaching clients about characters. Not so much characters as those character sheets that writers are always filling out. The ones that ask what their favourite colour is or whether they prefer hard rock or classical music. One course I took had me filling out six pages worth of detail. As my client noted, “jeez, I don’t even know myself this well!”
Does it help to know that your character likes bananas but only when in banana bread and in no other form?
It depends. Does it say something about his behavior? Does he not like bananas because they mean sticky fingers? Or is it something that fills in a character form?
I’m not knocking someone else’s process. For lots of writers, these forms are helpful. But what if you’re like me or my client and find these forms a great big, time suck?
What do you need to know about a character?
What are the essentials?
What are the nice-to-haves?
It doesn’t matter if your character is a six-foot-three god with flaming red hair if you haven’t got the above sorted out. Knowing that he prefers red wine to beer and trucks to sedans will only tell you so much about who he is. But the part that will have him drive the plot forward with his decisions and actions? Now that you HAVE to know.
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How will you know when you’re a ‘good’ writer?
How do you know if what you’re writing is any good?
I coach writers and find I hear the same things:
I get it. Writing is subjective. You only have to take a look at your favourite writer on Goodreads and you’ll find that the book that changed your life, did naff all for someone else. In fact, they DNF’d it (Did Not Finish).
What defines ‘good’? Is it getting an agent or a publishing contract? Is it winning an award? Is it getting great reviews? Is it making one fan smile every time you bring out something new? ‘Good’ means different things to different people. There are any number of literary festivals taking place near me in the next few months. None of them even acknowledge romance as a genre - it is not seen as ‘good’ writing to those powers that be. The fact that local romance writers outsell these ‘good’ writers on their speaking panels, a hundred or even a thousand times over, means little to them. What’s their criteria for ‘good’ then? Obviously not wide international appeal.
What would be your definition of good writing? Is it about story? Is it about poetic sentences? Or is it about what people think? Small literary gatherings at university libraries? Online reader’s groups that clamour for your ARCs (advanced reader copies)?
What’s popular and what sells at any given time is a mystery, and hindsight is always twenty twenty. In the writing business, you’ll have to determine what your own definitions for success are. But all ‘good’ writing has a few things in common that you should bear in mind:
I’ll let you in on something else – a little self-doubt in your work might be a GOOD thing. I’ve done manuscript appraisals for writers who believe they are alreadygreat writers. They wanted me to send them twelve pages of unadulterated praise about their masterpiece.
How is a little self-doubt good?
Don’t let being ‘good’ stop you from starting your novel. It’s the only way you’ll be your definition of ‘good’.
I’ve recently watched Me Before You(*spoiler alert* a reminder, this is not a romance as there is no happy ever after). At the beginning of the movie, Lou Clark has put all her own dreams or plans of the future on hold as she waits out her life in a teashop. Boom, cue the inciting incident** – she loses her job. What to do? She finds a job taking care of wheelchair bound Will, which leads to the meet cute.**
All of that aside, the Lou we meet at the beginning of the movie is not the same as the Lou by the end. This is the character arc, the development of the character over the course of the events of the novel. Sometimes, the character does not change, and a devastating example of that is in Manchester by the Sea(definitely not a romance). In romance, however, we want and need our character and their love interest to grow over the course of the novel.
Key things to remember on writing up your character arc:
By the end of Me Before You, Lou is no longer the naïve Lou she once was, and has accepted that not everything can be ‘fixed’ But, she has broadened her horizons and is visiting Paris, echoing Will’s footsteps.
** Inciting incident, dark night of the soul, meet cute? You’ll find about those and more in Have you lost the plot?
The other day I came across a bunch of short romances I’d written as a teenager. I remember tap-tapping them out on my mother’s typewriter that liked a gentle rhythm otherwise the keys bunched together worse than a corduroy skirt. The stories run from red to black ink and back again and feature coffee stains and the anticipation of a seventeen-year-old trying out a potential career.
This afternoon, I typed out the first thousand words of a companion novella that links together bigger novels in a new series that I hope to release later this year in an experimental project. The word count flew out faster and more furious than the franchise itself.
The teen me squatting on my kid sister’s stool at that typewriter that I’d rested on the record player, my Camel cigarette smouldering next to me, would be in awe. And terrified. How had I made the leap from there to here? What magic potion? What psychic vision? What had happened in the intervening years? That ‘me’ with the spiral perm used to fixate on, ‘how can it be done?’
Interestingly enough, those stories stand up okay today. Somehow, I’d unwittingly stumbled on something in those formative years that I didn’t quite understand or worse, recognize.
[insert twelve years where I don’t write anything, I just know I want to write…something, before stumbling into…]
In this period, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was getting words out on the page. I thought plotting was for amateurs, which I wasn’t because I was managing to write. Writers write, right?
I have folders on my laptop entitled ‘Various Aborted Book Projects’. This idea graveyard houses all sorts of first chapters. Some even get to the dizzying lengths of 5,000 words. There are some good parts in there, but they all have one thing in common – none of them sound like me. Bits of me, yes, but not ‘me’ me.
Then there are the books that I wrote to full-length. One’s gone missing, another is horrible (so soso horrible). My writing features head hopping, no scene context, no conflict, no goals, stuff happening with no point whatsoever, and alarming genre mish-mashes that don’t work. And so much dialogue. Pages and pages and pages of conversations.
I’d wait for inspiration, write furiously until at least a few pages were covered, and then I’d abandon it. A better idea would mushroom and I’d flit about chasing it without a net.
These aimless wanderings carried on for far longer than I thought possible until one day…
I had a deadline. An agent wanted my finished YA novel.
I sat down and worked out my 64 scenes and what had to happen in each one.
Every day, I would fix myself a cup of tea and I would write an email to my personal email address from my work email address (probably not to be recommended unless you enjoy being fired) (in my won rickety defence, I didn’t have a computer to use at home) (it would be years of writing before I did), and that email would be next scene from my book of 1,200 words. Every day. Sometimes I’d get up and have a second cup of tea.
Within a month and a half, I had the first draft of a novel which landed me an agent contract (what happened with that is subject for another blog post).
I have followed this process ever since. I make a cup of tea, head to wherever I’ve abandoned my laptop, retrieve it, and write myself 1,000 words. When the words aren’t flowing, I head for that second cup of tea and try again. Sometimes I have to come back later in the evening.
For another book deadline, I wrote every morning in the space between my boyfriend leaving my house, and my leaving to go to work. Always with the tea.
When I was seventeen, I’d prepare with the coffee and the cigarettes. I’d switch on the radio and I’d settle in to my ‘writer mode’.
Many many years later, I do the same thing. It’s like donning my magic writer’s cape. Cup of tea, in front of my keyboard, radio echoing downstairs. You could say, it’s my ritual.
Yes, sometimes that space is easy and light and other times it’s hard and painful. But my brain switches onto that ‘other’ part of me. The part that’s drifted through the writing wilderness, refining her craft and finding out who she is on the page. Maybe at seventeen those lines were less blurred and she was more ‘me’ than I let on. Maybe if I’d have followed her rather than left her to pursue more scholarly ambitions, my journey would have been shorter.
Either way, the writer me likes ritual. And she’s a stickler for the specifics like my cat (I will never move her favourite chair to the other side of the room again). The process of making tea switches me into the ‘mode’. The mug to my right, my means of writing in front of me, the music playing softly.
It’s my writing ritual. I don’t rub a Buddha belly or anything like that, but it’s what helps me get my writing out of my head and onto the page.
HEA ROMANCE WRITING
Everything you need to know to write your own happily ever after.