Monday, February 11, 2013

What To Do When Your Novel Isn't Speaking To You

On Facebook yesterday, I saw a post by another author where she voiced her frustration over how she couldn't seem to trudge through her edits. She had been reading the same three paragraphs for three hours, unable to make any progress.

Man, do I feel her pain, as I'm sure all writers do. It's the nature of the beast to fall into periods of low or even non-existent productivity, and when that happens, it's easy to fall into a panic, seeing the time slipping away as your deadline looms ever-nearer. (NOTE: Even indie authors should assign themselves deadlines; otherwise, it's too easy to poo-poo away that slipping time with a wave of the hand and a flippant, "I'll get to it eventually.")

So, how do you handle these potential time-bombs of panic? When the story just isn't working?

Before I talk about how I handle them, I'd like to share where I think some of these low-or-no productivity periods come from.

I have learned from experience that when a story isn't "talking" to me, whether through the draft phase or the editing phase, or when I'm struggling with a manuscript, it means one of two things:
  1. I am forcing too much of me into the story, meaning I've stopped listening to my characters and am trying to finagle them into situations that I contrived, not them. In other words, I have ceased telling the story the characters want to tell and am instead forcing the story I want to put into their mouths.
  2. I am not understanding my characters.
For example, In Rebel Obsession, I struggled to like Miriam and portray her in a positive light. In the first draft, she came off like a spoiled, self-obsessed brat. Ugh. I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth. What was wrong with her? And why wouldn't she talk to me? Every time I asked her why she was the way she was or what she wanted, she said, "I don't know." Double ugh! And then one day the light bulb went on. She really did not know. As soon as I realized that, she rejoiced inside my mind. I got it! I finally got it! That was the angle I needed to portray her from. Once I understood her, I was able to portray her correctly as a confused, rebellious character who was struggling to figure out where she belonged in a world where high expectations that she didn't want and had no idea what to do with were placed on her. She simply did not know what she wanted, because she had been sheltered all her life. Hence the source of her problems. She wanted to break free and figure herself out.

Long story short: As long as I am listening to and understanding my characters, the story flows out of me. But as soon as I start trying to force my will, the story shuts down.

This happened in my latest work, Return of the Assassin. I went into the preparation with this story holding high hopes. The characters had powerful stories to tell, and the passion between them was smokin'. And then I started worrying about word-length. My last book in the series clocked in at 115,000 words. The one before that was over 80,000. The one before that: 60,000. So, I decided I needed this book to be around 90,000 words or more. Next I began to worry about all the side characters. I needed to work Trace into the story, because fans love him. So, how was I going to make Trace a part of this book so that it worked? And then there was my new character, Maddox, Trace's father. I needed to work him in. Oh, and then there were the other new characters: Kieran, Tully, Searcy, Lorena, and Savill. And then I needed to make sure to mention Brak, another new character who is pivotal to the ending of the book, as well as future books. Oh, and let's not forget Apostle and Bishop, Grotek and Chane, and, and, and.....AAAAUUUUGGGHHH!

Before I knew it, Return of the Assassin had shut down. Not a peep for weeks. Panic set in: "OMG! Why won't the book talk to me? My deadline for the draft is the end of March, but the story won't even whisper right now! How will I finish it in time to release the book by September? Oh, despair, despair!"

Now we come to where I answer the question: What do I do when a story is no longer speaking to me? Maybe my methods will help some of you overcome the same writer's block.

In the case of Return of the Assassin, I set the book aside and worked on other projects for a few weeks. This let the manuscript simmer in my subconscious where I could work out the issues without really thinking about them. A couple of weeks ago, I picked ROTA, as I call it, back up and started trudging through it. I began editing even though the writing phase wasn't over, which is something I rarely do, because, in my opinion, a writer should never start editing before finishing the writing phase. It's too easy to fall into a self-defeating loop of continual edits and rewrites without ever getting to the end of the manuscript.

But in my case, I needed to figure out where the story had gone off track, so I started rewriting. But the more I rewrote, the more desperate the situation seemed to become. The characters just weren't talking, and I was becoming very upset. I mean, what I was rewriting was better than what was there before, and the changes strengthened the story by leaps, but I was suffering to pull the story out.

Then one morning, I was getting ready for work and said to my characters, "Okay, what's wrong? Why isn't this working?"

As I worked through a dialogue with the characters, they stripped me down to the basics of what was important in the story. Within twenty minutes, my problem was solved. My main characters, Malek and Gina, showed me how their story had become everything but their story. I would have seen this in edits, but it was so much nicer to see it now, so I could save myself a lot of time and aggravation.

So, my worries about word length? Gone. If the story comes in at 60,000, then so be it. I'd rather have a wham-bang, kick-ass story at 60,000 words than a so-so one at 120,000. Trace? Sorry, but he's out. I know fans love him and want him, but his book is next, and the scenes I wanted to include in ROTA that focused on him will better serve his book, not Malek's. He might get a tiny mention, but that's it. Kieran and Tully? Gone from this book. Searcy, Savill, and Lorena? They stay, because this story depends on them. Basically, I stripped out anything that had nothing to do with this story, and pumped up Malek and Gina into powerful leading characters, ripe with emotion and inner turmoil, who have brought me to tears numerous times as I write. As a result, ROTA is flowing again, and Trace's book is already off to a fabulous start because of all the Trace scenes I removed from ROTA. So it's a win-win, with a bonus: I will blow my completion date of March 31 out of the water by over a month, and will finish ROTA's draft within the next week, maybe two at the most. What that means is that I will be able to release the book sooner than expected, and that I can start Trace's book sooner than expected, too.

All because I pulled my ego, influence, and personal desires out of the equation and let the characters take charge. It's their story to tell, after all.

In summary, here's how to help get you back on track if you've fallen off of it (I use each of the following methods to help break me through plateaus):
  • Make sure you're not forcing too much of YOU into the story. It's not your story. It's your characters' story. You are simply the vehicle to tell their story. It's your job to determine the best way to tell it so readers will love it, and that's it.
  • Are you listening to the characters? If not, try listening and see if that helps.
  • Are you understanding the characters? Again, really pay attention to what they're saying. You might be missing something like I was with Miriam.
  • Are you worried about word length, secondary characters, and side plots? If so, forget about all that. Stop, breathe, and focus on what the main story for your book is about. Write about that. The word length will take care of itself.
  • Breathe. Walk away and just breathe. Watch TV, read a book, go to a movie. Eventually, when you least expect it, the story will begin talking to you again...when IT is ready, not when YOU are. Be patient.
  • Work on another project. Sometimes it's another project that wants your attention. If another story is talking to you, that's the one that needs your attention right now. Don't fight it and force yourself to work on a project that isn't speaking to you when another one is. You'll blow both.
  • Maybe you just need a week off. Everyone needs a break, even a writer.
  • Read a book on writing or a book outside your normal genre. I am reading a nonfiction book on running right now (Born to Run) that, every time I pick it up, I'm inspired to write. The author has a fabulous way of putting things into words that is a joy to read and inspires my own writing. Furthermore, I read a book on Deep POV last November that rocked my writing world so powerfully that I put Rebel Obsession through a special last-minute edit that totally altered the story in a fabulous way. My editor said it was a totally different—and much better—book after I made the changes.
Writing is work. It's not supposed to be easy. And like with anything we do in life, sometimes we are just not in the right frame of mind to write. We get into moods: I feel like seeing a movie; I feel like Chinese for lunch; I feel like taking a nap; I feel like going for a walk; I feel like taking a day off...and yes, I feel like not writing today, or this week, or whatever. And that's okay. Because in time, you WILL feel like writing again. And in time, the stories will begin talking again, too.

Does anyone else have other suggestions for breaking through plateaus? Please add them below in the comments.

Happy reading and writing!

Friday, February 8, 2013

How Do You Begin Your Story?

Probably one of the most vexing decisions for an author starting a new book is, "Where do I begin?" The opening of a book is considered make-or-break, so you want to get the beginning right. And getting it right means gripping the reader by the proverbial testicles and not letting go for the duration of at least the first chapter, but preferably the entire book, if possible.

When a reader says, "The story captured my attention from the first word and I couldn't put the book down until I finished," you know your beginning was effective.

So, what makes a good beginning? How do you decide where to start your story? My answer has two parts. Let's begin with part one:

Think of a race, such as the Daytona 500...a race that's long and takes more than a couple of minutes to finish. The cars circle the track, circle the track, circle the track...and your attention wanes. But CRASH! Cars slam the wall, tires go flying, maybe there's a fire...and your beer and nachos are forgotten. Everyone stands and strains their necks to see the action. Oooos and aaaahhhs and gasps echo through the crowd. Why? Because action gets people's attention. And when does action occur? During points of change.

Think about it. In that race, everything was status quo as long as all the cars were zipping along, but as soon as change occurred and one car went off track, KABOOM! Action! And the audience both in the seats and at home were on their feet, leaning forward, holding their breath.

So the answer to where to begin your story is during a point of change.

It doesn't have to be a point of big change. The change could be small or internal, but with big consequences. Here are some examples of points of change, big and small, where you could start your story:
  • The signing of divorce papers
  • A car crash
  • A breakup between high school sweethearts
  • First day at a new school
  • Getting fired
  • Starting a new job
  • An explosion
  • An invasion by a foreign country
  • The death of a loved one
  • Coming home from war
  • Going off to war
  • Diagnosis of disease
  • A fist fight
I could go on, but the point to remember, regardless of whatever point of change you open your book with, is to make sure the beginning coincides with the story. If the main plot of your story is about a character who goes to war, then starting the story with a diagnosis of cancer probably won't work. In other words, if the beginnnig of your story has nothing to do with the main plot and what happens in the end, you're going to confuse (and maybe piss off) your readers, and your story will come off disjointed and sloppy.

Why is that? Because—and this is part two of the answer about how to begin your book—a reader should know within a few paragraphs, or at least by the end of the first chapter, what your book and subsequent ending is going to be about. The joy for the reader is in watching the characters get to the end they are expecting, based on the beginning.

I have a background in business, and I specialize in building presentations. The rule of thumb with presentations is: Tell your audience what you're going to tell them (intro); tell your audience what you came to tell them (body); tell them what you've told them (summary and conclusion). You do the same thing in works of fiction, just in a different way. You still have an intro, a body, and a conclusion, and all three parts must relate to one another. If they don't, your message isn't cohesive, and you will confuse your audience.

A couple of examples of books that went way wrong with their beginnings and how readers reacted:

I recently tried to read a story that I had heard good things about. The first 10% of the book (the intro) focused on Character A and his attraction to Character B. But the story was supposed to be about a romance between Character A and Character C, who the author didn't introduce us to until around 15% in, and who, at 50% in, still wasn't clear would be the character that A ended up with.

Furthermore, this book did not start at a point of change. It started with Character A and two other non-crucial characters having lunch. Lunch, lunch, lunch, lots of conversation about Character B, and then Character A going about his daily routine. No change whatsoever. It was boring as hell. The only reason I kept reading was because other people had said the book was good (but I wasn't seeing it at all, making me wonder if these other people were just friends of the author trying to tout her book for her). After the blah beginning, the story led me down every road EXCEPT the one the story was allegedly about: the romance between Character A and Character C. I ended up ditching the book at 50%, unable to read another word because I was so frustrated. I mean, I don't want to have to wait until the end of the book to read about the blossoming relationship between my destined-to-be-together main characters.

Another book I fortunately only read the free look inside (on Amazon) and several enlightening reviews of started off with a great point of change: A soldier coming home from war and bumping into an old friend from high school he'd had a falling out with and had been attracted to. Bravo! Excellent beginning. Let's get ready to watch these two work through their conflict with one another and hook up. Unfortunately, the beginning of this book, as well as the body, had nothing to do with the real story, which was about the soldier developing a romance with a completely separate character at the end of the book.

Based on the very-pissed-off reviews of several readers, the majority of the book focused on the soldier and his old friend, making you think they were the ones who were going to hook up, and then SURPRISE! Sorry, but the old friend is going to be a non-entity at the end of the book and the soldier is going to wind up with someone else. Say what?

This was a major fail, and readers made sure the author knew how they felt (a couple of those reviews were damn ugly). As a romance, this story should have been about the relationship between the soldier and the guy who gets him in the end, but the story we got wasn't even about them. It was about the soldier and his friend, who, from the reviews, wasn't even part of the ending. Unfortunately, even the blurb of the book makes you think the soldier and his friend are going to hook up, so what was this author thinking?

Perhaps the author thought she was being clever, I don't know, but she committed a cardinal sin: She disregarded her readers. Never, never ever, bait your readers into thinking XYZ is going to happen when you intend to give them ABC instead...unless you want to piss off your readers. And pissed off the readers were.

Please learn from the mistakes of these authors, and don't make them. Keep the main plot and the real story first and foremost in your mind, and if your opening or any scene within the body has nothing to do with the main story, cut it or rewrite it so that it does. It doesn't matter how clever the scene is, or how well written, if it doesn't contribute to the main story, cut it. I've had to cut many a fabulous scene for this reason. But just because it's a fabulous scene doesn't mean it's fabulous for the book I'm writing, which takes priority. The main story comes first; the scenes and opening should contribute to the main story, not detract or lead the reader away from it.

First and foremost, always remember who you're writing for: The READERS. They don't care if YOU like your story. They only care that THEY do. Readers, particularly of romance, don't appreciate the bait and switch, or being led down a stray path only to be slapped in the face with a red herring, which is disrespectful of their time and money, as well as insulting to their intelligence. Furthermore, like it or not, readers want the happy ending, particularly in romance. They want the conclusion you have promised them in the beginning and body of the book. And if the beginning and body have been about XYZ, if you give them anything but XYZ, be prepared to suffer the readers' wrath.

So, find a point of change, open with that, and guide your readers to your conclusion through cohesive, plot-aware writing that maintains the integrity of your opening, and you'll be on your way to a well-received book.

Happy Reading and Writing!


Friday, February 1, 2013

Counting Blessings & An AKM Update

Really? It's February already? Where did January go?

2013 has already started off with a bang. A loud, very wild KABOOM! But in a good way.

Aside from having to dodge a couple of stalkers, January was an outstanding month. I released my fourth AKM book, Rebel Obsession, while simultaneously offering book one, Rise of the Fallen, as a free read.

Oh goodness! I can't describe how successful the free offering was. Best thing I think I could have done to celebrate the release of book four, because January was a record-breaking month. I sold more books in January than I did in all of 2012, and my final results amazed even me. Fan feedback was incredible, with my AKM boys pulling in hundreds of new fans, and Rise of the Fallen being voted by readers as their second favorite story for January on GraveTells, ahead of books by Lara Adrian and Kresley Cole. I'm one extremely grateful person right now for a lot of reasons, one of which is that I have a mountain of respect for Adrian and Cole, and I love their work, and for my little story to be voted so favorably by readers in a category of stories that included theirs is humbling and unfathomable. So, many thanks to those who have shown such love for Rise and all the other AKM books.

Additionally, book two of the AKM series, Heart of the Warrior, has won over a tremendous amout of first-time m/m romance readers, and the feedback from readers has been heartwarming. I have received so many comments about how a reader had never considered reading a m/m romance before, but Heart of the Warrior won them over. Readers love the raw emotion and love between the characters in Heart, and if I had a nickel for every reader who said they broke down in tears from the story (in a good way), I'd be rich. One reader actually told me Heart touched him on a very real, personal level, because Sev's and Ari's story reminded him of his own. That means so much to me to know that something I wrote touched someone in such a very personal way.

Furthermore, the initial feedback for Rebel Obsession has been outstanding. I've had several tell me that Rebel is the best of the series so far, with a few more saying that this story also brought them to tears. The pain of the characters seemed to touch readers on a deeper level than I thought it would. And who would have thought Io could redeem himself after the way he behaved in Heart of the Warrior? But, he did. And fans love him.

Lastly, the response to Rise of the Fallen carried over to Micah's Calling, the novella follow-up to Rise. MC was my #1 seller in January, which is simply amazing. I actually feel like MC is my weakest of the series, but fans have loved it. Just loved it.

Next up is Malek's book, Return of the Assassin, and I hope he continues the trend so that readers can once again cry and rejoice through his pain and eventual (hopefully) salvation.

And I know you're all waiting for Traceon's story, Bound Guardian Angel. He's on his way. His story comes after Malek's, and it's shaping up in my mind to be worth the wait. But something tells me that even after his story, we'll hear more from him. A lot more.

In addition to those two books, I'm also working on a four-part prequel, which will include a view into Tristan's and Josie's story, as well as a novella for Sev and Ari (yes, my hot m/m couple get a novella). Beyond that, there's lots more to come in the AKM world, with a sister series beginning to develop, as well as 5 more AKM books already in various stages of planning.

Happy reading and writing! And HAPPY 2013 TO ALL!