Stranger than Fiction

I wrote–am writing–a series of contemporary romances set in and around American politics. The first one plays out against a budget negotiation. In the third act, the clock is running low on a possible a government shutdown when…okay, you’re going to have to read the book when it releases in April (APRIL!) to find out. But it should come as no surprise that as I’ve been working through my edits, I’ve been watching current events with more than my usual level of interest.

I am a very long-standing political junkie. When I was a kid, I embraced the gamesmanship of it, the pageantry. If war is politics by other means, as von Clausewitz tells us, then elections seemed like politics by metaphor. I was obsessed.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 1988 election with my family. They coded the maps differently then. I remember watching the country slowly filling up with Republican blue and imaging a blue tide sweeping the nation. As if elections represented something real and permanent and not a choice between not-all-together different candidates, likely all rich white men okayed by party bosses. The winners, chosen by a small majority of the percentage of the enfranchised who choose to vote, likely going on to careers of no import in a system where the outcomes resolve conflicts ground out in decades prior, like the 2004 election litigating issues from circa 1972.

In college, politics stopped seeming like a game. I became involved with a number of issue-based causes, including sexual and relationship violence response and prevention, which led to the years I spent in Washington <redacted>. Then I left DC for graduate school, for a far more healthy relationship with books and nineteenth-century periodicals. And by far more healthy, I mean not at all healthy.

For me, politics is 90% cynicism and 10% fervent, irrational, glowing hope. While I listen to Americans talk about the government shutdown today, I share all of their frustrations even as I want to scream, “But we have to sleep in the bed we’ve made! We are complicit in this system!”

And if we made it, we can unmake it. We can make it better.

Against history, against empirical evidence to the contrary, I believe that. I believe we are empowered and choose not to act. I believe we can be and do better. Alone and collectively.

So while I watch the news, I’ll be dreaming up plots. Plots about the overworked, largely powerless, aides who are working on too little sleep and too much caffeine to enact dreams conjured about a Washington that doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, existed.

And none of those plots will be stranger or less realistic than what’s happening on the Hill today.

(Edited for clarity.)

Plot vs. Story

My day job is as a graduate student. In that life, I’m writing a dissertation on nineteenth-century popular American literature. The creative writing is an outlet for things that won’t fit in my dissertation and a solution for occasional bouts of paralyzing writer’s block. But beyond that, writing novels has taught me things about fiction that reading it — professionally, obsessively — for years hasn’t.

One of those lessons is that plot and story, which I had thought were interchangeable terms for the same thing, are very different creatures. Story is what happens between a set of characters in a discrete period of time. Plot is always, by definition, an artificial framework that you tap the story into. It’s a frame for a novel’s who, why, what, and how.

I am almost, ALMOST, done with the first draft a novella that I’ve been writing since late June, the project I’ve been calling Brave in Heart. I decided to write  a novella because my first full length novel, Together is Enough, had (and has) a lot of plotting problems that I wasn’t sure how to fix. I needed to play more with writing fiction and attempting something shorter (32,000 words versus 70,000+ words) seemed like a good way to do it. I made a bad call, however, because the shorter length requires an even more perfect plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I had to make story tweaks too. For example, does a novel opening in the right place? Are the characters making the most interesting choices given how I’ve defined them?

Mostly, however, what my writing needed was plot fixes. Where, if anywhere, should the backstory go? Do we need to see more or less between major scenes?

Writing a novella did not turn out to be either easier or faster than writing a novel. (Though in my defense, another novel got in the way and ate up half my writing time.) It did give me a different perspective on the puzzle-box that is plotting.

Giving Away the Store

As I continue to work on revisions, one of the problems with Together is Enough — and there are many, oh so many problems — is that in the first 50 pages, I pass up entirely too many opportunities to build tension that’s internal and character-based. Instead, the text currently relies on external conflict.

The result is that there’s no suspense. He likes her, she likes him: so what’s the problem? It feels like I’m jerking the characters around rather than that they have a gulf to overcome.

I’ve been doing a lot of “killing my darlings” — eliminating pages of description and exposition, cutting scenes, moving things around, condensing — and while the product will actually be longer, it feels tighter.

Now, the hero and heroine don’t kiss in the third chapter and start dating in the fifth. That would deny too much potentiality.

How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

Continue reading “How Historical?”

We Have a Problem

I have a problem with my writing. Namely, the 20,000 word threshold. My problem isn’t getting there. It’s wanting to keep writing once I do.

When I started writing a historical novella about three weeks ago, I was so excited about it. Why had I ever written a contemporary? Clearly I was born to write historicals! I love my characters! I love the conflict between them! I had learned so much from the first manuscript so I wasn’t making the same mistakes!

Then, about a week ago, I stated approaching 20,000 words and my enthusiasm just leeched out. I knew what I needed to do next. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. The entire manuscript began to feel blah.

So I wrote the scene that I had had in my head for about a month. Then I wrote the chapter that I needed to set it up. Then I started plotting. And suddenly … it’s so easy to write a contemporary! You don’t have to stop to do research! It’s so much easier to write fresh, sexy dialogue when you’re not worried about anachronism! I was born to write contemporaries!

The next thing I knew, I had 10,000 words.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that I’m going to hit a wall where I know what comes next and I can’t get myself to write it. I’m worried that I’m a dilettantish writer. That I only like the beginnings of things.

What do you find the most difficult part about writing? The beginning? The middle? The end? How do you get through it?

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

One of the most difficult things for me as a romance reader and writer is that the hero and the heroine spend most of their time not together. Yes, I know that books need conflict otherwise, where would the fun be? If the central characters realized they were perfect for one another on page 1 and faced absolutely no opposition or division, there’s no way to get to page 250 without the book being deadly dull. But when you love your characters deeply and want them to be together, it’s hard to deal with the plot’s need for separation.

Within the master romance plots, I feel like there are two basic arcs. Either the hero and heroine get together early in the book but break-up/are separated/face some sort of external conflict/etc. or they resist getting together until the end of the book.

I didn’t realize it until now, but my recently completed manuscript, my current work-in-progress, and at least 2 of the books that I have sketched out in my head are the former. One of these days, I need to write the latter, if only for variety’s sake.

I’m up to 20,000 words on the novella, which I think is between half-way and two-thirds of the way through the manuscript. But now, having achieved what I find to be an emotionally satisfying reunion of former lovers, I’ve had to separate them. I know that it’s necessary and that the separation will help them work through their final emotional issue and truly reach happily ever after. But it honestly makes me sad to write. It makes me want to start working on another story where I can write the more fun “will we or won’t we,” thrill of the chase-type stuff.

How do you deal with conflict and separation in your writing? Do you love the angst? Do you run away screaming in horror?

The Waltz That’s Viennes-y

As Joseph Campbell taught us, there aren’t a lot of stories. There’s myth and then there’s variation on it. And while we may not be telling hero stories within the romance genre, there are only a few basic plots.

  • There’s the innocent and the rake. (Related: various redemption fantasies and Beauty and the Beast-type stuff.)
  • There’s love across some sort of big old status divide, such as class, race, family expectation, vampire/human, etc. (Related: forbidden love and Romeo and Juliet-type stuff.)
  • There’s the dispossessed hero(ine). (Related: the hero(ine) wants to get the hell out Dodge, the hero(ine) wants to change her fate, and Cinderella-type stuff.)
  • There’s the protector/protectee. (Related: most romantic suspense and serial killer-type stuff.)
  • There’s the arranged marriage/marriage of convenience.

And obviously all of these plots can be reversed, used in concert, or be adapted for MM or FF romance. But my point is: there really aren’t that many stories. What matters isn’t originality. That’s very difficult to achieve and perhaps over-rated. No, what varies are the telling and the characters.

Continue reading “The Waltz That’s Viennes-y”