Recently, there’s been a lot of debate out there about what it takes to craft a quality book. An un-put-down-able story that takes your readers on a journey. Hey, nobody is asking my opinion, but I’m going to share it anyway.
I write fiction. Romance. More specifically, in the series I’m working on now—rockstar romance. Yeah, it’s a thing.
As I’ve already pointed out, this is fiction, folks. You’re probably not going to meet your favorite rockstar at the college library (spoiler alert: that happens in my next novella) or local Starbucks (yeah, another shameless plug for the book after that). But do regular people meet under these circumstances? Absolutely.
Although I write about the unbelievable, I attempt to make it as believable as possible. I mean, if Matt Damon can meet the mother of his children at a restaurant where she was working as a bartender anything is possible. Right?
So how do you write that story—the one where the rockstar/movie star/billionaire CEO meets the girl (or guy) that turns their worlds upside down and makes the impossible possible?
For me, it starts with the characters. We’re all people. We all have flaws and imperfections and idiosyncrasies.
And the alarming thing that I’ve noticed lately is that there are experts out there that are trying to redefine the basic premise—the story.
Let me give you an example. How many of you have seen “how to” books written by industry professionals touting the virtues of their product? And I don’t mean an editor that gives you tools to help you on your journey. That’s standard practice. We have Scrivener, outline tools (my particular favorite is Ally Bishop’s), and AutoCrit.
If you go farther back in the annals of time, we have Webster’s Dictionary, the thesaurus, and, if you’re really old like me, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yes, there were actual encyclopedias in my home when I was itty-bitty.
I’m not talking about tools to help you craft a story. I’m talking about a formula for redefining story.
Um, hello? We have that. It’s the “narrative structure.” Setup. Conflict. Resolution. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. But that is my entire point. The idea of story is as old as the hills. Think Aristotle and Plato. We were never told as writers that we must “insert a female into your story because, you know, most readers are female.” Or “if your story takes place here, then you must (insert cliché of your choice) because that is what the reader expects.”
Don’t get me wrong: if you present your next work as a romance, there better be some romance. Does the story have to have a happy ending? No. Might your audience get pissed if it doesn’t? YES. Again, making a point here. It’s up to YOU.
You, the author, have to decide how much you can bend that story and still not lose your audience. Do I take the easy way out? Yes and no. I’m a romantic, so I prefer the happily ever after. But it can work the other way.
Look at the Divergent Series.
In the last book, you don’t get the happily ever after. In fact, its fu**ing depressing. As an author, I loved it. The story was real. As a reader, I cried. It was physically painful. Veronica Roth crafted a story, and in the end, she was true to her vision. Did it cost her some readers? Maybe. Was it worth it? You’ll have to ask her, but I would venture to say yeah. So worth it.
In a roundabout way, I’m now getting back to the point of this blog. It’s about the characters. How you develop them and how you present them. Their quirks, flaws, and perfect imperfections. You can’t do that with a strict schematic. And if you did—if we all did—what would be the result? Shelves and shelves of books that are basically the same. It’s like eating your favorite dessert. Eat it a couple times a month and you can’t wait to have it again. Eat it every friggin’ day, it gets old. Stale. Generic.
I prefer to build my story, brick by brick, with my own two hands. And when I’m finished, I send it to my editor, and she reads it. Deconstructs it. Tells me how to make it better.
I was speaking with my editor the other night, and she was on a roll about the craft. She let it slip that “I” (meaning me) had a certain talent to write halfway decent stories without the benefit of an edit. Jubilation swelled in my little ol’ heart, followed quickly by reality. Do I want to write “halfway decent stories?” Hell no. I don’t spend all my time fleshing out characters and premises to have a halfway decent story. I want awesome. And if my editor says: “give me a little extra right here, and you’re golden,” or “this doesn’t fit here, try this,” that advice is worth its weight in gold.
But let’s say I’m a brand new writer, and my editor hands me a book —a schematic—for what I should do. No suggestions beyond the obvious. As a writer, I’m in the same boat. Because if I knew what the story lacked to begin with or what nuance I should add, I wouldn’t be handing it to an editor in the first place.
Again, I’m not addressing everyone here. There are many people who are perfectly content to use every cliché and trope, slap a cover on it, and hit publish. I am not one of those folks. Does that mean I hit the mark every time? Hell no. I write about rockstars. These guys are gorgeous, they live privileged lives, and get everything they want. Or so you think.
Which brings my little blog full circle.
If you build your characters correctly, even that fluffy little rockstar tale (that has been done and done again) is interesting. Satisfying. Fulfilling.
Hopefully. I say “hopefully” because I don’t take my stories from a box, add water, and stir. I build them the old fashioned way. From scratch. Like a cake. And then I use my editor to help me frost that b***h.
Maybe you won’t like the concoction that I’ve chosen. Ever been to a birthday party and anticipated the cake (I like vanilla with butter cream frosting) and gotten a big slab of something that didn’t taste right on your tongue? You take a couple bites and push it away. It’s not for you. I get it. But you look around, and there are many people at the party going back for seconds. They liked it.
As a writer, I’ll take that. The bitter and the sweet of it. If I worked by a schematic, or a formula, it would always taste the same. Like McDonalds fries. I’ve been all over the world, and I know I can always count on McDonalds fries. They never disappoint. The little golden potato straws taste the same in El Paso and El Salvador. But one cannot live on fries alone. You’ve gotta have substance. I hope, as writers, we never forget that.