A New Year’s Resolution for Writers: Chuck Your Computer

Thanksgiving was a delicious, inspiring holiday this year. My family attended a potluck heavily populated with writers and artists. Even more memorable than the vegan stuffing were the evening’s conversation.

At one point, we were discussing our writing regimens. A fellow author at the dinner table just received a rave review of his latest book in the New York Times. (I’ll let him remain anonymous because I haven’t asked permission to share his writing discipline.)

He lives with his husband in a large, rambling old farmhouse in upstate New York. They have three empty bedrooms, any one of which could be turned into an office. Instead, he decided to build his own, Henry David Thoreau-like cottage at the back of their property. It’s far enough away from the house that he can’t pick up the wifi. Not that he could use it. He doesn’t bring his laptop or phone to his writing sanctuary. Instead, he uses composition books and a favorite pen to write the first draft of his books.

According to my dinner companion, he found his writing became more emotional and unfettered when he worked this way. Plus, writing by hand made it difficult to edit what was already on the page, so he just kept moving forward forward. The technique was liberating for him, and he never looked back.

He still uses a computer, but not until the second draft. The process of typing his hand-written draft into his laptop forces him to consider every page, every paragraph, every word. It’s obligatory deep editing.

My New Year’s resolution is to use this technique to write my next novel. I don’t have a shack in the woods, so I hope I’m disciplined enough to stay away from my phone and other distractions while I write. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Kelee

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The Importance of Raising the Stakes in Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of independently published romance lately. I’ve noticed a common problem – not much happens in too many of these novels. That’s not to say nothing happens. Girl meets hot guy, they get together, something keeps them apart, but they end up living happily ever after. The problem is, there’s seldom much at stake for the hero or heroine. If she doesn’t land the guy she may cry a little, but she’ll be fine. Instead of these books keeping me on the edge of my seat, they make me nod off.

Stakes are all about your main character having a goal, and what she has to lose if she doesn’t achieve it. In romance, that goal always includes a guy. (Or sometimes another girl.) If the main character doesn’t have a goal, whether it’s getting laid, getting married, or saving the family farm, the reader has little reason to stick around and see what happens. And if there’s nothing standing in the heroes way, then scenes become about as exciting as figuring out what to make for dinner.

Stakes are relative. Your heroine doesn’t have to save the world from an incoming asteroid to make for dramatic reading. Marty, the classic 1955 film (based on the 1953 teleplay) is a perfect example of this. Marty meets Clara one night at a dance. He likes her. She gives him her number. But when his mother and friends object to her, he decides not to call her.

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Imagine if Marty was your typical romance hero. He’s good looking, with smoldering eyes, a confident swagger, and an interesting job. If he doesn’t call Clara, it’s no big deal. We know it won’t take long for him to find another girl.

But Marty is the complete opposite. He’s a butcher, not very attractive, and at 34, likely to be a bachelor for the rest of his life. The stakes for Marty are very high. We want to jump out of our seats and thrust the phone in his hand. We want to tell him he’s found a kind, sweet, wonderful girl, and he better not louse things up. It’s a simple story, but it’s great drama. That’s why it won four Academy Awards.

Try this. When you’re rewriting your novel, look at what your hero has at stake. Then sit down and write 25 alternative possibilities for what she might risk if she doesn’t achieve her goal. You might find a gem in there that will elevate your novel from so-so to something readers can’t put down. Don’t be afraid to go all-in. You won’t regret it.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Julieann Dove Blog Tour

I’m pleased to feature Julieann Dove‘s new contemporary romance The Secret He Keeps on my blog today. I’m doubly impressed by her work because she’s managed to juggle writing five books this year with raising five children. Read my Q and A with Julieann below along with a excerpt from the book. Then go out and buy it so you can curl up with a good romance on a cold winter’s night.

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What the genesis of The Secret He Keeps? How did you come up with the story idea?

The story came from an idea of what would happen if a shut-in, grieving woman was saved by an electric repairman. I was driving down the highway and passed a cherry picker repair truck, and poof, there was the idea! I never know where I’ll find my next idea.

You’re a prolific author, publishing five books in 2016. How do you keep up the momentum?

I have to put a lid on my mind sometimes. It wanders to all kinds of places and situations that I could write about for hours. Writing is one of my favorite pastimes! I do have to get up from the computer and come out to the light of day, though, or my family might forget what I look like.

You say you like to write about messy people encountering love. Why are messy people so interesting?

I try never to write in a box. People are more complicated than boy meets girl and falls in love after overcoming a hardship. I include the hardship, but spotlight the imperfections of people, too. We all have them, and the more I include in my books, the more relatable my characters are to readers. Waking Amy astounded me with the reviews by women who identified with Amy’s insecurities. I feel my job as a writer is to take the reader on a journey of self-discovery through my characters. The problems they encounter are only a part of the story. Messiness makes it more believable.

Where do you find inspiration for the characters you create?

A lot of my characters have pieces of me in them. Elise, in A Reason to Stay, represented my inability to commit to a guy, and the hardship of not having a relationship with my father. Amy, in Waking Amy became a little reflective of my best friend, who, after the first book was published, was left by her husband. In the third book, she was someone I used as inspiration. It was very important to give her a happily ever after—even if it was in fiction.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

From other authors telling me I can’t possibly please everyone. Reading poor reviews hits me in my soft spot. I realize what I write is not the taste of every reader. Not everyone is going to agree that the heroine is imperfect. “The Secret He Keeps” has made a few readers a bit upset with me. Reading is subjective, and I have to keep that in mind!

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Her neck was flawless, almost angelic. Soft and white, with tiny curls at the nape. His hands began to shake and he couldn’t fit the clasp together. He moved in for a closer smell while she was unable to see what he was doing. It was faint, but it drew him in for a better whiff. He closed his eyes, imagining he was able to do more than just inhale her.

“Are you having trouble?” She turned her head sideways to ask him.

“No, I got it.”

She turned back around and showed it off. “How does it look?”

His eyes never left hers when he answered. “Simply beautiful.”

He must have said something wrong because she kept quiet and walked to the mirror. “Thank you again. I really love it.”

He shouldn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He never used to have a problem with that. In his younger days, he rotated women—he didn’t even know their last names or occupations. But Rachel was different. A different class of her own. She didn’t let him get by with anything. He grew to like it. By the time he knew he loved it, along with her, she was engaged to his best friend.

“Well, I’m glad. I guess I’ll get going. Do you have any plans for tomorrow? It’s Christmas, Rach.”

She put her hand in her back pocket and leaned against the wall. “I know that, Dane. I don’t have anything pressing, no. I’m sure Mom will call and put me on speakerphone for the family to all wish me Merry Christmas.” She raised one of her fingers. “Which brings me to a favor.”

“We are all caught up on favors, Rachel. No more dates.” He was at the door, pulling up his boots. He figured she still felt uncomfortable with him hanging around, and the snow was coming down pretty hard.

“No, it isn’t a date. It’s a mission of mercy. I have to go home for New Year’s and Mom is planning to parade all the single men in the fifty-square-mile radius to our house. She promises she’s not, but I’ve been fooled before by her.”

“How could I help?”

“You could fly with me, all expenses paid, to Savannah, Georgia and pretend to be interested in me.” She quickly added, “Not like wildly interested, just like smile at me and seem fond. No, that’s a better word. Fond of me.

Using Character Growth to Add Depth to Your Novel

Character growth is one of the most powerful tools you can use to hook your readers, deepen your characters, and add drama to your narrative. Almost everybody wants to change something about his/her character, whether it’s to be more generous, or mindful, or to stop gambling compulsively. But it’s a very difficult thing to do given the relative immutability of our personalities. Seeing a fictional character change makes us feel hopeful about our own lives, and gives us a character we can root for, even if it’s someone we wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life.

Not long ago I saw the movie Dallas Buyers Club. It tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo cowboy and small-time drug dealer who contracts HIV. Ron has a certain charm, but overall he’s a dislikable character, until he goes through a great deal of growth following his diagnosis. The way the movie portrays that change offers a wonderful example of how to approach character growth in your own story. Here are some of the key lessons.

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Give your character a long road to travel. At the beginning of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron is as macho and homophobic as they come. He rides bulls, he and his buddies make gay slurs, and he sees women as only good for sex. After his diagnosis, he’s forced to interact with gay characters who also have HIV. He’s repulsed by them and won’t even shake their hands. His personality flaws seem insurmountable, which heightens the drama as he’s forced to change in order to survive.

Character growth takes time. A Christmas Carol is a beloved classic, but Scrooge’s overnight transformation from selfish miser to generous benefactor doesn’t happen in the real world. Ron takes a long time to accept that he needs LGBT persons, for economic self-survival and as friends so he’s not completely isolated by his disease. It’s a struggle for him, and it keeps us glued to our seats as we watch him slowly see them as human beings. Which leads us to…

Your hero should be dragged kicking and screaming towards character growth. Changing our character is painful. Even if we want to do it, the process is long and difficult, with many setbacks. Ron has no desire to change. He begins interacting with LGBT persons so he can sell anti-HIV drugs. He is forced to bring on Rayon, a drug addicted, HIV positive, trans woman because he needs a partner whom the gay community trusts. It takes much longer for Ron to accept Rayon and other LGBT persons as friends, people he cares about it a way he never could with his macho buddies.

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Offer clear signs that a character is changing. There are many of these in Dallas Buyers Club. One of the most memorable for me is when Ron first turns away two gay men who don’t have enough money to buy into the club. But he becomes increasingly concerned with helping people instead of just making money. We see this when the two men return. This time he tells his assistant to give them the drugs for free.

Character Transformation Should Never Be Complete. I believe we all can change, but we will never turn into completely different people. The same should hold true for your hero. While Ron goes through a remarkable transformation, we still feel like his old character traits are there. In the dramatic courtroom scene at the end, he argues for the legal right to take Peptide T. Yes, he wants all AIDS patients to have access to the drug, but we also recognize that he has a strong motivation in getting it and selling it himself. At the end of the movie, Ron has overcome many of his character traits, but they haven’t entirely disappeared. We know they will stay with him through the rest of his short life.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you when you’re developing your next hero or heroine. Good luck and remember, anybody can change.

Best wishes,

Kelee